The Yucatan Peninsula is a land steeped in history, a land in which the ancient and modern world run side by side. Reminders of this past are everywhere, from the trinkets sold by the descendants of the ancient Mayan tribes to the local superstitions that prevail among the inhabitants. But dotted throughout the Peninsula, there are a few places that this long-ago history remain strikingly, almost tangibly alive.
Perhaps the most immediately recognizable of all the ruins on the Yucatan Peninsula, Chichen Itza’s status as a UNESCO world heritage site is well deserved. Populated between the 8th and 11th centuries, the area was the location of ghoulish sacrificial ceremonies and strange astronomical observations that perhaps give weight to theory that the Mayans were in cahoots with beings from beyond the stars. Particularly impressive during the spring and autumn equinoxes when the great statue of a serpent undergoes some spectacular changes, there can be little doubt that this is truly a very special place in the history of humanity. But, with the effect being recreated nightly through the use of pyrotechnics, Chichen Itza is unsurprisingly one of the peninsula’s must see attractions. Visitors are advised to get there early to avoid both the crowds and the glare of the mid-afternoon sun.
Despite its convenient proximity to the hustle and bustle of Cancun, the ruins of Ek Balam (translated as “Glorious Jaguar”) remains strangely under-explored when compared to its better known neighbors. The relatively small site, which covers an area of approximately 1km2, remains in fine condition, the spirits of its long-gone inhabitants still eerily appreciable. On first glance the one hundred and six step ascent to the summit might seem intimidating but once at the top, the uninterrupted views of the treeline vista are simply awe-inspiring.
Without doubt the remotest of all Yucatan’s ruins, only 30km from the Guatemalan border, Calakmal is all that remains of a city that was once home to 60,000-100,000 residents. Unreachable by only specialized tour groups, the site is a fine example of Mayan architectural proficiency with 6000 buildings on display and countless more yet to be discovered. The 53 metre high pyramid that towers above Calakmal rewards the most determined visitors with a truly breathing-taking view of a long-forgotten kingdom usually reserved for the army of spider monkeys that have inherited this ancient world.
Notable for its unique coastal setting, the remains of the Tulum ruins have been a source of much bewilderment for archaeologists and anthropologists for decades. Quite out of keeping with the Mayan tradition of jungle dwellings, Tulum overlooks the crystalline blue waters of the Pacific and the sheer white cliffs of the coastline. What the site lacks in number of artifacts, it more than makes up for in sheer natural beauty, the mysteries of this Mayan anomaly still very much intact.
Home of the largest remaining Mayan temple at 130 feet, Coba is sure to mesmerize any visitor prepared to make the 175km trip from Cancun. Personified by its distinguishing white roads (the product of the mineral rich soil in the area) it is quite unique on the peninsula and with two pristine lagoons within its parameters, it is not difficult to see why Coba was a functioning, vibrant Mayan metropolis as late as the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors.
The ruins at Uxmal are arguably some of the most impressive that the peninsula has to offer. The pyramid that dominates the site is one of the largest and most magnificent left in existence, the spiritual and political center of a city that was once home to over 20, 000 inhabitants. Despite the grandeur on display however, the site remains largely unexplored by prospective ruin-hunters and for those willing to get there early, they will find a UNESCO world heritage site populated not by legions of snap-happy tourists but rather the sleepy indifference of sun-bathing iguanas.