Top 10 Cultural Experiences in Quintana Roo and Yucatan
Chichen Itza archeological site is a World Heritage site and one of the wonders of the western world, Chichen Itza is a ‘must see’ for anyone visiting the Yucatan Peninsula. Seriously; if you come to Cancun and don’t visit Chichen Itza you’re a philistine. Chichen Itza is considered a Postclassic site built in both the Maya and Toltec styles. Settlers appeared as early as 300 BC but it wasn’t a thriving metropolis until 900AD. But 1250AD it was abandoned and no knows why. In its day, it covered some 25 sq km. It’s probably the best known of the ancient Maya cities for both the sacrificial well/cenote dredged by the Peabody Museum in the 20s and the Castillo Pyramid, the site’s most celebrated structure. The Castillo or Kukulcan Pyramid was built around 800 AD and is so perfectly engineered it signals the advent of the Spring and Fall equinoxes with a play of light across its north face. Around 3pm on the day of the equinox, isosceles triangles of light move slowly down the structure giving the impression of a snake undulating down the pyramid steps. Imagine the power of a priesthood that could predict the coming of the Sun God, Kukulcan. The Maya also plotted the orbit of Venus and knew the earth rotated around the sun, all this while Europe was in the Dark USD you could rent a room at the Mayaland Hotel then slip through the flimsy, unguarded fence that separated the hotel from Chichen and walk around the ancient city under a full moon with no one the wiser. That ‘tour’ is no longer available,but however you do it, visit Chichen Itza. Of special interest in addition to the Sacred Cenote and the Castillo: Ballcourt, Temple of the Jaguar, the Observatory or Caracol, Temple of the Warriors, Tzompantli Platform. If you have a car, definitely overnight at Mayaland Hotel or drive on another hour or so to Merida. NOTE: most travelers refer to the archeological sites as ‘ruins’ but in general, Mexicans do not appreciate their ancient cities being dismissively referred to as ‘ruins’, hence the tag ‘archeological site’, zona arqueologico in Spanish. Out of respect, we agree.
Tulum archeological site (1200 -1518 AD) is a Late Postclassic site and the only ancient Maya city located on the coast. Researchers believe its principal purpose was as a cargo port. Trade coming from as far south as Honduras was brought ashore at Tulum then moved inland via the man made roads or ‘sacbe’ running from Tulum to major centers in the interior of the peninsula. The main structure, or ‘Castillo’, sits atop a natural cliff and the presence of the cliff alone in the otherwise relentlessly flat Yucatan makes the site unique. Visitors are no longer allowed to enter the Castillo but if you could, you’d see two windows set high in its eastern wall. Viewed from offshore, these two windows bracket the only safe passage through the reefs at that point. The huge Maya cargo canoes would position themselves between the two windows (imagine each holding a torch) and paddle straight to shore. That breach is the only such opening for miles along the coast in both directions. There are some wonderful murals with traces of the original pigments used to color them in the Temple of the Frescos and today there are viewing platforms along the top of the cliff, benches for sitting and admiring the pretty fabulous view, and a wooden staircase that runs from the top of the cliff to the beach below. A smallish site with no major architectural finds but a sensational location and interesting in its own way (we love the torches in the window thing). Tulum is easily viewed in a morning or afternoon and once in the area, we suggest going just 5 minutes further south to Tulum pueblo for lunch, dinner and/or shopping. Tulum pueblo is bohemian, super laid back and welcomes visitors.
Coba archeological site is located about 30 miles inland from Tulum pueblo and covers over 20 sq. miles of jungle. It was founded at the start of the 7th century and continually inhabited until well into the 15th. And had about 45,000 inhabitants at its height. Coba flourished at the same time as Tikal in Guatemala, with which it traded. A road or ‘sacbe’ connecting Coba with Yaxuna, 62 miles to the west, is the longest ‘sacbe’ found to date. Coba is also easy to find; drive south until the entrance to Tulum pueblo (there’s a stop light with St Francisco de Asis supermarket to your right). TURN RIGHT and drive for about another 40 minutes, watch for signage. We love this site because the government hasn’t messed with it very much. It has stelae (only site in the Yucatan that does), lakes (only place in the Yucatan that does) and the tallest pyramid in the Yucatan. Lots of ‘onlys’. Guides offering their services at the park entrance are worth hiring if you’re interested in the site’s history. If you contract for a tour in English, remember the guide will be speaking his THIRD language (Maya, Spanish and English) so be patient. A true jungle setting with abundant wildlife, lots of shade, well-maintained paths, bikes and three-wheel carts available. OPTION: Three super interesting cenotes with stalactites and stalagmites are located in the little village across the lake. These cenotes are developed for visitors with change rooms, showers, swimming platforms and safety lines stretching across the water. Drive around the lake and follow signage
After Merida, which is the capital of the State of Yucatan, comes Valladolid. Valladolid is a provincial, colonial in every sense of the word. Genteel, quite, conservative. Cobblestone streets, homes and mansions from the 16th century continually updated and refurbished, their facades left intact. Two of the oldest colonial structures on the peninsula are cited here: San Bernadino de Siena Church and the Convento de Sisal (circa 1560). Valladolid is so refreshing after the hustle and bustle of destinations like Cancun that it’s recently become an expat retreat. Enterprising Mexican and non-Mexicans alike have moved into the quiet backwater that was Valladolid, sprucing the place up and bringing in welcome trade and new business. Dutzi Design started here just 8 years ago and is one of the socially responsible companies putting Valladolid on the map. The mayor just named Ariane Dutzi (a German by birth) Ambassador of Valladolid for the jobs and general prosperity she’s generated for the town, not to mention international attention (see her line beautifully presented on the high end site: Boutique Mexico (www.boutiquemexico.com). But don’t worry, the place is most definitely not going 21 century. All new business is very much in keeping with the pace and feel of colonial Valladolid. Cancunenses weekend here, and if you’ve the time, stay longer you won’t be bored. The impossibly fashionable Coqui Coqui Spa and Boutique is located here (the fragrance line featured on the hip online marketplace, Boutique Mexico). The archeological zone of Chichen Itza is close, and Dzitnup, X’keken and Samula cenotes are within a couple kilometers of town along the road to Chichen Itza and Merida all three beautifully exotic and swimmable. The Rio Lagartos National Park is about two hours away but well worth the drive, a wetlands wonderland and home to the greatest flock of wild flamingos in North America. Valladolid is less than a two hour drive from Cancun.
Ek Balam archeological site is located just 20 miles north of Valladolid along the road to Tizimin and Rio Lagartos, and just 54 km NE of Chichen Itza. We call it provocative because it’s not well known, just starting to get visitors and yet it‘s home to the most massive ancient structure in the region, a building referred to simply as el Torre (tower) which also happens to be a tomb. The Torre is elaborately decorated using a kind of mortar blended from stucco and limestone (not carved stone which is the norm for the region). Full-body statues guard the entrance, figures so intricately carved and well-preserved that you can make out hair braids and patterns on the loin cloths. Building on the city began sometime between 100 and 300 BCE and continued through 900 CE. The site has a name of great power Ek Balam / black jaguar and was continually inhabited for over 1000 years, which is impressive AND unusual. The city has numerous inner walls, the purpose of which no one knows, and five entrances into the central plaza and an archway marking the main entrance into the city. The place is interesting for its architecture and longevity and mysterious because so many questions are left unanswered. It’s obviously a major ancient city yet largely unknown until recently. The town of Ek Balam is a great place to stop for lunch. We recommend the Dolcemente (you’ll be pleasantly surprised). And there’s a little known (by non Maya) cenote nearby, called HUBIKU. There’s signage but we suggest asking at the village (Ek Balam).
This highly innovative and thoughtful tour is a distinct departure from the usual fare, and the reason it’s been picked up by the clever folks at UNIKGO (www.unikgo.com). As their slogan says, ‘thinks outside the box’ and this tour is the result of that kind of thinking. You’ll be taken taken into the interior, deep within the Sian Kaan Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that encompasses 969,000 hectares pristine jungle, ancient Maya archaeological sites, indigenous communities, mangrove forests, natural wetlands, savannas, coastal bays and beaches. Some 103 species of mammal and 336 species of bird call the reserve home. Your Maya guide talks about life on the peninsula as fishermen, subsistence farmers and harvesters of the resin used in chewing gum. You’re shown how the sapodilla trees are climbed and lanced for collection of the gum, and how the resin is prepared for distribution. Lunch is hosted by a local Maya family, in their home. Free time for birding and swimming. A great way to spend the day. Tours run with a minimum of two persons, a maximum of 12. Operated by a joint venture between the folks managing the reserve and the locals who live within it, as a means of providing them additional income. Check out UNIKGO’s Mayan Chewing Gum Adventure and Float Tour or go to www.siankaantours.org.
Cancun Maya Museum
It took the ‘powers that be’ long enough to pull this together but they finally did at the cost of 15 million. It’s not a huge space, nor does it hold endless exhibits but it has items never displayed before and the literature provided is informative and well written. Definitely worth a visit when in Cancun. Located in Cancun’s hotel zone.
Xcaret is probably one of the best water/theme/jungle parks you’ll ever visit. Underground rivers, lagoons, cenotes, beaches, dolphin enclosure, butterfly enclosure, sea turtle enclosure, orchid farm, horses, acrobatic jet skis, wild animals from the region including jaguars and tapirs in jungle enclosures (no cages), restaurants--the list goes on. And the show that is Xcaret at Night is an event unto itself: an amphitheater set in rock, over 300 musicians, actors and dancers telling the story of the Maya and of Mexico in sound, movement and great color. Super popular show. Several options on ticketing. The general overwhelming consensus is that the park is costly but WELL worth the price of admission.
Just beyond Playa San Miguel in Cozumel, there's El Cedral. It's a small and the oldest Mayan structure on the island. there is still traces of paint applied by the original Mayan artist. El Cedral is a small conch shaped structure that dates to A.D. 1200. It is believed to have been a lighthouse, mayans used to smoke and flames here to lead boats to safety. Also the small openings at the top of the structure also act as foghorns when hurricane strength winds blow through them .
Ruinas el Rey
It is in Cancun, its minor compared to the big sites spread on the Yucatan Peninsula but it is worth a visit. It consists of several platforms , two plazas, and a small temple and pyramid. The ruins get their name from a skeleton found during excavation and believed to be of a king. The ruins date from the late postclassic period A.D. 1200-1400.