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21 Best Mayan Ruins in Mexico
Mexico is a country with Spanish and mesoamerican influence and it is very famous for its gastronomy, beaches and all inclusive resorts. Places like Cancún and Tulum for example, are very popular Mexican Caribbean’s tourist destinations. But what not so many people know, is that the country is also very rich in history, art and culture and it is the country of the Americas with the highest number of places designated by UNESCO as World Heritage Sites.
And that is the reason why we decided to show you in this article 21 incredible Mayan ruins that can be visited in different regions of the country, and also let you know where they are located (note the map at the end), what are their main attractions and how you can include them in your trip to Mexico.
How did the cenotes emerge in Mexico?
Yucatan Peninsula: Cenotes in Mexico, here Conote Corazon near Tulum
The cenotes in Mexico already exist for millions of years. At that time, the Yucatan Peninsula and the Riviera Maya in Mexico was a huge coral reef under the water (parts of which can still be found off the Mexican coast in the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef). During the ice ages, the amount of ice at the two poles of the earth increased. As a result, the global sea level dropped. Thus, parts of the reef on the Yucatan peninsula were suddenly exposed to oxygen and died. What remains is porous limestone, which can be found everywhere on the Yucatan Peninsula and the Riviera Maya in Mexico.
Acid rainwater made its way through this limestone and is filtered. As a result, the rock was permanently eroded and created fascinating caves, subterranean rivers and stalactite formations. The resulting cave systems are called cenotes in Mexico. After the ice age, the poles melted again and the sea-water level could rise again. This flooded many of these caves and created the world’s largest known underwater system. The total length is over 1,000 miles.
Cenotes originated from coral rock millions of years ago.
San Gervasio Buildings & Structures
There are several buildings and structures spread out through the first area or district of San Gervasio.
And while unable to compete with the size of some of the structures built at Chichen Itza, Tulum, Ek Balam or Coba, the Mayan ruins Cozumel are no less impressive in terms of their historical significance.
Construction elements can be found dating back to 600 AD and as recent as 1650 AD.
Here is a brief description of what you can expect to find.
ChichanNah – Small House
Located not far from the residence of the San Gervasio’s high ruler, Chichan Nah served a sort of sanctuary or chapel. It is the first building you will visit when you go on a Cozumel ruins tour at San Gervasio.
Las Manitas – Little Hands
Las Manitas, a.k.a. little hands, was the home of the site’s ruler, known as Ah Huineb, an overlord of the Itza people who also ruled over Chichen Itza. Tiny red-colored hand prints have been found on the interior walls of the building, hence the name Las Manitas.
As you continue your journey down the sacred paths, known to the ancient Maya as Sacbe or white road, be sure to look for a small hole in the ground just to the west where you’ll find the entrance to a cenote or sinkhole. Not only did this provide a source of water for the local population the ancient Maya considered cenotes to be portals to the Netherworld known as Xibalba.
This element of San Gervasio is a reconstruction done by Mexico’s INAH in the 1980s. The arch extends upwards about seven feet and was erected as the gateway of the Sacbe (white road) leading into San Gervasio. All visitors from the coast to the site would inevitably pass under its inverted staircase-like formation.
Ka’na Nah – Tall House
True to its name, Ka’na Nah, or the Tall House, is one of the largest structure in San Gervasio — even if it’s small in comparison to other sites such as Tulum or Cobá. In all likelihood, this building housed the most important temple on the island dedicated to the goddess Ixchel. Small faces are carved into the stone that form the base and stairways.
Nohoch Nah – Big House
Nohoch Nah is the most well-preserved building of all the Mayan ruins in Cozumel. Located along the main road of the Cozumel ruins known today as San Gervasio, an altar was located in the center of the temple where guests of the ceremonial center could leave their offerings. Guests to the site would leave their tribute here before proceeding on to pass under The Arch.
Comprised of six buildings constructed in the form of a square in whose center lies an altar or platform, perhaps for oratories, the central plaza served as the meeting point for visitors to the island who came to participate in the religious ceremonies.
Los Murciélagos – The Bats
Situated on a platform, this series of rooms and buildings once served as the residence of the Itza overlord Ah Huineb during the Late Post Classic Period.
Chichen Itza Clasic with Sacred Cenote from Cancun and Mayan Riviera
Here's what you need to know: this is going to be a VERY long day. in more ways than one.
So what's good? The visit to the lunch in the Mayan village gives you the opportunity to see a Mayan shaman perform a blessing on pieces of obsidian. Some people hated this, but I liked it. These are real people with a real culture, and I enjoy being able to experience it if only for a moment. Chichen Itza itself is also great and really a must see. Our tour guide had great information and gave stories to illustrate points in history so that we could really get a picture of what life was like.
So what's not good? Lots of waiting. Most of the waiting is because this was a group of almost 50. We spent more time herding people into line than I really can tolerate. The group was TOO LARGE. Also, the cenote was kind of a hot mess. It was gorgeous, but we just couldn't enjoy it due to all the little things. such as being told by one worker that we were fine to wear our own snorkeling vest and then being denied entry to the swimming area because we weren't wearing their vest and then eventually being allowed in. Too many people in the cenote meant you could do nothing but bob in place for the allotted time.
Finally, the kicker for me. The waiting and crowds and such are all part of a tour to an extent. Not great, but whatever. But after 14 hours, once we were nearly back to our drop off point, one of the tour guides get on the speaker to extort us/guilt us into big tips. I get that gratuities are appreciated and are normally asked for. But he got on the speaker and told us, "Most of you will tip your bag man at the hotel or the bartender $1 or $5 for his service. And you should. But he worked with you for 1 minute or 5 minutes. We have been with you for more than 10 hours now. We are worth more and deserve better. Our pay is low, and we need your tips, and we are worth more than someone who only spends 1 or 5 minutes with you. We spent more than 10 hours with you. Tip us what we are worth."
Palancar Gardens 10-35 meters
Palancar Gardens is one of the reefs within the Palancar chain to the south. It is usually made as a first dive.
The dive usually begins in the shallow sandy area (6-7 meters) from where you make your way to the steep wall. On the wall you simply let yourself glide along with the pleasant current or you dive inside the reef through one of the countless reef caves.
The fish population is not as high here as on other reefs, but the gigantic coral towers are guaranteed to give you an unforgettable dive.
La Francesa 10-18 meters
La Francesa is usually done as a second dive. The moderate currents take you past a series of coral heads about 3-4 meters high that run parallel to the shore.
The best way to dive this reef is to follow the edge on the left side of the reef. Many turtles, nurse sharks and species of large grouper are at home here.
With a trained eye, you can always find lobster, octopus or even the splendid toadfish. Southern stingrays and sea urchins are often found in the sandy sections.
Paso del Cedral 15-20 meters
Paso del Cedral is one of the dive sites that you can dive in several ways. For a deeper dive, there is the steep wall that is very similar to Santa Rosa Reef. Another option is to dive the shallower inner reef.
The current here is moderate to strong, as is often the case when diving on Cozumel, but this gives us a lot of marine life to see.
Parrotfish, barracudas, nurse sharks and large grouper cavort here. This dive site is very suitable for photographers.
Tormentos 15-20 meters
Tormentos is an easy second dive. The reef edge runs permanently on your right side. Divers with good air consumption can start their dive at Yucab Reef and continue on to Tormentos.
The reef is full of overhangs where you can find schools of grunts and snappers.
Many crabs and lobsters also feel at home here. With a bit of luck, you´ll be surprised by an eagle ray or nurse shark while diving
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Cozumel, sacred island of the Maya and dive paradise
Set sail from Playa del Carmen and a short boat ride across the turquoise and indigo waters of the Caribbean takes you to Cozumel, Mexico’s largest inhabited island. In ancient times it was the sacred island of the Maya but nowadays it is world-famous for the beauty of its spectacular reefs. Spend a day or two here and you’ll find colorful marine life and coral formations, beautiful beaches, rich history and island traditions.
In ancient times, Cozumel or Cuzamil, “land of the swallows,” as the Maya knew it, was the site of a shrine to Ixchel, goddess of the moon and fertility. Temples still dot the flat, jungle landscape and there are lighthouses and lookout posts on the coast, testimony to the days of Mayan seafarers when the island was an important center on the Caribbean maritime trade route.
San Gervasio is the largest of Cozumel’s 25 archaeological sites. In addition to receiving Mayan merchants, it was also visited by pilgrims who would travel hundreds of miles from all over the Yucatan and then make the perilous sea crossing from Xaman-Há (Playa del Carmen) and Pole (Xcaret) to worship at the shrine of Ixchel.
In 1519, the world of the Maya and other Mesoamerican cultures changed forever when a Spanish expeditionary force led by Hernán Cortés landed on the island. From Cozumel, Cortes and his band of soldiers sailed into the west, across the the Gulf of Mexico, making landfall on the coast of Veracruz. Lured by tales of gold and a legendary lake city beyond the mountains, they continued on their journey into the unknown. They made the arduous trek through the highlands and reached Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital, now the site of Mexico City. By 1521, this ruthless band had defeated the Aztec army and overthrown a mighty empire, seizing its land and treasures.
During the Colonial period of Mexican history, Cozumel was largely forgotten and its deserted shores became a haven for pirates such as Captain Henry Morgan and Miguel Molas. In the 1850s, refugees fleeing the Caste War on the Yucatecan mainland settled the island.
Located in the island capital San Miguel, the Cozumel Museum has interesting exhibits on the ancient Maya, the coming of the Spaniards, pirates and the 19th-century colonization of the island. Other displays showcase local festivals such as the Carnival and the El Cedral Fair held at the beginning of May. Visitors also learn about the formation of the coral reefs and the island’s flora and fauna. The tropical forest and wetlands are rich in wildlife, including endemic creatures such as pygmy raccoons and coatimundis and the Cozumel emerald hummingbird.
Most visitors to Cozumel are drawn by its spectacular coral kingdom, a chain of reefs off the west coast that was made famous by Jacques Cousteau and Mexican diver Rene Cardona. Magnificent coral buttresses and walls festooned by huge red, yellow and orange sponges and delicate sea fans are honeycombed with caves and canyons and inhabited by 300 species of fish and other colorful marine life of all shapes and sizes.
The water visibility around Cozumel is as high as 200 feet and the current enables divers to practice drift diving and literally fly past coral walls and drop-offs, keeping pace with sea turtles, huge groupers and schools of eagle rays.
Divers can spend a lifetime exploring reefs like Paraíso, Chankanaab, La Herradura, San Francisco, Yucab, Santa Rosa, Colombia, Maracaibo and the largest of them all, Palancar, famous for its immense coral pillars, caves and walls.
Some shallower reefs such as Chankanaab and Paraíso are also popular snorkeling spots and swimmers have their own encounters with queen angelfish, parrot fish, blue tangs, sergeant majors and jacks. For visitors who would prefer to see the underwater world without getting wet, there are glass-bottomed boats and an unforgettable immersion on the Atlantis submarine, which dives to a depth of 100 feet.
Take a tour of the island
As a break from scuba, snorkeling or fishing sign up for an island tour or rent a car, moped or a taxi and explore at your own pace. The island’s sheltered, palm-lined swimming beaches are all on the west coast. The rugged windswept east coast has some beautiful, deserted stretches of sand you can stroll along but most of them are not recommended for swimming. Strong currents and undertow make swimming dangerous on the windward coast.
Chankanaab Park is one of the most popular spots on the west coast of the island. The crystal-clear lagoon and reef are ideal for snorkeling. In the jungle there is a cenote or sinkhole that is connected to the Caribbean by an underground river. Other attractions include a botanical garden and dolphin swims.
Nature lovers and bird watchers should head to Punta Sur nature reserve on the southern tip of the island and Isla de la Pasión in the north for a glimpse of water birds such as herons, roseate spoonbills, ibis and even flamingos. Cozumel is also a haven for migratory birds in the winter and has an annual Bird Festival in October.
Arrange a boat trip to El Cielo, a shallow reef and calm stretch of crystal-clear water off the north coast where the seabed is covered with starfish. Take photos but don’t disturb these living treasures.
Thomas More Travel offers trips to Cozumel for diving or sightseeing or you can make your own way there at your own pace using the ferry from Playa del Carmen.
Grand Residences is up for the Conde Nast Traveler Reader’s Choice and World Travel Awards and voting is open
We are proud to announce that Grand Residences Riviera Cancun is up for two awards, Condé Nast Traveler Reader’s Choice 2021 and the World Travel Awards. If you have stayed at Grand Residences and loved it, you can support it by voting in both contests. We hope that you will tell your family and friends [&hellip]
NEW STATE TAX FOR INTERNATIONAL VISITORS TO THE MEXICAN CARIBBEAN, APRIL 1, 2021
We would like to share information from the Quintana Roo State Government about a new Visitor Tax or Tourism Use Fee now in effect as of April 1, 2021. The fee will be charged to all international visitors to the Mexican Caribbean over the age of 15 and is $224 pesos (approximately US$10) per person, [&hellip]
Momentos Sagrados Mayas, Mayan community theater in Xocen, near Valladolid, Yucatan
The ancient cities that pepper the Yucatan may be abandoned, but the heart of the Maya beats strong throughout the area and timeless traditions spring to life. Meet the Maya and see how they live by witnessing Momentos Sagrados Mayas or Sacred Mayan Moments, a community theater production featuring over 200 actors of all ages from seven different villages in eastern Yucatan. This moving and colorful event is a celebration of village life, customs, faith and festivities and takes place on Sundays at 4 p.m. from January 20 to March 10 in the village of Xocen, a 30-minute drive from the colonial town of Valladolid.
Village Life in Xocen
Thatched homes, each with its own tiny garden and huerta or orchard where hens, turkeys and pigs scrabble for food under orange, lime, guava and mango trees, line the streets of Xocen. The ubiquitous tricycle taxis ferry people around the village, men work in the milpas or cornfields and women go about their household chores, grinding corn to prepare tortillas for the family meal.
As the sun sets, villagers down tools and join visitors making their way to a clearing in the forest. Dotted with trees and Mayan huts, the grassy bowl is a natural stage for Sacred Mayan Moments, a < portrayal of Mayan life performed by over 200 actors hailing from communities in eastern Yucatan.
Momentos Sagrados Mayas is a theater production staged by actors from the community and written and directed by Maria Alicia Martinez Medrano of the Laboratorio de Teatro Campesino e Indígena (Rural and Indigenous Community Theater Workshop), an arts group founded in 1983 as part of a community development project in Oxolotan, Tabasco. The group has worked with communities in nine Mexican states, including Tabasco, Sinaloa, the state of Mexico, Morelos and Yucatan, and has trained more than 22,000 actors over the last 30 years.
The work of the Laboratorio de Teatro Campesino e Indígena has received glowing reviews at home and abroad and the group is best known for its performances of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and for Blood Weddings, by Spanish playwright Federico Garcia Lorca. Two hundred actors from villages in Tabasco performed the play in Central Park, New York and in Lorca’s birthplace, the village of FuenteVaqueros, in Granada, Spain.
Members of the group have been studying Mayan traditions in the Yucatán for more than 20 years, with the aim of bringing them to the public eye through community theater performances and of preserving legends, dance steps, music, garments, rituals and festivals for posterity. The view is that communities may benefit financially from the performances, which represent a source of income to supplement traditional activities such as agriculture and beekeeping. Organizers also hope that the pride that older people feel for their culture will be strengthened and passed on to younger generations. Sacred Mayan Moments is a work in constant evolution, telling the story of today’s Maya.
Bey’o’oná: this is our story
From the village elders and the h’men or Mayan priest to the smallest child, the actors in Sacred Mayan Moments are of all ages. Some of them live in Xocen and the others hail from neighboring villages such as Dzitnup, San Silverio and Tikuch. They come together to tell a tale of corn and copal incense, of dreams woven into the threads of a hammock or the delicate embroidery of a huipil, of solemn worship, the celebration of life and the explosion of sound and color that heralds the village fiesta.
Different vignettes or scenes of village life are reenacted, and include the appearance of the H’menes or Mayan priests who greet the dawn with offerings of copal and perform a ritual requesting divine protection for the village. They kneel before a cross, which is draped with a shawl according to Mayan custom, and pray to God and the saints who watch over the community.
A procession of standard bearers headed by the priests, the village authorities and the leaders of the gremios or guilds takes to the stage. Their white garments contrast with the bright colors of their banners as they parade past the audience. They leave their flags center stage at the foot of a ceiba, the sacred tree of the Maya.
A series of scenes involving different members of the community follows. Children play and women approach the altar with offerings of flowers and flickering candles. Young girls gather in the shade of the ceiba to gossip and giggle at their admirers who sidle past showing off and casting longing looks in their direction. A wife pursues her drunken husband and his compadre, shaking her fist and scolding the irresponsible pair with a tirade of insults. Woodcutters, hammock weavers and embroiderers show off their craft. Women draw water from the well, carry corn to the mill to be ground and then prepare tortillas on a comal or cooking stone placed over an open fire, a method used for thousands of years in Mayan homes.
The stage fills with children who play and perform traditional songs and then disperse as another procession appears. Women enter from one side carrying colorful banners and from the other, men bearing racks covered in yellow, brown, black and blue corn cobs and the corn plants themselves. They wait patiently for the priest to arrive and bless the corn with offerings of copal and pozol (a drink made with corn, cacao and water) in honor of Chaac, the Mayan rain god.
Members of the different community guilds approach carrying white banners and floral offerings and singing “Viva Cristo Rey.” They then give way to a reenactment of the Hetz mek ceremony, the Mayan baptism. The baby is blessed by the priest and carried on the hip of its godparents for the first time. They give it the tools it will need during life: for boys a tiny machete, hoe and a gourd and bag to hold water and food, and for girls, household items such as a needle, cooking pot and hearthstones.
The Village Fiesta
The event draws to a climax with the annual village fiesta. The most important day in the community calendar, la Vaquería mixes Catholic ceremony and pre-Hispanic rites. Fireworks are set off with a resounding bang and young men carry a young ceiba tree on to the stage, planting it in the middle of the village square. They are followed by the local band and a couple of drunks who started their celebrations early and are scolded for their pains.
The official festivities begin with the Cabeza de Cochino, a dance around a pig’s head on a pole festooned with flowers and ribbons. The pig’s head is a traditional offering to the gods to ask them for a good harvest.
Dressed in cowboy hats and carrying gourds, young women known as vaqueras make their entrance and dance around the pole in a celebration of life.
The villagers then encircle the ceiba to ask for protection and permission to start the dances or jaranas. During a real village fiesta, they may dance for days in its shade, dancing in honor of the gods, the sky, the sun, the moon and the earth itself. The vaqueras are joined by children, then by young people, matrons and grandparents all eager to show off their dancing skills. Children are taught to dance at the age of four and some of the steps they learn from their elders are over 200 years old. Young couples dance around the pole, weaving the ribbons into a web of colors and then by changing direction, unfurling them again.
In the midst of the festivities, a funeral cortege appears a reminder that death is never far away. A man has died and his widow is leading the veiled mourners to the cemetery to bury him. The dancers fall silent as the coffin passes and then start to stamp their feet in tribute to the deceased, accompanying his soul as it begins its journey to heaven.
The dances reach their climax with El Torito, a dance representing a bullfight. An actor portraying the bull makes his entrance, pursuing villagers round the stage and challenging the dancers to a duel of strength. They accept and give chase with swords and machetes, eventually cornering the defiant, but now visibly tiring, animal and killing him. The “bull” is blessed by the hmen and carried off stage.
Sacred Mayan Moments concludes with a blessing for the spectators. Then the entire cast takes to the stage once more and chants the words: Esto somos…aqui estamos…Bey’o’oná…huay’an’oné… “This is our story and here we are,” releasing the captivated audience from a magical world of ritual, tradition and color.
Cenotes of the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico
Cenotes are natural pits or sinkholes resulting from the collapse of limestone bedrock that exposes groundwater underneath. They are especially associated with the Yucatán Peninsula of Mexico, which is primarily made up of porous limestone. For millions of years, rainfall slowly ate away at the limestone and a huge system of underground caves and caverns was formed. Many filled with water from rain or from the underground water table. When the roof of a water filled cave collapses, a cenote is born. There are an estimated 7,000 cenotes in the Yucatán Peninsula.
Cenote comes from the Mayan word “dzonot” or “ts’onot” which means sacred well, and had great significance for the Maya. First, they represented the main water supply in a land that has no surface water bodies and suffers long dry seasons. As a consequence, all Mayan villages were built in the vicinity of a cenote, in order to secure a permanent water supply. Second, cenotes were also important for religious reasons. They believed cenotes to be portals to the underworld and a way to communicate with the gods. Archaeological research has found evidence of religious ceremonies that took place in or around cenotes, including human sacrifices.
While the best-known cenotes are large open water pools measuring tens of meters in diameter, such as those at Chichén Itzá, the greatest number of cenotes are smaller sheltered sites and do not necessarily have any surface exposed water.
Cenote water is often very clear, as the water comes from rain water filtering slowly through the ground, and therefore contains very little suspended particulate matter. This have attracted swimmers and cave divers from around the world who have documented extensive flooded cave systems, some of which have been explored for lengths of 100 km or more.
Some cenotes have been turned into public swimming pools of sorts. One of the best examples is the Cenote Zaci, located in Valladolid. Another cenote with some tourist infrastructure is the Cenote San Ignacio, in Chochola. This cenote is artificially lit and has an adjoining restaurant and other services that make for a more comfortable visit. Finally, the facilities at Cenote Sambula, in Motul, were recently remodeled.