Ancient ruins…quartz-sand beaches…intriguing colonial towns – Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula is beyond amazing, discovers Claire Wrathall.
This is a place of paradisiacal pale, powdery quartz-sand beaches; proximity to the Mesoamerican coral reef, second only in size to Australia's Great Barrier; abundant wildlife — iguanas, toucans, parrots, golden orioles and blue morpho butterflies the size of saucers; handsome colonial towns (Mérida, in particular); and the ruins of more intriguing 'lost' Mayan cities than you'll ever have time to visit.
Many visitors opt not to stir from their sunloungers or hammocks (on almost every developed beach you'll find colourful hamacas strung between the coconut palms). But it would be a shame to come here and not see at least one mysterious relic of the Maya civilisation.
The best known, Chichén Itzá, is now classified a new Wonder of the World but also make for Ek Balam — the name means black jaguar — which is, in any case, closer to the coast, yet remains unfrequented. It's a place of extraordinary atmosphere and grandeur, of temple platforms, fragmented palaces, pyramids, arches and, most strikingly, a squat tower of rising concentric circles that resembles a sort of inverted New York Guggenheim, whose architect Frank Lloyd Wright certainly toured this area.
It’s doubtful, though, that he visited Ek Balam, for its principal attraction wasn't excavated till 2000, when a vast, intricate, almost perfectly preserved frieze, carved in stone and finished in stucco, was revealed two-thirds of the way up the six-storey acropolis, one of the longest and tallest ancient structures in the Mundo Maya.
The relief depicts the vast gaping jaws of a serpent, its eyelids held open by human figures seated within them. This terrible face, surely some kind of portal to hell, is flanked by crowds of other men, one of them club-footed, with a stunted arm and only four digits on either hand. For the ancient Maya venerated deformity: however lowly his caste, any male born with a disability was destined to become a priest. But it's the winged figures on either edge that really fascinate, for they look like angels, yet were made at least 500 years before the Spanish brought Christianity to this region. Proof, perhaps, that Yucatán has long had something of the heavens about it.
If Ek Balam makes an easy day trip from the coast, a trip to Uxmal, a city of 25,000 at its peak between 750 and 900AD, requires a night or two at one of the handful of former haciendas turned hotels in the interior. But it's well worth the journey, for these evocatively named buildings — the Pyramid of the Magician, the House of the Turtles, the Quadrangle of Birds, its intricately decorated walls dotted with little avian figures carved to look as though they'd just alighted there — are, as Frank Lloyd Wright, observed, among the most beautiful the world has ever seen. And with their horizontal planes and severe rectilinear forms, some would certainly seem to have influenced his work.
Back towards the coast, the other unmissable ancient site is Coba, one of the oldest, most overgrown ruins, where you can climb the towering conical Nohoch Mul, at 42m the highest pyramid in the area, for sensational views of the tree canopy, an endless field of green broken only by silvery, crocodile-infested lakes.
From Coba, it's about 50km east to Tulum, which has perhaps the most photographed Mayan ruins. Here, the great temple pyramid, El Castillo, stands overlooking the Caribbean and is flanked by a smaller temple painted with colourful frescos of a frog-like upside-down figure, known as the Diving God.
The boho tourist town that's grown up around the Tulum site also makes an excellent base for a holiday, with a string of beachside hotels from simple backpacker hostales to those offering full-on luxe. But if you decide to stay here, you'll need to put aside any prejudices against cod-Maya spiritualism and all-pervading talk of Maya energy, which cynics may find sit oddly with the otherwise laid-back mañana culture. For in an effort to attract well-heeled holidaymakers looking for something more than just the usual R'n'R, hoteliers here — and indeed along the whole coast — have appropriated all manner of Maya traditions and motifs.
Many of the highest profile properties have temazcales, or sweat lodges, where ritual baths involving red-hot volcanic stones, self-flagellation with bunches of herbs and a lot of chanting in Yucatec Maya are hosted by local shamans. It's a superbly energising — and skin-softening — experience whether or not you subscribe to the belief that the hot, dark, circular space you're confined to for an hour is a representation of your mother's uterus and that you're supposed to be being reborn. But, then, with the end of everything approaching, rebirth is a bit of a theme in these parts.