Yucatan Peninsula, which separates the Caribbean Sea from the Gulf of Mexico, is home to one of the most visited destinations when it comes to nightlife—amazing all-inclusive resorts, delicious tacos, warm weather, white-sand beaches, and turquoise waters. Yes, I’m talking about Cancun.
However, that’s surely not all you can do. If you have already read “Visiting Cancun in the spirit of love-hate relationship,” you already know that we were not impressed by this place at first sight. Thankfully, we realized that we could adjust our plans and enjoy the Peninsula by not only avoiding the crowded beaches, but also by exploring the history and the authentic Mexican culture on the outer limits of the city.
Despite recognizing the comfort and convenience of the manicured resorts, and taking advantage of it to some degree, we still wished for more. The natural beauty along the coast, the extraordinary Mayan archaeological sites, cenotes, and towns became some of the highlights of our trip to Mexico.
So next time you’re in Cancun, leave the delicious tropical drinks by the pool behind for a while and take time to get out of the city and visit these remarkable sites. Interested? Read on!
Yucatan Peninsula archeological sites
Located about 185 miles away from Cancun, Chichen Itza is the largest and most recognized archeological site and Mayan ruin in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. Knowing that these ruins are an expansive site containing a large variety of impressive constructions—the most famous, pyramid Chichen Itzá, also known as the Temple Kukulkan or El Castillo—we knew we had to see it while in Cancun. Additionally, it has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1988, and in 2007 was declared one of the New Seven Wonders of the World!
Our knowledgeable and friendly guide demonstrated tremendous respect for the Mayan civilization and took the time to explain the pyramid and other adjacent structures such as palaces, temples, a ball court, and more. He told us about the Mayan culture and religion, as well their knowledge of astronomy and mathematics. He pointed out the hidden calendar within the different structures. For example, during the spring and autumn seasons, sun rays create a shadow across the Temple Kukulkan Pyramid that gives the appearance of a serpent sliding down the staircase. Each staircase—one on each of the four sides—counts 91 steps, plus one extra step on the top, adds up to 365 steps, the number of the days in a year. Our guide’s enthusiasm and expertise opened our minds about what life might have been like in Chichen Itza’s society. We were fascinated!
Although it was winter in the Northern Hemisphere, the day was hot. Whenever we had a chance, we would stand in the shade to escape the heat. Be prepared to go with sunscreen, plenty of water, and a hat. We wondered how hot that place must be during the summer.
After the tour, we had a little bit of time to wander around on our own. Although more time would be nice to explore the ruins, we were pleased we learned so much about this ancient culture.
Situated less than 90 miles south of Cancun, Tulum is what I call a paradise. Although the ruins of Tulum are not as impressive as those at Chichen Itza, we found beauty in the only oceanfront Mayan city. Having the Caribbean as a background, the Mayan ruins sit above the limestone cliffs overlooking the white sand beaches and turquoise water.
It was another scorching hot day in the Mayan Riviera and no shade was to be found. Our knowledge about the Mayan civilization was significantly deeper after our tour at Chichen Itza the day before. However, our guide was far less engaging than our first, so we left the group shortly after we started to tour the area on our own. Strolling among the old constructions such as El Castillo and Temple of the Frescos, then, along the cliffs, we wished we had time to sit on the white sand and swim in the inviting Caribbean water. Several people were on the beach, but nothing close to the crowd we saw in Cancun.
We wondered if the ancient Mayan civilization had summer destinations. If so, we were certain this would have been one, and they couldn’t have chosen a more scenic location.
We laughed at our thoughts.
The truth is that Tulum was one of the last cities built by the Mayans. Protected on one side by the steep sea cliffs, and on the land side by surrounding walls, Tulum was planned as a defense against invaders. In fact, tulum is a Yucatan word for wall or fence.
27 miles northwest of Tulum, surrounded by jungle, lie the ruins of Coba. Historians believe this Mayan town was a major social and political center, making it one of the most powerful cities in the Yucatan Peninsula during the Mayan civilization. However, when Chichen Itza arose, it seemed like Coba started a power struggle with Chichen Itza, and its dominance declined.
A series of sacbes, also known as white roads, connect the main pyramid area to smaller sites near and far. Some roads are open to the public, easily explored by renting a bike, hiring a tricycle (pedicab), or simply walking.
Due to time constraints and the heat, we hired a pedicab. Initially, it seemed to me that it was cruel to have someone biking around in the high Mexican humidity when all we had to do was take a seat and enjoy the scenery. Nevertheless, they convinced me that they really wanted to do it, and you must keep in mind it may be the only income they have. So, hop on and enjoy the ride.
Cruising among trees and clusters of ruins, we made our way to the main site, a group of constructions known as Nohoch Mul, home to Ixmoja, the second tallest pyramid in the Yucatan peninsula. Unlike other Mayan sites, Ixmoja is open for the public to climb all way to the top.
Ixmoja is steeper than it looks, but holding a thick rope conveniently attached from the top to the bottom of the pyramid, we reached the peak. From the top of the ancient structure the forest looked gorgeous. The view was incredible and totally worth the effort. Due to slippery, uneven and steep steps, we found it more difficult to climb down. Most people, including us, climbed down slowly with hands, butt and feet next to the rope while joking with the nervous folks climbing up.
Cenotes are natural sinkholes formed by the collapse of porous limestone, creating a natural freshwater pool filtered by the earth. It’s possible to spot small fish and plants in these pools since the water is so clear and pure!
The Mayans believed cenotes were their communication channel with the Gods, and rituals and sacrifices were performed at these sites. Offerings such as pottery, gold, and even skeletons have been found in the cenotes in Yucatan Peninsula. As a result, some of them, one just meters from Chichen Itza, are contaminated. Although easy to visit, these are not recommended for swimming.
Cenotes can be either a secret subterranean cave or an open-air hole, but each one is an attraction itself with its own peculiarities and similarities. We visited one of each.
When swimming in the cenotes, bring only the necessary items: swimwear, flip-flops, towel, and waterproof camera. The space inside of the cenotes is limited. Lockers, showers, and life jackets are available for adult and children at the sites.
Ik Kil Cenote
Our first experience with a cenote was at the Ik Kil, an open-air type near Chichen Itza. As we forgot to bring our daughter’s bathing suit, we stopped at the store located adjacent to the cenote to buy something suitable. With none in her size, we bought a pair of shorts and a top.
Instructed to rinse off before getting into the water to avoid contamination from perfumes, sunscreens, and makeup, we stopped at the showers located next to the entrance. Meanwhile, my husband rushed to rent a life jacket for our young lady. The amenities was incredible. We had one hour to spend there.
Taking a staircase down first, my husband and daughter descended, and from above I watched them. There were dozens of people in the cenote, and the line to jump in was long. They patiently waited for their turns, and jumped in. They jumped a second time. Later I joined them in the pristine water but skipped the jumping. The water was cold and refreshing after a hot and long day touring the Chichen Itza ruins.
Tamcach-Ha cenote, located near Cobá, was an underground cave, meaning the roof didn’t collapse. The entrance was a small opening on the ground that could easily be missed if it weren’t for the signs and a hut.
Similar to Ik Kil, life jackets were available for rent. Although we had access to showers too, the area had a simple set up.
A steep wooden staircase led us into the cave below that was lit with artificial light. As we walked down, we passed two platforms from where people could jump off into the water. One is about 32 feet high and the other one 16 feet high. Again, I walked my way down. Because this cenote was less crowded, they jumped several times: kid, from the lower platform; dad, more adventurous, from the higher. Meanwhile, I cooled off on the concrete platform built in the shallow water of the cenote.
Visiting Valladolid and a Mayan village
Valladolid, founded in 1543, is one of the oldest colonial towns in Latin America. This charming place with its narrow cobblestone streets made us feel like we were walking through the past. The tour only provided enough time for a brief stroll in the central plaza and visit into the cathedral, but it gave us a good idea what this place has to offer. We heard about the rich Mayan influence in the area, including the cuisine and colorful clothing worn by the locals.
When the bus drove through town, a glance at the colorful architecture and the several designs of doors and windows was delightful. The calm atmosphere added an extra flavor to the place.
Our next stop was a Mayan village where local people shared some of their costumes and traditions. Starting with a taste of chaya (a plant cultivated by the Maya) drink, we moved to a lesson on preparation and use of achiote (paprika) in a pork dish. Followed by a demonstration on how to make tortillas by hand, we could immediately taste them with different sauces. Wow! These definitely had a different flavor than the tortillas we buy in the store!
Learning about the Mayans was an enriching experience. Strolling through paths they walked—either by the beautiful Caribbean beaches or between the fascinating ruins— was like a journey through an ancient time. It boosted our Mexican adventure.
I highly recommend to anyone traveling to Cancun to leave the comfortable limits of all-inclusive resorts and dive into the true Mexican culture. We did just that and I can’t recommend it enough. Gathering knowledge and experiencing different types of entertainment was a big win for our family. We got to enjoy the best of the two worlds.