Mayan Geography

The area of the Maya civilization extended throughout the northern Central American region, including the present-day nations of Guatemala, Belize, western Honduras and El Salvador, as well as the southern Mexican states of Chiapas, Tabasco, and the Yucat‡n Peninsula states of Quintana Roo, Campeche and Yucat‡n. They occupied the eastern third of Mesoamerica, primarily the Yucatan Peninsula. The topography of the area greatly varied from volcanic mountains, which comprised the highlands in the South, to a porous limestone shelf, known as the Lowlands, in the central and northern regions. The southern portion of the Lowlands were covered by a rain forest with an average height of about 150 feet. Both the Highlands and the Lowlands were important to the presence of trade within the Maya civilization.


The Lowlands primarily produced crops which were used for their own personal consumption, the principle cultigen being maize. They also grew squash, beans, chili peppers, amaranth, manioc, cacao, cotton for light cloth, and sisal for heavy cloth and rope. The lowlands are a limestone shelf bordered on the north and west by the Gulf of Mexico and on the east by the Caribbean Sea. The northern lowland climate is hot, and the rainy season, from May through October, often brings insufficient rainfall. Permanent rivers and lakes are virtually nonexistent and only cenotes (large sinkholes filled with rainwater), provide precious water.

The southern lowlands consist of rainforest and savannas where lakes and rivers are fed by the mighty Usumacinta River. The rainfall was as high as 160 inches per year in the Lowlands and the water that collected drained towards the Caribbean or the Gulf of Mexico in great river systems. These rivers, of which the Usumacinta and the Grijalva were of primary importance, were vital to the civilization as the form of transportation for both people and materials.

Scattered savannas and swamps, or bajos, appeared sporadically, interrupting the dense forests. The northern Lowlands were also comprised of forests but they were drier than their southern counterparts, mainly growing small thorny trees. February to May was the dry season characterized by air that was intensely hot and uncomfortable. At this time of year, the fields had recently been cut and had to be burned in accordance with their slash and burn form of agriculture. The skies filled with a smoky grit, making the air even more unbearable until the rains came in late May to clear the murky atmosphere.


The highlands are a wide swathe of mountains and valleys of the Sierra Madre, bounded on the south by a narrow coastal plain and the Pacific Ocean. Although subject to tsunamis, volcanoes and earthquakes, the soil is fertile and the climate pleasantly cooler than the lowlands. The rainy season is between May and November, with peak rainfall in June and October. The volcanic Highlands, however, were the source of obsidian, jade, and other precious metals like cinnabar and hematite that the Mayans used to develop a lively trade. Although the lowlands were not the source of any of these commodities, they still played an important role as the origin of the transportation routes.

Many dangerous animals occupied this region of the peninsula including the jaguar, the caiman (a fierce crocodile), the bull shark, and many species of poisonous snakes. These animals had to be avoided as the Maya scavenged the forest for foods including deer turkey, peccaries, tapirs, rabbits, and large rodents such as the peca and the agouti. Many varieties of monkeys and quetzal also occupied the upper canopy. The climate of the Highlands greatly contrasted with that of the Lowlands as it was much cooler and drier.