CANCÚN + CULTURE

BY THERESA GAWLAS MEDOFF

Add cultural excursions to your Mexican beach vacation for a deeper experience.

I stood as close as I dared to the edge of the 65-foot-high promontory that rises at Punta Sur, the wild southern tip of Isla Mujeres and the easternmost point of Mexico, where the sun first rises on the country. Below me, a small group of tourists walked along paths close enough to the Caribbean Sea to feel the warm spray of the waves crashing against the rocky coast.

Now a postage-stamp-sized ecological park that draws tourists with its striking views of Cancún six miles west across the water, Punta Sur was sacred to the Mayans, who believed their gods ruled the sea from this dramatic vantage point. For nearly a thousand years, from the 6th to the 16th century, Isla Mujeres (Island of Women) was a place of pilgrimage dedicated to the Mayan goddess Ixchel. The roped-off limestone ruins that are the centerpiece of Punta Sur are believed to be the remains of a temple dedicated to this Mayan goddess of the moon, fertility and medicine. Even today, women from Mexico and abroad who want to have children will visit the temple ruins in hopes of being blessed by Ixchel.

My travel companions and I were staying at the Grand Fiesta Americana Coral Beach Cancún, and we’d taken the 20-minute ferry ride to spend the day in Isla Mujeres. I was in Cancún for just five days, and while I certainly intended to spend much of my mid-autumn trip soaking up the sun on the white sand beaches, dipping into the turquoise waters of the Caribbean, and swimming in my hotel’s meandering heated pool (with three swim-up bars!), I also wanted a dose of Mexican culture, and so here we were at Punta Sur.

MAYAN RUINS AMID BEACHES

The Mayan civilization spanned more than 3,000 years and gave rise to impressive art and architecture as well as sophisticated mathematical and astronomical systems. In Mexico, the Mayans lived primarily in the Yucatán Peninsula, where Americans now flock to coastal resorts for winter escapes and spring-break vacations. Day trips can be booked to the stepped pyramids of Chichen Itza or Coba, and while those large archaeological sites are certainly worth visiting, travelers to Cancún who are short on time can easily access Punta Sur as well as three other sites with Mayan ruins that are located right in Cancún’s 17-mile-long purpose-built hotel zone. Add in the El Meco Mayan ruins north of mainland Cancún city to complete the Cancún Mayan circuit.

Considered among the more important museums of the National Institute of Anthropology and History, the Maya Museum of Cancún is a 20-acre indoor/outdoor facility combining a museum of Mayan artifacts with the San Miguelito archaeological site. Outdoors, you can walk the shaded paths to see scattered remains of pre-Hispanic structures in use from the 13th to 16th centuries. Iguanas love the ruins, too, and you’ll likely see some big ones. Indoors, the museum’s three galleries are devoted to the archaeology of the local region and to Mayan civilization, with impressive sculptures, ceramics, jewelry and masks. Be forewarned that many of the museum placards are in Spanish only. Plan on spending an hour or so.

A short walk from the Maya Museum of Cancún brings you to Cancún’s most significant archaeological site: El Rey, a 1,700-acre grassy expanse with dozens of remnants of stone buildings, including the base of a pyramid, a temple with parts of a mural still visible inside, and a palace with columns. Inhabited as early as 300 B.C., the El Rey site reached its zenith between 1300 and 1550. The final archaeological site in the hotel zone, Yamil Lu’um preserves the weathered remains of a 13th-century temple. Sitting atop a knoll in parklike grounds between the beachside Park Royal Cancún and The Westin Lagunamar resort, it makes for a nice stopover.

HONORING THE DEAD

Since I was visiting Mexico from October 30 to November 3, I had reserved November 2 to experience Día de los Muertos with Alltournative, a tour company highly recommended by our hotel. The daylong trip took us into the Yucatán interior to the small village of Tres Reyes (population approximately 400), whose people partner with Alltournative to host visitors for village tours throughout the year and for a special Day of the Dead event each November.

People live quite modestly in Tres Reyes. There are still a few grass huts in town, but most of the one- and two-room homes are built of concrete. We could see the interiors through doors open to the breeze, and many homes had no furnishings at all, just hammocks.

We learned that most of the villagers speak Mayan as their first language. In fact, although Spanish is the most widely spoken language in Mexico, the government recognizes 68 national languages, most of them from indigenous cultures.

If you’re like me, a lot of what you know about Mexico’s Day of the Dead comes from movies. Think Disney’s animated Coco and the 2015 James Bond film Spectre, which famously begins with a scene at a Day of the Dead parade in Mexico City. (The parade, by the way, was a Hollywood invention, and Mexico City only began holding Day of the Dead parades in 2016 to satisfy tourists.)

Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico differ by region, but all are reverent observations focused on honoring deceased family members, whose spirits are believed to return from the underworld once a year to visit their loved ones. In some regions, Mexicans do indeed dress up and paint their faces like skeletons, but that’s not the case in Tres Reyes, where the holiday observation is more subdued and traditional, featuring a visit to the cemetery and the building of altars to welcome back the dead.

In the Yucatán Peninsula, Day of the Dead is called Hanal Pixán, a Mayan term that translates as “food of the souls.” Food features prominently in the special altars that villagers build at their homes and decorate in palm fronds and colorful flowers. The altars have three shelves representing the underworld, the earthly world and the world of the gods. The bottom shelf—dedicated to those who died as children—holds sweets and toys, while the upper two shelves, for deceased adults, feature a variety of traditional foods. At one home, our gracious host gave us tastes of the dishes she’d prepared for the holiday: a creamy sweet corn drink, candied pumpkin and mucbipollo (corn dough filled with chicken and cooked in banana leaf).

As evening fell, we tourists descended into the town’s 40-foot-deep dry cenote (a type of sinkhole common in the region, though cenotes are typically filled with groundwater). There, we claimed seats in a semicircle on the ground, lit candles we’d been given, and turned our attention to the outdoor stage for a Day of the Dead drama featuring instrumental music, dance, singing and stories. I didn’t understand the words, but the reverence was obvious.

Our excursion to Tres Reyes was tiring—a two-hour drive each way—but I gladly traded a day at the beach for a deeper understanding of Mexican culture and a glimpse of life in a contemporary rural Yucatán town. I knew that the next day at my hotel I would once again be lounging on a chaise sipping a piña colada. But I also knew that long after I returned home and the stresses of everyday life had erased the relaxation induced by a beach vacation, I would still remember my cultural experiences in the Yucatán.

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