Attractions in Yucatan, Mexico: What to do and where to go
The Yucatan Peninsula has a lot of attractions to offer the visitor. If you are fond of history you can visit the cities of Merida, Valladolid or Tizimin, where the streets and architecture are reminiscent of colonial times. If you are looking for some sand and sun, then visit the beautiful beaches of Puerto Progreso, Celestun or Telchac. If you love archaeology, then Chichen Itza, Uxmal, and Mayapan should be at the top of your list. Furthermore, there are several interesting tours to the many haciendas, or alternatively take a trip along the Puuc Route.
Yucatan is synonymous with diversity; open your senses and get to know all the wonders this fabulous state has to offer.
Caves and Caverns
There is an extensive network of underground caverns or grottos in the Yucatan Peninsula with awesome rock formations of all shapes and sizes. Perhaps it is due to these formations that the ancient Maya considered them sacred and ceremonial sites. Regardless of Mayan deities, the caverns are truly magnificent. Some of the most famous ones are Balankanche, San Ignacio, Calcehtok, Tzabna, and Loltun. It is important to hire a tour guide, because the system of caves is large and complex and require the use of special equipment to navigate them.
Cenotes or Sinkholes
The cenotes or underground rivers are enormous fresh water reservoirs that have been used as drinking water for thousands of years and can only be found in Florida, Yucatan, and the island of Cuba. The Mayans erected their most important constructions near cenotes and used the freshwater for drinking, irrigation and also for religious rituals; in fact the cenotes were considered portals to the underworld. Only 440 cenotes have ever been mapped and registered out of the estimated 4,000 that exist in the peninsula. When visiting the area, do not miss out on the opportunity to swim in a cenote, it is an experience you'll never forget.
In this expanse of territory, in the center of the State of Yucatan, discover the majesty of Maya antiquity in Chichen Itza, which represents one of the most important sites of archeological richness on the planet. It is visited yearly by millions of people who wish to experience for themselves the grandeur, beauty and culture of this fascinating Maya legacy. Because of the grand cultural heritage and its distinctive monuments, like the Pyramid of Kukulcan, the Observatory and the Temple of the One Thousand Columns, Chichen Itza has been deemed a World Heritage Site and one of the new Seven Wonders of the World.
Dzibilchaltun is a small site, but it is an extremely interesting one, found north of Merida. One of the main attractions occurs at the Temple of the Seven Dolls where, at sunrise on the spring equinox, the sun shines directly through one window of the temple and out the other, creating a magnificent light and shadow phenomena on the west wall of the temple. The site consists of several buildings, some of which are being restored, and also a fresh water cenote, which you are welcome to swim in. Dizibichaltun also features a fantastic museum that displays a comprehensive collection of interesting artifacts that were found on the site.
In Yucatan there are a number of reserves that protect a variety of flora and fauna, unique to this part of the world. It's a paradise for people who love adventure and ecotourism. Here you can walk, take a bike ride, go kayaking or fishing and enjoy the freshly-made local specialties, all imaginatively seasoned and cooked to perfection. Feel the energy of a natural world that sleeps with the setting sun, where the song of thousands of birds from trees and mangroves welcomes the starry night.
The main ecological reserve in Yucatan is Celestun, a port full of mystery, where some of the most exotic species of the peninsula exist side by side. Other important reserves are El Palmar where the main attraction is the enormous lighthouse, said to be the tallest in the state; Dzilam de Bravo, San Felipe and Rio Lagartos. The last one encompasses the ports of El Cuyo and Las Coloradas. Without a doubt, the natural beauty and magic of Yucatan will captivate you, as you get back to nature and enjoy an outstanding gift for the eyes and the heart.
Celestun is one of the most picturesque harbors on the coast of Yucatan. Celestun's main attraction is the mangroves; one of the main nesting grounds for flamingos in the country. The tour consists of a boat ride through the natural tunnels formed by the mangrove. There is a spring called Baldiosera, which has the largest concentration of fresh water in the entire mangrove, and also a series of docks for boats. Beyond the spring lays the Petrified Forest, resembling a surreal painting. A visit to Celestun shouldn't be missed.
Ek' Balam was the capital of the Tah Empire, to whom the tribes from the eastern part of the state and along the coast paid tribute. This is evident in the many shells found here that were given as offerings. The site spans around 12 square kilometers and it is said that it was founded by a lord called Ek'Balam or Coch Cal Balam, who came from the east and ruled the city for 40 years.
Ek' Balam has a total of 45 structures. It is surrounded by two concentric stone walls, and has another that joins the central buildings. The walls were a line of defense and also helped to control access to the inner city. There is a ball court and a beautiful archway marking the entrance to the sacbe or sacred walk, which in ancient times connected Ek' Balam to other Mayan cities. The main site is called The Acropolis, measuring 520 ft long, 225 ft wide and 105 ft high. A great number of vaulted rooms, located on the many different levels, are connected by passageways, similar to the secret passages found in the castles of medieval Europe.
When the Spanish colonized the area, hundreds of 'haciendas' flourished throughout Yucatan, built near important trade and transportation routes. At first the haciendas planted corn, then sugarcane and finally they grew henequen. Nowadays the haciendas are interesting places to visit, where visitors can enjoy the natural scenery and participate in a variety of ecological activities. Some of the most famous haciendas are found near Merida, such as San Antonio Cucul, Teya, and Dzoyola.
It is believed that Mayapan was the last inhabited Mayan capital of the Yucatan, until the middle of the 15th century when it was ransacked and abandoned. This ancient city was built to resemble Chichen Itza, a fact that can be appreciated on the layout of the main plaza. The architectural style has influences from Central Mexico, blended with that of other ancient Mayan cities. The main building in Mayapan, the Castle, features an incredible 49 foot statue. Scholars believe the city had a population of 12,000 inhabitants at its peak.
Ruta Puuc, The Route of the Gods
Puuc is the Maya name given to a series of low-lying hills, upon which a unique Indian culture used to live in wonderfully constructed cities. Uxmal is definitely one of the best remaining examples; however, not far away you'll find other important Mayan ruins, such as Kabah, which was the second largest religious center on the Puuc route, and Sayil, another extensive urban center that flourished between 600 and 900 AD. One of the greatest jewels of Puuc architecture is the beautiful site of Xlapak (The Palace), and another area definitely worth visiting is Labna, famous for its beautifully carved stone archway, which is just one of a beautiful group of buildings distributed around a small valley.
Some of the most prominent characteristics of Puuc architecture include pyramids finished with crests; small, false columns embedded in the facades, and drawings of stylized Mayan huts. Repetitive patterns of geometrically cut stones and motifs were also frequently used. Other commonly found figures are snakes and masks of the rain god Chaac, recognizable by his bulging eyes, large fangs, and snout-like nose which curves upwards like a trumpet.
Several cisterns found in the area, called chultunes, served to collect fresh rainwater. These were the only source of storage for this vital liquid and the reason why Chaac is held in such high regard. The Maya population all worshipped Chaac to ensure sufficient rain and you'll be able to see plenty of representations of him all over the sites.
Uxmal is one of the most well known Mayan sites in Yucatan and it is considered the finest in the peninsula by many scholars. Its name means 'made three times' in Mayan, and it owes its name to the highest structure on the site, the Pyramid of the Magician. The Mayans would frequently build a new structure over an existing one, but in this case there is evidence of five different building stages. Uxmal was once one of the largest cities in the Mayan world and at its peak it had a population of 25,000 inhabitants.
Even though the site is not very large, it is recommended to spend at least half a day exploring it, but you will probably want to come back a second time to see more of the intricate work on the buildings.
Telchac Puerto is a very peaceful place where time seems to have stood still, a place perfect for an incredible vacation far away from all the hustle and bustle of everyday life. Hospitable people, a rich gastronomy (based on fish and seafood), and delicious traditional sweets from the region, are Telchac's main attractions. Located 41 miles north of Merida, Telchac is home to one of the many breathtaking beaches on the coast of Yucatan, just waiting to be explored.
With a population of 38,000 inhabitants, Valladolid is the second most important city in Yucatan. Valladolid was founded in 1543 by Francisco de Montejo and was the center of all activity and development during the colonial period. Even to this day you can still see beautiful buildings, churches and cobbled stone streets, reminders of this wonderful city's beginnings. Including a visit to Valladolid on your trip itinerary is highly recommended. Valladolid is not far from Chichen Itza and there are several cenotes nearby worth visiting and swimming in.
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