ITINERARY AS EXCERPTED FROM KAREN BROWN’S E-BOOK:
In all of Mexico there is no place more enchanting than the Yucatán Peninsula, the country’s southeast corner that swings up like the tail of a fish with one side facing the Gulf of Mexico and the other facing the Caribbean. Tucked onto this peninsula is a treasure chest of delights: splendid stretches of sugary-fine, white-sand beaches; crystal-clear, turquoise water; the second-largest coral reef in the world; superb snorkeling; incredible scuba diving; deep-sea fishing; expansive nature reserves including remarkable bird sanctuaries; vast jungles; appealing, small islands nestled just offshore; rich Mayan culture evident throughout; women still wearing typical white, gaily embroidered dresses; wonderful crafts including intricate, handmade hammocks; charming Colonial towns; quaint fishing villages; splendid 17th-century haciendas (many converted to stunning small hotels that are featured in our guide); luxurious resorts; romantic, secluded hideaways. And, adding icing to the cake, the area is studded with breathtaking Mayan ruins-an archaeologist’s dream.
This itinerary puts great emphasis on the wealth of Mayan sites, cloaked in the mysteries and glories of one of the world’s great civilizations, which has faded into memory. It would be a pity to come to this niche of Mexico without visiting at least a few of these once-grand cities. Even if your idea of the perfect vacation is napping in a hammock on the beach (an option explored in our itinerary Places to Play in the Sun: The Mexican Caribbean), sneak away at least one day to visit a Mayan site.
There can a bit of confusion when one speaks of the Yucatán, since Yucatán is both the name of the peninsula and also one of the states within it. In total, there are three states that make up the peninsula: Campeche, Quintana Roo, and Yucatán. This itinerary makes a loop, passing through all three, slipping briefly into the adjacent state of Chiapas to visit Palenque, a remarkable Mayan ruin that can’t be missed, and the San Crisóbal de Las Casas, a colorful city with a rich Mayan heritage.
Following is some background information about the Mayan civilization and the Yucatán Peninsula to enrich what you will be experiencing en route.
THE MAYAN CIVILIZATION
One of the most advanced cultures of the pre-Columbian World was that of the Classic Maya. Technologically, they were a Stone-Age people, lacking metal tools, draft animals, or knowledge of the wheel; but their artistic and intellectual achievements rank them with the other great civilizations of antiquity. The flowering of their culture encompassed a period from about A.D. 250-900. This span of years is defined for us by dates carved on large stone monuments known as stele. These stele are found at numerous Mayan sites and their dates can be read and correlated with our modern calendar. The earliest known so far is A.D. 292 and the last is A.D. 889. These two dates mark the beginning and the end of the 600 years of the Classic Period.
The Mayan people themselves neither begin nor end with this designation of time. For 2,000 years they lived in the jungles and mountain valleys of the region creating a base of art and cultural traditions from which the Classic Period developed. Today over 4,000,000 people of Mayan descent still inhabit their original area, a geographical region that includes all the Yucatán Peninsula, Guatemala, and Belize, portions of Honduras and El Salvador, and parts of the Mexican states of Chiapas and Tabasco. While environment and climate vary widely, the culture itself was remarkably uniform, indicating close contacts and shared values during the Classic Period.
Maya Classic civilization has intrigued scholars and laymen alike since its rediscovery about 150 years ago, but only recently have archaeologists begun to uncover the reality rather than the myth of this ancient culture. For many years the Maya were thought to have been a peaceful group of talented farmers, devoted to religion and led by brilliant, intellectual priests whose primary concerns were astronomy and the recording of time. Recent discoveries now challenge these assumptions. The Mayan elite may indeed have been the intellectual giants of their era and artistic and religious activities were certainly intimately interwoven in the culture. Realistically, however, the Mayan world was composed of small and large warlike states with constantly changing alliances based on military action and royal intermarriage. Their economic and demographic growth was built on secular activities such as trade and exchange, tribute payments, and military conquest. Even Mayan religious practices were not peaceful, simple ceremonies as previously thought. Instead we now know that they were elaborate costumed rituals, which included blood letting, brutality, and human sacrifices-all dedicated to demanding gods and the rulers who were their earthly representatives.
As evidence of the bloody religious ceremonies practiced by the Maya and other cultures in Mesoamerica, archaeologists found at some Mayan sites an almost life-size sculpture called a chacmool. This is a finely carved stone figure reclining on its back with knees drawn up in front. It was here that the heart was cut from the sacrificial victim and probably placed on the stone disk on the chacmool’s abdomen as an offering to the gods.
Like many other early civilizations, the Maya had an overwhelming concern with death and the afterlife and they buried their rulers and elite with elaborate gifts of pottery, jade, and stone. These artifacts, along with recent major advancements in reading the Mayan hieroglyphic texts and meticulous archaeological excavations, have done much to expand our understanding of the ancient Maya and their way of life.
There are a number of specific traits and accomplishments of the Classic Period that set it apart from the Pre-Classic and Post-Classic Mayan Periods. Among these are: a sophisticated calendrical system that can be correlated with our modern calendar; a hieroglyphic writing system; the erection of tall stone stele to commemorate actual events in time; the use and possible invention of the concept of zero; the development of an elaborate and complicated style of art; and the construction of monumental stone architecture using a corbel arch.
Architecture is probably the most important, and certainly the most visible form of Mayan art and creativity. While sites on the seacoasts, in the mountain valleys, and on the Yucatán Peninsula are fairly easily seen and visited, massive stone ruins of ancient cities still lie buried deep in the jungle. Structures at almost all Mayan sites include palaces,
pyramids, temples, roads, reservoirs, markets, and ball courts-all built of stone and covered originally with a coating of white stucco and bright paint.
The magnificent high-stepped pyramids that rise above the landscape were once surmounted by temples dedicated to the Mayan gods, and often hidden within their depths are the rich tombs of Mayan kings. At large sites, these immense pyramids usually dominate both ends of central plazas with lower platforms supporting the palaces and public building associated with them. Sacbes (stucco-covered stone roadways) connect regional sites, and were probably used for commerce and trading caravans, movements of troops, and for ritual processionals. A ritual ball game was played on stone courts found all over Mesoamerica. In the Mayan area the game took on cosmic significance relating to the ongoing struggle between the forces of the day and night (the sun and moon, good and evil, etc.). In addition, the actual origin myth of the Maya was based on the outcome of a game of ball. In the Mayan book, the Popol Vuh, two young twin ball players descend to the underworld to play a game of ball against the gods of pestilence, famine, and death. They eventually defeat these gods of darkness on the underworld ball court of Xibalba. Their hard-won game assures the victory of light and life over the forces of darkness and death. The ritual sport often ended with the decapitation of the captain of the losing team; numerous depictions of this event are seen on painted and carved pottery, colorful murals, and the carved friezes on the walls of the ball court at the site of Chichén Itzá.
Though architecture may be the most impressive of Mayan achievements, other artifacts also offer concrete evidence of the skill of Mayan craftsmen and artists. These highly trained professionals were probably attached to ruling families or ceremonial centers and held special status in Mayan society. With a few recently discovered exceptions, artists and craftsmen remain anonymous. Most creations were unsigned by their makers and the artist was primarily important as an instrument through which the rulers and gods were honored. These talented artists used various media to create beautiful objects. Stonemasons carved tall limestone stele with figures of rulers wearing the elaborate feather headdresses and jade ornaments that were status symbols among Mayan elite. Scribes carved or painted hieroglyphic texts and calendrical information on stone monuments, walls of buildings and the pages of codices (Mayan books). Potters decorated the smoothed surfaces of ceramic vessels with scenes from the underworld, activities of gods and kings, and repetitive hieroglyphics texts. It has been suggested that the primary function of some artists may have been as scribes, craftsmen who painted the codices, which were once abundant in the Mayan world. All but four of these books have been lost due to damp climate and to their intentional destruction by the invading Spanish conquerors. Nevertheless, enough evidence remains to indicate strong resemblances between these lost books and the scenes and hieroglyphs painted on Mayan burial ceramics and on the walls of the ancient buildings.
The Maya were also highly skilled workers in jade, shell, flint, and bone. Jade was the most precious of all materials to the Maya. They were especially fond of the emerald-green or imperial jade and carved it into bead necklaces, masks, pendants, and ear-spools. Gold and other metals were not worked by the Classic Maya, but later when gold was known and used during the post-Classic Period, jade remained the more valued and preferred material. The Classic Maya used the same hieroglyphic symbols to mean jade, water, and precious-indicating the gemstone’s supreme value in their life and religious activities.
Other artifacts made of perishable materials are now lost from the archaeological record but can be identified from depictions on ceramics and stone. Finely woven and decorated textiles, paper ornaments, bark-paper books, and many objects carved in wood were documented in this way, but have not survived the damp, tropical climate.
After about A.D. 900, the Classic Maya cities located in the tropical jungle region collapsed. In other Mayan regions, such as the Yucatán Peninsula, Mayan traditions continued, but the magnificent sites of this lowland area were abandoned to the jungle and the great art of the period ceased. Rulers, dignitaries, and priests disappeared and the elaborate religious ceremonies were no longer performed in the temples and plazas created for them. The reasons for the collapse are still unclear. Possibly constant warfare, overpopulation, drought, epidemics, and military invasion may all have been contributing factors. Whatever the causes, the collapse was so complete that some of the lowland tropical areas once occupied by this civilization were only sparsely inhabited until about 50 years ago. Yet this vanished civilization is not truly “lost.” Archaeologists continue to work and uncover artifacts and information from the once-forgotten jungle sites. Magnificent works of art still remain to speak to us across the centuries of the culture and people of the Classic Maya world.
The Mayan cities of the Yucatán Peninsula survived for over 300 years after the fall of the heartland sites. While the Yucatán sites shared fully in the Classic Mayan traditions, their location on important trade routes and an influx of population and new ideas (some no doubt from the collapsed jungle cities), apparently encouraged continuing prosperity.
The Yucatán Peninsula is a limestone shelf. At the base of the peninsula are Mexican jungles and the frontiers of Guatemala and Belize. Much of the Yucatán is devoid of ground water such as springs or rivers, and is dependent for its supply of water on cenotes (fallen limestone sink holes which reveal underground rivers) or catchment systems for preserving heavy seasonal rainfall. As might be expected, the major sites of this geographical area occur where fertile soils can be supplied with water by the use of chultuns (man-made cistern systems) or where cenotes occur naturally.
During the pre-Classic Period (600 B.C.-A.D. 300) there were a number of important early cities in the Yucatán. These were sites with massive architecture and sophisticated water control systems, such as Calakmul, Edzná, and Dzibilchaltún. They were of major importance in establishing the artistic and intellectual traditions on which Classic Maya culture was built.
Throughout the following Classic Period (A.D. 300-900) some of these Yucatán sites faded but the area still remained a part of the amazing cultural development of such well known Mayan jungle cities as Tikal, Palenque, and Copan. Amazingly, the Yucatán region did not share in the collapse of the sites in the heartland area. Indeed, we now know that the rise of the great Puuc sites, such as Uxmal, Kabah, Sayil, Labná, and the florescence of the magnificent city of Chichén Itzá, occurred as other sites to the south were declining. The emergence of the greatest period in the Yucatán began perhaps as late as A.D. 800, and continued until the fall of Chichén Itzá at around 1250. During these years new ideas and new populations became part of the Mayan civilization, yet lifestyle and world view retained the Classic Maya concepts of culture.
Chichén Itzá was the most important Mayan city on the Yucatán Peninsula until A.D. 1250. It exhibits clear influence from the valley of Mexico at this time. Contacts were probably established by ongoing trading interaction between Central Mexico and the Yucatán, beginning at around A.D. 700. However, influence did not flow one way; Mayan influences can be seen at Cacaxtla and Xochicalco in Central Mexico and people and ideas must have moved freely in both directions. The mechanisms for these exchanges/contacts may not have been direct (e.g. migrations, conquests), but may have been most closely tied to the increasing role of merchants and traders toward the end of the Classic Period throughout Mesoamerica. Archaeological research indicates that the Yucatán was a prime source for the trade of salt, honey, slaves, cotton, and perhaps cacao as well-all major items of exchange in the pre-Columbian world.
Around A.D. 1250, Chichén Itzá fell to a group of competing Yucatán states led by Mayapan but it remained a center of religious pilgrimage and activity until the middle of the 16th century. By that time the Maya/Yucatán region was torn apart by small warring states participating in a complex trading system. This was the situation encountered by the Spanish when they first landed on the Mayan island of Cozumel.
The actual conquest of the Yucatán did not come until 1528, when Francisco de Montejo, under the auspices of the Spanish crown, invaded the region. However, the dispersed states of the peninsula did not succumb easily to the invaders, and fought on until 1542 when a Spanish capital was finally established at Mérida.
Today descendants of the Maya live on in towns and villages of the peninsula. Customs from the pre-Hispanic era dominate much of rural life, and traditions in agriculture, religion, and language still reflect the ancient patterns of the Mayan world.
RECOMMENDED PACING: We recommend 12 nights if you want to follow this itinerary in its entirety. More, if you are a real archaeology buff and want to linger at each site; less, if you want to just choose a section of the itinerary to tag on as a bonus to a holiday at one of the Yucatán’s superb beach resorts. We suggest two nights in Chichén Itzá, three nights in the Mérida area, two nights in Palenque, three nights in Río Bec, and two nights along the Riviera Maya.
DESTINATION I CHICHÉN ITZÁ
Cancún makes a convenient starting point, since its international airport has numerous planes arriving daily from other Mexican cities, the United States, Canada, and Europe. It’s hard to believe that only a few years ago there was practically nothing here except long stretches of deserted, white-sand beaches studded with coconut palms. Only an adventuresome few found this hidden paradise until the government, wanting to lure more tourists to Mexico, developed Cancún into a planned resort. Since then, the government has created other tourist destinations, but none have come close to being such a tremendous success.
If your flight arrives late in the day, or if you prefer to relax on the beach before starting out, spend a few days in Cancún. The best hotels are not in the town but line a narrow, 22-kilometer spit of land that wraps around a large lagoon. Here you find an endless row of hotels stretching along the beach. Most of them offer an “all-inclusive package,” which includes your airfare (usually a charter flight), your room, your meals, and sometimes even drinks. Most of the hotels are huge high-rises (several with over a thousand rooms) but, by and large, they are of attractive design and high-quality construction. Modern hotels, fast-food restaurants, golf courses, trendy bars, and shopping malls dull the cultural shock of leaving home. If you prefer a more intimate, Mexican ambiance, yet want to be close to Cancún, consider staying at Isla Mujeres, a delightful small island about half-an-hour’s boat ride off the coast. If this option interests you, ask about the boat schedule when making your hotel reservations.
After picking up your rental car, continue on to Chichén Itzá. It takes about two hours for the 200-kilometer drive via an excellent highway, the 180. The exit to Chichén Itzá is well marked, and it is just a few minutes from the highway to the town. We highly recommend two hotels here, the Hotel Mayaland and the Hacienda Chichén. Each has its own personality; each is exceptional. Both are snuggled right next to the ruins, so you can walk from your hotel to the entrance in minutes.
If you arrive at your hotel in the afternoon, plan to attend the Sound and Light program that is performed each evening (go early to get a good seat). You can rent earphones that translate what you are hearing into English at the ticket counter. These frequently don’t work very well but this is no great problem as the story is really self-explanatory. As dusk settles into darkness, the temples are gently illuminated, one by one, and the saga unfolds. One of the stories told is of the decline of this powerful city, which, according to legend, began when the city’s emperor stole, the beautiful bride-to-be of his greatest rival, on their wedding day, who retaliated by laying siege to Chichén Itzá.
You will not only enjoy the ambiance of your hotel, but its convenience to the ruins. Chichén Itzá is one of the Yucatán’s most popular archaeological sites and attracts hordes of tourists. Being so conveniently close, you can be the first one at the gate in the morning and be able to enjoy the site at its finest in the cool of the morning when the soft light is best for photography-before many people arrive. We suggest you spend several hours exploring the site; then, during the heat of the day, return to your hotel for lunch and perhaps a nap by the pool. In the afternoon, as the shadows lengthen, walk again through the site on your own for a final viewing and wonderful photographs. You will probably be lured to climb up and down many of the pyramids and, even if you don’t, you will be walking a lot since the site stretches over almost 10 square kilometers, so wear comfortable shoes. To increase your enjoyment, we suggest you hire a guide. They are available at the gate as you enter, or else your hotel can arrange one for you. Below is a bit of history and information on what to see.
CHICHÉN ITZÁ (A.D. c.700-1250)
The places mentioned below just begin to touch on the rich selection of fascinating places to see within this once-mighty city. They are some of our favorites, and will get you started.
Cenote de Los Sacrificios (Cenote of the Sacrifices): This natural well, reached by a path through the jungle from the central plaza, served not only as a water source for the city but also as a place where offerings were made to the gods. Over the years, a number of archaeological expeditions have recovered artifacts from the bottom of this deep, limestone sinkhole. Golden figurines and disks, jade objects, and ceramic bowls were found along with skeletons, primarily of adolescents and children. All had been offered as sacrifices or perhaps messengers to the gods.
El Caracol (The Snail): Located a bit away from the central plaza and reached by a ten-minute stroll, is a second set of buildings. Be sure not to miss the path, as here you find one of Chichén Itzá’s highlights: a fascinating, very unusual domed structure that was obviously used as an observatory. The name “snail” comes from the inner staircase, which, if you stretch your imagination, looks a bit like a snail.
Grupo de Las Mil Columnas (Complex of the Thousand Columns): Flanking two sides of the Temple of the Warriors are row-upon-row of stone columns, some carved, some plain. This awesome scene looks like something one would expect to find in Greece, not Mexico. It is surmised that these columns originally supported a thatched roof covering a huge open market. The temple and the columns make a wonderful photograph when taken in late afternoon from the top of the Pyramid of Kukulkán.
Juego de Pelota (Great Ball Court): This dramatic ball court is the largest in Mesoamerica and while there are 12 other ball courts at Chichén Itzá, this one is spectacular. The game was played as a ritual performance, as well as a sport, and is one of the hallmarks of pre-Columbian Mesoamerican culture. At the end of the ball game, the captain who lost was often sacrificed to the gods. This sacrificial scene is realistically carved in a long frieze along both side walls of the court. Look carefully and you will see two rows of ball players standing behind each captain. At the center, these captains face each other across a large rubber ball enclosing a skeletal head. One of the captains stands holding a knife in one hand and a severed head in the other; his opponent kneels and from his headless neck issue seven streams of blood. This graphic scene speaks clearly to the practice of human sacrifice and the offering of human blood to the gods to ensure fertility of crops and the continuity of life.
Pyramid of Kukulkán (Pyramid of Kukulkán): This impressive, 24-meter-high pyramid soars above the other buildings in the complex. Two of the four sides have been restored, and this is a favorite target for schoolchildren who seem to zoom up the 91 steps to the top. You might want to join them for there is a terrific view up there. When you add up the steps on all four sides, plus the platform above, the sum is 365, which clearly links its significance to the Mayan calendar, which had 365 days in its year.
SIDE TRIPS FROM CHICHÉN ITZÁ
If you want to extend your stay in Chichén Itzá, you can take a few side trips. Among the nearby places we suggest are Izamal, an early Spanish Colonial town with a church and convent built on top of one of the Yucatán’s highest pyramids, and the Sacred Cave of Balankanche, which lies about 7 kilometers from Chichén Itzá. This cave contains chambers which were once filled with hundreds of ceramic incense burners and miniature metates (grinding stones) laid out on the cave floors, as offerings to the rain god. Caves were seen by the Maya and most other Mesoamerican cultures as sacred places and as entrances to the underworld. The one is still used by local shamans (priests) who continue to regard it as sacred.
DESTINATION II MÉRIDA AREA
Excuse us for not giving an exact location for your next few nights’ sojourn, and instead rather vaguely saying your destination is the “Mérida area.” After pondering where to suggest you stay, it was impossible to recommend just one place. You can, of course, choose a hotel in the heart of Mérida; but dotting the countryside that wraps around the city is a rich selection of hotels, including gorgeous 18th-century haciendas that have been converted into superb small inns. Here you find the centuries slip away, and you feel like a guest in the home of a wealthy Spanish aristocrat, landlord of a vast sisal plantation. Some of these architectural treasures are listed under Mérida; however, there are other hotels in the area listed by their individual town names. Please look at the map in the front of the book to find all the hotels in this area. Any one of the following properties would make an outstanding choice to use as a base of operation: Hacienda Santa Rosa, Hacienda Temozón, Hacienda San José, Hacienda Xcantún, and the Lodge at Uxmal. Another of our favorites, Hacienda Uayamón (which is closer to Campeche than to Mérida) would also work well as a hub.
The following are some of the places to visit in this region of the peninsula.
Mérida, founded by the Spaniards in 1542 upon an earlier Mayan city, is worth a visit to enjoy its rich Colonial heritage. The city is laid out with all streets converging at a large, pretty, central plaza called the Plaza Grande or Plaza de La Independencia. Facing onto this parklike square is the imposing cathedral, the oldest in the Americas. Across the square from the cathedral is the Palacio Municipal, enhanced in front by a series of arches and topped by a tall clock tower. A few blocks away is the Teatro José Peón Contereas, an elaborate theater that attests to the wealth and sophistication generated by the prosperous sisal plantations nearby.
The small port city of Campeche, located on the Gulf of Mexico, 178 kilometers southwest of Mérida, makes a great outing. Be sure to include, at the same time, the nearby archaeological site of Edzná (see below). At the heart of Campeche is a colorful small Spanish Colonial town whose stone walls, battlements, watchtowers, and churches still stand. You can stroll through the cobbled streets of the old town and walk along the top of the massive walls that once kept out the English, French, and Dutch pirates who preyed on the rich port cities on the Gulf of Mexico during the 16th and 17th centuries. Few tourists know about Campeche, but it is a jewel, well worth a visit both for its intimate glimpse of the Spanish Colonial period and for its small museums that contain archaeological treasures from the surrounding region. At the south edge of town is a picture-perfect fort, the Fuerte de San Miguel, set on top of a hill with commanding views of the sea. Inside is a superb museum, renovated in 2001. Ceramic figurines from the Island of Jaina and steles with carved surfaces and hieroglyphic writing can be viewed here; but, above all, don’t miss the incredible jade pieces from rich burials at the ancient site of Calakmul. These astonishing items consisting of bead necklaces, large ear spools (large round ear ornaments), and mosaic jade masks are some of the rarest and most beautiful objects remaining from the Classic Period of the Mayan culture.
RÍO CELESTÚN BIOSPHERE RESERVE
On the coast southwest of Mérida you find the small village of Celestún where fishermen still pull their boats up onto the wide sandy beach at night as they have done for generations and lining the waterfront are simple restaurants featuring the catch of the day. This is a very laid-back place with few tourists. The main attraction here is a wonderful wildlife sanctuary, Río Celestún Biosphere Reserve, an enticing spot for all naturalists, but especially for bird watchers as there are more than 200 species of birds to be seen here. As you drive into town, the road crosses over the estuary and at the far end of the bridge, as you look down to your left, you see many flat-bottomed boats docked with boatmen eager to be your guide. There is a cute little office with a tiny museum where you can buy your ticket (the price is set and varies only according to the length of tour). Most of the tours last about an hour and a half, during which time you go up the shallow waterway. Your guide will point out many birds along the way, but the highlight of the trip is seeing the flocks of pink flamingos that come to the shallow waters to feed. Although at some times of the year they are more abundant than others, you can almost always see them. To avoid frightening the birds away, the boats are not allowed to get close, so it is difficult to get good photographs. On the way back, the boatmen stop at some intriguing cenotes-freshwater pools formed by underground springs. These are especially fun because you get out of the boat and walk through the tangle of mangrove jungle on a raised pathway. For those so inclined, there is time to swim in the crystal-clear water. If you really want to get away from the world, we recommend the Hotel Eco Paraíso Xixim, located on the beach within the Biosphere Reserve, about 10 kilometers north of Celestún.
ARCHAEOLOGICAL SITES IN THE MÉRIDA AREA
The history of this part of the Yucatán Peninsula dates far back in time. During the middle to late pre-Classic Period (600 B.C.-A.D. 300) a number of important early cities arose on the peninsula with massive architecture and sophisticated water-control systems. During the following Classic Period (A.D. 300-900) while the cities in the Yucatán shared the amazing cultural development of such astounding Mayan cities in the southern lowland jungles as Tikal, Palenque, and Copan, they remained somewhat on the periphery of the Mayan heartland. It was during the late Classic and early post-Classic Period (A.D. 700-1050), when Tikal, Palenque, and Copan were declining, that the great cities of the Yucatán rose to their height of power and flourished for another 300 years. Below are a few highlights of these sites. You can see any of them by driving yourself, but your experience will be enhanced if you splurge and hire a car with a driver/guide (the concierge at your hotel can help you with arrangements).
Uxmal, 70 kilometers southwest of Mérida, is found in the Puuc Hills, a low range of hills in the southwest region of the Yucatán Peninsula. In this area, the Maya developed a magnificent style of architecture named Puuc, name after the hills in this region and characterized by immense palaces, pyramids, and temples decorated with three-dimensional mosaic stone friezes. Cities here were connected by roads called sacbes, which cut through the jungle and entered the towns through beautiful, vaulted archways, many of which can still be seen. The Puuc Hills are dotted with ruins (probably more than 200 are scattered in the area), with Uxmal being the largest and most impressive. Only a small portion of the massive site has been excavated and one wonders what is yet to come.
Cuadrángle de Las Monjas (Quadrangle of the Nuns): Just beyond the Pyramid of the Soothsayer is a broad courtyard surrounded on four sides by large, richly embellished buildings. This large quadrangle reminded the Spaniards of the cloisters of a nunnery, hence its name.
Juego de Pelota (Ball Court): Like most Mayan cities, Uxmal had its ceremonial ball court. Spectators watched from two thick walls, one on each side. This is a particularly well-preserved ball court and shouldn’t be missed.
Palacio del Gobernador (Palace of the Governor): This gigantic building (almost 100 meters long, 12 meters wide, and 9 meters high) is one of the finest masterpieces of Mayan architecture. Its exterior is richly embellished with intricate stonework geometric patterns and friezes.
Pirámide del Adivino (Pyramid of the Soothsayer): This is a most unusual, extremely dramatic building with rounded sides, and steps leading up on two sides to a temple crowning the top. From the summit, which is nearly 28 meters high, there is a stunning view.
At the height of its glory Kabah was one of the largest cities in northern Yucatán. At the entrance to the ceremonial city are the ruins of an arch that marked the start of the great Mayan road connecting Kabah to Uxmal, 23 kilometers to the northwest. Kabah’s main attractions include:
Arco Monumental (Monumental Arch): This intricately decorated arch, which frames a high open gateway, is one of the most highly embellished, best-preserved arches in the Mayan world.
El Palacio (The Palace): This 30-room, two-story building standing on a hill was perhaps a palace housing the nobility of Kabah.
Palacio de Los Mascarones (Temple of the Masks): Over 250 intricate stone mosaic masks depicting the rain god, Chac, adorn this entire structure. These grinning faces with trunk-like noses are quite extraordinary.
Labná, 30 kilometers southeast of Uxmal, is not as large as its neighbor, but has several interesting structures including its magnificent archway, one of the most beautiful in the Mayan World.
We like Sayil, which although small, is a particularly appealing site. Its highlight, El Palacio, is a three-story, stone palace with more than 90 rooms. The base structure is crumbling, but the two upper stories are in much better condition. The middle level, by far the most eye-catching, is enhanced by a double row of columns; the lower row alternate with porticos leading into narrow passageways, and the upper row enhanced with ornate carvings.
This extensive Mayan site has towering pyramids, palaces, ball courts, and numbers of elaborate causeways. While this Puuc-style city has been mapped and some of its great buildings have been uncovered and preserved, many of its structures are still unexcavated. The site lies somewhat off the beaten track so it attracts only a few tourists, but you can explore the city on your own, climbing the pyramids and walking through the abandoned plazas of this ancient Mayan center.
The first major flourishing of the magnificent Mayan city of Edzná occurred during the late Pre-Classic period (450 B.C.-A.D. 300). Long before the other Puuc sites were established, this city was home to a large population that tilled the fertile soils of the valley. Its resurgence in the Classic period saw the construction of massive pyramids, public buildings, and palaces. The largest and most impressive of these is a five-story palace/pyramid structure that dominates the large main plaza. From its summit you can look out over this immense ancient center and see the outline of the causeways and canals that once ran through the site, as well as earth-covered mounds that mark buildings yet to be uncovered. Here at Edzná, the Maya built the most extensive hydraulic system in the region, with canals and ponds preserving water for irrigation and the city’s needs. At this site the population also raised many steles to honor their kings and commemorate royal events; some are still standing in the plaza, but a number of these can be seen beneath a modern thatched-roof structure at the entrance to the site.
DESTINATION III: PALENQUE & SAN CRISTóBAL DE LAS CASAS
Palenque and San Crisóbal de Las Casas are found in the State of Chiapas, not on the Yucatán Peninsula. A deviation to explore these jewels is definitely off the beaten path. If your time is limited, after leaving the Mérida area proceed directly on to the next suggested destination, Río Bec. However, if time permits, this side trip is well worthwhile: Palenque is our favorite of all the archaeological sites and San Cristóbal is a fascinating city.
Be sure to get an early start, since this will be a long drive. The amount of time it takes depends upon where you are staying in the Mérida area (to give you an idea, it is about 550 kilometers from Mérida to Palenque). Although the road is good (part of it four-lane) and there is usually not much traffic, expect the drive to take most of the day. From Mérida, take highway 180 south toward Campeche, bypassing the town and continuing on to Champotón. Here the road splits and you continue on 261 to Escárcega, a scraggly town that you go through before joining highway 186 in the direction of Villahermosa. Before reaching Villahermosa, the road passes very briefly into the state of Tabasco and then into Chiapas. After crossing over the river that marks the border into Chiapas, it is about 35 kilometers to where you turn left on 199, continuing for 22 kilometers to Palenque. Remember, you will need to a minimum of two nights here.
Palenque, one of the most beautiful ancient cities discovered in the Americas, is tucked in the jungle where the Usumacinta River drainage meets the coastal plain of the Gulf of Mexico. Due to the interest and dedicated scholarship of a number of talented epigraphers and art historians, the history of Palenque is better known than that of any other Mayan site. The rich hieroglyphic texts carved on stone panels, buildings, and monuments have brought to life the story of the rulers of Palenque, their names, dates, and historic events.
You need at least one full day to explore this lovely Mayan ceremonial city. Get up early and be ready to buy your ticket as the gates open. Not only do you want to arrive before countless busloads of tourists pull into the parking lot, but morning is a magical time. The mists from the mountains hang over the ancient buildings, lending an air of mystery to the magnificent city. Stone structures of amazing beauty rise on every side as you walk among the ruins of the great castillo, the immense palace, temples, and ball court. The pyramids, crowned by temples, cluster around plazas, each temple decorated with inscribed panels and tall, soaring roof-combs of open-stone fretwork. There are guides available who will enhance your explorations, though all of the buildings have plaques describing them in Spanish, English, and Mayan. There is a treasure of wonders to see here and to get you started, we mention below a few of our favorites.
Templo de Las Inscripciones (Temple of the Inscriptions): This towering pyramid that dominates the landscape is named for the stone hieroglyphic panels found within. In 1948, a Mexican archaeologist, Alberto Ruz, discovered a steep hidden stairway leading from the floor of the elevated temple deep into the heart of the tall pyramid. At the bottom of the stairway, under 400 tons of rubble which were removed by hand, he found a royal crypt occupied by Pacal, the most important ruler of Palenque. He had been buried with great splendor, and was accompanied by magnificent jade jewelry and an elegant jade mosaic mask. His sarcophagus was topped by an elaborate lid carved with figures and a hieroglyphic text tracing his dynastic descent from the gods, assuring his royal presence and rebirth in the afterlife. The discovery of this tomb was of major importance to Mayan archaeology because it definitively established that many of the massive Mayan pyramids were the sites of royal burials. Note: To the right of the entrance you will see the tomb of Alberto Ruz, who wanted to be buried next to the temple where he made his remarkable discovery.
El Palacio (The Palace): This huge, imposing complex is quite unlike others in the Mayan world. It looks more like a structure one might expect to find in Europe, with a slender, tall watchtower, a labyrinth of intricate rooms, a series of inner courtyards, galleries faced by columns, and exquisite stucco designs. This building is thought to have been the dwelling of royalty, since steam baths and bedrooms were found here. What is especially interesting about this building is that many of the rooms still have roofs, making it easier to visualize what life here might have been like. It is fun to explore this maze of rooms via dimly lit passageways. El Palacio is the building that the intrepid explorer, John Lloyd Stephens, and his talented artist colleague, Frederic Catherwood, chose to make their home when visiting Palenque. These two men explored this fascinating region between 1839 and 1841, laying the groundwork for later archaeological expeditions. Before heading off to Mexico, borrow Stephens’s book, Incidents of Travel in Yucatán, Volume II, from your local library. It is enthralling to gaze at Catherwood’s wonderful illustrations, and see what Palenque looked like before being rescued from its slumber of many years within the jungle.
Templo del Conde (Temple of the Count): This temple is named for Jean Frederic Maximilien de Waldec, an eccentric German count who lived here for a year in 1832 in a small temple tucked at the top of this high pyramid The count brought along his mistress, who must have been quite madly in love with him to camp high atop a pyramid in the middle of a steaming jungle without running water or air conditioning-modern amenities that today might make such a romp quite fun. No doubt the views were romantic, but the steps up and down each day must have been quite arduous.
When visiting this gigantic complex, it is intriguing to realize that only about a third of this awesome city has been uncovered. It is interesting to walk along the paths lacing the dense jungle, watching teams of archaeologists going about their meticulous work.
To complete your day, before returning to the hotel, be sure to stop by the fine Museum of Palenque, which you passed on the right side of the road as you drove into the site. This museum contains many objects of jade, stone, and pottery excavated at the city. In addition, in a building next to the museum is an exceptionally attractive gift shop that handles not only books and replicas of objects, but also wonderful ethnographic materials such as textiles and carvings made by modern Mayan artists.
SAN CRISTÓBAL DE LAS CASAS
If your time is limited, after spending a couple of nights in Palenque return to the Yucatán Peninsula and continue on to Río Bec (see the next destination). However, for those interested in anthropology and delving into the rich culture of the Mayan people, then San Cristóbal de Las Casas is well worth a detour. This should be done as a round trip from Palenque, with a minimum three-night stay in San Cristóbal.
Agua Azul: Leave Palenque early in the morning, allowing time to stop en route to visit the waterfalls at Agua Azul. Ask the hotel to pack you a lunch and plan to have picnic here (there are also many open-air restaurants available if you are the adventuresome type). If the weather is warm, you might want to bring your swimsuit for a dip in the river. Although the distance is only about 60 kilometers, it takes over an hour to get there since the road is winding and there is usually a lot of traffic. To reach Agua Azul, from Palenque go south on highway 199. After 9 kilometers the road splits. At the junction, keep to the right on 199 toward Ocosingo and San Cristóbal de Las Casas. As the road climbs into the lush mountains, you need to watch the road markers-at about marker 87, turn to the right at a sign to Cascadas de Agua Azul, a favorite spot for Mexican families. If you are into “local color,” this is it! A river rushes through the rich foliage, forming rapids and waterfalls that drop into tranquil pools of turquoise water. On holidays and weekends the place is positively packed with people: children splashing in the crystal-clear water; babies napping in the shade, women preparing tables laden with food, grandmothers asleep in hammocks stretched between the trees, men chatting while enjoying cold beers, lovers strolling hand in hand, youngsters climbing steep paths to the top of the waterfalls. Note: Don’t even think about visiting Agua Azul during the rainy season, which turns the clear turquoise waters into a muddy river.
San Cristóbal de Las Casas: After your visit to the waterfalls at Agua Azul, return to highway 199 and continue south. The road climbs ever higher as you travel on for 145 kilometers into the pine-covered hills until you reach San Cristóbal de Las Casas, nestled in a 2,100-meter-high valley wrapped by pine covered mountains. Founded in 1528 by the Spaniards, the town strongly reflects a classic Colonial heritage. There are opulent churches, tree-studded plazas, cobblestone streets, red-tiled roofs, and secreted garden courtyards. However, it is the rich culture of the Mayan people that makes a visit here so special. The clock seems to have stopped, and the indigenous people, descendents of the Maya live much as they have for hundreds of years throughout the hills and jungles of Chiapas. Although colorful to see, this untouched way of living is problematic: Chiapas, tucked right on the border with Guatemala, seems to be a “forgotten” state and its poverty level has ripened political unrest, as evidenced by the Zapatista uprisings in the mid-1990s. There is still unrest, particularly in the countryside, but you have little sense of any hostility in San Cristóbal de Las Casas, a town named for Bartolomé de Las Casas, a benevolent Spanish priest who came to minister to the Indian people in the 1500s and became their compassionate protector.
San Cristóbal is one of the most colorful towns in Mexico, not only because of its Spanish influence in style of architecture, but even more so because you see the indigenous people wearing colorful attire. Each surrounding village has not only its own dialect, but its distinct costume with hand-loomed, colorfully embroidered clothing. The girls marry very young, and all seem to have a baby, snugly wrapped in a shawl, tucked on their back. Many of the men are dressed in vests of brilliant colors and hats decorated with ribbon streamers. You will need at least three nights in San Cristóbal, giving you a minimum of two days to explore in town and the nearby villages. You can walk to all of the places within the city, but for the outlying towns, take a tour. Your hotel can arrange either a private guide or an organized group tour.
Note: Be aware to use extreme caution when taking photographs. Throughout Mexico it is always polite to ask permission before taking pictures of people, but in the state of Chiapas it is not only the proper thing to do, but photographing people is forbidden by law. When in San Cristóbal, it is almost irresistible to snap a photo of the colorfully dressed people. However, this problem can be solved. Frequently the street vendors will ask you to buy some of their trinkets and will add, “Take my picture?” It is a small price to pay. Sometimes, if you buy some of their wares, the photo is free. Other times, there might be a surcharge, but it is well worth it to have them willingly pose for you. However, the situation is much more stringent in the outlying villages where photographing the indigenous people is strictly forbidden. Your film can be confiscated and you can be arrested.
PLACES TO VISIT IN SAN CRISTÓBAL DE LAS CASAS
Plaza Principal: Your first sightseeing target should be the main square (zócola) which is located in the heart of the city. For later sightseeing, note that the streets all change names as they pass through the square. Sit on one of the benches in the plaza and watch the colorfully garbed people come and go. In the center of the plaza there is unusual two-story gazebo where you can get a snack. A main pedestrian-only street, filled with boutiques and restaurants, borders the west side of the square and stretches for several blocks north and south of the plaza. To the south of the square, the street is called Avenida Miguel Hidalgo, to the north, Avenida 20 de Noviembre. To help you find your way, the following sightseeing is referenced in relation to the Plaza Principal.
La Catedral: The cathedral, dating back to 1528, is tucked on the northwest corner of the Plaza Principal. Father Bartolomé de Las Casas, for whom the city was named, was the church’s first bishop. The exterior is brilliantly painted in bright yellow with coral-colored trim. The interior is ornate with many paintings and carving. The small chapel to the left, as you enter, is particularly beautiful. Iglesia de San Nicolás: The Church of San Nicolas is also on the Plaza Principal, located on the northeast corner.
Palacio Municipal: The Municipal Palace stretches across the entire west side of the Plaza Principal. This dramatic, long, two-story yellow building, fronted by a parade of colonnades, was built in the late 19th century as the government house. Today, many of the festivities of the town take place in the square directly in front of the palace.
Templo de Santo Domingo: You must not miss this spectacular 16th-century ex-convent, which is located about five blocks north of the Plaza Principal. The baroque façade of the pale peach-colored church is richly embellished with intricately carved stonework. If you like photography, arrive in the late afternoon when the church glows in the warm light of the sun. It is a stunning sight.
Textile Market: On the west side of the Templo de Santo Domingo is a remarkably interesting craft market. Here the local villagers come to display their handicrafts. The array of colorful wares to buy is overwhelming. Beautiful shawls, hand-embroidered blouses, hand-loomed purses, jackets of natural wools, colorful skirts, belts, lovely table clothes, and wall hangings are but of few of the incredible selection of things to buy.
Mercado: About two-blocks behind the Templo de Santo Domingo is a huge, outdoor city market, open every day of the week, filled with vegetables, fruits, herbs, medicines, dry goods, hardware, chickens, pigs-just about anything you could possibly want! This is the place where the local people come to buy and sell. It is very authentic, very colorful.
Museo Na Bolom: Located ten blocks northeast of the Plaza Principal, is the Na Bolom Museum, which was the home of Frans Blom, a Danish anthropologist, and Trudy Duby, a Swiss photographer and journalist. They came to San Cristóbal de Las Casas in the mid-1900s and became passionate protectors of the indigenous people, working tirelessly to maintain their culture and environment. The Bloms have passed away, but their home is open to the public. It is now a non-profit foundation and houses a museum with many of the fascinating photographs taken by Trudy, as well as many religious artifacts and archaeological treasures they discovered. The museum can only be visited on a tour (when we visited, English tours were given at 4:30 pm, but be sure to check the time). Na Bolom is also a hotel-the favorite choice of accommodation for archaeologists, artists, and anthropologists. Na Bolom means the Jaguar, and there is a gift shop by the same name across the street from the museum where you can buy souvenirs and craft items. If you are not staying at Na Bolom, you can make a reservation for dinner (the meal is served family-style with the guests sitting at one large table).
Museo del Ambar: San Crisóbal de Las Casas is famous for its amber, and about four blocks west of the Plaza Principal, there is an excellent Amber Museum ensconced within an old convent. There are many examples of jewelry, but my favorite pieces are the exquisite amber carvings. Throughout town, you can buy beautiful pieces of amber jewelry at excellent prices. Don’t buy amber from street vendors as their selection of jewelry could be acrylic.
VILLAGES TO VISIT OUTSIDE OF SAN CRISTÓBAL DE LAS CASAS
San Juan Chamula & Zihacantán: There are many Mayan villages near San Cristóbal. The two most popular are San Juan Chamula (12 kilometers northwest of San Cristóbal) and Zihacantán (9 kilometers west of San Cristóbal). Both are fascinating; you feel that you have stepped back 500 years in time. Although the villages are only a few kilometers apart, each has its own mode of dress and dialect.
San Juan Chamula: The main sight in San Juan Chamula is its church, dedicated to St. John the Baptist. Here, in a simple white church with turquoise-colored trim, you find the pagan beliefs of the indigenous Mayan people intermingled with the Catholic faith. You step into the dimly lit church where you see families in colorful costume huddled in small groups on the floor, praying behind an assortment of candles. The church is illuminated by the soft glow of hundreds of candles. The odor of incense hangs heavy in the air. Occasionally you hear the squawk of a chicken that is being sacrificed to the gods. It is almost unbelievable to believe that such old customs still exist. The scene is real-it is in no way a tourist presentation. In fact, all photographs are strictly forbidden.
Zihacantán: Your second stop is in the even smaller village of Zihacantán to visit its church. Here the worshipers sit on chairs, not on the floor as they do in San Juan Chamula. The mens’ garb is exceptionally colorful with brilliantly embroidered vests. As in San Juan Chanmula, the pagan beliefs of the indigenous people creep into their religious ceremonies with clay animals (similar to those worshipped in the Pre-Colombian times) used as candle holders. Again, photography strictly forbidden.
RETURN TO PALENQUE
When it is time to leave San Cristóbal de Las Casas, it is too far from the Yucatán Peninsula to make the journey in one day. Therefore, you will need to stop for another night in Palenque. However, you can squeeze in a bit more sightseeing en route at another wonderful archaeological site, Toniná.
Toniná: When leaving San Cristóbal, get an early start and head north on highway 199 in the direction of Palenque. After 98 kilometers, just before the town of Oscingo, turn right on the toad marked to Toniná. This is a relatively small archaeological site, but well worth a visit. To add to the magic, you might be the only tourists there. Toniná was one of the last functioning Classic Mayan cities, surviving almost 100 years beyond the demise of the others. To enrich your explorations, browse through the museum before meandering through the site. Excavations are still underway but there is plenty to see including ball courts, carvings, and an exceptionally impressive, 80-meter-high pyramid, supposedly the tallest in the Mayan World.
From Toniná, return to Ocosingo, then continue north on highway 199 for 109 kilometers to Palenque.
DESTINATION IV RÍO BEC
When it’s time to leave Palenque, retrace your way to highway 186 then turn right toward Escárcega. Go through Escárcega and continue east on 186, following signs to Chetumal. Dotting this stretch of highway between Escárcega and Chetumal is a group of fabulous Mayan ruins in an area called Río Bec. These are some of our favorite archaeological sites in Mexico-not only because they have awesome structures, but also because you are frequently the only person about, a truly magical experience.
We suggest two hotels in the Río Bec area: the Chicanná Ecovillage across from the ruins of Chicanná, and The Explorean Kohunlich near the ruins of Kohunlich. Although approximately 70 kilometers apart, either makes an excellent hub from which to visit the various sites. We highly recommend both hotels, although they are quite different. The Chicanná Ecovillage has simple rooms in attractive two-story thatched-roofed bungalows that look like something out of Robinson Crusoe. The super-deluxe Explorean Kohunlich has beautifully decorated rooms in cottages overlooking dense jungle as far as the eye can see.
The Río Bec style occurs in a series of important archaeological sites that reached their zenith from A.D. 600 to 900. Some of these are incredibly well preserved. Until recently, access to these ruins was appalling, with four-wheel drive needed to maneuver the potholed roads. All that has changed-the government has improved all the roads and now access is easy. Some of the sites, that tour books said even recently were five-hour drives from the highway are now within an easy hour’s drive. However, news of these huge improvements has not yet leaked out, leaving a visit to the archaeological sites a sublime experience. Nowhere else can you visit such outstanding Mayan monuments in such blissful isolation. But don’t wait too long because tourists will surely soon be flocking here. When we explored all of the ruins described below, we usually had the place to ourselves. Another bonus here is that the signs are excellent, and each building is clearly labeled in English, Spanish, and Mayan, so that you know what you are seeing. Below are descriptions of the various cities we suggest seeing, arranged according to their location along highway 186, starting with Calakmul as the most western site, and Dzibanche as the most eastern site. There is no way that you can see all these in one day: you will definitely need two, since Calakmul alone will take a day. Study the recommendations below. If your time is limited, you might like to know that our personal favorites are Calakmul, Becán, and Kohunlich.
If you have time to visit only one ruin, choose Calakmul. It is stupendous, and although rarely visited, ranks in grandeur with its greatest rival, Tikal, which is somewhat alike in layout and architecture. It is not surprising that they share similarities, since although Tikal is in Guatemala, the border is only 30 kilometers away. This site is farther off the highway than any of the others that we mention in the Río Bec area. After leaving the main road, it takes about an hour to drive there, with most of the distance along a single-lane road. However, the road is straight and has little traffic. Best of all, you pass through the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve (established in 1989 to protect the natural rainforest) where you are likely to spot many species of exotic birds and some wild animals. In the spring, wild turkeys, resembling colorful peacocks, are common. The city spreads over a huge area of 25 square kilometers, and it is estimated that at the height of its grandeur (A.D. 400-800) as many as 200,000 people lived here. It is fascinating to wander along the jungle paths, coming across grand structures rising from the tangle of trees, including the highest pyramid ever built by the Maya, which soars 53 meters into the sky and has a base of 5 acres. As found in other sophisticated Mayan sites, Calakmul had an observatory for charting the movements of the stars. Other places of interest include a huge market and ball courts. The site is still in the process of being renovated. (Plan to make Calakmul an all-day outing.)
From Calakmul, go back to highway 186, turn right, and continue for 44 kilometers to Chicanná, located on the right side of the highway, just across from the Chicanná Ecovillage Resort. This is the third-largest of the Río Bec cities and is known for its stunning architecture. Its special feature is Temple 2, called the Earth Monster. Its doorway is a giant mouth through which the high priests entered to communicate with the underworld. You can clearly see the eyes, the nose, and the menacing teeth, which hang down above the door.
Leaving Chicanná, it is only 2 kilometers on 186 to Becán, which is on the left side of the highway. Although intimate in size, this is a real gem. You find here a series of courtyards surrounded by huge pyramids, so steep that a rope is provided to give you leverage as you ascend. Some of the buildings have deep tunnel-like staircases that lead to nowhere. Fun to explore, but be aware that you need to back out the same way you entered. Also of interest is a giant mask on one of the temple walls, covered by glass to protect it against the elements. The ubiquitous ball court is here too, of course. The city was originally surrounded by a 2-kilometer moat crossed by seven bridges. The moat is now dry, but you can clearly see its remains.
The next ruin is Xpujil, only 6 kilometers beyond Becán on 186 on the left side of the highway. This site isn’t as impressive as the others you have visited, but is worth a stop to see the three crumbling towers, which must have been quite splendid when originally built. Notice the picture that depicts what the towers probably looked like in their prime.
Leaving Xpujil, it is 62 kilometers farther east on 186 until you see the turnoff to the right to Kohunlich, which is about a 15-minute drive off the main highway. The special features here are an impressive pyramid, the Temple of the Sun (also called Temple of the Masks), whose steps are flanked on each side with eight, huge, stone masks, some of which show traces of their original red paint. These quite fearsome faces have bulging eyes and protruding ears. Kohunlich covers a vast area, and it is fun to wander the paths that wind through the jungle. You will come across a ball court and also a large plaza which was the marketplace.
DZIBANCHE & KINCHUA
From Kohunlich, return to highway 186 and continue east. In about 2 kilometers, you come to a turnoff to the left marked to Dzibanche and Kinchua, located about half-an-hour’s drive off the highway. These are two individual sites, but so close together that one entrance fee covers both. Don’t bother going to Kinchua unless you have an interest in seeing what archaeological sites look like before restoration. Dzibanche, however, is beautiful, not so much for its structures but for its setting. You walk through a splendid forest with the path meandering through lovely glens when suddenly in a clearing before you, a giant pyramid appears. The setting is mystical.
DESTINATION V RIVIERA MAYA
Your next destination is the Riviera Maya, a stunning coastal stretch of white-sand beach lying between Cancún and Tulum. This once-sleepy area is booming with huge hotels and condominium complexes secreted behind high walls with security guards at the gates. These developments aren’t intrusive, however, because they are far apart and hidden from the road. In addition to these hotels, there is a rich selection of fabulous smaller places to stay in every price range, from luxurious hotels with every imaginable amenity to simple thatched-hut bungalows tucked on secluded beaches. Any one of the places we recommend would make a suitable hub to explore the archaeological sites featured below.
When it’s time to leave the Río Bec area, drive east on 186 to Chetumal, the capital of the state of Quintana Roo, located on an estuary of the Río Hondo, which divides Mexico from Belize. Chetumal has little of historic architectural interest since in the 1950s, when most of the buildings were destroyed by a hurricane. At the entrance to the town is a powerful sculpture of Gonzalo Guerrero standing proudly next to his wife and children. Guerrero was one of the first two Spaniards to land in the Yucatán, as a result of being shipwrecked offshore in 1511. Guerrero married a Mayan princess and fathered the first mestizos (persons of mixed Spanish and Indian blood) to be born in Mexico. The other sailor who survived the shipwreck was Jerómimo de Aguilar, who played a key role in the conquest of Mexico. When Cortés landed in the Yucatán, he persuaded Jerómimo de Aguilar (who by then spoke fluent Mayan) to come along as an interpreter. A little later, when Cortés arrived in Tabasco, he was presented with a gift of 20 maidens, one of whom was La Malinche, who not only became Cortés’s mistress and bore him a son, but also helped to make the conquest of Mexico successful. She quickly learned Spanish, and with the combined dialects of La Malinche and Jerómimo de Aguilar, Cortés was able to forge alliances with Indian groups against the Aztecs. La Malinche was of particular help, not only because of her interpretive skills, but also because of her knowledge of the ways of the people. When Cortés returned to Spain, he “gave” La Malinche to one of his captains.
The town of Chetumal is not special, but its Museo de La Cultura Maya (Museum of Mayan Culture) is stunning-small, but exquisite and tasteful, and no expense seems to have been spared to create a jewel. The floors are made of gleaming green marble and classical music plays softly in the background. The museum is designed around three floors (connected by ramps) representing the underworld, the human world, and the celestial world. Throughout the museum are excellent exhibits and video presentations enhancing what you see. The most dramatic visual display is along one wall where a huge screen features a constantly repeating movie that takes you flying over the great Mayan cities in a small plane.
Leaving Chetumal, head north on highway 307 in the direction of Cancún. The highway traces Lago Bacalar (Lake Bacalar), a narrow but very long lake stretching for 104 kilometers. It is fed from underground cenotes, so its water is crystal-clean and quite remarkable in color, shading from dark blue to turquoise.
Continue north on 307 to Tulum, which is about 260 kilometers north of Chetumal. Rather than doing more sightseeing, call it a day and settle in at the hotel of your choice along the Riviera Maya. All of the hotels we recommend are on the sea, so take a swim in the warm Caribbean water and perhaps a walk on the beach. The next day begin your sightseeing, for which we suggest the following:
TULUM (A.D. 1000-1521)
Tulum is one of the loveliest small Mayan sites on the Yucatán Peninsula and due to its convenient location just off the main highway, it is heavily visited by tourists. The ruins open at 8 am. It is best to go as early as possible to avoid the extremely hot sun and the flood of tour buses that visit the site each day. The ruins are on a lesser scale than in most other areas of the Mayan world, and you will notice that the pyramids are smaller and the buildings somewhat sloppily constructed. However, this is one of Mexico’s most picturesque spots, one captured endlessly on calendars and tourist brochures, and there is an incredible view from the site’s magnificent headland overlooking the Caribbean. Originally Tulum was a port for long-distance trading canoes, and its defensive walls can still be seen along with a fine watchtower looking out to sea. The beach at the foot of the cliffs was once used to pull large seagoing trading canoes from the sea, and if you bring your swimming suit, you can enjoy a swim in the warm, clear, turquoise water. Tulum, and the Island of Cozumel, just across from it, were the first Mayan sites visited by Cortés on his initial voyage to Mexico in 1519. Unlike most pre-Columbian sites, they continued to flourish into the Colonial period.
COBÁ (A.D. 200-1000)
The large ruined city of Cobá lies about halfway between Tulum and Cancún, and is situated 40 kilometers inland from the coast at the end of a good road. It is built around a group of five small lakes that once provided water for a region of perhaps 50,000 people. The presence of lakes and an abundance of water are rare in this area and sustained Cobá as a major Mayan center until its conquest in about A.D. 1000 by a group of militant Mayan traders known as the Itzá. It has immense pyramids, a ball court, and palaces, but it is best known for its many sacbes, the raised causeways or roads that connected the site with other great Mayan centers of the Classic period. These roads also run through the city itself, connecting various clusters of buildings, and where they have been cleared, visitors can quite easily walk to the majestic, towering pyramids whose tops rise above the trees. If the idea of staying next to the ruins appeals to you, we recommend a very pleasant small hotel, Villa Arqueológica Cobá. From here you can take an early-morning walk through the jungle to the ruins, a very special way to see this ancient city.
The surface of the land in this part of the Yucatán Peninsula that lies in the state of Quintana Roo is basically a limestone shelf, beneath which flows a network of underground rivers. Occasionally the limestone collapses, exposing the water below and forming natural wells, which the ancient Maya called cenotes. The location of these cenotes determined the location of many of the Mayan cities, where they not only provided a source of pure water, but also served for religious ceremonies. Today these cenotes are popular places for the tourist to visit. Some people like to swim in the crystal-clear, turquoise water, while others don scuba gear and enter a cenote at one point, swim underground in the river, and pop up at another cenote. Large theme parks, such as Xel-Ha and Xcaret, have developed to highlight natural wonders in the area and include underground rivers in their list of attractions. These places are fun, especially if you are traveling with children, but extremely commercial, and we definitely prefer the secluded, lesser-known cenotes. Ask the concierge at your hotel to recommend one nearby-they are dotted throughout the landscape.
When it is time to return home, you can quickly travel from the Riviera Maya to Cancún airport, completing your loop of the Yucatán Peninsula.