Mayan culture meets resort Mecca


By Victor Block

CANCUN, Mexico —

The narrow path leads through jungle growth, beneath long vines hanging from overhead branches that would prompt Tarzan to howl with delight. Iguanas laze in sunlight that filters through the trees, resembling prehistoric monsters frozen in stillness.

The shadowy setting suddenly gives way to a clearing. Along its edge stand the remains of a small pyramid-shaped temple.

Here, during the 13th to 15th centuries AD, Mayans gathered to worship their gods. They were part of the rich civilization that lasted from 2000 BC until the arrival of Spanish explorers in the 16th century AD.

The legacy left by the Mayans included written language, magnificent architectural treasures, and sophisticated systems of astronomy and mathematics. Today, visitors to Cancun and the surrounding Yucatan peninsula may combine explorations of the Mayan culture with the attractions of a world-class resort destination.

The small site that serves as home to iguanas is the ruin of El Rey. Its ancient structures are only a short walk from modern civilization — high-rise hotels and the gleaming beaches of Cancun.

That city of towering hotels and upscale shopping malls stretches along 14 miles of beaches overlooking the multi-hued water of the Caribbean Sea. It offers the full range of recreational activities found at many sun-and-sand vacation destinations. At the same time, Cancun is a gateway to more than 30 major Mayan sites ranging in size from miniscule to massive.

The Mayan Museum in town is the perfect place to begin the exploration. Its exhibits showcase the great architectural achievements of the Mayan civilization, along with interesting artifacts from the daily lives of the people.

Adjacent to the museum, a narrow path winds through the San Miguelito archeological site, which was a Mayan settlement more than 800 years ago. Of greatest interest among more than three dozen structures are a 26-foot-tall pyramid, the ruins of what once were residences and a small temple where remnants of ancient mural paintings of animals still are visible.

Other introductions to life as it’s led today await those who travel short distances outside of Cancun. Puerto Morales (population about 9,000) combines the laid-back atmosphere of a fishing village with touches of tourism. Tiny cafes that cater to a mostly Mexican clientele line side streets.

Another excursion begins with a 45-minute boat ride to the Isla Mujeras (eesla mu-hair-us). Its dock area encompasses an inviting beach, restaurant and snorkel operation — while the compact “downtown” neighborhood is jammed with modest restaurants, jewelry stores and tourist shops selling much the same merchandise.

On a plateau overlooking the sea at the southern tip of the island are the remains of a small Mayan temple that was dedicated to Ixchel, the goddess of love and fertility. According to legend, when Spanish explorers arrived in the 16th century and found many stone statues of the goddess, they gave the island its name, which means “island of women.”

Today, the island fills an additional role, as the starting point for exploring the Cancun Underwater Museum, said to be the most extensive underwater sculpture park in the world. More than 400 life-size figures — submerged 9 to 20 feet below the surface — are becoming artificial reefs that attract a growing variety of marine life. The extraordinary display is visible to divers, snorkelers and passengers in boats passing overhead. Most of the sculptures depict people in everyday activities like watching television, riding a bike and lying asleep.

When it comes to sleeping, a group of Mexican-owned, family-operated resorts can enhance the Cancun experience. The Sunset World Resorts’ claim to provide “Vacation Experiences” is an understatement. Each establishment offers attractions that provide reason enough to stay there.

My favorite, the Hacienda Tres Rios, was built to protect the surrounding environment. The 340-acre setting consists of five major ecosystems, and serves as home to 120 species of plants and more than 90 species of animal life. The hotel conducts a unique Sense Adventure in which participants’ are blindfolded, then introduced to a series of touch and sound experiences as they seek to decipher what’s taking place. When the adventure ended, I was left with an enhanced way of interpreting the world around me.

The focus at the Sunset Marina Resort & Yacht Club is on a long list of water sports. The Sunset Fisherman resort, south of Cancun, is located near several Mayan sites as well as a small town known for its bustling night life scene.

If you go …

Rates at the Sunset World Resorts change frequently. For more information, visit or call 800-494-9173.

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