Mexico’s Ancient Sites

The Mexican Caribbean is home to one of the Seven Wonders of the World

By: By Patricia Alisau

Beyond the Mexican Caribbean

When visiting Mexico City, there’s the chance to study the Aztecs, who ruled all of Mexico before the Conquest. In fact, you need go no further than the nearest subway to find an intact pyramid in the middle of one of the stations. Better yet, city tours take in the impressive excavations at the Templo Mayor, the principal ceremonial site of the Aztecs, where you can walk through the remains of a temple with stone skulls, dedicated to the cult of death. Several thousand artifacts like an eight-ton stone disk of the Aztec moon goddess and human-sized ceramic warriors can also be browsed in its museum.

Located 45 minutes by road from the capital, Teotihuacan is the second-most visited archaeological zone in Mexico after Tulum. A vast site of several square miles, Teotihuacan means "the place where men become gods" and it was built, not by the Aztecs as most people believe, but by a group of people referred to as Teotihuacanos, who came before the Aztecs. Colorful murals, stone heads, a two-mile-long promenade, temple complexes plus the highest pyramid in Mexico at 212 feet high, await the visitor, who should plan to spend a day here.

Oaxaca City, on the other hand, is the perfect hub for visiting Mitla and Monte Alban, the holy cities of the Zapotecs and Mixtecs, known, respectively, for their rich abstract designs and carved stone male figures, which have been deduced to be either captive warriors or mental patients. Monte Alban eventually became a necropolis and was found to have upward of 300 tombs. Gold breastplates, jade, pearls and ivory were discovered in one of them in the 1930s and now reside in a local museum.

Beaches, colonial cities, nature reserves and soft adventure excursions of the Yucatan region can be easily woven into travel packages with archaeology. They put an "active" spin on a vacation and add variety as well. In addition, most sites are conveniently located near or no more than an hour’s drive from a major city with an airport.

Discovering the Mexico Caribbean

Discovering the Mexico Caribbean IMG
Please visit our Guides & Brochures page to browse a full version of our Discovering the Mexico Caribbean supplement.

The view atop a pyramid of ancient temples rising above the jungle canopy has always been a "wow" experience for me and now that one of Mexico’s Maya sites has been named one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, it’s the perfect time for travel agents to be thinking about sending clients to explore the country’s storied ruins.

The winner, Chichen Itza, has been creating a higher profile for Mexico, as well as the country’s extraordinary temples and pyramids of lost civilizations. Some of the most advanced cultures in the world reached their zenith and disappeared by the time the Spanish conquistadors arrived in the 1500s. And, although a lot of dramatic finds have taken place, much of pre-Colombian Mexico still remains a mystery.

Chichen Itza  // (c) Celso Flores
Chichen Itza

It’s this mystique, however, that will resonate with your client’s inner Indiana Jones, adding spice to any archaeology-themed package. The lion’s share of Mesoamerican sites fan out from Mexico City towards the Gulf Coast or south to Guatemala and southeast into the Yucatan.

Starting with one of the oldest cultures, the Maya flourished in the flatlands and tropical forests of the Yucatan Peninsula as early as 3,000 years ago and produced some of the most spectacular sites in the country. However, when the Spaniards came, all they found were abandoned cities already devoured by jungle. In modern times, especially in the last few decades, the government has made great strides in restoring the sites, which have become some of the top tourist attractions in the region.

Such is the case with Chichen Itza, which is dominated by the towering, four-sided El Castillo pyramid where the ancient rituals of the equinoxes take place in the spring and fall. Thousands stand enthralled as a shadow appears down the side of the pyramid and slowly takes the shape of a snake, the serpent-god Kukulkan of Maya lore.

Chichen Itza was built from 600 A.D. to 1250 A.D., and represents a high point in Maya architecture, especially with its Temple of the Warriors with enormous serpent columns and a reclining Chac Mool (god of rain). It is without a doubt one of the most photographed pieces of sculpture in Mexico.

Some of the most elegant structures of the old Maya empire can be seen in a series of sites called Puuc, distinguished by pure, uncluttered lines in low, flat buildings with intricate geometrical designs. The largest is Uxmal and the best example is the Nunnery Quadrangle, with an exquisite display of masks, latticework, phallic symbols and snakes. Other sites at nearby Kabah, Sayil and Labna are smaller, but also part of the Puuc route and can be visited in half a day.

Another style can be found at Ek Balam, one of the newly opened Yucatecan sites, which formed a powerful alliance with Chichen Itza at one time. This jewel of a place has a perfectly preserved 190-foot-tall pyramid that was wholly covered in thick, white earth before it was abandoned. After removing it, archaeologists found not only an intact structure, but also an amazing array of life-size stucco figures with wings and monster heads like something out of a fantasy fairy tale.

Journeying to the Caribbean coast, the most popular site is Tulum, which attracts more than 2 million day trippers a year. It’s a convenient tour from Cancun while the above-named places are easier to get to from the city of Merida. A strategic port, which once sheltered around 4,000 canoes, Tulum is the only completely walled Mayan settlement known in existence. It’s temples are set on a bluff overlooking the sea, enough reason to stop there, and after walking the ruins, you can go for a swim from the small beach just down the hill.

This Riviera Maya area is also home to Coba, where archaeologists estimate that only five percent of more than 6,500 structures have been excavated. Clients will get a chance to gaze at brilliantly painted stucco reliefs and climb 120 steps to the top of the tallest pyramid in northern Yucatan with a green-forested vista of the ancient city. Further south, in the area known as the Costa Maya, new archaeological digs are constantly cropping up, and the latest to open is Chacchoben, which has a massive temple to the Maya sun god, Itzamna. And not to be missed is Kohunlich, famous for its daunting six-feet-high stucco masks and nearness to Belize.

If your client is traveling to Tabasco, the giant heads carved out of volcanic rock at the La Venta Museum Park in Villahermosa will give him/her a glimpse of the Olmecs. Wearing what appear to be football helmets, the headgear of the figures is still being deciphered by anthropologists.
Often called the "mother" culture of Mexico, the Olmecs are older than the Maya and inspired much of their culture. A few hours by road from Villahermosa in the state of Chiapas stands Palenque, considered by some to be the most ethereal-looking, if not beautiful, Maya site in Mexico. Its graceful temples with roof combs makes them seem like lace sculpted in stone but the real piece de resistance is the tomb of Pakal. Discovered in 1952, the richly adorned, jade-laden crypt was a tribute to the 7th-century ruler who led his people during the height of Palenque’s power. Visitors can step down into the pyramid to view the lid of Pakal’s sarcophagus engraved with lovely hieroglyphics.

Adventure Travel JDS Africa Middle East JDS Destinations