We know that the Maya lived in the southeast of Mexico from 2000 BC to 1500 AD. We know that they erected incredible sites like Chichen Itza, Tulum and Tikal. We know they were great astronomers and invented their own system of writing. And we know they believed (more or less precisely) that the apocalypse would come in 2012.

Magic, chocolate and plenty of corn

The Maya had a very strong connection with nature. It was part of all aspects of life (and death) and was linked to opposing deities.

The gods had the power to make people sick as well as to heal the body and the spirit, and shamans communicated with them through rituals using wild plants. These included tobacco, smoked along with other herbs, and balché, an alcoholic drink made from the bark of the tree of the same name, mixed with honey and water to create a syrup that was then left to ferment.

Another of the civilization’s foundational beliefs was that people were made of corn, and because of this, the grain took on a spiritual value. But in addition to being sacred, it was also a real panacea. It helped the Maya lose weight, cleanse the kidneys and lower blood pressure (we haven’t changed so much since then).

In addition to its medical uses, corn was also the essential ingredient in the Maya diet. They used it to prepare atole, a warm, syrupy corn drink flavored with aromatic spices, and tamales: a kind of sandwich made of corn leaves wrapped around cornmeal and a mixture of meat and vegetables, which they roasted underground using the pibil technique (yes, the same one used for the famous cochinita, another Maya invention).

And, of course, corn was used to make tortillas. These dishes are the earliest predecessors of some of the main staples in modern-day Mexican cuisine: tacos, flautas, quesadillas and enchiladas. Today, when we think of enjoying the Mexican sun, beach, culture and flavor, we can’t imagine a vacation without these delicacies—and they’re always on the table at the region’s best hotels.

The most important thing of all, however, was cacao. The beans were used as currency, to finalize marriages and as offerings to the gods. In addition, the Maya were the first people to roast cacao seeds to make hot chocolate with water and chili, a concoction to which the Spaniards later added sugar and milk, making it easier to drink and less bitter. That being said, what they failed to discover were its exfoliating properties, used today at the spas on this idyllic coast.