South America Living

Cancun – Gateway to the Mayan World

Perhaps the most popular tourist site in Mexico, each year the city of Cancun sees upwards of two million tourists wishing to take in pristine beaches, crystal clear water and famous nightlife.

Long before the area was being groomed to become a hot spot destination for fun-seeking vacationers, Cancun was part of a vast and impressive empire of people called the Maya.

Beach in Cancun, Mexico

Beach in Cancun, Mexico

Known for their art and architecture, the Mayans also specialized in complex mathematics, astronomy and organized religion. At the height of their influence and power, the Mayan people numbered in the millions and were unrivaled in the Americas.

Though European conquerors caused its collapse, the Mayan heritage and legacy is still vastly important. The next time you take a vacation to one of Cancun’s world-class resorts, spend some time encountering the vestiges of Mayan culture that still abound.

The Ruins of El Rey

The El Rey Ruins are inside Cancun, and as such, are an easy destination site for anyone visiting the area. El Rey was most likely inhabited until 1550, which is when the Spanish conquest began and the Mayan empire began its decline. Situated among mangroves, the site’s name literally means “The King.”

While the ruins are not as large as some in other locations, they remain fascinating to explore. El Rey is home to hundreds of iguanas, which give the place a strange beauty. Park guides regularly feed the reptiles to keep them at the site. Since Mayans believed the world was held up at its four corners by four iguanas, their presence only adds to the experience.

The Ruins of El Meco

Located to the north of Cancun, this site has only been open to the public since 2001, and since it still doesn’t see as many tourists as larger Mayan ruins, it’s a great place to explore.

Once a small fishing village, El Meco today is comprised of a well-conserved pyramid and the ruins of several temples. Fourteen buildings are on-site, and from the top of the pyramid you can get a great view of Cancun’s lagoons.

The Mayan Museum

The Mayan Museum in Cancun officially opened its doors one month before the day the Mayan calendar popularly declared the end of the world: Dec. 21, 2012. The museum is a $15-million undertaking that focuses on the history and culture of the Mayan peoples.

It has over 350 artifacts showcased in three exhibition halls covering over 13,000 square feet. From the 14,000-year-old Mayan remains discovered in Tulum’s underwater caves to the 10,000-year-old remains of the Woman of the Palms, the museum’s collection is impressive and ranges in theme from hunting to domestic life to religion.

There is a room full of tools and other daily-use items from Mayan times, as well as rooms for sculptures, displays of altars, ancient houses and more.

Mayan Cuisine

Thankfully, Mayan cuisine was not entirely eradicated when Spaniards conquered the area. Largely due to the foods that are native to the place, Mayan cooking — or at least the essence of it — still exists.

Chocolate, avocados, corn tortillas, horchata, coffee and spicy salsas were all integral parts of Mayan cooking. These days, chefs in the Cancun area are offering more and more Mayan cuisine.

Here are a handful of restaurants where you can eat a Mayan-inspired meal:

  • The Gardenias Inn Tulum. This restaurant features a rotating cast of chefs from all over Mexico, who develop menus based on the hotel’s organic garden’s offerings. They have a Mayan-style oven pit for slow-roasting fish in banana leaves and toasting bread, and their garden will produce classic Mayan herbs and vegetables, including chaya, or Mayan spinach.
  • Fairmont Mayakoba. A restaurant that has featured a Mayan-based menu using only local ingredients, Fairmont Mayakoba is heavily invested in food sustainability and has an excellent artisanal Mexican beer menu.
  • Emara Antojitos Yucatecos. If you’re looking for something a little less pricey, this restaurant offers no-fuss Mayan fare at reasonable prices.

Cancun gives the vacationer a bevy of good times unique to Mexico. Why not take in some of its finest and oldest offerings by discovering more about the Mayan world among this 21st-century resort town.

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