Yucatan Magic – Chichén Itzá and a lot more

When you visit the Yucatan, you visit Mayan country. Not just dead ruins and pyramids, but Mayan people. Today, there are currently an estimated 20 to 30 million direct descendants of the ancient civilization living in southern Mexico, Belize, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, where the indigenous group is most prevalent.

Valladolid Cathedral

We booked this tour with Amigo Tours for Tuesday, not at 4 am, but a little better at 5:30. We were picked up at the Vidanta Mayan Palace, then driven to a rendezvous spot where we boarded a large, comfortable tour bus driven by Jorge. Our guide, César, began his informative and entertaining talk given in alternating Spanish and English about Chichén Itzá and the ancient Mayan people living a thousand years ago.  Although it was a long drive to our first stop, the wonderful colonial city of Valladolid, the time flew by. We learned about the fascinating Mayan numerical system, the Mayan culture, and the archaeological wonder we were about to visit.

Valladolid Zócalo




We briefly stopped in Valladolid, and enjoyed a few minutes near the central zócalo or square. Its colonial buildings are colorfully painted and marvelously maintained. If we’d had more time, a visit to a nearby chocolate museum and shop looks like it would have been an excellent option.

Our next stop was a village with an indigenous craft market, where we were encouraged to purchase authentic items made by the locals, including carved obsidian. We also had Mayan horoscopes made (nearest analogy), and were blessed by a Mayan shaman. We then had a wonderful buffet lunch with a variety of Mexican food, including the Yucatecan specialty, cochinita pibil, slow-roasted marinated pork, served with handmade tortillas.

Temple of Kukulcan

A short time later, we arrived at Chichén Itzá, one of the Seven Wonders of the World. César led us on a walk through the grounds, where we learned about the construction of the enormous stepped pyramid, El Castillo (Temple of Kukulcan). César explained that the feathered serpent god, Kukulcan, can be observed “descending” the pyramid during the spring and autumn equinoxes – the stones create an undulating pattern at those times of year. This was important to the Mayan people, since they were dependent on the ability to know when to plant their crops. César also thoroughly described the numbering system that was incorporated into the building–the pyramid’s levels and the intricate positioning and placement of the stones. He also told us that the pyramid was built on a scaffolding over a cenote, or sinkhole, such as the one we were soon to visit. The next major site we saw was the famed Great Ball Court, where games played with 12 lb. rubber balls thrown through a stone hoop ended in human sacrifices. The elaborate tzompantl, or skull rack, is nearby, a testament to the warlike Mayan culture. We were free to wander the grounds for around 45 minutes before boarding the bus. We chose to seek shade from the relentless sun and tropical humidity, and walked over to the restaurant at the entrance to the grounds to enjoy a cold beer in the shade.

Xcajum cenote

We were really able to cool off at our next stop, the Xcajum cenote, a limestone sinkhole filled with fresh water. César informed us that there were about 5,000 such cenotes in the Yucatán, all interconnected and many regarded by the Mayan people as sacred.

We changed into swimsuits, donned our life vests, showered, and descended 150 shallow steps to the cenote. We marveled at the layered limestone walls covered with jungle vines, and enjoyed a cool, refreshing swim. Now this was a swim. No wading allowed when the water is 150 feet deep, wall to wall. I was reassured by the lifeguard in the nearby rowboat. Then, it was back up the 150 steps to the bus for our return trip.

Later, back at the resort, we took the tram back to Salum and Huama Cerveceria for dinner and a pint of our favorite draft, Chela Vista Mosaic IPA. For a change, we ordered from Robayaki Grill & Sushi for some very tasty and creative sushi rolls.

Wet tropics

There is a reason that the Yucatan is lush and green. It’s called rain, and during the night, the thunder and lightning blew in and rain pounded down. We had made reservations for Wednesday morning to see the ruins at Tulum, an hour south of Riviera Maya, but at 4 am, we looked out at the pouring rain and called to cancel our trip. But, being the tropics, the rain can move quickly, and by mid-morning, there were clouds on the horizon, but the sun was shining bright, and there were plenty of orioles splashing around on the wet leaves. We spent some time out on our own, checking out local birds, and took most of the day easy. After all, we were on vacation.

Across the highway from Vidanta,  the Cirque du Soleil has a theater and were performing a show called JOYÁ. We were considering seeing the show, but Steven, our birding guide insisted that it was well worth it to go for the dinner as well. Laurel had seen an early Cirque du Soleil show in Santa Monica years ago, held in a tent by the pier, but I had never seen one. We are very glad we signed up for both the show and dinner.

Joya appetizers

This performance is held in a theater that Vidanta has built especially for Cirque du Soleil. The theater layout, design, and tiered seating ensure that all seats are good, and our table for the dinner put us right in the middle of the action! We were served appetizers as soon as we were seated, and our waiter brought us our champagne (included) right away, as we enjoyed the pre-show music and dance.

A very tasty menu

The dishes, described on the menu printed on edible (!) paper, were very creative. The theme was Natura (nature), Arte (art), and Sciencia (science) and the presentation included a mysterious, atmospheric touch of smoking dry ice poured into a small vase of rosemary in the center of the appetizer plate. The food was not only well-presented, but also delicious. We both enjoyed the main entrée, braised short ribs, followed by a selection of desserts presented in a box designed to look like an old book of arcana, in keeping with the theme of the show.

Plenty of swordplay in Joya

And what a show! The story involves an alchemist and his granddaughter, Joyá, who’s interested in her grandfather’s work, which often results in her curiosity getting the better of her! Throughout, various performers drop in and out (literally) of the theater. The acrobats, pirates, and a juggler were all exceptionally skilled and entertaining. Some performers mingle with the audience, and if you are at the VIP tables, are right in front of you! The breathtaking action (and there were a lot of aerial and acrobatic performances) was accompanied by excellent live musicians playing in the wings. There are many magical scenes and set changes that build the story throughout the evening – never a dull moment!

We enjoyed JOYÁ immensely, and highly recommend it to visitors to the Riviera Maya area.

Ruins at Tulum

On Saturday morning, we finally got a chance to see Tulum, and it was interestingly different from Chichén Itzá. Beto, our guide, told us it was because of the weather. Tulum is close to the Caribbean, which moderates the heat that bakes other areas farther inland. We could actually see how the city was laid out with streets and boulevards and even the ruins of private homes. Inside the walls of many of what was left of the homes, the grass and vegetation was dead. Beto told us this was caused by tombs below ground. The Mayans buried their family members in their own homes. Instead of being extra lush and green as you’d expect, the ancient gravesites featured brown patchy grass. This was due to the Mayan’s practice of embalming using a compound containing mercury. Seeing both Chichén Itzá and Tulum certainly gave  us a better understanding of how these ancient people lived and what was important to them.

We flew home on a nice midday flight and even gained two hours on the way, making it quite a pleasant little trip. When we reached U.S. customs, we pulled out our Sentri cards and there was no line at all. We’re very glad to have gotten these cards. It makes coming back through any U.S. customs a cinch.

Happy travels,

Written by Vic and Laurel, Photos by Laurel


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