Wednesday, January 06, 2010
The Mayan Riviera – Jewel of the Yucatán
Riviera. This word immediately conjures visions of bikinis, the Cannes Film Festival and the casinos of Monte Carlo. Generically defined as a coastal area with holiday towns and beaches, it’s most often associated with the French or Italian coastline.
However, another Riviera is quickly becoming famous for its white beaches and turquoise waters. An hour by air from Miami, the Mayan Riviera is not as densely populated as Cancun, its neighbor to the north. Fewer people and a slower pace have turned this stretch of coastline into a favorite tourist destination for folks seeking sun and relaxation and for couples looking for a terrific honeymoon spot.
Located on the Yucatán Peninsula, the Mayan Riviera is not as developed as Cancun, yet still has plenty of all-inclusive resorts, which provide every amenity without the “metropolis” atmosphere of Cancun’s mega-resort properties.
Playa del Carmen, forty miles south of Cancun, was a sleepy village until a few years ago. Discovered by Europeans as a cheaper alternative to Cozumel, Playa is pure Mexican-Caribbean relaxation and is frequented by backpackers, archeology buffs and sun-worshippers alike.
Fifth Avenue, Playa’s main shopping area, is a pedestrian-only street with plentiful shops carrying an eclectic mix of colorful pottery, arts and crafts and gift items. Be prepared to haggle. It’s all part of the ambience of Playa’s shopping.
The ferry to Cozumel is at the end of Fifth Avenue along with Señor Frogs, a favorite watering hole for tourists. Twelve miles off the coast, Cozumel has long been considered the gem of the Mexican Caribbean. World-renowned for diving and snorkeling along a stunning coral reef, it offers a laid-back vacation experience. A shortage of potable water has halted rampant development, which delights tourists looking for simple island life.
Should you tire of shopping or lying under a thatched canopy called a palapa, sipping the bartender’s specialty, the area is teeming with exciting and educational side trips.
Xcaret, a one hundred fifty acre ecological park, is six miles south of Playa del Carmen. It features underground rivers and lagoons for snorkeling and scuba diving, botanical gardens, an aquarium and a swim-with-the-dolphins program. Xel-Ha, a state park with similar facilities at half the price, lies a little further south. Both are first-rate for a day of family fun.
Perhaps the most famous attractions in the Yucatán are the Mayan ruins, especially those at Tulum and Chichen Itza. The best known of the Mesoamerican civilizations, the Mayans originated in the Yucatán around 2600 B.C. They developed astronomy, mathematics and their own calendar systems. Their architecture, which consists of elaborate and decorative temples, pyramids and palaces built without metal tools, still puzzles and amazes modern engineers.
Tulum, often considered the most beautiful of the Mayan sites, is located eighty miles south of Cancun. It is the only Mayan city of any significance built directly on the sea. While it lacks the architectural complexity of other sites, it exemplifies the mantra of any real estate agent – location, location, location.
Poised on cliffs forty-five feet above the Caribbean and facing the rising sun, the ruins consist of several structures and a city square used for ceremonies and rituals. The Temple of the Frescoes contains hieroglyphs and restored murals depicting Mayan gods. The House of Columns was one of the largest residential buildings in Tulum and is more complex than most structures on the site. The palace-like edifice contains four rooms and a roofed sanctuary. In keeping with its name, six columns support the roof of the main room.
The most impressive structure at Tulum is the Castillo or castle. It holds court on the bluff overlooking the sea and is the tallest building on site. Used as a temple and quite possibly as a lighthouse, the building is laid out with portals facing in four directions. The alignment of structures is significant in the Mayan culture. This compass-like layout most likely allowed the Mayans to use the Castillo as a sort of solar calendar, with the solstice sunlight shining through the building via the north and south doors.
The most recognizable ruins of the Yucatán are the ones at Chichen Itza. Located one hundred twenty-five miles west of Cancun, the town covers almost three miles in area. Chichen Itza was initially settled as an agricultural development. The large number of cenotés or water-filled sinkholes in the area, made it ideal for settlement and growing crops. As the Mayan culture developed, Chichen Itza became more of a religious center as reflected by the large number of ceremonial buildings on the grounds.
The Temple of Kukulcan, the plumed serpent god, is the highlight of your visit. It is seventy-nine feet high with four steep staircases facing in the four cardinal directions. Each stairway has ninety steps, and the total number of steps, combined with the number of stairways and the single upper platform adds up to three hundred sixty-five. Climbing these steep, narrow steps is quite a challenge and at the top you may find a hysterical tourist who’s climbed up but is afraid to make the return trip.
This temple is the most famous example of architectural alignment in the Mayan civilization. People gather each year during the spring and fall equinox to watch the sun illuminate the steps and create the image of a great snake slithering down to Earth.
Another oddity of the temple is its acoustics. If you stand in front of the stairs of this eleven hundred-year-old structure and clap your hands, the pyramid answers with an echo that resembles the chirp of the sacred quetzal bird. Acoustical engineers compared recordings of the echo to recordings of the quetzal and determined them to be identical. Varying your position along the staircase can vary the tone by as much as half an octave.
Whether you’re a beach bum or an archeology buff, young or old, the Mayan Riviera and surrounding areas offer plenty of possibilities for vacation travel and fun. This land of white beaches and jewel-tone waters will fit every budget and style. Why not check out one of those palapas for yourself?
Do you like the beach? Ever been to the Caribbean? Some other fabu beach resort? Tell us about it!