Ever since it first appeared on the map of Mexico in the late 70s – a sun-kissed location in the north-east corner of the Yucatan Peninsula ideal for development as the country sought to grow its tourism industry – Cancun has been known as a classic beach break kind of place. The majority of the visitors who arrive on flights to Cancun every year know what they are paying for, and are happy to receive it – excellent beaches nuzzled by warm ocean waters, a first-rate choice of restaurants and cuisines, and a party atmosphere that sees full bars every night.
But Cancun also springs a surprise. Its history. The resort-town itself has been here for barely a moment – but the coastal strip that flows south of it, the Riviera Maya, is one of the most important archaeological zones on the planet. Between roughly 200AD and the arrival of the conquering Spanish in the early 16th century, the Yucatan Peninsula was the domain of the Maya civilisation. And two millennia on, you can explore the ‘lost’ cities this advanced people created – assuming you can tear yourself from the beach, of course.
Archaeology with a capital A
The greatest evidence of the majesty of the Maya realm are the ruined cities that were left behind, their high structures and elegant architecture still projecting power half a century after the Spanish came, saw and conquered. Three of them sit within easy reach of Cancun. Of these, the smallest is probably the prettiest – Tulum, a port some 80 miles south, where grey-stone buildings are arranged on the edge of an azure-blue bay. But Coba, a little inland from Tulum, retains more of its mystery. Only small portions of this vast site have been properly excavated, and you experience a sense of awe as you spot its half-hidden temples (including the towering Nohoch Mul) peeping from between the treetops.
The superstar, though, is Chichen Itza. About 100 miles west of Cancun, here is a slice of A-list archaeology so impressive (the giant El Castillo pyramid is a cue for jaws to drop) that it was voted one of the ‘new’ Seven Wonders Of The World in a global poll in 2007.
Dive into historical depths
You can find further traces of Mayan life all over the region – but the most atmospheric echoes owe nothing to man. The cenotes that riddle the Riviera Maya are one of its quirks – freshwater sinkholes that plunge deep into the earth, often linked to subterranean caves. These chasms had religious significance for the Maya, who viewed them as gateways to the afterlife. Bones found at the bottom of certain cenotes – including, in the case of Chichen Itza, human femurs – suggests they were used for sacrifices in times of turmoil. Happily, they now serve a rather more upbeat purpose – as splash sites with a difference for the truly intrepid. Many cenotes are open for public use, whether for a simple spot of swimming in cool, crystal-clear pools, or for a session of advanced diving in underground tunnels.
Some might say that the most beautiful Mayan throwback in this corner of the Yucatan Peninsula is not its historical sites – but the beaches that make up its fabulous shoreline. The Maya were – in this part of their kingdom at least – a coastal people, as the dusty beauty of Tulum indicates. And the beaches were a part of this, the edge of their world. Five hundred years on, these beaches can still be as special as they would have been in the 16th century. The Riviera Maya begins some 10 miles below Cancun, and ebbs south for 75 miles in a largely unspoiled strip. And you can find particularly glorious pockets dotted along this soft line of sand – not least on either side of the town of Playa Del Carmen, where the golden curve of Playa Tukan is highly popular with locals who, in their unhurried demeanour and sunny disposition, are heirs and descendants of the Maya.
Note: this post was brought to you in partnership with Virgin Atlantic.