When I told people I was heading to Cancún with my family for New Years, I received my fair share of odd looks. It’s safe to say that Cancún has quite the reputation for Spring Break, college-style partying with its white beaches that pave the way towards Señor Frog’s and Coco Bongo. But no, that’s not exactly why we made our way over there. What many people miss when considering venturing over to the northeast coast of the Yucatán Peninsula is just how much beauty and history surrounds the area: the beaches in Isla Mujeres and Playa del Carmen, the Mayan ruins in Tulum and Chichen Itza, the reefs in Cozumel, just to name a few places. We only had three days so when we weren’t busy being beach bums at our hotel we day tripped it over to Chichen Itza and Isla Mujeres .
The archaeological site of Chichen Itza, one of the largest Mayan cities abandoned in the 1400’s, is one of the New 7 Wonders of the World. The most impressive structure there is the The Kukulkan Pyramid, named after the Mayan feathered spirit deity, is also known as El Castillo. The Mayans were known to have strong astronomical skills and during the spring and autumn equinoxes you can see a serpent-like shadow slithering down the side of the pyramid. The pyramid also represents the Mayan calendar, with 91 steps on each sides plus 1 at the top (to signify 365 days) and 18 sections of platform for the 18, 20 day-long months. Mind. Blown.
Other main parts of the site include the open-air Great Ball Court where heated games resulted in the losers being decapitated, and the Cenote Sagrado, or sacred sinkhole well, where people and valuables were sacrificed as a form of worship to the Mayan rain god in times of drought. While we weren’t able to visit this cenote on our tour due to the size of the grounds, we were taken to the impressive Ik-Kil cenote nearby, a freshwater sinkhole where we could dive in and pretend that we were just sacrificed. Just kidding – I was trying not to think about that while contently dog paddling around.
Tips for visiting Chichen Itza: Go with a tour group. We saw people coming on their own but without a guide you might miss out on a lot of great historical information. Also, avoid the vendors in the ruins who will try to rip you off with cheap imitations of Mayan handicrafts.
Fun fact: From one end of the Great Ball Court, you can hear what someone is saying at the other end (500 feet away) due to the great acoustics. Archaeologists who have been restoring the ruins even said that the sound is improving as more work is being done.
On New Years Eve we decided to treat ourselves with a day trip to Isla Mujeres, a small island just a short ferry ride away from Cancún. Isla Mujeres has beautiful beaches and reefs for snorkeling and scuba diving. The preferred method of transportation for tourists is the trusty golf cart, and the island is small enough to put put from the downtown area in the north side to the other end at Punta Sur in under a half hour. We managed to cover a lot of ground in the few hours we had wheels, stopping for photo opps along the way and for lunch, and finishing the afternoon at the beautiful beach in Playa Norte. There’s lots of other fun things to do on the island, including visiting a turtle farm, scuba diving or snorkeling at Garrafon Park, ziplining, and seeing a Mayan temple and sculpture garden at Punta Sur.
Tips for visiting Isla Mujeres: If you’re not staying on the island, catch an early ferry over (ideally by 9am) so you have your pick of golf carts. We took a 10am ferry and were fortunate to get one of the last carts, but the pickins sure were slim.
Fun fact: There is a really cool underwater museum that was a project designed to slow the effects of climate change on the ocean.
Happy New Year, and many exciting travels to you in 2015!
Outlander by Diana Gabaldon