At the top of my extensive list of reasons for wanting to visit Riviera Maya was the region’s rich cultural history. Certainly, I love glorious beaches and unlimited tropical beverages, and I’m a sucker for wildlife, like the iguanas and coati mundis this area is teeming with; but just a short drive away from the magnificent Hotel Xcaret are the ruins of three significant, pre-Hispanic, Mayan cities.
As part of the comprehensive “All-Fun Inclusive” package that is standard for all guests at the Hotel Xcaret, I was permitted to book tours through Experiencias Xcaret, one of the best rated tour companies in Mexico, to any or all three of these Ruins. Tour options include the Chichen Deluxe or Chichen Classico; Tulum and Xel Ha; Coba and Xel Ha; or Tulum, Coba, and Xel Ha. For this trip, because my time in Mexico was extremely limited, I had to decide on a single tour. I selected the Chichen Deluxe tour, which I booked via email with my pre-arrival concierge, Talia.
The Chichen Deluxe tour offers travelers a full-day experience, including luxury transportation, a continental breakfast on board, and extremely well-informed, multilingual tour staff to provide an exceptional guided tour of the site at Chichen Itza. The tour continues from Chichen Itza to include a stop for a fabulous lunch at a stunning local restaurant specializing in Yucatan cuisine, in the Spanish Colonial town of Valladolid. Travelers have a chance to shop and sightsee, which is highly encouraged. Valladolid is an arts and crafts center, and travelers looking for gorgeous, authentic souvenirs will do well here. A final stop at the Zaci Cenote allows travelers to descend into the subterranean caves, where thousands of years and environmental circumstances have created an underground swimming pool. Tour groups will likely encounter locals and tourists swimming together here, perhaps some even bold enough to leap from the rocks high above the water. There isn’t time for guests on the Chichen Deluxe tour to take a dip, but the gorgeous scenery is well worth the stop.
Many of the full-day excursions from Hotel Xcaret leave at 7:30 am, and during my first trip in March of 2018, restaurants were not yet serving breakfast that early. Note that this has since changed: Mercado, the hotel’s main buffet, opens its cold service at 6:30 and opens fully at 7:00. In preparation of what we were advised would be a twelve-hour tour day, we decided to arrange to have room service delivered to our room at 5:30 am. Free room service with an extensive menu is yet another benefit to staying as a guest of Hotel Xcaret. Our pancakes, pastries, and to-die-for chilaquiles arrived promptly, along with a full pot of coffee (thank goodness), and we readied ourselves for a day in the scorching heat.
I’ve mentioned my tendency to over plan. While it is, admittedly, annoying at times, we were extremely well prepared for this tour because I had obsessively researched the activities included, the weather, the terrain, and even where one might find bathrooms once inside Chichen Itza.
Bellies full, painted in sunscreen, loaded down with extra bottles of water (though those are provided on the tour), and outfitted in hats and comfortable footwear, we moved like professional tourists through the lobby to the pick up location just out front. Multiple tours leave at this time every single morning and the Experiencias Xcaret tour staff are extremely adept at organizing the crowds. They quickly check each family or group in for their appropriate tour and settled us onto the correct buses, comfortable, well-appointed coaches, and we headed out a bit ahead of schedule.
There were two primary guides on this tour, Karina and Raul. Karina took the lead in addressing the group during the first part of the drive. Karina spoke with extraordinary fluency, switching seamlessly back and forth between English and Spanish. More than once, I realized that I could understand her in Spanish, a language I have very little experience with, because of her fabulous inflection. She was a remarkably charismatic speaker; charming and funny, and extremely insightful. It is important to mention that my group of travelers are all teachers. We can easily tell when someone isn’t passionate about the content they are communicating. Karina loved her job. She was a lover of culture and history and her enthusiasm was contagious. On the bus ride, a trip that takes just over two and half hours, Karina explained some nuances of the Mayan language, taught our group about Mayan numbers and the contribution of the zero (a Mayan invention), and dispelled the confusion surrounding the end of the Mayan calendar. Honestly, I don’t think I realized how little I knew about the Mayans. I was so excited by how much I was learning, and this was just the bus ride.
A continental breakfast was served on the bus, which included coffee, juice, a sandwich, and a traditional corn muffin. I was still totally satisfied from my chilaquiles, but happily accepted the coffee. The sandwich, I’m told, was exceptional, but it was a ham sandwich and I don’t eat pork.
Next, individual listening devices were distributed and tested. These were wireless systems with ear pieces that connect to a signal transmitted from a microphone worn by the tour guide. This allows travelers the freedom to hear the tour guide’s information, without having to stand on top of them. I loved this feature. The signal begins to fade at great distances, though, so it’s a good idea to stay with the guide.
Upon arrival at Chichen Itza, the travelers on our bus were split into English speakers and Spanish speakers. Each group would now go with their own guide and see as much of the massive city as time would allow. The scheduled time to stay at the site is three hours, two of which are guided, with an hour for personal exploration.
The English speakers were sent off with Raul. I felt a momentary sense of disappointment at this. I loved Karina. She was so enthusiastic, so engaging… Raul could never compare. Boy, was I wrong.
Raul began the tour at The Church, one of the smaller pyramids in the city. He indicated the structural nuances of this building and explained the significance of the symbols used here. Raul was every bit as passionate as Karina had been. There was a sense of reverence in his presentation. Nothing he said felt scripted or rehearsed. He was just talking, teaching. Raul was teaching what he loved.
We moved on to see the observatory, a structure which allowed the Mayans to track and log the movement of the sun and thus predict and document seasonal changes. Raul explained, with admiration, the precision with which this structure was built. He showed us photos of the sun reacting with its windows to cast intentional shadows at specific moments during the year. He told us about different rulers and builders who lived here, and how their influence impacted the city.
It was then time to see the temple of Kukulkan, the structure most often misidentified as Chichen Itza. Pictures cannot capture its grandeur; this structure is beyond words. Kukulkan rises up out of a clearing, strong, impenetrable. It reaches toward the sun and suggests a mightiness that is ageless. We stood beneath it, listening to Raul explain its purpose, its history, and its mysteries. I was awestruck. And then, Raul clapped. The echo that reverberated around us was comical. Not fitting at all with the feeling of might and reverence I felt standing at the foot of this fierce temple. Raul explained that there is a legend that suggests that the echo sound is deliberate; that the Mayans created it to mimic the cry of a bird indigenous to Guatemala and not found in Mexico. Raul thinks the echo is deliberate, too, but not because it sounds like a bird. Raul believes the expert builders deliberately designed the structure to amplify the sound of someone speaking either from atop or in front of the temple. (I’m with you on this, Raul. The Greeks did this, too, at Epidaurus. What an incredible connection between civilizations that had not yet been introduced.)
At this point, many in our group were fading from the heat; there is very little shade at Chichen Itza, and our scheduled two hours of guided tour was coming to an end. Raul explained we were free to explore the site. Perhaps he always does this, because he loves teaching people, perhaps he did it because we were exceptionally enthusiastic, but he offered to continue guiding anyone who wanted to see more of the site with him. The teacher and life-long learner in me had not even considered the idea of “down time.” Show me everything, Raul!
Raul took us through the city to the Mayan ball court. This was what I most wanted to see. I’m not proud of this, but I love the movie The Road to El Dorado. I mean, Kevin Kline and Kenneth Branagh are silly together for an hour and a half, while Elton John does the soundtrack. What’s not to like? I realize there are some pretty serious discrepancies in the film, but there’s also some pretty great introduction to Mayan culture, too. The characters use real Mayan words, there’s a depiction of a Cenote, and even a solid attempt at representing the ancient ball game played all over Mesoamerica. So, when Raul took us to the ball court, I was pumped.
Raul explained the rules of the game as scholars believe they would have been played in this part of Mexico and told us that the players at Parque Xcaret, who play for a show featured every evening, are actually observing the real, authentic rules. Players must only use their hips, shoulders, feet, or head to contact the ball, and points are scored when the ball passes through the tiny hoop. What?! Oh, and the ball weighs about eight pounds. Including the ball used nightly at Parque Xcaret!
Raul showed us relief carvings that told specific stories about the game and its history. One carving in particular showed a team surrounding a captain who was about to be beheaded. Raul asked us what we thought about the carving. Most of us agreed that it was a tough punishment for losing. Raul chuckled. He explained that he believed it may have been the reward for winning. The game was played in reverence, to honor gods. The best player would likely have been sacrificed. I rethought my competitive nature on the spot. I commented about the sheer size of the court, it seemed impossible for a man to get the ball through the hoop that was so high up. “You’re right,” Raul said. “It’s too big.” He told us that this court was a monument to the game. It likely was never played on.
We were due back at the bus so Raul escorted us through the city, all the while pointing out small, almost unnoticeable features in the landscape. We turned to take a different path back than we had come. “This is the white road,” Raul said. “It used to connect the major Mayan cities. They built it in the ninth century and this part remains intact.” Raul remained reverent, yet almost casual as we walked on the thousand-year-old road. I realized, as I walked, how truly magical it felt standing on these stones, laid a millennia ago, by hand. I have traveled extensively in eastern and western Europe. I have stood upon and stayed inside structures as old as this road; but something about Chichen Itza impacted me in an unexpected and powerful way.
We made our way back to our comfortable, air conditioned bus, where our driver, Roberto, greeted us each with ice-cold Corona. I settled in to my seat, thinking about the staggering amount of information I’d learned today, and it was only just after noon. In another half an hour we would be treated to the finest meal I’d have in Mexico, but for now, the frosty Corona was the perfect pause in what was shaping up to be the perfect day.