Mexico's official language is Spanish, but it has a rich pre-colonial heritage with 15.7 million indigenous people constituting 14.9% of the population that still speak languages used before Columbus discovered America. The largest ethnic group is the Maya which comprise over 50% of the people living in the Yucatan peninsula. A trip to Cancun offers the opportunity to tour Chichen Itza and Tulum, which are archeological sites that demonstrate the knowledge of astronomy, mathematics and architecture of the pre-Columbian Maya civilization. In the middle of the 16th century, the Spanish conquerors burned and destroyed most of the writings of the Maya under orders of Catholic priests who considered the codices to contain only superstitions and lies of the devil. These codices actually contained the history of more than eight hundred years of Maya civilization.
The tourist industry is very well organized in Cancun. You can book a day tour through your hotel or at a kiosk on the street. Some tours include lunch. After you pay for your ticket, you are told at what time the tour bus will pick you up from your hotel. This is usually between 7:30 and 8:00 AM the next day. At the end of the tour, the bus drops you off at your hotel. The door-to-door service makes it very convenient and easy. It is advisable to carry a tote bag with sun block, a hat and some bottles of water to drink.
The distance between Cancun and Chichen Itza is about 200 kilometers (124 miles). It takes the bus about two hours to get there, but the tour may also include a stop at a "cenote" or natural swimming hole formed by the dissolution of porous limestone bedrock.
The Cenote Suytun is an underground water-filled cave which is illuminated by sunlight passing through a hole on the ground above. On the surface, the hole is surrounded by a fence to keep people from falling into the cave. People who want to swim have to use life vests and they are requested at the beginning of the tour to use only approved biodegradable sun block lotions in order not to contaminate the water.
Some local men make a living by dressing up as Mayan warriors and posing for pictures for the tourists.
In the area around the cenote, there are stores that sell silver and gold amulets customized with Mayan hieroglyphs corresponding to your name. Other products include carved onyx and obsidian figurines. The silver craftsman, below, has a chart in the background showing how the Latin alphabet is mapped to the Mayan hieroglyphs.
Chichen Itza was a large pre-Columbian city occupied by the Maya people from about AD 600 until AD 1200. The ruins of Chichen Itza are federal property maintained by Mexico's National Institute of Anthropology and History.
The Temple of Kukulkan, which was built between the 9th and 12th centuries, is not a burial pyramid like the ones in Egypt. The temple was used to worship Kukulkan, a Feathered Serpent deity related to the god Quetzalcoatl of the Aztecs. The temple consists of nine terraces with stairways leading to the altar on each of its four sides. Sculptures of plumed serpents run down the sides of the northern railings. During the spring and autumn equinoxes, the late afternoon sun strikes the northwest corner of the pyramid and casts a series of triangular shadows against the northwest railing, creating the illusion of a feathered serpent slithering down the pyramid.
Each of the pyramid's four sides has 91 steps which, when added together and including the temple platform on top, produces a total of 365 steps corresponding to the number of days in the year. Maya architecture always considered astronomical data to maintain harmony between the physical world and the spiritual domain.
The Maya commemorated their dead by carving skulls in special memorial walls. The image above is reminiscent of the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C., but with skulls instead of names.
Tulum is approximately 131 kilometers (about 81 miles) south from Cancun. A trip by bus takes almost two hours along the coastal highway. On the way back to Cancun, the bus may stop for a lunch break at Playa del Carmen for a couple of hours before heading back to the hotels.
The Tulum national park was established in 1981 with the purpose of conserving, protecting and restoring the ecosystem and the natural resources of the area.
The architecture of Tulum is similar to that of Chichen Itza, but with an East Coast style. The buildings are small in height and complexity. The walls of the buildings were covered with stucco façades that were decorated with mural paintings in bright colors. Tulum was one of the most important Mayan commercial ports in the east coast. It had a defensive wall which separated and protected the elite from the common people who lived outside the wall. Tulum was established around AD 400 and it reached its most prosperous time from 1200 to 1450.
The main function of mural painting was to decorate the buildings with representations of the natural environment and ritual themes. Many of the paintings depicted priests and deities.
On a one-day tour, you may not have enough time to visit the archeological grounds and swim in the sea. If you go to the beach, you will just be able to take a quick dip to cool off, and then you have to hurry back to the meeting place to catch the bus.