Cancun mixes resort life, Mayan culture

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Victor Block

The Mexican city of Cancun features 14 miles of beaches sandwiched between the turquoise Caribbean and a wide inland lagoon. In addition to the usual tourist attractions of an ocean beach, visitors can take a 45-minute boat ride to four-mile-long Isla Mujeres to see the remains of a small Mayan temple. More dramatic Mayan ruins can be found south of Cancun, along the Riviera Maya.
Photo courtesy of Visit Cancun

The narrow path leads through low jungle growth, beneath long vines hanging from tree branches that would prompt Tarzan to howl with delight. Iguanas lazing in the sunlight that filters through the trees resemble prehistoric monsters frozen in stillness.

The shadowy setting suddenly gives way to a clearing. Along its edge stands the remains of a small pyramid-shaped temple surrounded by stone platforms and round columns which, centuries ago, supported a roof.

Here at some time during the 13th to 15th centuries BCE, worshipers built ceremonial memorials to their gods. They were members of the Mayan people, who inhabited much of what is now Mexico and several surrounding countries.

The rich civilization that they built beginning about 2000 BCE lasted until the arrival of Spanish explorers and settlers in the 16th century CE.

The Mayan people left behind a legacy of advanced achievements — including a fully developed written language, magnificent architecture, vibrant art, and sophisticated systems of mathematics and astronomy.

Home base built for tourists

Today, visitors to the modern city of Cancun, and the surrounding Yucatan peninsula, have opportunities to combine the attractions of a major resort destination with explorations of remnants of the Mayan culture, ranging from tiny structures to vast magnificent cities.

The isolated site inhabited by iguanas could be hidden deep in the jungles of Mexico. Instead, the ruins of El Ray are only a short walk from modern civilization in Cancun, with its sparkling white sand beaches and high-rise hotels.

The city stretches along 14 miles of beaches that overlook the crystal clear, multi-hued water of the Caribbean Sea. Most visitors stay in the hotel zone (zona hotelera), a narrow strip of land nestled between the sea and a wide inland lagoon.

Towering hotels line the waterfront, familiar chain restaurants vie for customers with locally owned eateries, and upscale shops offer the latest fashions in clothes and expensive accessories.

This glitzy setting resulted from the selection of the location by the Mexican government decades ago, along with other sites in the country, to be developed as tourism destinations. At the time, this was an area of mangrove forests, deserted beaches and scattered fishing villages.

The coastline that stretches south of Cancun is known as the Riviera Maya, and it is dotted with inviting beachfront resorts like pearls on a necklace. As with its European counterpart, visitors to the Mexican version may combine relaxing sun-and-sand vacations with a full menu of recreational activities.

Golfers have a choice of courses that were designed by such legends as Jack Nicklaus and Greg Norman, among others. Water-related sports include fishing, snorkeling and diving, wind surfing, jet skiing and parasailing.

For those who prefer to keep their feet planted firmly on the ground, opportunities for bicycling, horseback riding and all-terrain vehicle touring are available.

Mayan archeological treasures

Chichen Itza includes a 98-foot tall pyramid that towers over a Mayan compound that was settled more than 1,200 years ago. About a 2½ hour drive from Cancun, it is one of the best-restored Mayan settlements.
Photo by Len Kaufman

Along with the glitz and glitter of contemporary Cancun, connection with the world of the Mayans remains strong. Resorts have names like Mayan Palace and Ocean Maya Royale.

The architecture of some hotels echoes the pyramid shape of Mayan structures and other design features. Some health and beauty spas offer treatments derived from Mayan formulas.

These random examples only hint at the nearby archeological treasures that await exploration. In addition to touches of that civilization that are found in Cancun itself, more than 30 ancient sites are within driving distance, making the city a major gateway to the Mayan world.

The Mayan Museum in the hotel zone is the perfect place to begin an immersion in that ancient culture. While its exhibits showcase great architectural achievements, I found equally interesting artifacts from the people’s daily lives.

Cooking implements, incense burners, jewelry and other displays provide evidence of the good life, Mayan style. Sculptures and structural fragments brought from a number of sites serve as reminders that the once-great culture stretched across Mexico and beyond.

The perfect segue after leaving the museum is to follow the path that winds through a compact jungle-like setting adjacent to the building to the San Miguelito archeological site. Small in size but not in interest, this was the site of a Mayan settlement more than 800 years ago.

The path meanders past more than three dozen structures, some restored but most left in their natural state. Of greatest interest are a 26-foot-tall pyramid, the ruins of what once were residences, and a small temple where remnants of ancient mural paintings of animals are still visible.

Not far south of the city, along the Caribbean coastline, is Xel-Ha, a park that combines recreational activities with history. It offers excellent snorkeling, a small museum, restaurants and souvenir stalls.

An early Mayan ruin is located close to the park entrance. Paintings are still visible on the walls of the Casa del Jaguar (“House of the Jaguar”) and the Templo de las Pajaros (“Temple of Parrots”).

Several miles further on is Tulum, one of the most inviting Mayan sites, but not for the ruins themselves. Instead, it’s the setting that makes this many a visitor’s favorite archeological location.

The structures stand on a rolling field on a 40-foot-high cliff, protected on three sides by walls and on the fourth by the precipice and the turquoise water of the Caribbean Sea.

A carved figure named the Diving God, with wings and a bird’s tail is repeated on many of the walls. Words etched in stone, and painted murals said to date from the 13th century, adorn the Temple of Frescoes.

Visiting Chichen Itza

Further from the sea, about a 2-1/2 hour drive from Cancun, is Chichen Itza, one of the most impressive and best-restored Mayan places. Its mysterious past adds interest to its already fascinating story.

The area was settled by the Mayans between 500 and 900 CE, then abandoned for a reason that no one knows. It was resettled about 1100 and, it is believed today, then fell under control of the warlike Toltecs whose home base was what now is Mexico City.

Chichen Itza was primarily a ceremonial place of massive structures spread out over two square miles. El Castillo (“the Castle”) is a 98-foot-tall pyramid that overlooks the lower buildings. Eight ball courts were used for a game that was won by guiding a rubber ball through rings suspended 20 feet above the ground.

A series of limestone sink holes, called “cenotes” (see-NOTE-eez), provided most of the water that was required by the people. One, called the Sacred Cenote, also was used by the Toltecs, when they controlled the site, as a sacrificial well. Victims were thrown into it and drowned in order to appease the gods in which the people believed.

Another reminder of the Toltec practice of human sacrifice are sculpted images of Chacmool, a reclining stone figure with bent knees whose hands hold a receptacle. It’s believed that some sacrificial ceremonies included cutting the heart from the chest of victims and placing it, still beating, in the stone dishes.

It requires a 45-minute boat ride to reach another, much smaller, Mayan monument. The four-mile-long Isla Mujeres (eesla mu-hair-us) presents a split personality to those who make the trip.

The dock area includes an inviting beach, restaurant and snorkeling operation, while the compact “downtown” neighborhood is jammed with modest restaurants, jewelry stores and tourist shops, all selling pretty much the same merchandise.

On a plateau overlooking the sea at the opposite end of the island stand the remains of a small Mayan temple that was dedicated to Ixchel, the goddess of love and fertility.

According to legend, when Spanish explorers arrived in the 16th century and found numerous stone statues of the goddess, they gave the island its name, which means “island of women.”

Whether exploring sprawling Chichen Itza or viewing much more modest Mayan sites, relaxing in the sun or taking in the excitement of the hotel zone, visitors to Cancun and the surrounding area have a wide choice of alternatives.

The combination of old and new, of inviting beach destinations with fascinating reminders of a once-great civilization, offers something-for-everyone appeal.

If you go

While many visitors like the convenience of staying in the hotel zone, with its proximity to restaurants, shopping and other non-beach attractions, others head for the resorts that are strung out along the Caribbean coast south of the city.

The Sunset World Resorts is a Mexican-owned, family-operated mini-chain of properties, each of which offers a very different experience, plus the added benefit to guests of taking advantage of the facilities and services available at all of them.

One of them, the Hacienda Tres Rios Resort, Spa and Nature Park, features a 340-acre setting encompassing five major ecosystems.

The focus at the Sunset Marina Resort & Yacht Club is on a long list of water sports. The Sunset Fisherman resort, south of Cancun, is located near several Mayan sites as well as a small town known for its bustling night life scene.

Rates at the Sunset World Resorts change fairly frequently. The all-inclusive cost of a room, including all meals and a wide variety of services and activities, begins as low as $79 per person, double occupancy. For more information, visit or call (800) 494-9173.

For an experience that combines culture and cuisine, check out Mercado 23, an authentic local market very different from the more commercial Mercado 28 that many tourists visit. This small market is located on Avenue Tulum.

If you’re looking for somewhere to eat on Isla Mujeras, don’t let the name of the “Joint” dissuade you from going in. It combines a funky Caribbean feel with a lengthy menu of Mexican dishes. Burritos ($6), and chicken, fish or shrimp ($7), all served with French fries, are filling and tasty. For more information, call (52) 998-243-4475 or visit

For information about visiting Cancun, call (52) 998-881-2745 or visit

Spirit, Aeromexico, Delta and American Airlines fly from Washington-area airports with one stop. Roundtrip fares in late October range from $417 to $467.