Many people believe the Mayans simply disappeared. This is not the case. In fact, in the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico the Mayan culture is still very much alive. This southeast region was home to the Mayan civilization until the Spanish conquered in the 1500s. Because of this, many residents are Mayan descent. They have upheld their culture, traditions, and in small towns many still speak the language alongside Spanish.
For many years the Yucatan Peninsula had no roads or rails connecting it to the other areas. This isolation has contributed to the preservation of this strong Mayan culture in this region. A visit to this area is just like a visit to the past.
Keep in mind, unless you area on the beach or in your tourist hotel, it is considered rude or improper to walk around in your bathing suit or short shorts. Also, remember if churches are on your itinerary, have something to at least cover your shoulders.
First and foremost, most travelers trek to the Yucatan Peninsula to see Chichen Itza. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is also a recent inductee to the list of the New Seven Wonders of the World. This magnificent attraction is the largest archaeological cities from the pre-Columbian Maya civilization on the whole peninsula. The most famous landmark of Chichen Itza is the Pyramid of Kukulcan, also known as El Castillo. This temple-pyramid was dedicated to Kukulcan, the feathered serpent god. Sculptures of this character run down the sides of the staircase for visitors to admire. Since it was common for the Mayans to build temples on top of other temples, archaeologists have been able to find interior temples. Please note, not all areas will be open. Many have been roped off due to erosion and destruction of sacred artifacts.
If you plan your trip around the end of March or September, you'll be lucky enough to be there for the Equinox. This period where the sun is right above the equator is extremely important in Mayan culture. They depended on astronomy and that influenced many of their structures and art. At Chichen Itza, for example, when the sun sets during the Equinox the shadows the serpent god run down the pyramid in a spectacular way.
If you travel a mere four hours in from Cancun to the city of Merida, you'll be in what the locals call the, "real Mexico." This colonial city is home to a spectacular weekend treat in the historical core of the city. Surrounded by 17th century, Mayan brick cathedrals, the area closes to cars and is flooded with stages, taco stands and a burst of Mexican culture.
The wonders of the Yucatan Peninsula aren't all above ground, though. The Mesoamerican Barrier Reef is the second largest in the world right after the Great Barrier Reef. Just east of the Yucatan is a diver's delight. Get ready for an adventure of bright colors and fabulous fish.
Food and Dining
Because of the long mingling of Mayan and Spanish culture, the Yucatan has a unique blend of flavors to offer any tourist. There are several dishes you'll definitely want to try while visiting. The pibli dishes, commonly served with chicken, are slow cooked in a banana leaf making it very tender and delicious. Huevos Motulenos is chicken cooked in orange juice, a mild spice called achiote and plantains. Panuchos is a dish with black beans, turkey, lettuce and pickled onions wrapped in a tortilla.
You also don't want to miss the seafood in the Yucatan. Keep in mind, though, this isn't the type of seafood you're probably used to. Common dishes in this region are "pulpo" (octopus) and "cazon" (shark).
Many tourists are nervous when eating in Mexico because a bad history leading to a tainted reputation. If getting sick is a real concern of yours, a good rule of thumb is to pay attention to where the locals are eating. They always know where the best food is, anyway.
There is a bus system that runs between major and smaller cities. Going first class isn't much different than riding in a European train. There are cheaper classes available, but beware that safety tends to decrease with price. Also, remember that first class services make longer routes with fewer stops. Second class might find you on a local route making frequent stops.
Another way to go between cities is to use a combi. This is a collective of taxis that are cheaper than a single taxi and usually faster than the bus.
Taxis are certainly an option even in the smaller towns. They may not be the best choice for long distances, however. Renting a car is also a viable option, though be sure to never leave valuables in a parked car.
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