The palace at Uxmal features a double-headed jaguar throne. // © 2012 Mexico Tourism Board
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The world most likely won’t end in 2012. But there is no denying that the current Maya calendar — which officially ends in December — has captured the imagination of the traveling public. And since Mexico is home to several important archeological sites dating back to when the calendar was created, it’s an ideal time to place the Maya world firmly on clients’ travel calendars. Mexico’s top Mayan ruins just might have clients feeling like they were present when time began for the original residents.
Perhaps the best-known Maya site, Chichen Itza made it into the elite club known as the New Seven Wonders of the World for good reason. The ruins are divided into three sections, with the “Old Chichen” area dating to the seventh century A.D. Visitors will likely not forget the first time they cast their eyes upon the 82-foot El Castillo, also known as the Kukulkan Pyramid, which has 365 steps — each representing a day of the solar year — and 18 terraces that represent the number of months in the Maya religious calendar. The 104-yard ball court is one of the largest in the region, and countless carvings make every turn at this 2½-square-mile site a new photo opportunity.
Getting There: Tour operators make it easy to visit Chichen Itza from around the Yucatan peninsula, with group and individual departures available from Cancun, the Riviera Maya and Merida.
Insider Tip: Clients who have only visited during daylight hours might want to go again for the sound-and-light show, which the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) stages nightly. And keep an eye out for special events; the site has been used as a backdrop for concerts by artists such as Elton John, Paul McCartney and Placido Domingo.
Where to Stay: Day trips to Chichen Itza are common, but travelers looking for more time at the site should consider an overnight stay; options include the nearby Hotel Chichen Itza, operated by Mayaland Resorts, and any of the Yucatan’s hacienda-style hotels — Hacienda Chichen and Villas Arqueologicas Chichen Itza are among the closest.
One of the last great cities built by the Maya, Tulum — which peaked between the 13th and 15th centuries — is also one of the most picturesque, thanks to its scenic positioning on a dramatic stretch of Caribbean coastline. Among the most impressive structures at this walled city by the sea is El Castillo, a temple fortress that towers above a beachfront cliff; the Temple of the Descending God; and the Temple of the Frescoes, a celestial observatory that houses 13th-century wall paintings.
Getting There: Located about 80 miles south of Cancun and 35 miles south of Playa del Carmen in the Riviera Maya, Tulum is easily accessible from large resort areas along the coast. Travelers can take group tours, taxis and even shuttles from the airport.
Insider Tip: Clients should plan to spend time at the beautiful beach, as well as visits to the nearby cenotes — sinkholes that are ideal for snorkeling, scuba diving and swimming. It’s also easy to combine visits to Tulum with admission to Xel-Ha and Xcaret ecological parks.
Where to Stay: Any hotel in Cancun or the Riviera Maya can serve as a base for visits. Among the properties closest to Tulum are Coqui Coqui, Be Tulum, Ana y Jose, Zamas, Papaya Playa Project, Amansala Resort and the Maya Tulum Spa Resort.
Set on a lush, hilly landscape, Uxmal — which was built between 700 and 1000 A.D. — is dominated by several imposing structures, including the 125-foot Piramide del Adivino (House of the Magician), which, legend says, was built in just one night; the stately Nunnery Quadrangle; a ball court; and the Governor’s Palace, which is marked by a double-headed jaguar throne. The dramatic light and sound show, which takes place nightly at 8 p.m., offers a different perspective of the site (the show is in Spanish, but headsets with English translation are available for a fee).
Getting There: Located about 50 miles southwest of Merida, the capital of Yucatan, Uxmal is most easily visited as a day trip or an overnight excursion from Merida.
Insider Tip: Pick a tour (or arrange for a private guide) that includes stops at cenotes or small villages en route. Uxmal is part of the Puuc Maya Route, which includes Kabah, Savil, Labna, Xlapak and Loltun, so clients may extend their tour of the region.
Where to Stay: Overnight visitors should consider Mayaland Resorts, which operates the Hacienda Uxmal as well as the more luxurious Lodge at Uxmal, both within walking distance of the ruins. About 15 minutes away by car is the Flycatcher Inn, which offers bed-and-breakfast accommodations.
Older than most of Chichen Itza, larger than Tulum and less excavated than either, Coba is a strikingly peaceful complex accented by four lakes that dominated the eastern Yucatan peninsula before 1000 A.D. Among the memorable features are the 82-foot Iglesia (church) Pyramid, a ball court and Nonoch Mul, a group of structures that includes the tallest ancient pyramid in the Yucatan.
Getting There: Coba is easily combined with a visit to Tulum, which is about 27 miles away, either in a group or individual tour.
Insider Tip: A tour operator called Alltournative offers guided excursions to Coba that also include a visit to an active Maya village (either Pac-Chen or Chimuch), where clients can learn about 21st-century Maya life.
Where to Stay: There aren’t many hotels close to Coba, but it’s easy to visit during day trips from elsewhere in the Riviera Maya as well as Cancun (some travelers find staying near Tulum to be most convenient). Hoteles Villas Arqueologicas operates a 40-room property about a 10-minute walk from the archeological site. Clients seeking more comfort can choose properties such as Rosewood Mayakoba, Banyan Tree Mayakoba Riviera Maya and the Fairmont Mayakoba Riviera Maya.
The ruins of Palenque, set amid lush forests and mountains, date back to 300 B.C., with its population peaking between 600 and 700 A.D. Finely detailed architecture, sculpture and bas-relief carvings are among the draws here. At the Temple of the Inscriptions, visitors can learn about the hieroglyphic panels that were found inside and the crypt of King Pacal. Palenque’s temples — including Temple of the Cross, Temple of the Sun and the Temple of Inscriptions — were built by Pacal’s son, Chan-Bahlum, whose plaster mask was found in Temple 14.
Getting There: Located about 88 miles southeast of the city of Villahermosa and about five miles from the town of Palenque, the ruins are reachable by day trip or overnight from either of these destinations.
Insider Tip: Day trips from Palenque can also include a visit to the ruins of Bonampak, which lies to the southeast on the Guatemalan border, and the ruins of Yaxchilan, which are reachable by boat.
Where to Stay: Hotels closest to the Palenque site include Mission Palenque, Chan-Kah Resort Village, Hotel Ciudad Real, Hotel Maya Tulipanes and Hotel Xibalba. Travelers seeking modern luxury should opt for upscale, full-service hotels such as the Hilton Villahermosa & Conference Center.