In the five states that make up the Yucatán and southeastern Mexico, great wealth lives alongside abject poverty. Paradoxically, the indexes of both wealth and poverty in this region surpass the national average. A tremendous amount of money flows into the area -- from tourism in Yucatán and Quintana Roo, the oil industry in Campeche, Tabasco, and Chiapas. Yet most residents reap little from this prosperity. These five states have a total population of almost 10 million -- 10% of Mexico's population -- but account for only about 6% of the country's economic activity.

In some cases, development has increased demand for local products and services. For example, fishermen and palaperos, the native people who create the thatched roofs (palapas) crowning so many restaurants and hotels, are in high demand whenever a hurricane brushes the coast. At the same time, development has destroyed the livelihood of other locals. Coastal coconut growers were wiped out when Cancún developers brought turf from Florida to build a golf course, unwittingly introducing a disease that killed the coconut palms; destruction of mangroves, crucial to the coastal food chain, has diminished fishermen's catches. A similar give-and-take is at play within the oil economies of Tabasco and Chiapas.

While residents' incomes have not improved, tourism and oil money has brought indirect benefits. Lacking a coherent policy to combat social ills, the government still has paved most of the peninsula's roads and fitted out remote villages with electricity. Purified water is widely available. And with the increasing emphasis on ecotourism, some remote villages have formed partnerships with tour companies that allow them to profit from tourism while controlling the number and type of visitors.

Today's Maya Culture & People

The Yucatán peninsula, Tabasco, and Chiapas often feel like a country apart from Mexico. Their jarana music, sweetened by clarinets, and a cuisine redolent with capers, achiote, and saffron, exude Caribbean sensuality. And the region's dignified, gentle people display little of the machismo or the relentless huckstering that tries visitors' patience in northern and central Mexico.

The sense of "otherness" grows partly from geographical isolation but even more from the Maya's fierce, centuries-long resistance to being absorbed into the Spanish spoils; some Maya refuse to recognize Mexican sovereignty even today. All of which makes their warm, generous natures as much a wonder as their famous pyramid at Chichén Itzá.

In the Yucatán, especially, your simplest transaction with a local easily evolves into spirited conversation. In the peninsula's interior, where some Maya Indians are uneasy speaking Spanish, you are more likely to encounter initial reticence. Usually, it's quickly overcome with smiles and inventive gestures.

You don't need to leave Cancún to meet the Maya; thousands travel from the interior to jobs at hotels and restaurants. More than 350,000 Maya living in the peninsula's three states speak Yucatec, the local Mayan language. Most, especially men, also speak Spanish, and workers in Cancún usually know at least basic English.

The estimated one million Tabascan and Chiapan Maya, who speak four Mayan languages with dozens of dialects, are more reserved. Highland Maya around San Cristóbal de las Casas tend to remain aloof from outside cultures, preferring to live in mountain hamlets and meeting only for ceremonies and market days. In their chilly cloud-forest homeland they, too, live much as their ancestors did, but with beliefs distinct from their peninsular relatives.

Though they held fast to their language through the Spanish conquest, the Maya lost much of their living memory of pre-Hispanic life; what they retained is cloaked in myth and worked into elements of Catholicism. That process of syncretism, as anthropologists call it, continues today in the many Maya communities that have native churches.

The question of their ancestors' rightful place among the world's ancient civilizations might be as much a mystery to today's Maya people as it is to scholars. But nearly every year, archaeological discoveries of the art and architecture of the ancients add to the growing picture of a complex urban culture that thrived where only sparsely populated jungle exists today.

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