In the space of a single generation, the Yucatán has been transformed from a forgotten backwater visited primarily by archaeologists, sportsfishermen, and scuba divers into a major international destination and economic powerhouse. Cancún's creation and growth have wrought changes as far away as Chiapas and Tabasco, whose significant Maya populations share a history with the Yucatán despite their distance and different personalities and landscapes.

The change is most visible on the coast, where fishing villages and coconut plantations have given way to modern developments marching in lock step south to Tulum and inching toward the recently minted Costa Maya, extending to the Belize border. For the young Maya of the interior villages, growth has brought new work opportunities and their first close contact with the modern world -- specifically the modern world in vacation mode. The shift from village society to vacation paradise is the very definition of culture shock, which the implacable Maya meet with equanimity.

Less dramatically, tourism also made its way inland to the splendid Yucatán capital of Mérida and the major ruins -- Chichén Itzá, Uxmal, and Palenque -- and eventually to the barely uncovered ancient cities and time-warp villages of the deep interior. Every year seems to bring new archaeological discoveries.

Curiously, all the excavation and renovation has left small-town life little changed. Coastal natives not swept up in the tourism boom were relocated inland, where they continue their ancestors' ways. Families of workers in the tourist palaces remain in the tropical forest, living in round thatch houses with no electricity, indoor plumbing, or paved roads, gathering plants for food and medicine, cooling off in hidden cenotes, and appealing to the gods for successful crops. To explore an older world where the Mayan tongue's distinctive intonations fill the air and centuries-old traditions endure, you have only to drive inland from the Caribbean coast, venture to Campeche on the Gulf shore, or head south into Chiapas.

The turquoise waters and tropical climate may beckon first, but what will ultimately draw you back, again and again, is the unique character of this land and its people.

A Sticky Habit

Cigar smoking and gum chewing are two pleasures we have the Maya to thank for. Gum, the more innocuous of the two, comes from the sap of a species of zapote tree that grows in the Yucatán and Guatemala. Chewing releases its natural sugars and a mild, agreeable taste. The chewing-gum habit spread from the Maya to other cultures and eventually to the non-Indian population. In the second half of the 19th century, a Mexican (said to have been Gen. Santa Anna) introduced gum to the American Thomas Adams, who realized that it could be sweetened further and given other flavors. He marketed chewing gum in the U.S. with great success. Chemists have since figured out how to synthesize the gum, but the sap is still collected in parts of the Yucatán and Guatemala for making natural chewing gum. Chicle is the Spanish word originally from the Nahuatl (Aztec) tzictli, and those who live in the forest and collect the sap are called chicleros. Because the tree takes so long to produce more sap, there is no way to cultivate it commercially, so it is still collected in the wild.

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