South of the Border, Down Yucatan Way

South of the Border, Down Yucatan Way

» Featured Columnists | By Steve Winston | November 14, 2012 9:20 AM ET

In Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula - also known as the Riviera Maya, for its Mayan heritage - the atmosphere's as calm as the waters. The beaches are pristine. The hotels are wonderful. The restaurants are authentic. And the ancient symbols of a grand civilization are as imposing as ever.
A company called Adventure Life can show you the Yucatan beyond the brochures, the one that has its roots in the great cities and shrines of a thousand years ago. You'll experience the real Yucatan, with visits to Mayan sites such as Chichen Itza, Tulum, Coba, and Uxmal, and the Colonial cities of Campeche and Merida.
You start in the Colonial city of Campeche, whose well-preserved buildings and walled city center are well worth exploring. Campeche is a UNESCO World Heritage site, with cobblestone streets, colorful pastel buildings, and fortress walls erected by the Spanish to protect the city from pirates. And its essence may be best captured by a sunset stroll along the waterfront promenade called the malecon.
Outside the city is a Maya archaeological site called Edzna, with a temple built on a platform over 120 feet high, Called Edificio de los Cinco Pisos (Five-Story Building), it provides a great view of the places below where the ancients gathered, as well as the surrounding countryside.
Two hours north of Campeche are the ruins of Uxmal. These impressive structures are considered to be among the finest examples of Mayan architecture, with intricate cornices, mosaic tiles, and graphic Mayan symbols. At night, a sound-and-light show brings the mystery of this place alive.
You'll also visit the Hacienda Sotuta de Peon, a working plantation dating back to the late-1800's, which used to produce fibers for rope and paper. The main house and the grounds are evidence that the rope and fiber businesses were pretty profitable! And the lucky owners of the property probably swam - as you will - in the cenote, a limestone sinkhole with important religious significance for the Maya.
The city of Izamal is called "The Yellow City," and it's not hard t see why; that's the color of many of the buildings. This was a center of worship of the Maya sun god, Itzamna, and now the site of an old Spanish monastery. During the conquest, the Spanish purposely built their monastery atop the Maya temple.
The most famous of the Mayan ruins is Chichen Itza, anchored by an iconic temple called El Castillo (Pyramid of Kukulcan), which dominates the view as you enter. The great ball court (where the losers sometimes lost more than just a game!), plazas, observatory, and temples still seem to echo to the sounds of the people who once filled them.
Nearby are the ruins of Coba, which means "water stirred by wind" in Mayan. And at the Tulum ruins, you'll stand atop a rocky cliff and look down on the white beach and turquoise water. Tulum is Maya for "wall," referring to the fortress walls that resisted attacks from other Maya city-states as well as the Spanish.
Nearby is the impressive Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve, where you'll travel by boat through the mangroves and estuaries of a complex eco-system. As you glide along, you may see howler monkeys, pumas, ocelots, osprey, jaguars, flamingos, cormorants, frigate birds and spoonbills.
The Yucatan is the home of a Lost Civilization. However, though the civilization may be gone, the archaeological treasures they left us will stand forever. They'll stand as eternal reminders of a history which was tumultuous...and of a present which is serene.

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