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1 Dec 2012

Riviera Maya, a Cultural Mecca

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December 1, 2012 Category: Travel Posted by:

By Renée S. Gordon


“All you need is within you.”

— Carlos Barrios, Mayan elder


Mexico’s portion of the Península de Yucatán is a thumb shaped land mass, comprised of three states, Yucatan, Campeche and Quintana Roo, that is bordered by the Gulf of Mexico on the west and the Caribbean Sea to the east. The area is consistently ranked as one of the top destinations for travelers worldwide and much of that designation can be attributed to the beauty, diversity and ease of travel that are hallmarks of the Riviera Maya in the state of Quintana Roo. Cancun, also in Quintana Roo, gets much of the hype but the real glory lies in the archeological sites, festivals, villages, biodiversity, outdoor adventures, accommodations, cuisine and cultures of the region that begins a few miles south of the city.


The state, though relatively new, created in 1974 and named in honor of Andres Quintana Roo, a lawyer, legislator and tireless worker for Mexican independence, contains the Mayan archeological zone, tangible evidence of some of the earliest settlements in the hemisphere. An exploration of and immersion in the Mayan culture is best experienced in the Riviera Maya in locations easily accessed from highway 307.


The world’s attention has been focused on the Mayan culture of late due to supposed apocalyptic predictions. On the 13th baktun (a 144,000 day period), according to the Great Cycle of the Long Count, the Mayan calendar predicts the end of a cycle. Nowhere does it definitively say that the world will end. The corresponding date on the Georgian calendar is December 21, 2012 at 11:11 Universal Time (UT). A plethora of “End of the World” tours have popped up for this December but it should be noted that some Mayan communities are protesting the skewed use of their customs and traditions to promote tourism.


Maya history is generally divided into three periods beginning with the Pre-Classic Period from 2000 BC – 250 AD. Archeological evidence points to the fact that during this period the Maya began farming the area and Olmec, a neighboring people, civilization thrived. The Classic Period, 250- 900 AD, represents the apex of Maya civilization, marked by construction of large temples and the development of the only written language to be created in the Pre-Columbian Americas. Evidence points to this also being the era when astronomy and mathematics achieved greater importance. The Post-Classic Period (900 AD- 1511) marks the decline of the civilization.


Mexico’s first contact with Europeans was not with a group of conquistadors but rather with a motely crew of shipwreck survivors who landed a few miles north of the Riviera Maya in 1511. An indigenous tribe killed the majority of the men but two of the survivors, Jeronimo de Aguilar and Gonzalo Guerrero, were enslaved. In 1517, while exploring for the Spanish, Francisco Hernández de Córdoba sighted the Yucatán but believed it to be an island. A year later Juan de Grijalva’s expedition figured out that the Yucatan was huge and more men were needed so for the third time conquistadors were dispatched. Hernán Cortés landed in 1519.


Cortés encountered Aguilar and Guerrero. Aguilar left with him and for the next two decades would prove valuable in the conquest of Mexico, serving as guide and interpreter. Guerrero, who had married and had a family, refused to leave. Ironically he became a military strategist and consultant to the Maya as they fought against the Spanish. He was killed in battle.


Xcaret, an eco-archeological park, is the perfect place to begin to explore the Riviera Maya region. Opened in 1990, the park is dedicated to the preservation and presentation of Mexico’s natural resources, people, culture, history and passions. The park has been awarded certificates of excellence and social responsibility and is an absolute must when visiting the area.


Xcaret offers underground rivers, a rotating scenic tower, marine turtle area, Jaguar Island, coral reef aquarium, as well as cultural exhibitions. Visitors can view the St. Francis of Assis Chapel, Mayan archeological sites, and a Mexican Village and Cemetery. Cultural exhibits, programs, shows and events are regularly scheduled. The Xcaret Night Show interprets history through music, dance and drama performed by more than 300 performers.


One of the park’s most significant cultural contributions is its celebration of two major Quintana Roo traditional events, the Sacred Mayan Journey held in May and The Festival of Death and Life Traditions.


PHOTO: Climbing Coba Pyramid.


The Festival of Death and Life Traditions, one of the most venerated in Hispanic culture, is celebrated from October 31st to November 2nd annually. These are traditionally recognized as the days when the dead can return to visit the living. The occasion is marked by the creation of meticulously decorated altars in the home or the cemetery that contain food, flowers, fruit, candles, bread and objects that the deceased loved in life. The altars are decorated on November 1st and the 2nd is considered the most important day. The bread, pan de muerta, and candy skeletons are prepared only this time of year and the orange flowers that exclusively line the path to the altars bloom only at this time of year.


Each village and region has slight variations on how they observe the days. Xcaret provides a wonderful overview of these variations as well as the mixture of Maya, Azrec and Spanish influences on current observances. The cemetery within the park is fully decorated and filled with living incarnations of spirits. This is a very special event and if possible you should plan a visit around this celebration.


There are more than 100 archeological sites in the Yucatán but two of the most notable are in the Riviera Maya.


Tulum is the most visited Maya site and once there you can easily see why. The 20-ft. thick walled city dates from 1200 AD and is the sole Mayan city that was populated when the Spanish landed. Zama, the City of the Dawn, as the city was known, was inhabited only by the wealthy who were protected by walls on three sides and a coral reef in the Caribbean on the fourth side. The reef is the second largest in the world.


The largest structure in the complex is El Castillo, the Castle. From two tiny windows inside light beams would shine and at the point where the beams met an entry point through the reef would be illuminated. Three other structures, the House of Columns, the Temple of the Frescoes and the House of the Halach Uinik are interpreted with plaques. The Temple of the Descending God is Tulum’s iconic structure. The figure of the upside down god is lit for a few seconds daily by the beams of the rising sun.


There is a bathing beach and sea view overlooks. You can hire a guide or self-guide. I suggest that you wear a hat, comfortable shoes and/or take an umbrella to create shade.


The city of Cobá, at its height, held about 55,000 people and encompassed about 30-sq. miles. It was built in an area with four lagoons, only one is still visible, and connected by a series of limestone covered sacbeob or white roads. Today only 5 percent of the ruins have been excavated. The complex is so large that visitors can rent a bicycle or hire a carriage to travel quickly between sites.


The highlights of a visit here are the ball court and Nohoch Mul pyramid. The ball court is small compared to others but still worth a visit. At 140-ft Nohoch Mul pyramid is the highest Mayan building on the peninsula and visitors are allowed to climb to the top for a panoramic view.


Once again you should wear a hat and comfortable shoes. Additionally, be certain to bring mosquito repellant. This is a good place to purchase souvenirs because the vendors that line the entry road offer good prices and a wide variety.


Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987on the basis of its natural beauty and as an important habitat for a diverse population of living creatures, flora and fauna. The area boasts 40-miles of coastal dunes and a limestone plain. There are approximately 103 mammal varieties including pumas, jaguars and howler monkeys, 52 fish, 339 bird, and 42 reptile and amphibian species present. Tours, accommodations and outdoor activities are offered.


One of the ways in which the Riviera Maya region is well ahead of many other tourist destinations is its commitment to sustainable and ecotourism. These efforts have resulted in boosting the local economy through funding and employment and promoting responsible tourism that does not harm the environment. One of the leaders in this effort is ALLTOURNATIVE, a company that offers five adventures that are authentic, cultural and socially responsible. It is a unique way to experience the area. Booking discounts are available online as well as information and schedules.


Begin your Mayan adventure without leaving home by visiting the Pyramid of Positive Thinking online. The physical site is located in Tulum and is the creation of graphic artist Xavier de Maria y Compos. His desire is for everyone to participate in building a pyramid composed of written positive thoughts deposited in plastic bottles and placed inside a metal frame that will be filled in with alternating layers of bottles and soil. Currently there are 350,000 bottles filled with thoughts, the most common of which are a wish for world peace or the elimination of world hunger. You can send yours in via facebook and become part of the project.


The adults only Aventura Spa Palace proved to be ideal for this trip. The resort is a centrally located all-inclusive with accommodations and service that exceeded my expectations. The Aventura is designed to be reminiscent of a hacienda and provides a world-class spa, pool, beach access, restaurants, business facilities and a couples Jacuzzi in every room.


Interestingly in September of 2013 the hotel will become a Hard Rock and architectural changes will reflect what occurs when a rocker purchases a hacienda. I can’t wait.


The Riviera Maya is filled with adventures that create lasting memories that are both unique and affordable. The flight is not long and there are bargains to be found if you look. Consider it. I know you will want to leave the cold behind shortly.


I wish you smooth travels!



“Flavors of Belize: The Cookbook” has been published in time to add it to your Xmas list. This is Belize’s first published hardcover cultural cookbook and makes a wonderful gift for anyone who cooks or wants to.

Fairmount Parks’ Historic House Holiday Tours are scheduled for Saturday and Sunday, December 1 and 2, 8 and 9, from 10 am to 4 pm. Five thematically decorated mansions, Laurel Hill, Lemon Hill, Mount Pleasant, Ormiston, and Woodford will be accessible by car or guided bus tours departing from the west side of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. or

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