By Dave & Deb Bouskill, on May 9, 2013

History, Mayan style

The Mayan Riviera has skyrocketed to the top of Mexico’s tourist attractions. Stretching from Playa del Carmen to Tulum, it’s a place filled with beautiful beaches, magnificent all-inclusive resorts, a healthy ocean reef for scuba diving, and plenty of history.


While most people go to the Mayan Riveria to work on their tans, the region’s history is worth a look, too. The Riviera Maya takes its name from the Mayans, the first people to settle in the area. Visitors can learn more about their ancient civilizations by visiting their temples and crumbling cities.

Tulum in the Riviera Maya


My husband, Dave, and I once took a bus through the area from Cancun to the Belize border and made a point to stop and see all the sites along the way. One of the easiest archaeological sites to get to is Tulum, the only site set on the water.


One can understand easily why the Mayans chose to settle at Tulum. Set high on a cliff overlooking the sea, the temple’s high vantage point gave it protection from invaders sailing through the ocean, while a high wall protected it from surprise attacks from the jungle. Bring your bathing suit along, because the beach below is sandy and inviting.

Chichen Itza in Riviera Maya


Chichen Itza

If you want to really delve into Mayan History, a visit to Chichen Itza is a must. It’s a little bit of a drive from most resorts, but the payoff is worth it, as the site has been preserved and restored wonderfully. The main attraction is definitely the temple of El Castillo, which rises 90 feet into the air. This spot is particularly intriguing around the spring or autumn equinoxes; during these times of year, the sun casts a shadow down the steps, creating the illusion of a giant serpent slithering over the pyramid.


You cannot climb El Castillo anymore, but visitors can explore inside Chichen Itza if they wish. Consider yourself warned: The passageways are narrow. We do not recommend this if you suffer from claustrophobia.


One thing we do recommend: The Great Ball Court. The acoustics here are incredible; if you clap your hands, you will hear the noise echo throughout the stands. Warriors played in front of the royal court for centuries, and whoever won was sacrificed to the Gods.

Viewfinder Tip: Tulum is a popular destination for cruise excursions, so get there early to avoid the crowds.


Another site worth visiting are the ruins of Coba. The main draw here is that the site is interactive; it’s one of the only spots on the Mayan Riviera where you can still climb the pyramid. The tower of the site is actually higher than El Castillo, standing at nearly 140 feet. When you get to the top, you’ll be above the jungle canopy, getting a panoramic view of the land surrounding the ancient city.


Coba still has a wild feel as it’s not nearly as excavated as Chichen Itza. It reminds us more of the Guatemalan ruins of Tikal, with its jungle surroundings and wildlife. Trees sprout out of rocks and ruins and sounds of nature fill the air. It receives far fewer visitors than the other two cities mentioned above.


However you decide to get out there and see some of the sights of the Mayan Riviera, it’s an amazing place filled with an interesting culture connected to a fascinating past. All three ruins are very different and if you have the time it’s fun to visit all three. But even if you only see one Mayan City, you’ll be amazed by the architecture and enthralled with the history.


How do you like to explore ancient historical sites?