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Explore the Riviera Maya tour options offered through WestJet Vacations
Visit Coba, a spectacular archeological site hidden inside the rainforest. This tour includes a stop at the Nohoch Muul temple – the most famous temple in the region. The tour then takes you to an authentic Mayan community, providing you with an opportunity to learn about how the Mayan live. Next, a Mayan guide will take you through the rainforest, teaching you about local flora and fauna.
For an added element of adventure, take a heart-thumping zip line ride that flies over a gorgeous “cenote” (natural sinkhole). You’ll also have a chance to rappel down the inside of the cenote and take a refreshing dip in its crystal waters. Cap off the afternoon with a delicious and authentic meal, prepared by the Mayans.
Nestled amidst the luxurious rainforests of the Riviera Maya and against the shores of a glittering turquoise sea, you’ll find Xcaret. Meaning “small inlet” in Mayan, Xcaret is a spectacular eco park in the heart of the Riviera Maya. Here you’ll find a museum with models of the ancient Mayan cities, a butterfly pavilion, wild bird breeding aviary, archaeological zone and two underground rivers. You can also swim and enjoy water sports at the beach and protected cove area.
Xcaret is an all-day excursion with a world-renowned evening show to top off your adventure. Plan to spend the entire day here – it’s amazing!
Scuba diving in Cancun
When you sink into the Cancun Underwater Museum, the world’s largest diving museum, it’s something right out of a dream. Some 400 submerged life-size statues of people peer upward at you while others have their arms crossed. Even sitting at the ocean bottom, they are stunningly realistic and the ripples of underwater light bring them to life.
British-born artist Jason deCaires Taylor created the sculptures for The Silent Evolution installation in 2010. When you’re exploring the museum, keep in mind that it’s a living, breathing, habitat-saving reef; sea worms have already drilled holes into the sculptures.
When you reach a depth of eight metres, make sure to pull out your underwater camera. It is a great place to shoot underwater photos and videos that show something other than colourful fish.
To keep things fresh, there are special events planned with new artists and new works each year. The sculptures are within the boundaries of The National Marine Park of Isla Mujeres, Punta Cancun and Punta Nizuc.
Most Cancun dive operators offer excursions to the museum and costs range from US$30 to US$90, depending on the size of your group. Scuba Cancun is one of many operators offering equipment rental, lessons and tours, with a certified diver.
If you’re looking for other places to dive nearby, you don’t have to go far. One of the most popular diving day trips takes you to the island of Cozumel. Drive one hour south of Cancun to Playa del Carmen, where you can catch a quick ferry to Cozumel. Many dive operators offer same-day packages to the island that get you back to Cancun within the day.
Snorkeling in Cancun
Cancun is a year-round snorkeler’s paradise. As you weave your way through lagoons and mangroves, the hotels and beach are still in eyesight. You’ll feel as if you’re tunnelling through to another world. Anchor near a reef so you can snorkel amidst exotic fish, like grouper, which changes colour to match its surroundings.
Aquaworld is one of the many Cancun snorkel and dive operators offering multi-package adventures along with mix-and-match activities. Prices vary according to the operator and the activity.
Punta Nizuc, Punta Cancun and Playa Tortugas are other good places to snorkel. You may also want to snorkel right off the beach in nearby Nizuc Park on Punta Nizuc in Cancun’s Hotel Zone or the Westin Regina (Blvd. Kukulcan Km 20) near the southern tip of the Hotel Zone.
There are many places to rent snorkel equipment and prices start at US$5 daily. Typically, tours provide the equipment. A good strategy is to check with your hotel concierge. If using rental equipment makes you uncomfortable, you may want to bring your own mask, snorkel and flippers.
Exploring Mayan Ruins within Cancun
If you’re pressed for time, discover Mayan ruins within Cancun – even better, do so without even leaving the Hotel Zone. There are two options for easy trips you may be able to go on, just a short walk or bus ride from your hotel.
The smallest site of ancient ruins in Cancun is Yamil Lu’um, also known as the Templo de Alacran (Scorpions Temple). You’ll find the ruins between the Westin Laguna Mar Ocean Resort and the Park Royal Piramides Resort, just steps from the beach. While they’re modest compared to the well-known Mayan ruins of Chitzen Itza (at least a 2.5 hour drive from the city), there are no crowds at Yamil Lu’um and admission is free.
The oceanfront offers the best access to the ruins, which you can easily explore in 10 to 15 minutes.
You can also see ruins of Ruinas el Rey (The King’s Ruins) at the Zona Arquelogica El Rey. Located at Boulevard Kukulcan Km 17.5, across from Delphinus Beach, these spots have a budget-friendly admission.
El Rey was the first archeological zone explored in Cancun and it’s an important ceremonial centre dating back to 1250-1521 AD. Don’t miss the part of the structure labelled as 3B, where archaeologists discovered an ancient crowned head. This archeological site is also a hotbed for hungry iguanas that crowd at your feet waiting to be fed.
Enjoying Cancun Beaches
All beaches in Cancun are open to public. You’ll likely have to access them by walking through your hotel lobby.
There are 10 public access points to the beaches and 10 major beach areas. One of the most popular is Playa Delfines at Km 18 in the Hotel Zone near Punta Nizuc. It is great for sunbathing but beware of swift currents and heavy undertows when swimming.
After Hurricane Wilma damaged Cancun’s beaches in 2005, the Mexican government spent a lot of money on the beach reclamation project. Beachfronts from Punta Cancun near Dreams to Punta Nizuc near Club Med, a length of about 11 km, were restored. In many cases, the beaches are now bigger and better than ever.
At Mercado 28, one of Cancun’s most well-known downtown markets, you’ll hear the music long before you see the Mexican classical guitar player wandering through the maze of outdoor restaurants.
This is a shopping attraction that gives you an authentic taste of local city life, where you can also buy souvenirs and knick-knacks of all types. You’ll also find higher-end items like silver, art and handicrafts at this huge collection of shops. And it’s okay—even expected—for visitors to try to strike a bargain with vendors.
Mercado 23 is the other major downtown Cancun outdoor market, with even more local flavour than Mercado 28. It’s the kind of place where you’ll be ducking beneath piñatas and ornate clothes hanging outside of stalls that sell everything from sweets to electronics. Try your bartering skills here or just wander and watch city folk browse and buy dried goods, vegetables and meat hanging on hooks at the carnicerias (butcher shops).
Hotel Zone Shopping Centres
In Cancun’s Hotel Zone, you’ll find the main shopping strip that links many of the individual hotels. Boulevard Kukulcan is studded with clean and convenient malls.
Walk to at least one from your hotel or take a taxi. The addresses are conveniently marked by kilometre: La Isla Shopping Village (12.5 km), Flamingo Plaza (11.5 km), Forum by the Sea (9.5 km), Kukulcan Plaza (13 km), Plaza Caracol (8.5 km) and Plaza Mayafair (8.5 km).
Find designer clothing, jewelry, perfumes, galleries and brand-name restaurants like Planet Hollywood in Flamingo Plaza. But keep in mind, it’s much more difficult to find rock-bottom bargains here.
If you’re in the mood to explore an upscale mall, wander around La Isla Shopping Centre. This outdoor mall on a tropical lagoon was designed to have a Venice-like feel and features a canal running through the centre. You’ll see the European influence as you browse past stores and purple-canopied shops on either side of the water.
Of the 150 shops, you’re bound to find some bargains and plenty of choice for souvenirs. You’ll also find name-brand clothing like Zara and Diesel, as well as art and jewelry.
La Habichuela (Caribbean, $$$$)
If you’re looking for a romantic atmosphere, mouth-watering Caribbean-style seafood and classic Mexican dishes, head to La Habichuela. This restaurant has been around for more than 30 years and is an American Academy of Hospitality Sciences Five Diamonds Award winner.
The best time to dine in the beautiful sculpture garden is in the evening when it is beautifully lit. The specialty, Cocobichuela, has chunks of lobster and shrimp in curry sauce, served in a coconut shell. To round out your meal, order a Mayan coffee, prepared at your table and finish with vanilla ice cream.
This is the kind of restaurant where you’re bound to bump into both travellers and locals who have been there many times before.
Pericos (Mexican/Southwestern, $$$)
In the dining room of Pericos, you’ll see giant Viva Mexico sombreros, Day of the Dead art on the walls and bright splashes of colour everywhere. Mariachi musicians play big guitars, dressed in full black-suit regalia. If you’re adventurous, join the conga-line and dance with the senoritas wearing red sashes.
The Mexican fare here is good, but Pericos is mainly known for its flashy entertainment and lively atmosphere. In fact, by the end of the night, you may find you’ve loaded your tab with more drinks than eats.
This restaurant is for visitors of all ages and the children’s menu includes cheese quesadillas and chicken fingers. Servers even make balloon animals for the kids.
Adults should try the fish filet grilled in garlic sauce or the Mexican beef filet tips served with corn tortillas, among other tasty choices. There are also many flaming drinks here, so choose wisely and be safe.
Ty-Coz (Cafe, $)
Start your day in Cancun with a breakfast at Ty-Coz. This place is well known for its homemade bread and scrumptious sandwiches and is especially good for those on the go.
Ty-Coz is popular with both locals and travellers looking to get a jump on the day, as early as 7 a.m. Order a foot-long baguette called an economica (meaning economical) that’s made with garlic butter, salami, ham and cheese.
Or, you can choose from croissants and other brunch options. This is also a great place to get your early morning caffeine boost, like a traditional café con leche (coffee with milk).
La Suegra (Mexican/Southwestern, $)
If you feel like going on a thrifty adventure where locals eat, take a trip to downtown Cancun’s Market 23 near Avenida Tulum. Head straight into the centre and you’ll find a little restaurant called La Suegra.
Order the combo and get three tasty empanadas, tostados or panuchos (corn tortillas with beans, meat, lettuce and sour cream) with your choice of filling. Get a glass of agua de Jamaica, a popular and refreshing local Mexican drink made from dried hibiscus flowers (think iced tea without caffeine).
La Suegra is a great place for people-watching. Plus, you’re in a great location for browsing souvenir and handicraft shops.
Los de Pescado (Seafood, $)
Don’t leave Cancun without trying fresh fish tacos. Los de Pescado, which means “the fish ones,” is one of the most successful local taco and ceviche joints in Cancun. In fact, you’ll likely find more locals here than visitors, even though it’s in the Hotel Zone.
Los de Pescado is a very basic operation, and while there are only a few options on the menu, all of them are fresh, original and carefully prepared. The fish tacos, shrimp tacos and ceviche tostada are especially good. Or, if you want to spice up your meal, choose from several sauces and wash it all down with a cold beer or soft drink.
Las de Guantatos (Mexican/Southwestern, $$)
Las de Guantatos is a cool place to hang out on the beach. There are palm trees and even palapas (thatched umbrella-like roofs) that provide plenty of shade during the day. Order a torta ahogada (a sandwich submerged in sauce) or carnita tacos (tacos with meat filling). Listen to good music and have a true Mexican brew or cerveza such as Dos Equis or Negra Modelo.
Las de Guantatos is the kind of place where the experience trumps the food. You’ll find locals here enjoying the vibe and the sandwiches too.
Golf and spa
Playa Mujeres Golf Club
Golf legend turned designer Greg Norman designed the greens at Playa Mujeres Golf Club—his first course in Cancun. He planned the 18-hole course to naturally fit among the palm groves, seasonal wetlands and ambling dunes. There is a clubhouse and pro shop on site.
Riviera Cancun Golf & Resorts
Riviera Cancun is the creation of legendary golfer Jack Nicklaus. The course has a rating of 76.2 and a slope of 146. It’s a tough course, but those who love a good challenge will love this one.
Nicklaus raised the grade and girded the course with waste bunkers, collection areas and mounding to “contain the ball.” And it works.
At the club house, you have access to a snack bar, pro-shop and sauna.
Cancun Golf Club at Pok-Ta-Pak
Looking for a course that’s a good warm-up after getting off the plane? Nestled between the Caribbean Sea and Nichupte Lagoon, Cancun Golf Club is home to one of the most playable courses in the city.
Designer Robert Trent Jones Jr. created this 18-hole course with an open, flat track to highlight views of the Mayan ruins and blue waters of the sea and lagoon.
Kukulcan Golf Club
If you’re staying in the Zona Hotelera and want to keep the commute to the golf course short, visit Kukulcan Golf Club. This 6,734 yard, 18-hole, par 72 course is affiliated with the Hilton Cancun and good for golfers of all skill levels. There’s also a good sized practice area that contains a full-size range and putting green.
The course shares space with El Rey, a noted Mayan site, and plenty of crocodiles. If you’re lucky, you might even see a few of the snappers while you play.
Ruinas el Rey (all ages)
Ruinas el Rey, also known as The King’s Ruins or El Rey, is one of the lesser-known Mayan ruins. The site sits in the main Hotel Zone of Cancun at Km 17, across from Playa Delfines. It’s an ideal place to introduce older children to Mayan history, without investing in a whole daytrip to the major sites of Chichen Itza or Tulum.
While the structures may not be as impressive as the larger sites, you can still see the remains of a small ruin and some fairly well preserved frescoes. The highlight for young children will definitely be the hundreds of iguanas that make El Rey their home.
Parents can enjoy the history and the inexpensive entrance fee of about US$3 a person. Ruinas el Rey is easily accessible by bus (about US$0.70) or taxi (price will vary depending on your starting point).
The site is open all week from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. but it’s best to avoid going in the middle of the day. Please note: there is little shade here and the heat can be pretty intense, so remember to bring your hats.
The Interactive Aquarium at Plaza La Isla (all ages)
While young kids and teens may be perfectly content making sand castles and doing cannon balls into the pool all day, Cancun offers plenty of activities for the whole family outside the resort setting.
The Interactive Aquarium at Plaza La Isla (Km 12.5 in the Hotel Zone, entrance fee around US$10 per person) allows you to get up close and personal with marine life found in the Caribbean Sea.
Pet a baby shark (it feels like sandpaper!), learn about turtles and stingrays, and if you’re feeling adventurous, get lowered in a cage into the shark tank at feeding time! It’s a small aquarium so you can tour the whole place in about an hour.
Next, make your way up to the Jugo de Limon restaurant to enjoy a meal while watching the dolphins and sharks swim.
Cancun Duck Tour (age 9 and under)
The Cancun Duck Tour is a 90-minute bus and boat excursion that takes you from land to lagoon, tours the Hotel Zone and includes a stop at Ruinas el Rey.
Take a trip down the famed Kukulcan Boulevard, then hit the water of the Nichupte Lagoon, where you’ll see the natural sculptures created by the maze of mangroves. You may even spot one of the thousands of crocodiles that regularly swim through the waters.
Wear comfortable clothes and bring sunscreen. Beverages are available on-site. Tours depart daily from Plaza La Isla (Km 12.5 in the Hotel Zone). It’s a good idea to book in advance since this tour sells out quickly.
Crococun Zoo (all ages)
Discover your inner Tarzan or Jane at the Crococun Zoo in Puerto Morelos (about 30 minutes south of Cancun’s Hotel Zone). If you’ve ever wanted to hold a baby crocodile, drape a boa constrictor around your shoulders, feed the monkeys and deer or walk through a crocodile enclosure, this is your chance.
The guided tours are fun and educational (but shh, don’t tell the kids they’re learning on vacation!). Your entrance fee also includes a guidebook and a bag of food to share with the animals.
Located on the main highway, you can take the bus from downtown Cancun for just 20 pesos. Taxi prices will vary depending on your departure point, but will probably cost you around US$20 and up.
The Captain Hook Pirate Cruise (ages 12 and under)
What kid doesn’t love a good pirate tale? The Captain Hook Pirate Cruise is sure to thrill the whole family. Set sail on a 17th century Spanish ship and be prepared for action. The pirate crew entertains both young and old with their stories, games and songs. You’ll quickly find yourself swept away in a tale of the high seas.
The evening ends with a bang as pirates fight a battle between two opposing ships. As fireworks go off, the high-flying stunts of the crew will leave you breathless. The all-inclusive cruise includes a steak and lobster dinner and all-you-can-drink.
The ships depart from El Embarcadero (Km 4.5 in the Hotel Zone) and the excursion lasts approximately 3.5 hours. Be sure to check departure times in advance as they vary depending on the season.
Roots (Jazz & Blues, $$$)
If you want to listen to live jazz, rock or reggae, head to Roots. It’s a restaurant and bar in the downtown Ciudad Cancun core, near Parque de las Palapas and away from Cancun’s Hotel Zone.
Look for framed art and photographs on the wall behind the large stage, candle-lit tables and a small bar with wooden stools. This is a place with a hip vibe that’s more European café than rowdy bar.
Sip on a Remy Martin cognac for about US$10 and sample the salmon carpaccio for about US$13.
Coco Bongo (Dance Club, $$$)
For over-the-top entertainment that combines loud pulsing music with circus acts, Coco Bongo is the place to be. This Cancun must-see is a spectacle that’s always crowded and never boring. After all, the multi-level venue is often the site of MTV’s Spring Break coverage.
While the crowd is primarily in its 20s, you’ll find some over-50s here too. Live shows are intercut with DJs spinning house music. For about US$50 admission, you can get unlimited drinks, watch live shows, dance and soak up the frenzied atmosphere.
If you buy a gold member ticket for about US$100, you get VIP service that includes premium beverages. Get rolling at 8 p.m. and go as late as 3:30 a.m.
Senor Frogs (Dance Club, $$$)
Senor Frogs is one of the main venues where visitors to Cancun like to party during Spring Break. It’s casual enough so you can wear your bathing suit, which means you can head down the waterslide and into a lagoon late into the night.
Waiters twist balloon hats while conga lines of servers and patrons hop past on the way to more drinks. If you’re looking for a shot of fun with a dose of silliness, all mixed with flashing lights and loud music, you’ll love it here.
At night, Senor Frogs is geared to a younger, 20-something crowd. However, it’s open from noon to 2 a.m. and you can grab everything from chicken enchiladas to burgers here. Drinks range from Ice Blue Margaritas to long beakers filled with beer.
Bulldog Café and Concert Hall (Music Venue, $$$)
Once you get past the headless mannequins sporting Bulldog wear and the coral reef-themed ceiling at its entrance, you’ll love exploring this multi-tiered theatre-like venue.
Grab a seat at a table along the side with raised nooks for dancing and a stage for live acts. Depending on the day of the week, you can hear rock, hip-hop, pop, alternative and salsa here.
Price of admission (including drinks) goes up to about US$45. Your level of service may vary depending on the generosity of your tips. During weekdays, there are often bikini contests. This venue holds up to 3,000 people and the action usually starts at 10 p.m.
Dady'O Night Club (Dance Club, $$$)
Dady'O Night Club is in the heart of the Hotel Zone and is among the top choices for larger-than-life clubs in Cancun. The dance floor has two levels and it feels as if you’re inside a giant cave pulsing with state-of-the-art light and sound.
Paying around US$45 will get you access to all the drinks on the menu. There are bikini model searches on Thursdays. Next door, Dady'O Rocks is geared to an older crowd with a heavy emphasis on rock music.
Overnight in the fishing village of Isla Mujeres
On Isla Mujeres, you can get a taste of a different Mexico, just 11 km or 20 minutes from Cancun’s bustling shoreline. Water taxi and ferry services are available from the Hotel Zone, Punta Sam and Puerto Juarez—a port just north of downtown. From Puerto Juarez, you’ll pay about US$5 to zip over on a water cruiser. Keep in mind that you’ll be paying three times more for a roundtrip out of the Hotel Zone.
When you first arrive in Isla Mujeres, you’ll land at a pier along the harbour that has shops, beaches and hotels. Although there is a taxi stand, you can easily walk to most hotels or take a three-wheeled bicycle with drivers who can skillfully balance your luggage.
To avoid the party boats that go to Isla Mujeres just for the day, consider staying overnight. You’ll awaken to see the sunrise flare on the eastern rocks; a point the ancient Mayans considered sacred. The island’s small fishing village is now mainly geared towards tourism but it still has that laid-back feel. Clapboard houses painted blue and pink stand along narrow sand and cobblestone streets, forming a dazzling cityscape.
You can also snorkel and kayak at Garrafon Natural Reef Park, get a bird’s eye view of the island via zipline (about US$5), or tour the ruins of a temple dedicated to the Mayan goddess of fertility, Ixchel. Long ago, the Spanish named the island Isla Mujeres (Island of Women) when they discovered stone idols of women here.
If you visit Isla Mujeres in mid-July, don’t miss the annual Whale Shark Festival. Tour operators such as Ceviche Eco-tourism Adventures offer experiences where you can swim with the sharks (US$125 per person) or simply watch them from boats during narrated tours.
See Isla Contoy’s colourful flora and fauna
Isla Contoy is an island that’s also a protected national park. It is home to 250 different kinds of fish, 150 species of birds, three species of sea turtles and almost 100 varieties of flowers and plants.
The island is about 30 km north of Isla Mujeres and is only accessible by boat. The number of visitors here is restricted to 200 people a day, so you have to take authorized vessels from Cancun or Isla Mujeres to get in.
Once you’re on the island, take a guided tour led by one of the resident biologists or embark on a bird watching trip by boat to the nesting lagoon site of Puerto Viejo. The cost of this excursion is a US$10 donation.
Your excursion fare, additional activities and purchases at the souvenir store support scientific work for the island’s conservation and sustainability.
Escape to the relaxing island town of Isla Holbox
You can truly get away from it all on Isla Holbox (pronounced Hole-bosh)—a rustic island with sand streets rarely navigated by cars. Funky, low-rise boutique hotels stand right at the shore and a laid-back Caribbean island vibe will make you want to kick off your sandals as soon as you get there.
It’s about a two-and-a-half hour trip to Holbox by ferry from Cancun. You can take a day trip but it’s best to visit this island for at least one or two nights of pure relaxation.
Holbox is the kind of place where the evening’s best entertainment is stargazing. In the mornings, stroll the beaches, virtually alone, passing by pelicans in their natural habitat. Enjoy a delicious grilled lobster for lunch and sip on a cold beer as you watch the kite surfers skip along small waves near the shore.
The cozy little restaurant at Casa Las Tortugas Petit Beach Hotel and Spa has a great view of the ocean, as well as white and blue wooden fishing boats setting out for local catches.
To get to Isla Holbox from Cancun, take Highway 180 to the Puerta Verde Route. After about two hours, you’ll reach the town of Chiquila, where you’ll take the ferry to Holbox. Operators such as Willy’s Tours also offer shuttle transfers to and from Cancun (including the short ferry ride).
Make sure to also explore the nearby lagoon that attracts many species of birds or wander in and out of T-shirt and souvenir shops. On the island of Holbox, you can reach everything by foot, even if that foot is bare.
Go scuba diving in Cozumel
If you plan to make underwater exploration a big part of your Cancun trip, head to the island of Cozumel. It is 19 km off the west coast of Playa del Carmen, a city about an hour’s drive south of Cancun.
Cozumel is the premiere place in the Yucatan for scuba diving and home to the well known National Reefs Park. This is also a great place to visit natural sights and ancient Mayan temples, found at the north end of the island.
Cancun is a tempting wonderland of velvety white beaches, turquoise waters and all-inclusive seaside lodgings. Yet, a trip here without a visit to the ancient Mayan ruins is like going to Cairo and ignoring the Great Pyramids.
The most awe-inspiring monuments in the Yucatan Peninsula are linked to the mysterious ancient Mayans. A millennium ago, the highly advanced Mayan civilization built the grandest city states in the western hemisphere. Today, these sites are easily accessible from the modern city of Cancun.
The ancient Maya’s mastery of astronomy, math and art can be seen in the archeological attractions that continue to fascinate and perplex visitors to these sites. Discover their achievements for yourself at pre-Hispanic stone cities, such as Chichen Itza, one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.
Hear the Mayan god at Chichen Itza
Three hours west of Cancun, you’ll find Chichen Itza, meaning “from the mouth of the well of the Itza.” This sacred city contains the world’s most famous step pyramid, El Castillo.
In the early 1500s, Spanish conquistadors mistook the ceremonial temple as a castle but by 1540 AD, the city was largely abandoned after the Maya and their successors, the Toltec and Aztec empires, fell under Spanish rule.
Interested in learning even more about the mystical Maya people? Be sure to check out eco-hotel El Rey Del Caribe or King of the Caribbean in English. Owned by Araceli Dominguez, a ceremonial shaman and teacher of Yucatec-Maya culture, this hotel is centred on tranquility and being one with nature.
As for visiting Chichen Itza and similar Mayan ruins, Dominguez advises: “Take your time and just listen—listen to the rocks.”
Witness El Castillo’s famous serpent shadows at the Equinox
At El Castillo, 91-step staircases run up each side. The stairs divide nine levels into 18 terraces, representing the months of the Mayans’ Haab calendar. Added together with the temple platform, the steps signify the 365 days of the year. On each face, you’ll also find 52 panels symbolizing the number of years in the Mayans’ sacred Calendar Round, which ends in 2012.
The famous optical illusion on El Castillo takes place during the two annual equinoxes. The ancient Mayan created the pyramid so that when the sun appears, a shadow begins to snake down the north-facing steps, ending at a stone serpent head at the pyramid’s base.
Local archeo-astronomer Adalberto Rivera discovered the phenomenon of the snake-like shadow moving across the ground as the sun retreats behind the pyramid. “The serpent of light represents the day—the ascending light that creates wise men and saints,” says Rivera. “The serpent of shadow is the night, the darkness descending from which man is lost.”
The 45-degree stairs at El Castillo have been closed to visitors since 2006, but you can climb the two pyramids close by. Try the 30-metre tall El Torre pyramid at Ek Balam, just north of Chichen Itza.
Or, head southeast to the jungle-covered city of Coba and scale the 42-metre high Nohoch Muul. If you do, you can brag that you climbed the tallest step pyramid in the Yucatan!
Explore Chichen Itza’s ritual Ball Court and sacred well
Chichen Itza’s more than 15 main archeological structures are elaborately decorated with images of giant serpents, jaguars and costumed god-kings. Ancient in bas-relief sculptures, engravings and carved columns stand tall like stone snapshots from a time long ago. Many ruins also depict portraits of the Maya themselves.
One must-see hallmark is the Great Ball Court of Chichen Itza. At 166 metres by 69 metres, the court is the largest Mayan sports arena in all of Mesoamerica—sort of like an ancient basketball court!
Back in the day, the arena held epic ritual games where contestants attempted to direct a heavy rubber ball through the engraved rings centred high on two flanking walls. This incredible space is brilliantly engineered for acoustics as well. Even subtle whispers will carry the length of the I-shaped arena.
If you head south, past the merchants and their hand-made crafts, you’ll come across the most important of the ancient Mayan astrological structures: the spiral Observatory. This observatory, also known as The Caracol or The Snail, used precisely placed windows, doorways and water-filled pillars to reflect celestial bodies which aligned on important Mayan dates.
See ancient ruins (and iguanas!) in Cancun
If you’re in holiday mode, you may not want to spend a whole day outside of Cancun visiting the ruins. Fortunately, you can experience some of ancient Mexico in nearby El Rey. El Rey is a narrow, lagoon-side trading port that was active between 900 and 1500 AD. It is just a frisbee toss from the beach at Isla Cancun.
Here, you can peer at the temple and plaza ruins, still marked with ancient Mayan engravings. But be careful where you step. Today, this area is populated by hundreds of iguanas, hiding among the rocks and soaking up the sun.
Calendar of events
Cancun Carnival (February/March)
During Cancun Carnival, the streets of Cancun are awash in colour, music and revelry. You can see locals in elaborate Caribbean-style costumes and there are plenty of parades and places to dance. Beginning the week before Ash Wednesday, this annual street party takes over the city for five straight days of celebration. The main action takes place on Sunday.
Cancun Art and Cultural Celebration (May)
Each year, the city celebrates its diversity of artistic pursuits with the Cancun Art and Cultural Celebration. Art exhibits, concerts, dance recitals, film screenings and more are held throughout the city. This free, five-day festival showcases the diversity and excellence of Cancun’s creative community.
International Day of the Whale Shark (August)
Cancun’s International Day of the Whale Shark gives visitors a chance to literally swim with the fishes. The day highlights efforts to protect and conserve the wide-mouthed sharks (the world’s largest fishes) famous in the area.
Tour operators give you a chance to swim with the sharks on guided excursions that include snorkelling, dolphin sightings and the chance to bask in the spectacular turquoise waters.
Independence Celebrations, Viva Mexico (September)
Every September, Cancun commemorates the anniversary of efforts to overthrow the Spanish regime in the early 1800s. Viva Mexico in Cancun extends celebrations throughout the month to form the city’s largest festival.
Expect concerts, parades, dances, fireworks and tons of live entertainment. On September 15, join locals as they gather at Avenida Tulum at 11 p.m. to take in the reenactment of the original speech (“El Grito”) that inspired citizens in their quest for independence.
If you like dancing, you’ll enjoy this annual celebration of contemporary dance. Held in October and November, Mareanza includes performances of jazz, ballet, hip-hop and other dance genres, performed at venues across Cancun.