While Europe was a Dark Aged barbarian battlefield, the Mayan world was experiencing its Classic Period, accented by artistry and astrological brilliance. Today, the temples, palaces, markets, stages, observatories and ball courts (the acoustics of which mysteriously permit a whisper to travel undaunted for 500 feet) are a sobering and inspiring homage to the empirical greatness of both the Mayas and Toltecs. A World Heritage Site three hours from Cancun and popular with Cancun tourists, the ruins at Chichen Itza are a must-see Cancun attraction, the sight of which is well worth a forfeited day on Cancun's turquoise beaches.
Once the New York of the Yucatan, Coba was the largest Mayan city ever built, and its great Pyramid Nohoch Mul is the Yucatan's highest, the top of which offers views of jungle-covered buildings in every direction. Stretching over a large area and in a state of relative disrepair compared to other Mayan ruins, adventuresome Cancun visitors can nevertheless explore the trademark sacbes, or "white roads," that traverse the site and lead archaeologists to believe that Coba was a great Caribbean trade center.
Across from Cancun, Isla Mujeres is a secluded natural paradise of white sandy beaches, crystal blue waters and the coral reefs. Visitors to Isla Mujeres can sea kayak, boat or bike the island's perimeter, as well as snorkel and scuba dive the vivid reefs of El Garrafon National Park.
Not far from Chichen Itza, this Sacred Cenote is the most popular site of the Mayan underground sinkholes used as pre-Columbian water sources, and, as legend goes, a supposed site for human sacrifice in times of drought by the early medieval Mayans (indeed, in the early 1900s, archaeologist Edward Thompson unearthed over 50 skeletons of women and children). Underground, Cenote's glowing green and blue pools of water, hanging stalactites and damp, heavy air are reached by descending a 50-foot-long narrow shaft carved through the limestone centuries ago.
Meaning "Where the Sky is Born," Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve is a teaming hotbed of ecological diversity, and a compromise between the Yucatan's ever-increasing tourist development and fragile environment. Nearly four-hundred species of birds span multiple habitats, from coastal dunes to mangrove forests, and a staggering variety of classic jungle animals, including jaguars, crocodiles and spiders monkeys, thrive in the Reserve.
The only Mayan ruins ever found on the Caribbean coast, the jungle city of Tulum is much smaller than Chichen Itza, but no less dramatic. Called the "Place of the Dawning," Tulum's awe-inspiring stone temples and astronomically-aligned observatories offer an otherworldly backdrop for the pristine beach that borders it, an impeccable setting for a day-trip picnic and sun soak. The Mayan ruins at Tulum are approximately two hours away by bus from downtown Cancun.
An interactive and ecological wonderland alive with butterflies, Cancun's Mayan-themed Xcaret Eco-Archaeological Park is one of Cancun's top attractions. By day, Xcaret visitors can swim with dolphins, ride horses on the beach, scuba dive, snorkel, explore underground rivers and learn more about Mayan culture at the Museum. An idolized history comes to life during Xcaret at Night, a twilight explosion of Mayan mysticism, music and dance.
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