Riviera Maya: Celebrating the turn of an era

Chichén Itzá’s famous temple

The Maya believe the higher your elevation, the closer you are to the gods.

Standing atop the Maya’s second tallest temple in Cobá, I could see their point: I truly did feel closer to the gods — if the sensation that you are standing on the brink of death-by-falling qualifies.

Whether you subscribe to the theory that the culmination of the Mayan calendar this December signals the end of the world or the beginning of a new era, all the debate and apprehension may have piqued your interest in the Maya culture.

Mine was, and that’s how I ended up in Mexico’s Riviera Maya in pursuit of all things Maya.

Maya Calendar Confusion

“For Mayas, the obsession was time and space,” said Pedro, a guide with the region’s biggest touring company, Experiencias Xcaret.

The hoopla about the end of the world, oddly enough, stemmed originally from one calendar at one ruin in Guatemala that ends abruptly, after 5,125 years, on Dec. 21, 2012. One other reference has been found in recent months that supports it.

The date Dec. 21, as the winter solstice, has always weighed heavily on Maya calendars, along with the summer solstice and spring and fall equinoxes.

Because of unusual astronomical phenomena this year, including the close encounter with Venus, the surviving Maya population has embraced Dec. 21, 2012, as the end of one era on the complex Maya calendar and the ascendancy of another. It’s not the end of the world, as original reaction sensationally interpreted the artifact.

Mexico tourism has embraced it as a vehicle for boosting tourism numbers, especially in recent times when drug-related crime has made Americans think more than twice about visiting. The region’s theme parks and resorts have designed special Maya events (see sidebar below) expressly for the occasion.

So, if the recent Maya spotlight is drawing you to a pilgrimage between now and Dec. 21, 2012, as the era turns over a new page, you’re not alone.

“Tourism officials in Mexico are expecting a surge of visitors — both foreign and domestic — to the Maya region as the time draws closer,” said Joshua Berman, author of Maya 2012: A Guide to Celebrations in Mexico, Guatemala, Belize & Honduras.

Roads to ruins 

Although resorts, parks, and restaurants have created special packages, activities, menus, and even spa treatments to take advantage of the media-hyped interest in Maya culture, the first and foremost way to “get your Maya on” is by exploring the wealth of ruins around the Playa del Carmen, Cancun, and Cozumel region loosely marketed as Riviera Maya.

Chichén Itzá, though the farthest to reach from resort areas, demands the highest respect. On my tour with Experiencias Xcaret, we heard a two-hour introduction to the Maya culture. Sounds long-winded, but I found myself fascinated by “one of the most important civilizations in America,” according to our tour guide, Pedro, a Maya descendant.

He underwent four years of training to become qualified by Mexico’s archaeological agency to speak authoritatively on Maya culture. It’s totally worthwhile to join such a tour if you want to sift fact from fantastical where Maya lore is concerned.

At Chichén, he showed us the ball court where the Maya played their legendary game of pok-ta-pok, or juego de pelota as Mexicans today call it. This city is highly regarded among Maya scholars for its stadium, where they believe inter-kingdom tournaments took place.

Considered to be more ritualistic than sporting, the game’s controversy lies in the final outcome: decapitation, as carvings at Chichén illustrate. Was the game’s loser beheaded? Or was it the winner?

Carefully studying the limestone etchings on stadium walls, many come to the conclusion that upper class men actually strived to win the game for the privilege of being sacrificed to the gods, who would only be appeased by the best of the best.

It begs the question, why wouldn’t a person throw the game? But that just shows our lack of understanding of the culture, Pedro pointed out. I’ll give him that.

Chichén, as one of the most popular in the surviving kingdom of ruins, is also one of the most commercial sites. Huge artisan markets and dozens of artisan stands clutter the entrance and grounds.

The most-photographed structure, the 79-feet-high temple, is no longer accessible for climbing because of graffiti problems in the past. However, a dozen or so other structures make this worth at least a three-hour visit, even when touring on your own without narration.

On to Tulum and beyond

After a long day in the sun and on the bus to and from Chichén, I was beginning to doubt my desire to see still four more regional ruin sites, but it turned out each possesses its own singular, worthwhile magnetism.

Location, location is everything at Tulum.

At Tulum, for instance, the view of the sea cinches it. Second most famous in the region, its coastal position made the city important for trading and navigation.

As in most of the ancient cities, the temples here command the most attention. One sits upon a 39-foot cliff overlooking the gem-toned waters of the Caribbean Sea. Who could help but worship that?

From its high point, visitors overlook the entire breadth of the fortressed city, where the upper class lived within  the walls among the limestone, magnificently engineered buildings; and the working class that built the city and provided it with food occupied thatched-roof structures on the perimeter.

Today garden-like and well-groomed, Tulum provides transportation to one of four wall gateways via Eltrencito (train tram). At the exit gate, the usual up-cropping of retail ventures clusters, including folkloric shows and costumed Maya who make money posing with you for photos.

My favorite of the major ruin sites, Cobá still allows you to climb the dizzying 138-foot temple. I also liked that admission includes use of a bicycle to reach the far-flung buildings. If you cannot pedal, “Maya limos” (pedi-taxis) await for an extra fee.

Another plus for Cobá: You have access to one of the temple’s inner sanctums and passageways. Maya expanded their temples every calendar cycle by building another around the original, and this is the only I visited where I could make it into the interior, where the king lived.

The site is also known for its intact stelae, carved stone slabs. Cobá’s deal specifically with the significance of 2012 on the calendar.

New to the ruins pilgrimage, Muyil straddles the edge of the 1.25 million-acre Sian Ka’an (translation: Where the Sky Was Born) Biosphere Reserve. Not officially opened to tourism, Muyil is a bit of a secret. Here you can visit on your own or through Community Tours Sian Ka’an, a co-op of Maya people who have taken the careful touristification of the site into their own hands.

Small, scattered, and a work in progress, this site is as ecological as archaeological. The tour ends with a dip in a freshwater lagoon and cenote, a sacred Mexican sinkhole. Its specific interest lies in its feel of an archaeological lab, where return visitors can witness the progress of turning rubble into walls.

The relatively low-rising temple here is unique in that it combines two of the most important structures found in a Maya city. Besides its function as a place of worship, it has a rotund formation at its top that suggests an observatory.

The Maya, the original brainiacs of astronomical knowledge, would collect rain in the round structures and use it as a mirror for the heavens.

You will find other small sites at Cozumel’s humble San Gervasio ruins, and — off the coast of Cancun —  at Isla Mujeres, whose temple once paid homage to the important deity Ix Chel, goddess of fertility.

Maya Orlando-style

Built on the site of one of the ancient kingdoms, which date back to 1200 B.C., Xcaret theme park spoon-feeds visitors a taste of Maya lite. Recreating various architectural elements of Maya and Mexican culture, plus beaches and animal habitat, one of its greatest attractions is its evening cultural show.

Similar to the Arabian Nights and Medieval Times-style dinner theater arenas in the Orlando area, it presents a worthwhile and dramatically colorful two-hour pageant that includes a pok-ta-pok game and performance art from different Mexican regions.

Maya woman in traditional garb

Perhaps a more meaningful way to experience Maya culture is by getting to know some of the surviving 10 million Maya people who live throughout the region.

A visit to a major Maya city such as Valladolid, near Chichén Itza, allows visitors to interact with the short, slant-eyed Mayan-speaking ladies in their flower-embroidered blouses and dresses and to sample their cuisine in restaurants such as La Casona.

Sidebar: Celebrate like it’s the end of the world

So the rumored Paul McCartney concert at Chichén Itza didn’t work out. Bummer! Tulum, however, has a trick up its sleeve, plus some of the Playa del Carmen area eco- and cultural parks and resorts have scheduled celebrations on or around Dec. 21. Special events have been happening around the Yucatan, in fact, starting in December 2011. See more about resort special activities in IF YOU GO.

Tulum -Its artist-designed Pyramid of Positive Thinking (www.piramidedelpensamientopositivo2012.org) – built from recycled plastic bottles with inscribed wishes inside — celebrates the new era and Mexico’s earth-friendly commitment. On Dec. 21, Latin jazz group Gabriel Palatchi performs.

Xcaret  – On Dec. 21, a gala dinner theater event will present a contemporary dance presentation specially created by renowned native director Javier Dzul.

Xel-Há  – The emphasis at this park is on snorkeling and water activities. On Dec. 20 and 22, it hosts a special ceremony where a thousand floating candles floating will light up the new era. From Dec. 17 to 22,  grand dinners will observe and explain the night sky in accordance to the Maya astronomical predictions.

Rosewood Mayakoba resort – It will host a New Beginning’s Eve party at its thatched-roof beachfront palapa on Dec. 21. 

Viceroy Riviera Maya resort  – It engaged a Maya shaman to help design special packages, activities, and ceremonies. On Dec. 21, a three-course Observatory Night Dinner will include traditional Maya drink and observation of the constellations. (It has taken place the 21st of each month since December 2011.)


American and United fly from Miami to Cancun (CUN) in under two hours.

Note: Dial 011-52 for non-toll-free calls from the U.S.

Community Tours Sian Ka’an (52-984-871-2201 )

Experiencias Xcaret (01-800-003-4000)

Riviera Maya tourism

Xcaret (888-922-7381)


Playa del Carmen is the most suitable central headquarters for exploring Maya culture in the Yucatan, but Cancun and Cozumel are also convenient. Many of Playa’s resorts are all-inclusive and high-end, but relatively reasonably priced considering the level of luxury. A number of area resorts are offering special Maya packages and other themed enticements this year.

Blue Diamond (877-448-2771). Formerly a Mandarin Orient property, this ultra-luxury, adults-only boutique resort has a short gulf-front beach, fine dining, and unique rooms, many with their own plunge pool. For Maya culture-seekers, there’s the Maya temazcal sweat lodge spa treatment free every week. Rates in December start at $500.

Condo Hotels Playa del Carmen (866-479-2738) This group of luxury hotels is providing free accommodations the night of Dec. 21, free roundtrip transportation to Chichén Itzá, and a double money back guarantee “if in fact the world stops spinning.” Three-night minimum stay is required. Rates for a one-bedroom condo start at $175 a night.

Grand Velas Resort, Playa del Carmen (877-418-2963). A luxury, full-service all-inclusive that offers Maya spa treatments such as the hydrotherapy Water Journey in its gorgeous spa and Maya wedding ceremonies.

JW Marriott Cancun Resort & Spa (800-228-9290). It offers Mayan Experience packages that include luxury accommodations, tours of ancient Maya ruins, Maya-inspired spa treatments, daily resort credits, and more. Rates start at $289 per night.

Lodge at Chichen Itza (877-240-5864) Starting a year prior to the calendar’s end, it began hosting symposiums conducted by Maya scholars, religious leaders, and authors. Thatched roof villas start at $175.

Rosewood Mayakoba (888-ROSEWOOD) The exclusive water-laced resort will host two over-the-top Maya packages. Both the Rosewood Rebirth (starting at $6,400 per couple) and The Ultimate New Beginning ($79,000 per couple) take guests on ruins tours guided by expert professors and archaeologists. The latter, however, travels by helicopter and includes private purification ceremony with a Maya shaman.


Mexican restaurants give better meaning to the buffet concept with fresh-tasting and endless authentic dishes with deep Maya roots.

  • La Casona, Valladolid  (985-856-0207). Delicious buffet lunch in the setting of a grand historic home.
  • La Cuevo del Chango), Playa del Carmen (984-147-0271). Known for its great breakfasts, it also serves true Mex for lunch and dinner in a unique cave-like setting.
  • Frida, Grand Velas Resort, Playa del Carmen (877-418-2963). The ultimate      in contemporized Mexican food, it’s well worth the high price tag.
  • Restaurant Nicte-Ha, Cobá (984-206-7025). Another hearty buffet served lakeside near the Cobá ruins.


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