Mention Cancun and many people will instantly picture a playground of resorts given over to pocket-pleasing partying and long, lazy days downing margaritas in the sun – and we can’t argue with that! But it’s all too easy to forget that the resort also provides the gateway to one of the world’s most fascinating historic cultures: Mayan Civilisation.
The Mayans occupied the Yucatan Peninsula for over 3,000 years, stretching back at least to 1800 years BC, leaving a trail of extraordinary architecture, visual art, their own calendar, scripture that was the first developed form of writing across the Americas, over 500 languages and an impressively intricate system of beliefs, science and astronomy that was centuries ahead of other cultures.
For an entree to the staggering breadth of Mayan culture, there are a number of key architectural sights to discover.
High on the list is the colossal Mayan city of Chichen Itza, which recently took its place among the Seven Wonders of the World.
Dominating the site is the astonishing 24 metre high stepped pyramid, the Temple of Kulkulkan, where visitors flock at sunrise and sunset to witness a unique astronomical phenomenon, where a shadow of a snake appears to slide its way down the pyramid to fertilise the ground below.
Other key sights to explore include the Temple of the Warriors, the Great Ball Court, North America’s largest, and above all the Cenote Sagrado, which at 60 metres wide and dropping from the sheer cliff 30 metres high is easily one of the most impressive of the Riviera Maya’s many underground underwater chambers. The Mayans used this to leave all manner of treasures as sacrificial offerings to appease their rain god Chaac.
Next up is the Mayan walled city of Tulum, one of the best preserved coastal sites of Mayan heritage. Tulum was a vital trading port that continued to thrive even after it was inhabited by the Spanish in the 12th century AD, holding its own for a further 70 years after occupation. The 8metre-thick walls remind us just how seriously the Mayans took defending their city. Tulum’s big attraction is El Castillo, a fortress with a dramatic lookout over the barrier reef, which is decorated with shrines and statues of the diving god.
The biosphere reserve and UNESCO World Heritage Site of Sian Ka’an literally means ‘Origin of the Sky’ in a native Mayan language and no wonder since it contains tropical forests, mangroves and marshes, plus a marine area crossed by a barrier reef. All such earthly delights provide a rich habitat for over 300 species of birds, countless lizards, sea turtles and mammals including jaguars, pumas, and tapirs. Visitors here often take boat trips through the natural coastal swimming pools and safe shallow waters.
If you want to go a little deeper for a mystical, truly authentic Mayan experience in the jungle, then check out Temazcal Cancun where you can subject yourself to a Pre-Hispanic ritual sweat lodge and steam bath. The ancient Mayan health treatments here offer a variety of ways to explore ‘amplified states of consciousness’, and if you’re feeling really adventurous you can even tie the knot here with a special, traditional ‘Nenamictiliztli” wedding ceremony.
Do you have any recommendations for Mayan sites around Cancun? Share your tips with us below!