Mysteries of the Maya World

Finding new ways to explore Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula

By: Maribeth Mellin

The setting sun casts a golden glow over the circular observatory at Chichen Itza, one of the most important cities in the Maya World from the 10th to 12th centuries. Wild green parrots fly over Nohuch Mul, the 12-story-high pyramid peering over low jungle at Coba. Monkeys crash through trees shrouding the elegant roof combs topping the temples of Palenque. Angelfish swim along Caribbean reefs fronting Tulum.

The early Maya chose to live in some of the most beautiful topography of what’s now called Mexico. Their homes, cemeteries, ball courts and palaces are scattered throughout the Yucatan Peninsula and Central America. From 300 A.D. well into the 13th century, they inhabited extraordinary cities and ceremonial centers connected by limestone roads called sacbes (even though it’s believed they knew nothing of the wheel).

The genius of the Maya civilization is universally regarded, but the society nearly vanished for reasons that remain a mystery even to this day.

Yet fascinating remnants of the Maya culture are very much alive on the Yucatan Peninsula, which makes the Mexican Maya World one of the most exciting destinations in Mexico.

And in the past few years, this once-remote region has become increasingly accessible to all types of travelers even those who want their archeological outings combined with a king-size bed and a sparkling swimming pool.

Today, shiny red Expreso Maya trains carry passengers in luxury to archeological sites buried deep in the jungles of the peninsula. Bicycles and motorcycles caravan along back roads on adventure tours to remote ruins hidden beneath roots and vines. Birders, amateur archeologists and naturalists join serious explorations at even the most popular pyramids and temples. Scientists lead teams of local workers as they restore long-ignored Maya cities and settlements throughout the peninsula.

Tour operators of all sizes are creating itineraries that link the Yucatan Peninsula’s archeological and natural sites with one-of-a-kind hotels.

“The whole peninsula lends itself to exploration,” said Federico Moreno, the Mexico expert at Classic Custom Vacations.

Planted like a giant foot between the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea, the peninsula encompasses three states Yucatan, Campeche and Quintana Roo. At its base, the Maya site of Palenque rises through dense jungle. On the western side of the peninsula, Yucatan and Campeche have long swaths of low jungle dotted with small traditional Maya villages.

A highway leads from Merida to Uxmal, with its elliptical Pyramid of the Magician; straight two-lane roads similar to the early Maya sacbes connect less-popular sites and the gulf coast, where flamingoes and sea turtles build their nests.

Broad highways link Merida with the wildly popular archeological site of Chichen Itza and the gorgeous Caribbean beaches of Cancun in Quintana Roo.

Cancun, as you well know, dominates tourism in the Yucatan with its high-rise hotel zone and the second-largest international airport in Mexico. But in a day trip, clients can enter the mysterious world of the Maya by visiting the nearby ruins at Chichen Itza or Tulum. After that first Maya experience, many clients choose to return and explore the Yucatan more in-depth.

Few people aren’t fascinated with the Maya astronomers at Chichen Itza, who plotted agricultural seasons based on the movement of the planets, which they studied through tiny windows atop the observatory. Engineers designed the Pyramid of Kulkucan so that the shadow of a snake slithers up its stone walls during the spring equinox. At Tulum, navigators led ships through perilous coral reefs by shining lamps from the top of the Castillo.

The genius of the Maya is well documented in their stellae, stone pillars carved with an intricate mathematical system, spiritual symbols and depictions of goddesses and gods. The reasons for their near extinction are less distinct.

When the Spaniard conquistadors started establishing a presence in the Yucatan Peninsula in 1541, many of the Maya’s most impressive settlements were deserted. The soldiers encountered few indigenous communities along the Caribbean coast and in remote jungles.

Conquerors and missionaries destroyed many of the Maya codices, books delineating the culture’s history. They built the city of Merida atop a ruined Maya city called T’Ho, using Maya slaves as laborers. The descendents of the early Maya gradually became assimilated into the more powerful Spanish culture, but managed to retain many of their traditional customs.

Classic Custom’s Moreno recently toured Yucatan and was pleasantly surprised by how easy it is to drive between the various cities and archeological sites. It’s been that way for years, actually. Over the past two decades I’ve followed the pathways of the Maya all over the peninsula, driving rented VW bugs along straight highways between Merida and major archeological sites. I’ve followed country roads, bouncing over topes (speed bumps) in tiny villages where families live in oval thatch-roofed homes called nas.

It’s a region ripe for exploration.

“People who have already taken day trips from Cancun to Chichen Itza are looking for new options,” said Linda Schramm of Amigo Yucatan, one of the largest tour operators in the region. Some travelers join tours to Chichen, then spend a few nights at a hotel near the site always the preferred method of exploration for archeology buffs.

Rental cars are becoming more and more popular as word spreads of the speedy toll highway between Cancun and Merida. It takes about two hours to drive from Cancun to Chichen Itza, but it’s easy to get waylaid in Valladolid, one of several beautifully restored colonial cities on the peninsula. Ninety minutes after Chichen the outskirts of Merida appear, along with signs for hacienda hotels.

Schramm, Moreno and other travel experts specializing in the Maya World say these restored haciendas have elevated the level of luxury for travelers in Yucatan’s interior. The original homes, chapels and stables on henequen plantations that created fortunes in the 18th century have been transformed into some of Mexico’s finest hotels. Some are akin to destination resorts, with spas, pools and personalized tours to archeological and natural wonders.

Entrepreneur Jorge Ruz, son of a well-known archeologist specializing in the Maya, chose an 18th-century hacienda beside the ruins of Dzibilchaltun for his project. His nine-acre estate and Hacienda Xcanatun with a first-rate spa and French restaurant are located only six miles from Merida.

Thanks to his father’s profession, Ruz spent much of his life living closely with Maya families. His hotel staff comes from nearby villages and the multilingual guides know more about Maya culture and history than most of the academics who specialize in the region. They communicate the values and the traditions of the ancient and modern Maya, Ruz says.

After these enlightening tours, guests at Hacienda Xcanatun end their day tours with a Maya aura cleansing or honey massage in a soothing spa. Creature comforts such as these are becoming more common in central Yucatan; many hotels in the cities and countryside have spas and fine restaurants. Classic Custom Vacations and other companies have put together hacienda and spa circuit tours for their clients, incorporating Maya archeological sites and villages. They also include samplings of the peninsula’s natural highlights.

Soft and hard-core adventure tours are all the rage in the Maya World as well. Kenneth Johnson is the president of EcoColors, an adventure tour company based in Cancun. His company was one of the first offering nature-based tours along the coast.

“It’s my impression that people come to this area because of the hotel and airline packages and then learn about the archeology and nature in the area,” he said.

One of the more popular day trips from Cancun includes kayaking in canals once used by Maya traders at Sian Kaan Biosphere Reserve. “We speak about the importance and value of the Maya,” Johnson said. “All the stories get connected with the environment and culture.”

Anna Camacho of Mayaland, which operates hotels near Chichen Itza and Uxmal, said the Yucatan “works for people who are not necessarily fanatics about archaeology, ecology or adventure, but would like a taste of each thing. This is one of the few areas where you can explore archaeological sites as lightly or profoundly as you wish, and truly enjoy the culture of the past and present Maya.”


Tour operators in Mexico are eager to educate agents about travel in the Maya world.

“In this part of the world a lot of things are being extensively promoted,” said Mayaland’s Anna Camacho. “Shaping tourism in the Maya World is a work in progress.”

The paucity of international flights into Merida forces agents to send their clients to Cancun. Unless the clients are interested in archeology and colonial cities, they tend to stick close to the coast.

“We’re trying to entice people to go beyond Cancun and the Riviera Maya,” said Classic Custom Vacations’ Federico Moreno.

“It’s easy to sell a charter into Cancun for seven nights with transfers that’s a done deal,” said Linda Schramm of Amigo Yucatan. “To do a cultural tour or a mini circuit of the archeological sites you need to go through somebody who knows the area. If the clients fly into Cancun we can easily put them on a tour to Chichen Itza and continue on to Merida.”

From there, the clients can easily explore the haciendas and archeological sites throughout the peninsula. Moreno said agents can feel comfortable encouraging their clients to drive between destinations. “It’s ideal to rent a car from Cancun and drive to Merida and stay at the haciendas,” he said. Travel agents who sell the Maya World directly must be creative, resourceful and flexible.

“Patience is a virtue for sure,” said Wendy Pacofsky of Outdoor Travel Adventures in San Diego. “Unfortunately, in this day and age everybody expects an answer quickly, and with Mexico that’s not going to happen.”

Pacofsky sells specialized adventure trips, along with custom itineraries. She establishes tight relationships with the companies she uses, taking their tours and checking their gear and operations closely. Her current tour in the region includes diving in cenotes (sinkholes) and climbing the pyramids of Coba.

Unless you’re specializing in a particular niche, you needn’t go overboard on research. Destination Ventures vice president Greg Custer, who’s been producing travel trade educational programs about Mexico for over a decade, said the large wholesalers who sell the Yucatan Peninsula are including more out-of-the-way adventures in their packages. “You can go to main operators and have success,” he said.

Maribeth Mellin


Amigo Yucatan
10 percent

Classic Custom Vacations
Commission 10 percent

Destination Ventures

Commission 20 percent

Expreso Maya train
Minimum 10 percent commission

Hacienda Xcanatun
Commission 10-13 percent

Commission 12 percent minimum

Outdoor Travel Adventures
Commission 10 percent

Other Sources
Mexico Boutique Hotels
Commission 10 percent

S&S Tours
Commission 10 percent

The Luxury Collection, Starwood Hotels & Resorts
Commission 10 percent