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
“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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
|SELLING THE MAYA WORLD|
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
“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
“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,”
Classic Custom Vacations
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Expreso Maya train
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Outdoor Travel Adventures
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Mexico Boutique Hotels
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The Luxury Collection, Starwood Hotels & Resorts
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