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Exploring Yucatán’s Mayan Empire

by Starwood Caribbean

When you visit us in Cancún, you’ll find that the lure of the beach, the nightlife and the nature parks are enough to keep you busy for the length of your stay. But we’d be doing you a disservice if we didn’t recommend a visit to the stunning Mayan empire that lies just a few hours from our doors by car or tour bus. Of course, the majority of travelers know about one of the most famous ruins in the world: Chichén Itzá. But this jewel in the Yucatán isn’t the only ancient city worth visiting in the region. Here are five magnificent archaeological sites that you can easily explore in a day trip from Cancún.

1. Chichén Itzá

There are few places in the world that evoke the ancient magic and splendor that greets visitors when they come to Chichén Itzá. This sprawling Mayan metropolis was settled by the Itzá in the ninth century AD, who chose to build their city by the mouth of an enormous cenote, or sinkhole (“Chichén Itzá” means “Mouth of the Well of the Itzá”). The Itzá claimed that the god Chaac lived in its depths, and this helped Chichén Itzá become a holy site that attracted pilgrims from around the Maya empire. It would soon become one of the greatest centers in Mayan civilization, a cosmopolitan, multicultural capital. Many of its buildings and temples can be explored today, as well as the cenote where Chaac was rumored to dwell.

Maya Statue

The wonders of Chichén are too numerous to list here, but make sure your visit includes the following:

  • Castillo de Kukulcán:

The iconic tiered pyramid that everyone associates with Chichén Itzá is the stunning Kukulcán Castle. In a marvelous feat of engineering, the 82ft by almost 200ft structure is perfectly oriented, built just so for its exact angle and meridian. The design of the castle isn’t merely aesthetic; the structure is an architectural recreation of the Mayan calendar. Each face of the pyramid has 91 steps, for a total of 364. The top platform is the 365th face, representing the number of calendar days in the year. There are also 91 days between the equinox and the solstice. But that’s not all. Each face of the pyramid is bifurcated by a staircase, and each side of this staircase has nine platforms. Add them up and you get 18, the number of months in the Maya calendar. There’s more. Each face has 52 panels, representing the 52-year cycle when the two calendars synchronize. There’s more. Each side of the temple has five adornments. Multiply by the four sides and you reach 20, the number of days in the Maya month. In short, this pyramid is a 3D calendar.

Beyond these fascinating details is the unique play of sun and shadow on the castle, which is intertwined with Mayan mythology. During each equinox, the shadows cast by the rising and setting sun descend down the face of the pyramid in snakelike undulations until they join with a serpent’s head at the foot of the pyramid. This representation of Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent deity, adds to Kukulcán’s mysticism.

  • Great Ball Court:

The ball game was an important ritual in Mayan civilization. Players competed in the ball game by hitting a large ball with their elbows and knees through large donut-shaped stone rings on each side of the court. The game held tremendous significance for the Maya, and the Great Ball Court at Chichén Itzá is the biggest and most impressive in all Mesoamerica. The court has near-perfect acoustics and detailed carvings. Recreations of the ball game are often held at Chichén Itzá, and it’s worth catching one if you can.

  • Temple of the Warriors:

The square-columned building near Kukulcán is typical of the Toltec style, which matches its militaristic nature. A sculpture of Chac-Mool sits atop the structure, and depictions of warrior emblems (jaguars, eagles and feathered serpents) can be found here.

  • El Caracol:

The cylindrical tower of the “The Snail” marks the city’s observatory. Inside are three concentric circles, with the innermost containing a spiral staircase that gives the building its name. It was from here that the Maya charted the course of Venus as well as the approach of the equinoxes and summer solstice.

  • Chichén Itzá’s Light and Sound Show:

As spectacular as the city is during the day, stick around until the sun sets for the light and sound show offered every night. The show is in Spanish, but you can rent a headset with an English translation. The production tells the history of the city and of the Maya, and shows the city’s most important buildings in a rainbow of colors. The finale of a multicolored descending snake at Kukulcán is breathtaking.

Researchers believe that not even 10 percent of Chichén Itzá is currently open to the public. We can only imagine how this city must have looked at the height of its power.

2. Cobá

For many, Cobá offers a more authentic glimpse into the ancient realms of the Maya. While Chichén Itzá has been meticulously reconstructed and restored, many buildings in Cobá have largely been untouched. Surrounded by the dense foliage of the surrounding jungle, the city was one of the largest in the peninsula, housing a population of up to 100,000 inhabitants. Cobá flourished between AD 800 and 1100 and was an important commercial center. Cobá is spread across a large area, so you’ll want to rent a bicycle or bicycle taxi at the entrance to make the most of your time here. The structures are clustered into groups, with the Cobá Group being the largest and closest to the entrance of the site. Here you’ll find 43 buildings, a grand plaza and ball court.

From here, the city spreads out, and markers will guide you to its other groups. Don’t miss the Nohoch Mul (Big Mound) Group, famous for a massive pyramid called El Castillo (“The Castle”). Dedicated to Kukulcán, the huge structure is the second tallest in Yucatán and measures 138ft, larger than anything at Chichén Itzá. The climb to the top is well worth it for the panoramic views and the breeze on a hot summer day.

Another point of interest is the Macanxoc Group, which features numerous stelae, which are stone slabs or columns on which important dates and events are inscribed. Stop at Stela 1 for a moment. Inscribed here is a date that has become synonymous with the Maya and with doomsday prophets around the world: 2012.


3. Tulum

Tulum might be the most scenic city in the Mayan realm. Perched on a cliff overlooking a white sand beach and aquamarine waters of the Caribbean, it’s a fortress city that has been beautifully restored and renovated. Tulum’s zenith occurred from AD 1200–1400, when it served as a port city that linked Mexico with Central and South America. The city’s temples (which don’t reach the soaring heights of the pyramids at Cobá and Chichén but are nonetheless impressive in their detail) are rife with depictions of the Descending God, who represents Venus, the setting Sun, and the honeybee. A tour of the city should include a dip in the delicious Caribbean waters. You might also want to bring a snorkel mask and fins; a short distance from the shore is the second-largest reef in the world.


4. Ek’ Balam

Ek’ Balam (“Black Jaguar”) is a relatively recent addition to the list of Mayan cities worth visiting. Proper architectural exploration of the city began in the 1980s. This walled city was a contemporary and rival of nearby Chichén, and a commercial center of some magnitude in its heyday. Ek’ Balam houses many pyramids, but none are more impressive than its awesome Acropolis, one of the largest structures in the peninsula. In 2000, researchers uncovered a tomb known as the “White Room,” which revealed incredible sculptures of winged warriors. The entrance of the chamber is a jaw-dropping façade of a huge, white, fanged mouth, an ornamentation unique to Ek’ Balam.

Ask your concierge for tours or directions to these sites. Your visit to Cancún won’t be the same without a journey into our Mayan past.



The Westin Lagunamar Ocean Resort Villas & Spa, Cancun

Cancun, Quintana Roo, Mexico

Boulevard Kukulcán Km 12.5 Lt 18 Zona Hotelera, Cancun, Quintana Roo, Mexico, 77500, (52)(998) 891 4200

Delight in our breathtaking beachfront location on Mexico’s Caribbean Coast, where sea views combine with thoughtful service and amenities.

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Exploring Yucatán’s Mayan Empire