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(2013 - Spring/Summer Issue)


Many expected the world to end in 2012 when the 5,125-year-old Maya Calendar ran out of time.

However for Mexico, it meant the start of an exciting new era marked by an enthusiastic revival of the Maya culture.

On my most recent trip to the Yucatan Peninsula, once home to the ancient Maya civilization, I was pleased to see the number of cultural, historical, gastronomic and entertainment experiences available—and emerging. From the unveiling of new archaeological sites to the resurrection of ancient games, cuisine and customs, there’s certainly enough happening to plan several trips into time on the Riviera Maya.

Maya Heritage

Xcaret, once a Maya port city, hosts historical and cultural activities throughout the year. These include the annual Sacred Maya Journey in May, when 300 rowers from Xcaret, Cozumel and Playa del Carmen in Maya attire and body paint paddle across the channel to Cozumel in 25 handcrafted canoes (xcaret.com/events).

The old fishing village of Playa del Carmen is a cultural hub for the area. During the heyday of the Maya world, it was an important stop along the trade and fishing routes of the Yucatan. It is also near the ruins at Xel-Ha, Coba and Tulum. Today, visitors to Fifth Avenue—the town’s main street—can buy Maya handicrafts, sample Maya cuisine and purchase rare tequilas from the Tequila Museum. And dine on some of the freshest seafood at La Casa del Agua.

The Maya peoples also used natural resources to heal and revitalize their bodies. We received quite an education in such treatments at the Fiesta Americana Grand Coral Beach Gem Spa. The spa uses jade, amethyst, obsidian and copal resin in massage therapy as well as healing plants and their oils. We were told the ancient Maya “prized chocolate for its uplifting ingredients,” so I just had to try the chocolate body wrap.

Some theme parks house authentic or recreated historical experiences, such as swimming in cenotes, deep natural pits sacred to the Maya. Exploration diving in caves is also a popular pursuit near Tulum—home to some of the world’s longest cave systems. The largest, Ox Bel Ha, is about 240 kilometres long.

Maya Architecture

Architecture buffs will find that the Yucatan has no end to what they can uncover. Dotting the peninsula are remains of Maya cities of every size. Characteristics of the architecture include limestone and masonry structures featuring stepped platforms, temple-pyramids and palaces arranged around large plazas or courtyards. Among the most famous is Mexico’s Chichen Itza, whose Kukulkan temple-pyramid is one of the New 7 Wonders of the World. The city itself is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Other places for exploring architecture include the Museo de la Cultura Maya in Chetumal and the nearby ruins of Oxtankah. Closer to Cancun are several archaeological sites such as El Rey and El Meco. El Rey was a Maya city of 47 structures built between 1200 and 1521. At El Meco, about six kilometres north of Cancun, visitors can see the remains of temples, columns and stucco-covered walls around the large central plaza. Smaller archaeological sites are located in the Lake Region at Chacchoben, in Yucatan State at Uxmal, and in Cancun at San Miguelito and YumilLu’um.

The recently opened Museo Maya de Cancún houses a collection of some 350 Maya artifacts from various archaeological sites in the state of Quintana Roo. These include 14,000-year-old skeletal remains from Tulum’s underwater caves, and relics never before shown to the public. The museum also serves as a cultural scene where locals and tourists can mingle and learn more about Maya history.

I’ve noticed that some of the area’s resorts either emulate Maya architecture, or incorporate features that evoke the heritage. For example, the Grand Oasis Cancun is built like a Maya city constructed around a central pyramid. The new Riu Palace Peninsula has its own archaeological find on the grounds. And our resort in Playa del Carmen—the Grand Riviera Princess—incorporates a massive court-yard reminiscent of those in ancient Maya cities. Dotting the property are statues, pillars and palapas (thatched huts).

Maya Cuisine

I found cuisine in the Yucatan to be different from Mexican food in other parts of the country—and from the Americanized versions. Noted for unique seasonings and food combinations, it uses corn flour as a base for staples such as tortillas and tamales. Happily, one of my favourites—salsa verde (the sweat-inducing green hot sauce based on an ancient Maya recipe)—is the same as elsewhere.

Our first meal at the laid-back Pueblo Maya Restaurant in the village of Piste near Chichen Itza started with a refreshing green tea-type drink made from the chaya plant. Buffet choices included lime soup with tortilla noodles, corn tortillas with beef, and corn tamales stuffed with pork baked in a pit with banana leaves. Other fillings included vegetables and chicken. We had similar casual buffets in other places we visited, including at the Beach Club Albatros on Isla Mujeres.

At the Fiesta Americana Grand Coral Resort, executive sous-chef Rubén Ruelas treated us to a highly educational and flavourful Maya-Asian menu, with courses served progressively throughout the hotel. After serving a tasting menu of appetizers paired with an array of tequilas, Ruelas’s team brought out chicken pibil in hard-shell tacos garnished with onion confit and cilantro pearls. Shrimp flambé with Xtabentun (anise) liqueur and sea bass with miso sauce came with sides of coconut rice and mango chutney. And rounding out our evening’s entertainment on the beach was a fire-dancer dressed as a primitive Maya shaman.

Travel Planner

We flew into Cancun with Sunwing, upgrading to roomy Elite Plus seats for only $40 extra. For more information, visit:

Riviera Maya Tourist Promotion Trust: rivieramaya.com

Mexico Tourism Board: visitmexico.com

Sunwing: sunwing.ca

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