Exploring Mexico’s ancient wonders
In this week’s travel feature Janeve Freyone visits Mayan ruins in Mexico.
by Janeve Freyone
The Yucatan Peninsula in south eastern Mexico comprises three separate Mexican states: Yucatán, Quintana Roo and Campeche, as well as parts of Belize and Guatemala.
As far as Mexican destinations go, the Yucatan Peninsula has it all, from ancient Mayan ruins and the secret unerworld of Mexico’s cenotes to colonial cities and the white sands and turquoise waters of Riviera Maya’s stunning coastline.
There are a number of adventure and eco parks in the area and a vibrant nightlife in both Cancun and Playa del Carmen. As a holiday destination, Mexico offers a wide range of things to see and do, meaning that there is something to suit every type of traveller.
We tried to see and do as much as possible during our stay in order to make the most of what Mexico has to offer.
The Mayans were one of the most brilliant ancient civilizations and were ahead of their time in the fields of architecture, astronomy, science and mathematics. Therefore, from the outset, no visit to Mexico would have been complete for us without visiting some of the many Mayan ruins dotted around the peninsula, the most famous of which is arguably Chichen Itza, which was named one of the New Seven Wonders of the World in 2007.
The site is dominated by El Castillo, or Temple of Kukulkan (feathered serpent), and the Great Ball Court, which are impressive both in terms of architecture and acoustics. As we walked around, hordes of tour groups could be heard clapping in front El Castillo, which creates an echo that resembles the cry of the quetzal, a Central American bird that Mayans believed was a messenger of the Gods.
Without a doubt, Chichen Itza is definitely worth visiting. However, it was our visit to the less excavated and restored archaeological site of Coba which was the highlight of our trip. We booked an excursion which included a visit to Tulum, Coba and a Mayan village through Alltournative, a company that helps to sustain small and secluded Mayan communities by providing employment to locals while also preserving the customs and traditions of the Mayan culture.
Our first stop was the ruins at Tulum, a walled city originally called Zamá (place of the dawning sun) due to being situated atop cliffs overlooking Mexico’s east coast.
After this we made our way to Coba. Despite its proximity to the coastal tourist areas of the Riviera Maya, Coba is often overlooked by visitors and for this reason is much less crowded. Situated deep in the Mexican jungle, the Coba ruins are surrounded by two lakes as well as various cenotes (sinkholes). In fact, Coba means ‘waters stirred by the wind’, an appropriate Mayan name given its location.
What makes Coba unique is that it is the nexus of the largest network of stone causeways of the ancient Mayan world.
These paved roads, known as ‘sacbeob’, connect the various sites to the central temple pyramid. Coba was estimated to have had a population of around 50,000 inhabitants at its peak of civilisation, making it an important Mayan city. Although the entire site spreads over more than 80 km², only a small fraction (around 3%) of the total site has been excavated.
The central group of temple pyramids is known as the Nohoch Mul (large hill), the tallest of which, Ixmoja, is 42 metres in height and is among the tallest pyramids on the Yucatán Peninsula. One of the main appeals of visiting Coba is that Ixmoja is one of the only Mayan pyramids that is still open to the public to climb.
Nohoch Mul is around 2km from the main entrance and as we walked beneath the shade of the jungle canopy, we saw glimpses of ruins nestled into the surrounding vegetation – it felt like a scene out of Indiana Jones’ Raiders of the Lost Ark. Alternatively, there are also bicycles to rent, or you can take a round trip tricycle-taxi to take you there and back. Climbing Ixmoja can seem like a daunting task as the 120 stone steps to the top are steep and uneven, but the spectacular views make it all worthwhile.
Standing at the top of the pyramid you can see the dense expanse of the Mexican jungle stretching out to the horizon. This was one of the most memorable moments of our holiday and was truly exhilarating.
Our final stop of the day was a small Mayan community where we enjoyed a delicious typical Mexican lunch cooked by the local village women.
The community still observes many of the traditional customs of the Mayan culture which are handed down from generation to generation. After lunch we ventured into the Mexican jungle to enjoy a refreshing swim in a nearby cenote. As we made our way there, spider monkeys screeched and swung from the trees above.
Cenotes played an important role in Mayan rites and were considered sacred as they were both a source of fresh water and believed to be gateways into the afterlife. Therefore, before entering the cenote, we were blessed in a traditional Mayan ceremony led by a Shaman. Swimming in the refreshing crystal-clear waters of the underground cenote was a truly surreal experience. A sole shaft of sunlight illuminated the extraordinary rock formations of stalactites and stalagmites adorning the cave, making this ancient underground world simply breath-taking to behold.
The Mayan people were happy to share their way of life with us which gave us the opportunity to immerse ourselves in their culture and made this an unforgettable and authentic experience.