There are so many stories and myths surrounding the Maya Mexicans who are the indigenous people in Yucatan. They were blood thirsty warriors, had mystical religious ceremonies involving human offerings yet they also developed an advanced understanding of astronomy, a complicated set of calendars and hieroglyphic writing.
The Spanish conquistadores arrived in the early 1500s to colonise and hunt for golden treasures for the Queen of Spain. When after a few attempts, they finally conquered the land, they built European-style towns and set out to convert the Mexicans to christianity. Part of their legacy to us today are some beautiful colonial towns and churches. Travelling around Yucatan gives you a fascinating insight into the history of both these cultures which are now interwoven.
Valladolid, a charming colourful town about 150km inland from Cancun, is a great starting point from which to explore. It was built by the Spanish in the mid-1500s and follows the classical lay-out of a central square surrounded by grand arched buildings and the cathedral. The centre has been carefully maintained and houses painted in pretty pastel colours line the cobblestoned streets. We enjoyed exploring the market, the underground cenotes and just sitting at a cafe on the square with a cold beer watching life as it is in Mexico.
Another highlight is Casa de los Venados, a beautifully restored mansion which houses a private collection of more than 3000 pieces of Mexican folk art (and the painted dome ceiling in the photo below). Having seen too many candy coloured skulls, skeletons and images of Frida Kahlo in souvenir shops, it gave us more appreciation to see these same symbols in a different context. Also, you should make sure to drive to Uayma, a tiny village nearby with the most unexpectedly amazing church!
Izamal, 100 km further west, is known as the Yellow City for reasons that are immediately obvious. We had never seen such a striking town, it's tiny and like Valladolid not overly commercial. It was a major centre for worship back in Mayan times with a dozen pyramids devoted to specific gods. Four pyramids still stand in the centre of town - on our first evening we stumbled across the largest which is located only a couple of blocks from the main square and it was pretty surreal climbing this large structure which belongs to another time and place.
When the Spanish arrived they built a new town on top of the old and as if to counteract the fact that it was already a strong religious centre, they built an enormous Franciscan monastery on top of a partly deconstructed pyramid. The monastery has the biggest open atrium outside of The Vatican and was visited by Pope John Paul II in 1993, a big event for this tiny town.
Chichen Itza which is the biggest tourist attraction in the area is located between the two towns. At the height of the Maya civilisation in 250-950AC this was one of the most important cities. The site gets busy but the structures are truly amazing. The pyramids were built to symbolise Witzob, the mountain where the Maya gods lived and are full of symbolism, particularly with reference to the Mayan calendar eg the number of steps on the main pyramid add up to the 365 days of the solar year. Human sacrifices were not actually carried out on the top of the pyramids as we thought but on a different temple. The ancient ballgame pok-a-tok played an important role seemingly used both as recreation, as part of rituals and to settle conflicts. Murals at the ball court at Chichen Itza, which is the largest in Central America, shows decapitation of ball players although we never completely understood if it was the captain of the winning or loosing team who was most likely to loose his head, either as an honour and a chance to achieve eternal life or because of the shame of loosing. The heads of those sacrificed were then displayed on a platform that was decorated with several rows of skull carvings.
Travelling around Yucatan is like a window back in time to several different periods and even the current modern life is very different to ours. One of the myths is that the Mayas disappeared after they fell from power however they never left and in many of the smaller towns like Izamal, people still speak Maya, not Spanish, as their main language and live a simple traditional life. We absolutely loved our time in this part of Mexico and that it's very easily accessible is only a bonus. The area can be explored by car in 4-5 days although there is plenty more to see if you have the time.