Discover ancient mysteries and jewel-colored waters in southern Mexico.
Story and photos by Stephen M. Wheeler

Will time end in 2012? According to the Maya, the end of time occurs on Dec. 22, 2012. But before you dismiss that as ancient superstition, consider that for nearly 5,000 years, the Maya calendar was the most accurate calendar known to man–a calendar that, like the once great civilization from which it stemmed, is set to expire.

"El Castillo” has a total of 364 steps plus the final platform–one for each day in a year.
The ancient Maya were masters of time. They discovered early on that a year is not exactly 365 days (the reason we have leap year every four years). But instead of creating a new calendar every year, they created the “long count,” which accounted for accurate annual fractions of time for 5,000 years. Only modern day scientists have been able to measure time more precisely.

Make time for this tropical escape

Today, the Riviera Maya is a great playground for vacationers, and is easily accessible from Cancun International Airport or the many cruise lines that stop there. The hotel zone of Cancun stretches for 16 miles along a barrier island, and is the central hub for shopping, dining and vivid nightlife. Just south is Playa del Carmen, less hurried and convenient to nearby sites Xcaret, Xel-Ha and Tulum. From Playa del Carmen, you can catch the ferry to the island of Cozumel, renowned worldwide for clear water and beautiful coral reefs.

In fact, the world's second-largest reef system looms just offshore along the entire Riviera Maya, and beaches, water sports, diving, snorkeling and fishing are all major attractions to the area. Parts of the reef and much of the beach still bear the scars of Hurricane Wilma (2005), but the construction now seen along the beaches are new resorts and high-rises being built for tourists’ future pleasures.

The freshwater cenotes provide a stunning diving opportunity.
The ancient Maya city of Chichen Itza knows a little something about weathering the tests of time. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988, Chichen Itza is arguably the most renowned archeological site in the Yucatan, and was recently voted one of the new seven wonders of the world. Its most famous structure is El Castillo, also known as the Temple of Kulkulcan (the Maya name for Quetzalcoatl, the plumed serpent god).

Built around 1,000 years ago and towering nearly 100 feet over the center of the site, El Castillo is a four-sided stone pyramid. Though two sides are crumbling, the other two have been painstakingly restored by archaeologists and the Mexican government. Each side of the pyramid features a staircase, and the base of the north staircase is flanked by two serpent heads-each the image of Kulkulcan. The four staircases have 91 steps each, for a total of 364 steps. When you include the top platform as the final step, you have 365 total steps-one for each day of the year. There are 52 sections (weeks per year) and nine terraces (months of pregnancy) along with many other chronological symbols that scientists theorize range from everything related to the average life span to optimal harvest time.

The construction and orientation of El Castillo is significant, too. An engineering marvel in its own right, an amazing sight happens on the spring equinox. During the longest day of the year, the sun casts a shadow directly across the nine-tiered corner of El Castillo that rests upon the north staircase. As the sun moves across the sky, the shadows and light "snake" down the side of the temple until they join the serpent head at the bottom. Suddenly it becomes clear that El Castillo is not just a tribute to an ancient religion, it is a lasting testament to the great and remarkably accurate astronomical and chronological mastery of the Maya.

In its prime, Chichen Itza was a great commercial center and major seat of power for the Maya culture. The ruins depict a melding of architectural styles from the peoples who took turns dominating the region. Prior to A.D. 900, the main style is Puunc Maya, featuring smooth, rounded stonework, round columns and curving arches. But around A.D. 900, the Toltec of central Mexico came to power. The Toltec Maya style features sharp angles, square columns, and numerous stone carvings that pay tribute to warriors and the gods. It was during this time that El Castillo was built-directly on top of, and completely enclosing, a smaller pyramid of Puunc Maya design. This inner temple has been closed to the public for preservation by the Mexican government, but features a throne room and a red jaguar stone carving adorned with jade spots and eyes. Scaling the exterior of El Castillo is not permitted.

The Toltec Maya era also introduced the Chac Mool, the statue associated with human sacrifice. Barbaric to modern cultures, human sacrifice was the ultimate honor during the Toltec Maya era-returning virtuous and triumphant individuals to the gods. There are several Chac Mool statues across Chichen Itza, with the most prominent high atop the Temple of Warriors. At the Great Ball Court, competitors played a ball-through-the-hoop type of game-widely popular among the Maya. (Chichen Itza's Great Ball Court is the largest of any archeological find.) A stone carving on the side of the court depicts the victor's reward: he, too, is returned to the gods.

Another ritual involves offerings to the gods at the Sacred Cenote. Cenotes are wells or sinkholes that connect to great underground rivers found throughout the Yucatan. In fact, there are no above-ground rivers anywhere in the region. Cenotes were critical to life as they supplied the only source of water and, revered as such, cenotes were believed to be gateways to the world of the gods. At Chichen Itza, various objects were sacrificed into the sacred well, including jade, pottery and, occasionally, humans.

Today, the large network of cenotes across the Riviera Maya attracts divers and snorkelers from around the world, as the stalagmite and stalactite rock formations are truly unique in an underwater environment. Tens of thousands of years ago, the cenotes must have been part of a massive dry cavern system (stalagmite and stalactite formations can't grow underwater) that filled with cool and crystal clear rainwater over time. Many cenotes are 50 feet or more in depth, with the entire system forming underground rivers that empty into the sea. Near the bottom of a cenote, the halocline-the layer where the light freshwater and the heavier saltwater mix-swirls unhappily, like oil and water, obscuring visibility until the diver passes underneath. Many divers have been fooled into believing that when ascending through the halocline the virtually limitless visibility of the freshwater is actually surface air.

A popular way to enjoy the cenotes is to float down the surface of an underground river. With a float vest and optional snorkel gear, you can float down sections of two underground rivers at Xcaret, an eco-amusement park that also features a Maya village re-creation, archaeological excavations, botanical gardens and an aquarium. The rivers are well lit, as beams of light shine through numerous openings in the cavern ceilings, and have several entry/exit points. The rivers end in a mangrove estuary adjacent to the turquoise Caribbean.

The Riviera Maya is home to a paradise of dazzling beaches and amazing waters. But it also is home to the heritage of a 5,000-year-old culture that, in just a few years, may literally become timeless.

Stephen M. Wheeler is senior editor of AAA Going Places magazine located in Tampa, Fla.
Nov/Dec 2007

To visit the Riviera Maya, first stop by your nearest AAA Travel office. Click here for a list of offices to serve you. Ask about exclusive member benefits with preferred partners offering Mexican tours and cruises.

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