They built elaborate cities and temples. Invented a calendar. And sacrificed humans to the gods.
Travel to Cancun and the Riviera Maya, and you can learn more about the remarkable Mayan civilization at these top five Mayan sites…
1. Chichen Itza
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the spectacular ruins at Chichen Itza are the most famous of the Mayan sites. They can be explored on a day tour from Cancun.
You’ve likely seen pictures of the towering El Castillo pyramid.
The pyramid is Chichen Itza’s most striking monument. Count the steps. There are 365 steps, one for each day of the year.
On our visit several years ago, we climbed the pyramid – a real thigh burner! (But the views were worth it.) Today, in an effort to preserve the ruins, you can no longer climb the pyramid. You may be just as happy to stay grounded, however. It’s usually so hot and humid at Chichen Itza that you probably won’t feel like much exercise anyway.
Also be sure to see Chichen Itza’s huge ball court.
Mayan men played a game called pok ta pok (similar to today’s basketball). Using their hips, they’d try to hurl a heavy rubber ball through a stone ring mounted 21 feet high on a wall.
There’s some debate about what happened once a team got the ball in. Some say the captain of the winning team was then decapitated as a sacrifice (ensuring his entrance into heaven). Others say the losers were decapitated. Either way, it was a game to the death!
This huge archaeological theme park, 45 miles south of Cancun, encompasses the Mayan ruins of Pole. But you’re likely to visit Xcaret for its other fun activities (more than 53).
There’s a Mexican folk art museum, a marine turtle conservation sanctuary, an island with jaguars, a manatee lagoon, a butterfly pavilion and a coral reef aquarium, among other attractions.
The top experience is snorkeling along Xcaret’s underground river. Part of a large, natural, underground cave system, the river is five feet deep. Centuries ago, Mayan pilgrims bathed here on their way to Cozumel to worship Ixchel, the fertility goddess.
Donning a life jacket and snorkel gear, we swam through limestone passageways, occasionally popping out into sunshine when passing through a cenote (sinkhole). We didn’t see many fish, but the whole 45-minute experience was unique and loads of fun.
Nestled deep in the thick jungle near two lakes, the once-great Mayan city of Coba flourished between 400 and 1100 AD. Many visitors today think it’s the most beautiful of the Mayan sites.
Go early in the morning, and spider monkeys, birds and butterflies may be the only other living creatures you see.
An important trade center, Coba was the hub for a series of ancient white limestone roads (called sacbe) that radiate out from the city, like spokes on a wheel. The longest road extends over 60 miles.
Coba is also home to the tallest Mayan pyramid on the Yucatan Peninsula. Like El Castillo at Chichen Itza, you can climb the Nohoch Mul temple if you wish (132 feet high).
The ruins are vast, so if you don’t fancy walking, you can rent a bike or hire a rickshaw and driver to pedal you around.
Day tours from Cancun often include a swim at a cenote and visit to a local Mayan village to see traditional Mayan ways of life, like weaving fabrics, sleeping in hammocks and making tortillas.
4. Maya Museum
One of the first things you discover inside the new Maya Museum are the 14,000-year-old skeletal remains of “The Woman of the Palms,” discovered in a local cenote.
The new Maya Museum opened in November, 2012. Located right in the heart of the Cancun hotel zone, it’s a hit with beach-goers who don’t have to travel far to gain a little insight into Mayan history and culture.
The ancient skeleton is just one of 3,500 pieces in the museum’s archaeological collection, of which some 350 are on display. Other pieces include sculptures, weapons, pottery, burial masks, and tools and other artefacts the ancient Mayans used in daily life.
Outside the modern white museum building is the San Miguelito archaeological site. Stroll the paths winding through lush landscaped grounds to see 800-year-old ruins, including a 26-foot-high pyramid.
It’s not the same as Chichen Itza. But if visiting Cancun with young children, this Mayan site may be easier for wee ones to experience.
Bring your swimsuit when you visit Tulum. The ruins, which date back to the 13th century, are set over a relatively small area and aren’t nearly as extensive as Chichen Itza. But Tulum is the only Mayan city built on the coast (80 miles south of Cancun), and it boasts a drop-dead gorgeous beach.
You enter Tulum (which means “wall” in Mayan) through a high limestone wall protecting the city.
The most iconic structure is its cliff-top castle. Carved with plumed serpents, it overlooks the turquoise Caribbean sea.
Also peer inside the Temple of the Frescoes to see original Mayan frescoes (in blue, green and black), depicting Mayan gods and the world of the dead and the living.
It was hot, hot, hot, when we visited. So the best part for us was making our way down to the sugar-white beach afterward.
We dove into the tequila-clear waters for a long refreshing swim.
Aaaahhh… The Mayans picked a good spot for this city.
Have you been to Cancun? Did you explore any of these Mayan sites?
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We’re Janice and George Mucalov, professional award-winning travel writers, sharing tales of luxury travel with a twist of adventure.