The Yucatán Peninsula is a large peninsula in southeast Mexico and adjacent
portions of Belize and Guatemala.
Cancún, a Mexican city on the Yucatán Peninsula bordering the Caribbean Sea, is
known for its beaches, numerous resorts and nightlife. With its gorgeous
turquoise seas, powdery white-sand beaches, and vibrant coral reefs, it’s no
surprise that Cancun is one of Mexico’s most popular resort areas. The Yucatán Peninsula constitutes a
significant proportion of the ancient Maya lowlands and was the central location
of the Maya Civilization. There are many Maya archaeological sites
throughout the peninsula, including the better-known Chichen Itza, one of the
Wonders of the World.
Getting there ...
We planned this trip as our family Christmas vacation. Since Linus and
Miriam are expecting their first child, they decided not to join this Mexico
trip, but used the time to do a road trip to move from Texas back to California.
The rest of us (Iris, Henry, Woanyu, and Yenwen) had an early morning flight on
12/25 (we left home for the airport at 4AM), and got to Cancun at ~ 3:00PM
(Eastern Time). It took us a while to get the rental car and headed toward
Chichen Itza for our first 2 nights (Chichen Itza is in the Central Time
Zone so we got an hour back and got to the hotel at ~ 6:30PM to have a nice
Day 2 (12/26) ...
- Chichen Itza
The Maya name "Chichen Itza" means "At the mouth of the
well of the Itza." Itza is the name of an ethnic-lineage group that
dominated the northern peninsula of Yucatan, Mexico prior to the Spanish
Conquest. One possible translation for Itza is "enchanter of the water,"
from itz, "sorcerer", and ha, "water". Archaeologists today
believe that this majestic Mayan city rose as a prominent power towards the
end of the Mayan Early Classic Period (600 AD) and current scholastic data
places Chichen Itza's fall around AD 1000. Ancient Maya created an intimate
relationship between Yucatan endemic venomous snakes and their cultural
traditions, including their majestic architectural symbolic designs and with
their Cosmo-vision. Chichen Itza was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage
list in 1988 and was listed as one of the Seven Wonders of the World in
When we arrived at ~ 8:30AM (the breakfast took longer than
expected...), the traffic had been built up at the entrance. We
decided to park at a private lot just outside the main gate and walked into
the archaeological site (only 5-min walk). It's still relative early
(no big tour buses yet) so we could enjoyed the main sites without too many
- El Castillo (Temple of Kukulcán)
Dominating the North Platform of
Chichen Itza is the Temple of Kukulcán (a Maya feathered serpent deity). The
temple was identified by the first Spaniards to see it, as El Castillo ("the
castle"), and it regularly is referred to as such. This step pyramid stands
about 30 meters (98 ft.) high and consists of a series of nine square
terraces and a 6-meter (20 ft.) high temple upon the summit. All four
sides of the temple have approximately 91 steps which, when added together
and including the temple platform on top as the final "step", may produce a
total of 365 steps. Only two of the four sides of Mayan temple have
been restored by Mayan archaeologists.
- Temple of the Warriors and Group of the Thousand Columns
archeological expedition and restoration of these building was conducted by
the Carnegie Institute from 1925-1928. Chichen Itza's Temple of
the Warriors features sculpted feather serpent columns. At its
top platform framing an impressive sculpture of the Chac Mool used in
ancient times as an altar for sacrifices. Along the south wall of the
Temple of Warriors are a series of what are today exposed columns, although
when the city was inhabited these would have supported an extensive roof
- El Osario
The Osario is a mid-size step-style pyramid within the
Osario Group complex of Mayan temples found just south of the Kukulkan
pyramid. Like its larger neighbor, the Osario has four sides with
staircases on each side. There is a temple on top, but unlike Kukulkan, at
the center is an opening into the pyramid that leads to a natural cave 12
meters (39 ft.) below.
- Gran Juego de Pelota (Great Ball Court)
Great Ball Court is also
within the Great North Platform series of Mayan temples in Chichen Itza. It
is known as Pok-Ta-Pok in Maya, and El Juego de Pelota in Spanish; there are
several smaller Ball Courts in this archaeological site but the Great Ball
Court at Chichen Itza, Yucatan, Mexico, is the most impressive and largest in
ancient Mesoamerica, measuring 168 x 70 meters (551 by 230 ft) in length and
two long 8 meters (26 ft) high walls holding the two stone carved ball rings
representing the feather serpent.
- Other structures/places
We walked around the archaeological complex
and visited many other sites (not in visiting order): El Caracol ("The Snail",
believed to be an observatory), Casa Roja (Red House), Platform of Venus,
and Cenote Sagrado (Sacred Cenote, a place of pilgrimage for ancient Maya
people to conduct sacrifices during times of drought), etc.
When we left Chichen Itza archaeological site at ~ 11AM,
the entrance was crowded with people, cars, and buses. We went to a
local restaurant Las Mestizas in Piste (the small town right outside Chichen
Itza) to have a traditional/authentic Yucatan/Mexican lunch. It's good we
beat the crowd for visiting Chichen Itza and also for eating lunch :-)
- Ek Balam
After lunch, we drove for about an hour to another
archaeological site, Ek Balam.
Ek Balam is a Yucatec Maya name that
translates to “the black jaguar” or “bright star jaguar.”
Construction started in the late Pre-Classic Period (100 B.C. to 300 A.D.)
and continued well into Late Classic Period, 700 to 900 A.D. Ek Balam’s most
important cultural period was during the Late Classic Period 700 – 1000 A.D. It wasn’t until the late 1980’s
when the site was mapped, and research continued into the 1990’s.
The most impressive and noticeable structure in Ek
Balam is El Torre (The Tower), the main tower located in the Central Plaza. The
Tower measures over 500ft/151m long, 200ft/60m wide and 100ft/30 meters high.
The significant construction difference at Ek Balam is the use of multiple
layers and decorated facades found on El Torre. The facades are protected by
palapa roofs and conserve some of the greatest Mayan artistry found at Ek Balam.
The Tower houses the tomb of Ek Balam’s powerful ruler Ukil-Kan-Lek-Tok the
highest official during the city’s peak in 800 A.D. The best thing in Ek
Balam is you can still climb many structures including the big El Torre
(although very steep). The view at the top was truly incredible.
- Cenote Xcanche
Cenote Xcanche shares an entrance with the Ek Balam
archaeological zone. The cenote is located a further 2km from the
Some info from Internet said you have to walk or rent a bike, but we
actually found you could drive through the entrance on the dirt road to the
cenote directly. We did not really plan to swim in the cenote today,
but just a quick visit to see this beautiful cenote.
We went to Valladolid in the late afternoon and had a nice
dinner close to the central
square (Parque Principal Francisco Cantón Rosado).
Day 3 (12/27) ...
Hacienda Chichen Resort
stayed at the Hacienda Chichen Resort, a boutique Spa hotel within a private
200 Hectares Maya Jungle Reserve. It is located amongst the
ancient city of Chichen Itza, and it has its own garden gate to the Maya
archeological site. However, the gate was currently closed due to the
restoration work on many Mayan temples at Old Chichen.
- Ik Kil Cenote
Yucatán Peninsula is a limestone plain, with no rivers or streams. A
cenote is a water-filled sinkhole that naturally occurs in limestone rock
when an underground cave collapses in on itself and exposes the groundwater
underneath. There are thousands of cenotes dotted around the Yucatan
Peninsula and many of the cenotes are extremely popular with locals and
tourists alike. Ik Kil Cenote is one of the most famous and popular
cenotes in the Chichen Itza area.
We got to the Ik Kil Cenote at 9AM as
one of the first visitors (only 3 minutes drive from our hotel).
To be able to go down to the water level, you will go through a tunnel that
has 91 stone steps (same number of steps as the Kukulkan Temple in Chichen
Itza). This tunnel was made entirely by hand, without any type of explosives
or modern technology. The depth of Ik Kil Cenote is 48 meters (157ft);
imagine putting the iconic Statue of Liberty, from its feet to its crown,
completely submerged underwater. Although I decided not to swim in the
cenote (still afraid of water...), I could still enjoy the serenity of this
amazing natural wonder.
We checked out of the hotel after 11AM, and drove to Valladolid
for another Mexican lunch. After lunch, we went to another Mayan ruin,
Coba is located around two lagoons, Lake Coba and Lake Macanxoc;
the name Coba means ‘waters stirred by the wind’. Coba's claim to fame
is the largest network of stone causeways in the ancient Mayan world, called
sacbes (white roads). Over 50 of these roads have been discovered at the
site. Archaeologists believe Coba was one of the most important ruin
sites on the Yucatan Peninsula. At about 900 or 1000 AD, Coba began a
lengthy power struggle with Chichen Itza, with Chichen Itza winning in this
dispute and becoming the power of the Yucatan. The largest
building, the Nohoch Mul pyramid, has 120 steps leading up to the top and
reaches 137 feet (42 meters) in height, the tallest temple pyramid on the
Yucatan Peninsula (the Kukulcán pyramid in Chichen Itza only has 91 steps
with a height of 98 ft). However, it's not allowed to climb the Nohoch
Mul pyramid anymore since 2020. Coba is not a single site but a
large group of sites connected to the central pyramid. We hire "tricycle
taxi" to carry us around to visit the ruin sites. It's quite a
comfortable ride in the shady forest.
- Cenote Choo-Ha
Cenote Choo-Ha is one of a series of three cenotes
located close to the ancient Mayan ruins at Coba. Cenote Choo-Ha
is a small underground cave cenote filled with stalactites and stalagmites.
In fact, its name translates as the ‘water that drips’ in reference to the
water dripping from its rock formations. The cenote has shallow waters and,
at times, is almost empty from crowds.
- Sun Palace, Cancun
We started our 2.5-hour drive and got to our
resort Sun Palace in Cancun at almost 8PM (we lost an hour from Central Time
back to Eastern Time). After a late dinner at the Asian Restaurant in
the resort, we relaxed in the hot tub in our room.
Day 4 (12/28) ...
Sun Palace in Cancun is an
adult-only, all-inclusive luxury resort in the Hotel Zone in Cancun overlooking
the Caribbean Sea. I did not have any plan for today. It's a day for
doing nothing :-)
The Last Day (12/29) ...
- Sun Palace
Woanyu and Iris went to a TRX class in the gym in the
morning for some work out and I enjoyed another boring morning :-)
Going Home ...
We checked out of our rooms at 11AM and had a brunch at the resort before
driving to the airport. Although Linus and Miriam could not join us for
Christmas vacation this time, we had a good time to visit many Mayan ruins and
cenotes around the Yucatán Peninsula. It's great to learn the Maya
civilization and see the magnificent Maya architectures, and then relaxed at the
all-inclusive resort in Cancun. The driving condition in the Yucatán
Peninsula (between Cancun and Chichen Itza) was very good and we were able to go
to many less-known and remote places/ruins. It's a perfect trip to
conclude the year of 2023!
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