The conch sounds three more times as Atzín, our other guide, prays, facing each of the cardinal directions. The compass points were sacred to the Maya, as evidenced by the architecture of their cities, which often placed important buildings facing true north and south. "Sometimes the ancestors grant visitors a glimpse of the past," Malina adds.

"We have had people see some strange things here."

I tell her the illusion of water, and she says that canals once connected Dzibanché with the Caribbean. The waterways allowed the inland Maya to trade with their coastal counterparts. Perhaps this is what I saw.

Or maybe it was a trick of the mind. A mirage. Here among the ruins, it is tempting to imagine what we would see if we could travel back in time, but even those who study Mayan culture have a limited understanding of how the Maya lived. The Museo de la Cultura Maya in Chetumal may be a wonderful collection of Mayan artifacts, but beyond their calendar and mathematics and astronomy, and a little of their history, what more can it tell of the people?

It is possible, however, to visit a modern-day Maya family and see something of their life. Up and down the highways of this peninsula, one can see clusters of stucco-and-stick huts. On our way back to Rancho Encantado from Dzibanché, we stop at Doña Juanita's farm, a collection of a half-dozen traditional Mayan buildings where she lives with her children and grandchildren.

We gather around a dining table under a palapa roof. From the nearby kitchen comes the smell of baking tortillas and beans. I peek in, and Doña Juanita's gesture takes in the wood-burning stove, called a candela, and the few pots and pans. "My humble kitchen," she says.