Aldo Perreira is one of almost exactly 1.2 million Mexicans who are directly descended from the Maya. Aldo and his wife and children occasionally drive from his house in lively Cancun in two hours to Xel Há – a beautiful lagoon on the Yucatán peninsula where his ancestors bathed hundreds of years ago. “They probably didn’t have much fun there,” jokes Aldo.
Various ruins and excavations suggest that in Xel Há – founded around 100 BC as a trading port – Mayan workers had to toil hard for a good 1000 years until the place was forgotten and the whole complex fell into a deep sleep. But clever investors rediscovered it later and turned the lagoon into a huge amusement park. The Perreiras love the park, even if entry is not cheap at just under $ 100 per nose.
The family can eat and bathe to their heart’s content for a day, drift through real mangrove forests on rubber tires, jump from artificial cliffs, practice scuba diving in small caves and watch thousands of colorful fish and turtles while snorkeling. Xel Há’s park wants to be “the largest natural aquarium in the world” according to its own presentation – no one has yet contested the title.
Tulum is one of the most beautiful places in Yucatán
Up to 1500 guests come together in the park at peak times, including many day tourists who reside on the offshore island of Cozumel on their vacation. Dozens of hotels and beautiful beaches have made the island an extremely popular travel destination. In good times, up to four giant cruise ships moor in the port every day.
If their passengers all take the ferry to the mainland at once, which most of them do, then the crowd in Xel Ha is usually big. At the moment, however, there is great calm. It is usually even narrower in nearby Tulum, another Mayan port that is one of the most beautiful places in Yucatán.
Magnificently located on a limestone cliff above the Caribbean Sea, the fairly well-preserved ruins lure thousands to the ancient city every day. Most visitors, however, lack leisure. You visit the archaeological site, have your picture taken against the picturesque background, browse the numerous souvenir shops and, if time permits, lie down briefly on the beach.
On the other hand, if you take your time, the real treasures can be discovered. “Tulu’um” means “wall” or “fortress” in the Maya Mayathan language. And so it is hardly surprising that the site is bounded by three walls, which are only broken through by five small entrances and reinforced with watchtowers on each side. The heart of the complex is the main temple El Castillo. During the summer solstice, the sun shines straight into the temple early in the morning.
So mysterious, so splendid, Tulum appeared to the Spanish conquerors that they largely left the place unscathed. Even today, many paintings can be found in the buildings, which are among the most beautiful examples of Mayan art.
The archaeologists secured sculptures of human heads, frescoes with snakes, plants, fruits and deities and were particularly interested in the Temple of the Descending God. It got its name from the figure of Ah Mucen Cab contained in the roof frieze, perhaps the most important Mayan god who was responsible for sun, rain, lightning and bees.
Again and again, the buildings reveal surprising details of everyday Mayan culture: archaeologists found the carefully buried remains of a person in a house that once belonged to a priest. In fact, the Mayans did not bury their dead in cemeteries, but in their homes – the ancestors should stay close to their families.
Die Pyramide des Kukulcán in Chichén Itzá
It is the seldom beautiful location that makes Tulum so attractive, which was built relatively late, probably around 1000 AD. Chichén Itzá is more archaeologically significant and is located a good way inland. The bus ride from Cozumel takes around five hours.
The complex offers deep insights into a settlement history that is thousands of years old, which the Spanish conquerors finally put an end to 500 years ago. Highlights are the ancient observatory, the temple of warriors and of course the world-famous pyramid of Kukulcán with snake heads on its 365 steps.
Each step stood and stands for a day, twice a year – on March 21st and September 23rd – the shadows cast by the sun create the impression that the snakes are slowly winding down from the temple – an unbelievable spectacle that fascinates thousands of visitors.
In many Mayan sites there are causes for horror. Human sacrifices were not only made in Chichén Itzá: priests cut the beating hearts of prisoners, beheaded their victims and let their skulls roll over the steps of the pyramids.
The ball playground of Chichén Itzá, which was notorious far beyond the city limits, was not at all harmless. The ritual game was about maneuvering a ball weighing one kilo through a stone ring that was attached to the walls of the square at a height of 6.5 meters without the aid of hands or feet and only with the head, shoulders and hips. Whoever lost was sacrificed to the gods. The walls of the square are richly decorated with depictions of sacrificial ceremonies.
Mayan sites, beaches and cenotes on the Costa Maya
Costa Maya is called the coast between the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea, and there is actually one Maya site after the other: The ancient ceremonial center Kohunlich is among them, as well as Dzibanche and Chacchoben, whose pyramids have only been open to the public since 2002.
The Mayans of today have built small towns from souvenir stalls around the most coveted sights and attract customers in the picturesque towns along the coast with nice places to stop and shop. Popular souvenirs are colorful ceramics, masks, fabric and straw dolls. And you miss something if you don’t try tacos and tortillas or a guacamole dip made from avocado with crispy, tangy nachos in the takeaways and small restaurants.
In between, wonderful beaches and bays invite you to relax and swim. The Lagoon of the Seven Colors near Bacalar, for example, which is very close to one of the most spectacular cenotes in the country. Cenotes are doline-like limestone holes that were created thousands of years ago when a cave ceiling collapsed and are filled with fresh water.
Most of them are around 15, sometimes 100 meters deep – and almost all of them are connected by an underground cave system that is estimated to be 380 kilometers long. The Mayas regarded the cenotes as sacred springs, as a transition from this world to the underworld – today’s visitors enjoy splashing around in the gorges of the deep blue water holes.
From Cancun to Cozumel, from Tulum to Belize: Pyramids and palm trees, Mayan sites and Caribbean vacation flair are very close to one another. Cenotes, lagoons and dream beaches invite you to relax and swim, almost the entire coastal region is a paradise for snorkelers and divers. After all, the Costa Maya is located on the second largest reef system in the world with a length of almost 1000 kilometers.
A planned railway line causes displeasure
Tourists and the Perreira family will soon be able to discover the Costa Maya comfortably by train. The National Fund for the Promotion of Tourism is currently building another section of the “Tren Maya” railway project, which from 2024 should cover a distance of almost 1500 kilometers. Freight trains and normal passenger trains will also use the new rail network.
The expensive mammoth project of the Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador is supposed to stimulate tourism in the poor south-east of the country, but is controversial because of the interventions in nature that it involves.
There is also displeasure that López Obrador is pushing the project forward despite the corona-related flagging economy and has awarded the contract to a company owned by the Mexican oligarch Carlos Slim Helù, one of the richest people in the world. Even a vacation paradise is not spared the twists and turns of realpolitik.
Tips and information for Mexico
Getting there: From Germany there are usually several direct connections to Cancún, which are currently paused due to the corona. According to the Foreign Office, flights between Frankfurt and Mexico City have resumed. German travelers do not need a visa, but a valid passport.
Corona-Lage: The Federal Foreign Office continues to warn against tourist trips to Mexico, which is particularly badly affected by Covid-19. The Yucatán peninsula is not one of the regional focal points. The Mexican health authorities do not currently require a certificate of health or test results upon entry, but a questionnaire must be completed to identify risk factors. According to the office, travelers must also expect to be medically examined.
Information desk: visitmexico.com