Exploring The Yucatan In Cancun And Chichen Itza

Cancun is situated on the southeast coast of Mexico in the state of Quintana Roo on the Yucatan Peninsula. The place is known for its white, powdery sand beaches and turquoise crystal clear waters, but it also has a rich Mayan heritage.

Chichen Itza is a UNESCO World Heritage site whose main draw is the 72 feet high Pyramid of Kukulkan, but also boasts wonderful tourism infrastructure.

The Mayans read the sky with great accuracy and the dimensions of the pyramid represent the days of the year and the movement of the planet around the sun. We arrived in Chichen Itza on the day of the September equinox, as did several thousand others, hoping to see a phenomenon which occurs twice a year, on the spring and fall equinox when the sun projects the illusion of a serpent slithering down the steps of the pyramid. This day, no sun — no serpent — but we were still struck at the majesty of this spectacular monument.

Huis Clos, No Exit

When it comes to adventure, in this world there are two distinct types of people: those who shout “bring it on” and those who say “no, get me outta here,” as they stare forlornly into an endless abyss that they’re told to rappel down. I fall into this second type so as I read over the itinerary for my ten-hour day, I kept trying to find a way out. An exercise in futility. I was with a group who were already merrily hiking through the rain forest jungle and there was no turning back. Our trek through mud, thick brush begging to be bushwhacked and bulbous vines that looked exactly like sinewy, slithering snakes, led to our first bit of excitement for the day: the ubiquitous zipline over the jungle canopy many feet below. As I stood on the platform from which I would soon jump, I allowed a wizened old Mayan gent to chain, clamp, and lock me into iron gear, a thought occurred: I really, truly dislike adventure — for me, that is. Actually I like to watch.

After my zipping escapade, our guide gave us a lesson in “Jungle Behavior 101,” warning that the bark of some of the trees were poisonous to the touch. What he actually said was “Touch and you will suffer.” Telling us to be on the lookout for tarantulas, jaguars, snakes, wildcats and armadillos to name just a few of the cute animals that inhabit this forest, we mindlessly stumbled onward through a trail littered with thick, damp and decaying vegetation. To account for my long (very long) day of thrills, suffice it to say that what came next was a plunge into one of this area’s famedcenotes, (a deep water-filled sinkhole in a cave, in short, an underground river). Bracing. Then we rappelled down a steep, sheer vertical cliff (more clamps, locks, chains), and the finale: another zipline. Happily, we landed near a Mayan village where this welcoming community had prepared a delicious spread consisting of empanadas, black beans and rice, Cochinita Pibil and Huevos Motulenos.

My Oh Maya!

Another day our group visited Xcaret, a majestic archaeological park located in Riviera Maya. We watched the re-creation of a pre-Hispanic ball game and a charro celebration in a Mexican cemetery. Xcaret’s coral reef aquarium was amazing, and yes, I got into the water once more. I couldn’t resist the chance to swim with dolphins, something everyone should do at least once in their life. It’s that much fun! In the evening, we experienced a highlight of this park, a show with more than 300 actors on stage, drums beating in the jungle night, torches blazing in the trees, and an intriguing journey through the history of Mexico from pre-Hispanic times to the present day, all with colorful costumes, folklore and dancing.

Hot, Hot, Hot!

Before my Cancun visit ended, I just had to have one more outstanding adventure, this at my hotel, the beautiful Westin Resort & Spa. They offer a traditional Mexican Temazcal sauna and steam bath heated with volcanic rocks. Whenever I hear the words sauna or steam bath, well, I’m there. Thoughts of deep relaxation, repose, respite from the day — yes! Maybe I should have inquired what Temezcal means. I was led out of the hotel to a sandy area where I found a rustic building, the Temezcal chamber.

This chamber is heated by volcanic rocks. When boughs of herbs are laid over the hot rocks and they’re doused with water, a scented steam begins one’s sweating process. I was told this is necessary to purify the body and release toxins. The chamber was very low and squat, so low that I had to crawl on hands and knees to enter and then sit along the wall. Once inside this small space with the ceiling just inches above my head, claustrophobic me suddenly knew that Temezcal was clearly not a good idea. However, our young guide encouraged me to calm down and give it a try. Next, the opening to the chamber was covered over with a makeshift door, and cloths were laid over that, plunging us in total darkness. The heat intensified as a helper outside the chamber continually brought in more red-hot coals.

It was difficult for me to breathe. Then our guide said “Now, think of a strong intention, something you’d like to happen.” When she asked each of us our intention, I blurted out that mine was to leave the chamber — immediately. After much gentle persuasion, my guide realized that I was not to be dissuaded. She reluctantly called “Door!” and the helper peeled back the layers that blocked the entrance. I was out and able to once more breathe salty ocean air and gaze at the starry sky. Sauna and steam bath repose? For me, not so much.

Taking full stock of my Mexico visit, it was, in sum, lovely. Waging war with my fears? Winning! (let’s please forget about the sweat lodge). Enjoying the five luscious pools, the dining, and my room’s grand balcony at The Westin, the beauty of this very special land and last but by no means least, the wonderful, kind, bright, warm and welcoming people of Mexico — it was all good. The end is near? Not a chance. Not while the Yucatan Peninsula with its myriad wonders is here to discover and enjoy!


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