The Yucatan Peninsula in southern Mexico is physically and culturally distinct from the rest of the country. Its vast distance from the colonial heart of Mexico and its unique Mayan history separates it from the country’s heartland further north. This is a place where the Mayan language and culture still survive, despite years of oppression by the Spanish colonial rulers. Yucatan is home to some of the most spectacular ancient Mayan sites with pyramid-shaped temples rising above the vast stretches of forest that still cover large tracts of land. Sticking out of Central America like a thumb, the Yucatan Peninsula has some of the world’s most beautiful beaches.
The resort city of Cancun in northern Yucatan is where most travellers arrive, given its direct air connections with major European and North American cities. Cancun was a fishing village of 120 people in 1970 but has now grown into a tourism-based resort city, the largest in the Caribbean that receives more than three million international visitors every year. Modern hotels line the narrow strip of sandy land called ‘Zona Hotelera’, connected by causeways to the mainland at either end. The strip of land encloses a huge lagoon, the Laguna Nichupte, which means that most hotels face water in both directions—a real bonus for hotel guests. A string of new resorts now lines the coast from Cancun southwards to the town of Playa del Carmen which is where I chose to base myself for a tour of the Mayan heritage sites of the Yucatan Peninsula.
Playa del Carmen town is conveniently located 100km south of Cancun and connected to the Cancun airport and other Yucatan towns by a network of highways. The town still retains its local character and you can stroll down Playa’s main 5th Avenue (designated for pedestrians only) window shopping at designer stores, mixing with local artisans selling their crafts in kiosks or sampling local foods in the cafeterias with live music playing in the background. Along the seafront, the brick-lined ‘malecon’ street is always buzzing with activity and is another wonderful place to get a feel of the Caribbean.
Near Posada Yum Kin Hotel Tulum Mexico, the east coast of the Yucatan is lined with Mayan ruins ranging from tiny watchtowers in Cancun itself to the grand site of Tulum, south of Playa del Carmen. Tulum, on account of its spectacularly beautiful seaside location, is one of Mexico’s best known Mayan archaeological sites. Located on a 40-foot high cliff overlooking the Caribbean Sea, Tulum was part of a series of watchtowers, fortresses and temples established along the coastline during the Post Classic Period of Mayan rule between 1200AD-1500AD. Of Tulum’s many buildings, the Castillo, or Castle, is the most impressive one. There is a museum at the entrance, local craft shops and cafeterias; sometimes, the ‘Voladores’, pole flyers from the Mexican town of Papantla, put up a show.
On the coast between Tulum and Playa del Carmen, lies the Xcaret Eco-Archaeological Park. Millions of dollars have been invested to make this natural history oriented park an attractive destination for visitors of all ages with varied interests. There are beaches, children’s seaside play areas, a mini zoo with the rare Central American jaguar, a butterfly breeding and viewing centre, pools with dolphins and a variety of restaurants and bars. There are Mayan ruins at the site and a river that flows partly through underground caverns that can be traversed by boat. Finally, every evening, the Park authorities put on a spectacular cultural programme that showcases diverse folk dances from the different states of Mexico as well as a blend of native Mayan and colonial Spanish culture of the present population.
On the following day, I joined a day-trip to Coba, one of the grandest Mayan city-states. As a large Mayan trading centre, Coba was connected to other Mayan cities by an elaborate network of roads known as ‘sacbes’ that can be seen even now. The remains of more than 50 ‘sacbes’ crisscross the Yucatan Peninsula and they all converge on Coba indicating that this was perhaps one of the most important sites during the Mayan period. The ancient temples are still surrounded by the thick Yucatan jungle which adds a lot of natural flavour to a rich cultural experience. Bicycle rickshaws are available to take you from the entrance area to the impressive pyramid temples about 2km further. If you go to Coba late in the afternoon, you can choose to climb up Nohoch Mul—the tallest Mayan pyramid not only in Coba but in the entire Yucatan—and watch the sun set from the top across an endless stretch of forests, truly one of Mexico’s most magical experiences.
Half way between Coba and the well-known World Heritage Site of Chichen Itza lies the colonial town of Valladolid. The peaceful ‘zocalo’ or town square in the heart of Valladolid, with Valladolid Cathedral on one side, is shaded by large trees and surrounded by buildings with covered walkways lined with shops and a variety of restaurants. As the sun goes down, you will find the town’s people sitting on the park benches watching children play. Valladolid has, over the past few years, increasingly come to the attention of travellers as a traditional small Mexican town with a range of well-priced hotels, all within a reasonable drive of several Mayan sites. While passing through Valladolid, do not miss the Cenote Zaci located within a small park. Cenotes are deep pools of water, often connected by underground rivers that have formed over millions of years by the erosion of the surrounding limestone by rainwater. During Mayan times, cenotes were considered sacred as they were the most important source of water for human use and for agriculture. Less than an hour’s drive from Valladolid is Chichen Itza, a wonderful archaeological site incorporating the ruins of two different cultures, the ancient Mayan and the later Toltecs. Two distinct styles of architecture are represented at the site with the older ones built between the 5th and the 12th centuries AD.
The substantial fusion of highland central Mexican and Puuc architecture makes Chichen Itza unique. The El Castillo or the Temple of Kukulcan and the Platform of Venus are superb architectural feats. The most impressive monuments of the Chichen Itza complex are the Temple of the Warriors, the group of a Thousand Columns, the Temple of Kukulcan and the Temple of Chac-mul. In the nearby Ball Court, the largest one found in Central America, life-and-death games were played with a 12-pound, hard rubber ball; the losing team lost their heads to the winning captain. The Toltecs’ interest in astronomy and mathematics is evident from the Caracol or Observatory, shaped like a snail, where astronomers used sightings of the sun and moon to keep track of time in the elaborate Mayan calendar system. One of the most impressive sights is the phenomenon occurring during the spring and autumn equinoxes, when shadows cast across the ramp of the castle appear to form the shape of a slithering serpent.
About 300 metres north is the Sacred Cenote (Sacred Well) connected with an ancient ‘sacbe’ to the main complex where the Rain God, Chac, was supposed to reside. Sacrifices of children, young adults and expensive gold ornaments were made in order to please the god and make him produce rain. As a destination with a world-class seafront, Caribbean style resorts, choice of water sports, superb cuisine with a huge variety of tropical fruits, historic sites of the ancient Mayan culture and theme parks like Xcaret, you cannot beat Yucatan as a travel destination.
Why Go There: The Yucatan Peninsula with its numerous Mayan sites and amazing beaches can be visited at all times of the year. It has excellent hotels, efficient network of highways and is a colourful melting pot of Mayan and Latin American cultures. Chichen Itza has recently been internationally voted as one the new Seven Wonders of the World. Explore the Visit Mexico website www.visitmexico.com
Getting There: The US and European airlines offer flights to Cancun either via the US or through major European gateway cities.
Visas: Tourist visas are easily available from the Mexican Embassy in New Delhi. Complete details and the application form are available online from the website of the Mexican Embassy in New Delhi. As of May 2010, holders of valid visa of the USA (any nationality) do not require a separate visa to enter Mexico.