Cancun and the Mayan Riviera: There’s more to sun destinations than sun and sand, there’s history

Labour Day. Everyone’s back to school tomorrow. So what should be next on the to-do list? Why, planning this year’s March Break, naturally! It’s never too early, especially when you live in a slightly out of the way place in a northern climate, where mid-winter flights south tend to fill up quickly. 🙂

Our ideal destination is one that allows us to mix the requisite warm temps, beach, and resort amenities with opportunities to learn about local history, culture, and natural environment.

One sun destination that rates high on all counts is the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. We’ve been to Cancun and the Mayan Riviera on three separate trips over the past several years and each time we’ve seen and learned something new. Let’s take a look.

Sun, beach and amenities.

A no-brainer.


Lessons from history and culture

Many of us have heard of the Mayan Empire, but most of us don’t realize that the Mayas as a people didn’t disappear. Large numbers of people of Mayan descent live in the same geographical area they’ve lived in for over 4000 years. This civilization started way back in 2000 B.C. They had developed a flourishing culture, with a complex network of city-states. They built a society based on agriculture and trade; they introduced writing, arts and crafts, and sport. They used a base-20 number system (we use base 10, which is a lot easier!), a sophisticated calendar system, and had a significant understanding of astronomy. The big question for me is: why do we learn about ancient Egypt in school but not the equally impressive ancient civilizations of the Americas? Although the Spanish arrived in the early 1500s, the Mayas were not fully “conquered” until 1697.

The Maya writing system is considered to be one of the outstanding achievements of pre-Columbian civilization in the Americas. We would know even more about their history and culture if so many of their texts had not been destroyed by the Catholic priests in colonizing times whenever they came across them. Fortunately, a few remaining texts were uncovered much later, the analysis of which allowed hieroglyphics on ancient monuments and further uncovered texts to be interpreted.

The Maya people and important parts of their culture and traditions – and the Maya language – continue to flourish in the Yucatan Peninsula, as well as in parts of Guatemala, Honduras, Belize, and El Salvador. It is estimated that between 750,000 and 1,200,000 people in the region speak Mayan and about three times that many are of Mayan origin. So when, in Canada, we struggle to learn two languages, keep in mind that many of the people serving you at a resort can speak Mayan, Spanish, and enough English to serve you just fine!


You can visit any of these three Mayan sites as day trips from Cancun or the Mayan Riviera. Each one has a different story to tell and each one is well worth the visit.

Chichén Itzá










Lessons from the natural environment

The Yucatan region is flat and its underlying geology is mostly limestone. The area has literally thousands of sinkholes, known locally as cenotes, which are a prime source of naturally stored fresh water. Some of them are now open to tourists for diving, swimming, and adventurous forays through watery underground caves and tunnels linking cenotes. FYI, it’s hard to take many pictures while you’re navigating your way through those stalagmites and stalactites. In case you’re wondering, the water is far warmer and far clearer than the Bay of Fundy!

One of the cenotes at Coba open to the public

One of the cenotes at Coba open to the public

The Yucatan also has flora and fauna that you definitely won’t see in the north. And I’m not even thinking about the amazing fish and tortoises you can see if you opt for some snorkeling or scuba diving.  So many learning experiences.  There’s something for everyone.

Iguanas, iguanas, everywhere!

Iguanas, iguanas, everywhere!

Coatis, also everywhere if you're in the right place.

Coatis, also everywhere if you’re in the right place.

An Ocellated Turkey enjoying the forest at Coba

An Ocellated Turkey enjoying the forest at Coba

A week’s holiday in the Yucatan is a wonderful time in the sun, and also a terrific learning experience.


Photo credits: Jane Fritz; the cenote photo is from a tourist brochure.

(The photos at Chichen Itza were taken the week before the steps up the large temple were closed to the public for both safety and to protect the ancient monument from further damage.)


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5 Responses to Cancun and the Mayan Riviera: There’s more to sun destinations than sun and sand, there’s history

  1. alesiablogs says:

    I love traveling, but have never been to this area of the world. Sometimes we have to live through others that have gone! Thank you for the adventure!!


  2. jane tims says:

    Great travelogue and views. I’d love to go to Chichen Itza and see one of their periferal buildings called Writing in the Dark.


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