Yucatán Peninsula’s Riviera Maya


A Pilgrim Visits the Yucatán Peninsula:

” History is like an old house at night. With all the lamps lit. And ancestors whispering inside. To understand history, we have to go inside and listen to what they are saying. And look at the books and pictures on the wall. And smell the smells.”

(Arundhati Roy)

Most often, we view history through the lenses of the powerful, the intelligentsia, or the victor. It is a story rich in dates, places, conflicts, illustrious and notorious people, and political and social movements that changed our world. However, most of us care little about data which takes priority over the story of the common man and woman –  the fisherman, the mother, the tinker, the seamstress, the sailor, or the farmer with his plow.

To learn to love history requires that one listen to the “ancestors whispering inside,” for, as the author, Clarissa Pinkola Estes, reminds us, “We see the world through a thousand eyes.” Nowhere is that clearer that on Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula.


Riviera Maya

Cozumel Street Mural


The Captivating Allure of the Yucatán Peninsula’s Riviera Maya

Once again, as I stand on the shores of the third largest of the Latin American countries, I find myself seeking to understand the haunting appeal of Mexico. I visualize Mexico City’s busy streets, the pre-Columbian ruins of Chichen Itza and Tulum, and the charming colonial architecture of San Miguel de Allende. I recall the small villages where descendants of the ancient Aztecs still survive by reaping the harvest of the sea, hauled in daily in their patched nets.


Playa del Carmen, Yucatan Peninsula


Mexico welcomes visitors from all over the world. In 2016, thirty-five million tourists experienced its enchantment. The country and its people grasp the hearts of those who travel from afar to see the wonders it has to offer. Those visitors return, over and over again, lured by an irresistible ambiance, one unique to our world. It is also one that is difficult to understand, for like that proverbial round peg one attempts to fit into the square hole, this extraordinary country cannot be measured by the norms of any other because of its strange and brutal history.

Yucatán Peninsula

Playa del Carmen Mayan Dancer


In villages like San Pancho where, only recently, I was blessed to housesit, time languishes. It feels as if the country’s history holds it captive, forbidding the small community from moving forward. However, perhaps being held captive by time should not always be seen in a negative light, for only when one pauses, can the voices of the ancestors break through the chatter and chaos of existence. The voices warn us:

 “Learn from mistakes of the past. Do not so easily feast on all the fruits of progress. Can those who dwell in the high-rises farther north walk barefoot in the moonlight through the sand upon which their grandfathers’ feet one trod? Can they wander through the jungle, like the jaguar, as twilight approaches, mesmerized by the haunting call of the black-throated magpie? Can they watch, with joy, the humpback whale with its newborn calf frolicking in the waves as the sun awakens the fathomless waters?”


Yucatán Peninsula

Riveria Maya Mayan Dancer


A Spanish Conquistador Tells of Sailing to the New World

The occupation of Tenochtitlán occurred under the leadership of the Spanish conquistador, Hernán Cortés. However, the words of his contemporary, Ferdinand Magellan, provide us a glimpse into the experiences of those mariners who would forever change the world of the Aztec and Mayan.

“We were three months and twenty days without refreshment from any kind of fresh food. We ate biscuit which was no longer biscuit but its powder, swarming with worms, the rats having eaten all the good. It stank strongly of their urine. we drank yellow water already many days putrid… Rats were sold for half a ducat apiece, and even so we could not always get them.”

Riviera Maya

Yucatán Peninsula Jungle


 The Yucatán Peninsula: 21st Century Mexico

Had those ancient seafarers been able to peek into the future, they would have been shocked. Today, on the streets of Cancun, Cozumel, or Playa del Carmen, those jewels of the Yucatán Peninsula, visitors sense little of this underlying history. Instead, they spend their time leisurely exploring quaint shops rich in traditional Mexican crafts. They discover brightly colored and roughly woven ponchos and sarapes. They delight in the pictures of Aztec warriors with tiny shells which jingle around their bare ankles and vibrant feathers that symbolize the prehistoric god, Quetzalcoatl (Kukulkán ).

They purchase ceramic figurines of devilish Caribbean pirates adorned with dazzling colored jewels and feathers. With patches over a single eye and sparkling, golden teeth, the statues depict those who mastered the art of deception, using lanterns to lure Spanish galleons, heavily laden with gold and other treasures, to their doom on the treacherous mudflats of the Quintana Roo coastline.


Cozumel Street Mural


The Yucatán Peninsula: A Franciscan Friar Shares His Story

In his “Florentine Codex” the friar, Bernardino de Sahagún, described a scene at which an Aztec sacrifice had just taken place shortly after the subjugation of the native population.

“Above the altars were two shapes like giants, wondrous for height and hugeness. The first on the right was Huichilobos (Huitzilopochtli), their god of war. He had a big head and trunk, his eyes great and terrible… Thereby… were braziers, wherein burned the hearts of three Indians, torn from their bodies that very day, and the smoke of them and the savour of incense were the sacrifice.”

Riviera Maya

Yucatán Jungle


The Yucatán Peninsula: The Mayan Deities 

The Yucatán Peninsula is riddled with cenotes. Created when collapsing limestone exposes water beneath the earth, the Mayans used them as a site for sacrificial offerings. The waters of the cenotes are such stunning shades of blues that they seem magical, like something from a fairytale.

Riviera Maya

Yucatán Cenote


The ancient Mayans believed these subterranean pools were the home of the god of rain, Chaak. Even today in the arid parts of the peninsula, some farmers appeal to this deity in times of drought and potential crop failure.

Yucatán Peninsula

Riveria Maya’s Cenote with Rain God Chaak


In the jungle where I  experienced these incredibly beautiful phenomena, the guide told an unusual tale. The tree called the ceiba is common on the peninsula and was believed by the Mayans to be the Tree of Life. According to the ancient beliefs, there are three worlds. The roots of the ceiba symbolize the lower world. Its trunk represents the middle world, populated by people (the Mayan) formed from yellow and white maize. The leaves and branches symbolize the upper world, the realm of the Mayan deities.

The ceiba trunks are partly hollow. The Mayans believed that when the gods descended to visit the lower worlds, they left the upper realm and traveled through the hollow trunk of the ceibo tree, thus arriving on earth to rule over humans.



Yucatán Peninsula

Riveria Maya’s Ceiba Tree



The Yucatán Peninsula Continues to Reveal Its Secrets

“National Geographic” describes how divers in the Holtún Cenote discovered one such sacrificial site.

“A natural rock shelf held an offering of a human skull, pottery, the skull of a dog, deer bones, and a two-edged knife probably used for sacrifices, all neatly placed there centuries earlier. His [the diver’s] headlamp, pointed straight down at the cenote’s depths, revealed broken columns, a carved anthropomorphic jaguar, and a figure similar to one of the little stone men at Chichén Itzá’s Temple of the Warriors, sculpted to look as if they were holding up the sky. This well in the middle of a cornfield was clearly a sacred site.”

The writers also tell us that, for some Mayans, “The old gods are still very much alive, and Chaak, ruler of cenotes and caves, is among the most important gods of all. For the benefit of living things, he pours from the skies the water he keeps in earthenware jars in caves.”

Riviera Maya

Yucatán Cenote



Yucatan Peninsula

Transportation to Riviera Maya Cenotes


The Yucatán Peninsula: Through the Eyes of a Pilgrim

Tourists see few monuments representing the Franciscans or the Spanish conquistadors. Instead, they swim in clear, turquoise waters, parasail above the Caribbean, and snorkel in the second largest coral reef in the world. They relax beneath multi-colored umbrellas and broad-leafed palm trees as they sip their pina coladas or margaritas while watching the waves which, like a lover, eternally caress the warm, sandy beaches.




Snorkeling in the Waters of the Yucatán Peninsula’s Island of Cozumel.


Intermarriage with the Spanish conquerors was common during the colonial era. Nevertheless, the Mayans hold fervently to tradition. Their collective identity is clear, especially, in their music, food, and outlook on life. As a result, although their spirituality adheres to Catholic orthodoxy, one continues to find the old deities, those worshiped by their ancestors, interwoven within their celebrations and daily rituals.




Celebrating the Day of the Dead


Riviera Maya’s Archeology Ruins at Tulum: Templo del Dios del Viento (Temple of the God of the Wind)


The ancient Stoic author and emperor of Rome, Marcus Aurelius, reminds us that “The soul becomes dyed with the colour of its thoughts.” That dark scarlet, the bloodstains on the altar of Tenochtitlán, once cast its long shadow over the hearts and spirits of the people of Mexico. Fear overcame the Mayans’ natural enthusiasm for life.

However, one rambling down the narrow, crooked streets of the Riviera Maya, that brilliant emerald of the Yucatán Peninsula, could effortlessly forget that Mexico’s savage history occurred. The small, round-faced child, whose eyes reflect the royal blue waters of the Caribbean, reveals trust of her environment as she splashes in the waves.  The elderly musician, standing tall and proud in his sombrero and silver buttoned charro suit, happily tapping his boot and strumming his guitar to a traditional Mexican melody, leaves little doubt in one’s mind that the Mayans’ natural love for life has resurfaced.  The guide who, with extreme care, protects a family of tourist on their first snorkeling adventure, swimming beside them and ensuring that each has a day to remember forever, no longer gives credence to those angry gods of old.


Tulum Ruins, Riviera Maya


Like children once afraid of the dark, most of the Mayans have outgrown those terrible fears of the past. Instead, they have begun to  “… look at the books and the pictures on the walls. And to smell the smells.” They have chosen to listen to the words of those from the past who participated in or observed the cruelty that occurred on the altars of Tenochtitlán. One imagines the voices whispering:

“People of the maize, learn from the past. Sing your song of joy beneath the branches of the ceiba like the black-throated magpie. Frolic in the waves like the humpback whale. That is the way life should be lived, in pure color as vibrant as the blue cenotes from which the god Chaaf fills his pitcher to pour forth the nourishing waters upon a thirsty land. In doing so, you become one with this unique planet inexplicably spinning in space. You take your rightful place among the community of nations, for you have forged a new destiny. You have become like the jaguar, free and unafraid of those angry gods of old.”



Read More About Mexico

Once Upon a Time in Mexico

San Pancho, Mexico: Swallowing the Sunset



Suggested Resources

 Riviera Maya Vacation Travel Guide | Expedia

Tulum Ruins