Cancun was created in the 1970s as a specifically designed vacation destination. Sitting at the eastern end of the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, Cancun offers a fantastic holiday atmosphere with miles of yellow sand beaches and a virtual guarantee of good sunny weather. A visitor could easily spend all their time relaxing on the shore or trying the hectic nightlife without paying attention to the massive cultural and ecological credentials of this area, some of which are literally at the door of the hotel.
But stay still and avoid seeing some of the most important World Heritage sites, or the beautiful nearby Caribbean islands would really be lost. It is not that an exploration of nearby islands or local ruins should be expensive! The ferry to Isla Mujeres costs about $ 5.00 and a visit to the local ruins of El Meco (which includes a smaller Mayan pyramid) would cost around $ 10.00 for the taxi and about $ 2.00 to enter.
Of course, the famous ruined cities of Chichen Itza, Coba and Tulum cost a little more. They are about an hour or so by coach, but the trip is easy. Usually, these visits include a guide, a traditional meal and, if you're lucky, swim in a sunken Mayan sacred lake called Cenote. However, even these visits will hardly break the bank with total costs ranging from $ 50 to $ 100. For me, this is a really good value. Just compare it to what this would usually buy you on vacation in other parts of the world!
Chichen Itza is, of course, the most famous of the ancient Mayan cities with its magnificent pyramid of the god Kukulcan. The Pyramid of Kukulcán is now officially classified as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World along with the Taj Mahal, the Great Wall of China, the Colosseum, the Brazilian statue of Christ the Redeemer, Machu Pichu in Peru and Petra in Jordan. But don't think that the Pyramid of Kukulcán is the only impressive building in Chichen Itza. In fact, all Chichen Itza is classified as a World Heritage Site.
Chichén Itzá's acoustics always surprise new visitors. Very intelligent people designed this place and left temptingly subtle features that even today make this long dead ruin come alive.
Stand under the steps of the Pyramid of Kukulcan and applaud. You will not get a normal echo. Instead, you get a multiple set of echoes that resemble the call of the sacred bird Quetzl. Now stand halfway between the Kukulcan Pyramid and the Temple of the Warriors and applaud. If you are lucky, you will hear the call of the Quetzl bird followed by the noise of a rattlesnake. The sound of the rattlesnake is really the multiple echo of the steps of the Temple of the Warriors.
The lucky few who can arrive here at sunrise or sunset at the spring or autumn equinox will also see stunning visual effects. The rising or setting sun casts a shadow that looks like a feathered serpent, or the shadow of the snake god Kukulcan. As the sun changes position, so does the shadow, giving life to the illusion as it apparently descends down the parapet of the Pyramid.
We must remember that, as impressive as these characteristics are, this is essentially the skeleton of a city that was once vibrant. At its peak, with the stuccoed and decorated buildings, the effects would have been even more dramatic. I do not know of other ancient sites in the world that so dramatically demonstrate their cultural genius.
It's not as if Chichen Itza was the only impressive abandoned city near Cancun. For a similar price you can buy a tour of Coba. Coba is possibly a more "hard core" cultural experience. Coba has been discovered recently and is still under intensive archaeological study. It also has the highest pyramid in the Yucatan Peninsula. Because people who visit Coba tend to be more aware of the cultural significance of these ruins, visitors are allowed virtually unlimited access to a large area of the site. Climbing the huge Nohoch-Mul Pyramid has to be one of the highlights of anyone's visit. Another beautiful site, located at the edge of the sea, is the ancient Mayan port of Tulum. Tulum, like Chichen Itza and Coba, is easily accessible from Cancun by bus.
A different method of transportation is needed to visit the Ixcha Temple on Isla Mujeres, but fortunately reliable ferries cross a couple of miles between Cancun and the main city. The temple of Ixcha suffered serious damage in a hurricane in the 1980s, but it is still on the dramatic outcrop of limestone that is the easternmost point of Mexico.
Isla Mujeres also offers a beautiful northern beach and a very relaxed lifestyle for those who are lucky enough to stay on the island. Taxis and buses are cheap, both here and in Cancun, but on the island many choose to rent a golf cart and go explore the island.
Finally, no trip to Cancun could be completed with a visit to the great Mesoamerican Reef. Only second in size to the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, the Mesoamerican Reef offers visitors fantastic opportunities to dive and get very close to the local wildlife. Some of the snorkeling tour operators will also take their guests to the beautiful virgin Island of Contoy. This small island has no inhabitants, except for a myriad of wildlife that includes more than 4000 frigates. Few people will arrive on this island. Access is strictly controlled and only a few companies are allowed access, so choose your snorkeling tour company carefully.
The Mayan era spanned several thousand years, but vanished in the fourteenth century. The arrival of the Spaniards in the 16th century sounded the final death sentence for this sophisticated and intelligent civilization. Much of Mayan history is shrouded in mystery. Unfortunately, much of this mystery is due to a single act of cultural vandalism that occurred on a night in July 1563 when Spanish priests burned almost all written records of the Maya. A great deal of time and effort has been devoted to deciphering the few remaining texts and massive stelae (stone slabs) that contain details of Mayan culture, but much has been lost, possibly forever.
Whatever the thoughtless cultural barbarism of the past, the Mayan genius has still left us with some of the most important and sophisticated ancient ruins in the world. It is wonderful that today, anyone can access this cultural heritage while still having enough time to tan.
Cancun is a very good place to spend a vacation. If you go there, make sure you enjoy the cultural heritage and the beach.