Editor’s note: I have visited the Yucatán twice, each time in Cozumel for a day as part of a cruise. In this article, our roaming rabbi Sam Spector gives a great in-depth look into some of the amazing features the entire region has to offer. For more of Sam’s stories, click here to visit his index page.
I know that it is Hawaii month at Travelers Tell All (The Royal Tour’s Facebook group), but unfortunately, I do not have a Hawaii article to share. That is not because I have never been to Hawaii though; I most certainly have. In fact, as a child my family would do an annual vacation to Maui and stay at the same hotel on Sugar Beach. I have such fond memories of our family trips to Maui, where my brother and I would catch geckos, snorkel alongside sea turtles and tropical fish at brightly colored coral reefs and watching humpback whales breach high into the air before crashing down on the ocean below. At night we would dance at luaus and shop at the Whalers Village at Lahaina then walk with our parents along the beach. There is a reason that Hawaii is associated with being an iconic vacation. While there is something to be said about the comfort of returning to a relaxing place annually, for me, the intrigue of exploring a new place is a bigger draw. As I wrote in my most recent article about Bali, there are other places in the world that can match the experience of Hawaii while being cheaper and offering an insight into a fully different culture. While I am sure that I will one day return to Hawaii (I have not been since I was 12), and I look forward to that day, in the meantime, I am excited to explore many alternatives, which I have done.
One alternative for somebody looking for a different experience than Hawaii while also enjoying many of the comforts that the Aloha State has to offer is the Maya Riviera of Mexico. I have been to the Yucatan Peninsula twice now, once at age 15 and again a few years ago, and it is truly magical. Of course, if it is your thing, there are the all-inclusive resorts in Cancun and Playa del Carmen (when I first visited Playa del Carmen, it was a tiny beach town; today it has sadly become a major resort city that rivals Cancun), but there are many other places to explore and to experience both history and authentic Mexican culture. Off the coast of Cancun, a short ferry ride away, are the islands of Isla Mujeres and Cozumel. While these islands have the beaches, nightlife, and restaurants that tourists crave, they also have a charm where you can travel around via golfcart, and the island of Cozumel has Mayan ruins as well.
The Mayan ruins within the Yucatan are world renowned treasures that are so accessible from the United States that for anyone who would do a trip to Hawaii to never experience these gems in their lifetime is a crime. For nearly 4000 years until the last Mayan capital fell to the Spanish conquistadors in 1697, the Maya reigned as one of the greatest and most advanced empires in the world. With ruins throughout Southern Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, the Mayans built populous cities and sophisticated civilizations. While some of the great Mayan cities exist outside of Mexico like Copan in Honduras and Tikal in Guatemala (a future article!), the Yucatan Peninsula is home to some of the greatest ruins of the later Mayan years. The crown jewel of these is Chichen Itza, which in recent years was named one of the new Seven Wonders of the World. Chichen Itza’s ruins are spread out and are not only reflective of the Mayan power and belief, but their scientific and mathematical knowledge and achievements. An ancient observatory (El Caracol), dating back 1100 years, is there where Mayan astronomers would study the constellations, stars, and planets. At Chichen Itza are numerous reliefs showing different masks and depictions, such as the Skull Platform featuring dozens of carvings of skulls against a wall. Chichen Itza also contains a grand ballcourt, one of numerous ones throughout the Mayan world. At this ballcourt, opposing teams would compete and try to throw a ball through a stone hoop. What might be surprising is that the winning team’s “reward” was to be killed as a sacrifice to the gods, considered to be a tremendous honor.
Chichen Itza’s primary attractions though are two temples (though more are still be excavated). One temple is the Temple of a Thousand Warriors, which contains a statue of the god of sacrifice Chaac Mool, and also hundreds of columns, representing the warriors. Yet, the most famous temple of course is the pyramid of Kukulkan (also known as El Castillo). Kukulkan is the same length on each side, and the four corners of the pyramid face the four cardinal directions. Though you can no longer climb the pyramid due to preservation and safety concerns, there is still much to admire. The pyramid, which is nearly 100 feet high, has 91 steps on each side, with a platform on top, making up 365 total steps, reflective of the 365-day calendar that the Mayans observed without any knowledge of the European calendar with the same number of days. The spring and fall equinoxes are the most fascinating (and crowded) days to visit Chichen Itza as at the base of the pyramid are stone snakeheads, and on these two days a year, the sun hits the pyramid in a certain way where it appears that a snake is slithering down the pyramid. Also inside the pyramid is the Jaguar Throne, a red stone throne with a jaguar whose teeth are made from flint and eyes and spots made from jade. Though the European conquerors wanted to portray the Indigenous People of the Americas as ignorant simpletons, the Kukulkan Pyramid is the greatest refute to this false claim and demonstrates that the Mayans were among the most sophisticated people in the world.
Another attraction that is throughout the Yucatan are the cenotes, wells created through sinkholes that are particularly prominent in the region, where over 6000 exist. These cenotes were sacred to the Mayans, none more so than the Sacred Cenote at Chichen Itza, where human sacrifices and other offerings were thrown for the gods. While you cannot swim at the Sacred Cenote, there are many other cenotes where one can swim, many of which are within caves with a hole opening up above for the sunlight as you swim beneath stalactites and colonies of bats. Swimming in a cenote is an essential and memorable experience in your Mayan vacation. Yet, there are many other great ruins beyond Chichen Itza. My personal favorite is the ruins at Uxmal, a grandiose Mayan city that is overshadowed by Chichen Itza, but in many ways more impressive. At Uxmal, while there are fewer tourists, there are more structures showing a once vibrant city, including the Pyramid of the Magician, which is significantly taller than Chichen Itza’s Kukulkan. A tourist favorite for Mayan ruins is Tulum because what it lacks in large pyramids, it more than makes up for in its picturesque beauty as a Mayan city built cliffside overlooking the water, essentially making it the Mayan Malibu. Another site that I highly recommend is the ruins of Coba, whose pyramids you can still climb (as of December 2018 at least). Coba is in the middle of the jungle and there is something special about hiking to the ruins, or to get there a little more quickly, renting a bicycle onsite for a couple of dollars and peddling through the pathways of the jungle and stopping at various pyramids along the way.
In case ruins are not your thing, there is plenty else to do in the Yucatan Peninsula. Children and families love the theme park of Xcaret (which does have its own cenote and Mayan ruins as well), where you can go on rides and swim with dolphins; but one of the great pieces of charm in the Yucatan is the colonial architecture in many of its cities. Explore Merida, the capital of the Yucatan State and the largest city on the Peninsula with 750,000 people. Merida has a charm to it with beautiful parks and squares, as well as many museums, including an anthropological one with many relics found at nearby archaeological sites. I have also found Merida to be one of the most navigable cities in the world with few streets containing actual names, but rather being on a grid system with even numbered streets running north-south and odd numbered streets running east-west. Another great city to visit is Izamal, known as the Yellow City, which is painted nearly entirely yellow and white, the colors of the Vatican, to commemorate a 1993 visit to the city by Pope John Paul II, who held mass there. It has become a place of pilgrimage for Roman Catholics in Mexico, and also a city populated by the descendants of the Maya, with the Mayan language being heard as commonly in streets as Spanish, and many women wearing the traditional white Mayan dresses. Finally, one other city of charm is Valladolid, located 45 minutes from Chichen Itza. Founded in 1543, it was one of the first Spanish colonial cities in the Americas and today has preserved much of that atmosphere with its old churches, convents, and cobblestone streets.
There are tours throughout the Yucatan that leave from the resort cities, and the tours often include a visit to a tequila distillery that include tastings and demonstrations of how the tequila is made (you might even try tequila with the famous worm inside!). Anyhow, a margarita or another tequila drink is a great way to end a busy day in the Yucatan. It may not be Hawaii, but it might be something just as good if not better, and certainly incredibly memorable.
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One thought on “Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula”
I find these places really fascinating to visit. I think Mexico is an amazing country. Thanks for sharing. I will love to one day visit these spots.