The ancient Mayan ruins of Tulum are situated less than two hours south of Cancun in Mexico’s Riviera Maya, which lies along the nation’s only Caribbean coast on the Yucatan Peninsula. As the only ruins overlooking the sea, exploring Tulum is a no-brainer for visitors to the area, offering easy access to the ancient site and a modern town with a cool, eco-chic vibe that is unparalleled in the region.
Interestingly, many of the key features seen at other Mayan sites are also visible in Tulum, which happens to be the only Mayan city along the coast and was built around 1,200 AD in the post-classic period when the Mayan empire’s grandest cities had already collapsed and smaller, more isolated villages had become the new cultural norm. At its height, boats carrying treasures like jade, obsidian and precious metals were guided through the world’s second largest barrier reef by the placement of the temples on land.
Still, it’s a good idea to venture beyond Tulum if at all possible, since there are literally dozens of other ancient Mayan sites throughout the region. From the ultra-high towers of the ruins at Coba to the intricate details adorning Uxmal to the impressive display of power at the onetime state capital of Calakmul, the Riviera Maya is ripe for exploration.
Another often-overlooked site is found at Ek Balam, which is still largely covered by thick jungle canopy and is in need of excavation. Still, the structures that have been uncovered are well worth the trip. It will take a little less than two hours from Tulum or Playa del Carmen (one way) to reach the ruins of Ek Balam, and just over two hours from Cancun.
“Most of the hillocks are actually unexcavated buildings – but the Acropolis is mostly cleared and absolutely enormous,” wrote Australia’s Bendigo Advertiser. “This is one of the few major Mayan sites that isn’t roped off.”
After climbing the 31-meter-high, 160-meter-long and 70-meter-wide main structure, visitors are rewarded by a stunning view of the jungle stretching out to the horizon, with a temple peeking through here and there above the tree line.
If you make it to Chichen Itza, which remains one of the most-visited Mayan sites in Mexico’s Riviera Maya, consider timing the trip so you can witness the spring or fall equinox, which is when one of the site’s many hidden secrets is visible at the El Castillo pyramid.
“The light makes a snake shape down the edge of the grand pyramid, while the 91 steps on each side, plus the one on the top, add up to 365, representing the days of the year,” wrote the Bendigo Advertiser.
Insider Tip: Clap your hands outside the El Castillo pyramid, and the acoustics make for a squawk-like sound – designed to resemble that of the quetzal bird, which the ancient Mayans greatly admired for its beautiful feathers.
Ultimately, archaeologists are still working to discover exactly what happened to topple the might of the great Mayan civilization that once ruled Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, which collapsed and splintered into smaller groups. Of course, invading Spaniards and Europeans didn’t help, but there is likely more to the story remaining to be discovered.
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