in the Maya Riviera
Cancun and the Mayan Coast equals sun, sand, sea and culture
By Toby Saltzman
"You're nuts!" Ken said, as if he could sway me from climbing to
the top of the Mayan pyramid. Despite his kidding, I was determined
to scale the ancient Temple of Warriors to photograph the stone
head of Quetzalcoatl (the mythical serpent), and reclining body
of Choc-Mool (the god who was ritually blessed with human sacrifices),
and to take panoramic shots of the monumental metropolis of Chichen
Itza. So with two cameras flung round my neck, I bounded toward
the awesome temple. If stones could speak, each step spoke volumes
of the tortuous task endured to erect this edifice under the searing
sun. Scholars say the Mayans believed that sunrise and nightfall
were intertwined like life and death. In their views, the sun rose
when the gods were appeased by human sacrifices. The victims were
deified as their ultimate reward.
Superstitions and violence aside, the Mayans, who began filtering
into Mexico around 1000 BC, left testaments to their incredible
ingenuity in the massive temples and relics of Chichen Itza, which
thrived under a mystic hierarchy of kings and noble priests during
the zenith of their civilization. Renowned for their complex systems
of hieroglyphics, mathematics, and astronomy, the Mayans devised
a solar calendar in the structure of the Temple of Kukulkan that
is accurate to this day. Dubbed El Castillo, the temple counts the
days of the year with 365 steps and the weeks with 52 panels on
each side of its base. As if by celestial magic, twice a year -
at the spring and summer equinox - the sun casts an eerie shadow
on Kukulkan that resembles the plumed serpent Quetzalcoatl, slithering
up its steps.
Climbing up the narrow steps, I passed some people descending gingerly,
and others sliding down slowly - step by step - on their bums. One
step from the top, the serpent's head loomed into perfect view,
his eye exquisitely carved under hooded brow, his head pockmarked
by centuries of wind and rain. For several moments I stood on that
step, capturing his intrinsic soul on film. Then I turned around,
and froze. From my vantage, the brilliant sun transformed the inclined
pyramid into a slippery slide, the stone columns at its base into
sharp knives, and Ken and the kids into miniscule ants. Now I've
never been height-phobic - not when crossing a hanging bridge over
a deep chasm, or soaring over mountain peaks in open aircraft. Yet
here I stood, eyeball to eyeball with the serpent, as if spellbound
by extra-terrestrial spirits, unable to take that final step to
the plateau, or descend. The sky, which had started out clear blue,
suddenly clouded over. A breeze ruffled my sleeves. A gust whipped
off my hat. I clutched my cameras.
"Are you afraid to come down?" Ken shouted up.
"Yes!" I yelled. Then, as if driven by adrenaline, he raced up the
steps and retrieved me, schlepping me along by the wrist. Back on
earth, Ken teased, "I thought for a moment I'd lost you for a Mayan
"Intriguing thought," I mused. "If that serpent still has mystic
the waves roll in
As we explored the Mayans' sacred wells, and the ball court where
they played a ceremonial ball game - and ritually honored the winner
by tearing out his heart in sacrifice to Chac-Mool - I shunned photographing
stone gods and other creatures.
A thousand years after the Mayans mysteriously vanished from Chichen
Itza, the world wonders what turned one generation's paradise into
another generation's hell. A millennium later, Chichen Itza is a
paradise again, albeit for archaeologists and scholars. Some say
there are six million Maya left who still speak the language and
follow ancient customs, except for sacrificing humans. None inhabit
the ancestral ruins that remain scattered from Chichen Itza to Cancun
and along the Yucatan Peninsula's Mayan Coast, which stretches past
centuries-old fishing villages and brand new resorts to Tulum, the
picturesque Mayan fortress perched on a cliff overlooking the sea.
So visitors to Cancun, Cozumel and the Mayan Coast may easily explore
the spectacular archaeological sites of Chichen Itza, Tulum, or
Coba (a Mayan city still largely engulfed by jungle) on guided day
tours, arranged at the resorts.
En route back to Cancun from Chichen Itza, passing the thick jungles
and swaths of wild hibiscus, bougainvillea, and flowering jacaranda
trees of Quintana Roo State, we came upon pretty stone villages.
Their central squares, decorated with festive nativity scenes, proudly
extolled the Catholic beliefs ingrained by the Spanish conquistadors.
Their local markets bustled with vendors selling colorful pottery,
papier-mâché birds, carved wooden boxes, and silver jewelry.
By the time we returned to the aquamarine sea, my encounter with
Quetzalcoatl was a quirky memory. We were thrilled that our family
holiday had turned into a culturally enriching experience, brimming
with more than tropical sun, sand, and sea.
Mexico's Caribbean islands are gorgeous, flat slips of land, fringed
by dazzling white beaches, clustered around the northeastern tip
of the Yucatan Peninsula that divides the Gulf of Mexico from the
Caribbean Sea. For the most part, their grandest tributes to Mayan
culture are the decorative details on their modern temples to tourists.
Cancun, Mexico's premier resort island, is separated from the mainland
by a calm lagoon. Cancun is flanked 3 kilometers to the north by
the tiny isle of Isla Mujeres, and some 25 kilometers to the south
by Cozumel, which lies five kilometers off the Mayan Coast - the
160-km stretch of land famed as the fastest-growing tourist site
into stone in Chichen Itza
Cancun resembles a sea horse that is joined by two causeways to
the mainland and fringed along its back by beautiful white beaches.
Barely fourteen kilometers long and half a kilometer wide, Cancun
sizzles with activities, if you can tear away from splashing in
the resort pools or azure sea, or snoozing under a shady palapa
(a Mexican beach umbrella). There's golfing at the championship
Pok-Ta-Pok course designed by Robert Trent Jones Jr.; sailing, kayaking
and water-skiing in Nichupte Lagoon, which is blissfully protected
from the open sea. If you prefer birdwatching or an energetic hike,
head south to the Dr. Alfredo Barrera Marin Botanical Marin Botanical
Gardens. This fragrant nature preserve is ribboned with trails through
tropical forests. There's good snorkeling at Punta Nizuc, Punta
Cancun, and Playa Tortugas. But for a lovely diversion, it's worth
taking a day trip by catamaran to Isla Mujeres. The only town has
a quaint, slightly dilapidated charm, with huddles of merchants
touting coral jewelry and woven serapes (blankets). There's not
much to do on the scrubby isle, except ride a moped to Mayan "lighthouse".
But its crystalline waters and thriving reefs are protected in an
underwater national park that is a snorkeler's dream. El Garrafon
is famous for the kaleidoscopic hues of its coral and fish.
Long before Cancun was conceived as a resort island, Cozumel gained
fame when Jacques Cousteau showed the world his films of the spectacular
coral reefs of the submerged Palancar Mountains. Centuries earlier,
pirate Henry Morgan haunted the island. In pre-Columbian times,
Cozumel was a hive of Mayan culture and trade. Ruins of Mayan temples
and a shrine to the goddess Ixchel still exist in San Gervasio.
Cozumel attracts a lively mix of active sun seekers, fishing fanatics,
and deep-sea divers who prefer its casual nature to the glamour
of Cancun and the Maya Riviera. The social heart of the island is
a shady plaza, filled with shops and eateries, which joins the ferry
docks via a seaside esplanade. Most resorts overlook the calm western
coast rimmed by patches of white beach and coral reefs. Its eastern
side shunts the pounding Caribbean surf. The interior of the island
is an undeveloped melange of thick jungle, marsh, and dry scrub
that is exciting to explore on jeep safari.
markets are brimming with
colorful pottery and papier-mâché
Resorts on the beautiful mainland Mayan Coast strike a happy medium
between the fast pace of Cancun and the laid-back ambience of Cozumel.
Several resorts - particularly the all-inclusive Palace resorts
- ensconce their guests with sumptuous style and delectable cuisine.
Designed with huge meandering pools, all Palace resorts include
everything from daily meals (both buffet and a la carte) to drinks
(including Margaritas at the beach) to complimentary scuba lessons
to special tours. The Moon Palace boasts a double-whirlpool in each
of its posh suites. The new Aventura Palace resort - an adult-only
hotel permitting children over 18 - boasts a double-whirlpool in
each of its posh suites plus a hammock on each ocean-view balcony.
Each of the three Palace hotels in Cancun has a special appeal.
The lively Cancun Palace attracts a youthful crowd. The Sun Palace
is a boutique hotel popular with sophisticated types. The Beach
Palace is ideal for families.
There's no chance of getting bored at any one hotel: guests of
all Palace hotels may use the facilities of any other Palace hotel
along the Mayan Coast or in Cancun. In addition, every Palace hotel
guest receives a complimentary day tour to Xpu-Ha Eco Park, located
fifteen minutes south of the Aventura Resort, between Playa del
Carmen and Tulum. Pronounced es-pu-ha, the park displays the area's
indigenous flora and fauna. Visitors may swim, snorkel, and kayak
in the sweet-water lagoon, or explore its habitat on marked biking
and walking trails.
We were sipping frothy Pina Coladas under a shady palapa when a
young couple with two teens approached. "We're planning our week.
Do you mind sharing what your kids liked best?" the father asked.
In a snap, my son said, "Jumping the waves. And rescuing Mom from
the serpent of Chichen Itza."