Photograph by John Stanmeyer, National Geographic
Visit the Maya metropolis of Tikal.
The single can’t-miss attraction in the Maya world is a visit to the ruins of a lost civilization, and perhaps the most engaging place for this is Tikal in Guatemala’s Petén jungle. The towering temples of Tikal, some as high as 20-story buildings, pierce the jungle canopy. Several can be safely climbed.
Here’s what makes Tikal so special—it remains surrounded by wild jungle just as it did while inhabited by the brilliantly advanced Maya civilization, which mysteriously began to decline in the ninth century. After the signing of 1996 peace accords, local Maya have officially been allowed to return to the Grand Plaza to celebrate rituals. Many travelers visit just for the day, but those who stay overnight in Tikal or nearby Flores can experience dawn at Tikal and hear the howler monkeys roar.
Explore the caves of Río Secreto.
In Mexico’s Riviera Maya, just south of Cancún, is Río Secreto, an underground river that traverses a hidden world of shimmering limestone curtains, stalactites, and stalagmites. The water in the caves is calm and typically only knee-to-waist-high, though there are a few places where it gets higher and you need to swim across.
All tours are led by trained guides who explain how the caves formed. All guests wear a helmet, life vest, and headlamp for safety, and wet suits are available. On our tour there were several children; they had a fantastic time exploring the caves, often exclaiming with delight as we entered each new “room.” The minute of silence in the ethereal caves is priceless.
Take in a festival.
Beyond the raucous dances, wild pyrotechnics, and thumping music, here’s what’s fascinating about festivals in the Maya world: they’re hybrids of Maya and Christian traditions. Semana Santa (Holy Week) in Antigua Guatemala, for example, is an event replete with andas, wooden floats bearing saints that emerge from the town’s churches and parade through the streets. But most of the float-bearers are of Maya descent, and the streets become perfumed with copal, a pine incense, that was part of Maya rituals even before the Spanish arrived five centuries ago.
Another fantastic festival occurs December 16-22 in Chichicastenango—sure to be a center of celebration when the Maya Long Count calendar begins a new cycle this December 21.
Swim in a Yucatán cenote.
Fed by underground rivers and filled with crystal-clear fresh water, cenotes are deep sinkholes that form when the roof of a cavern collapses. There are many places to swim in cenotes in the Yucatán Peninsula—the best for families are outfitted with guides or lifeguards.
Some are tourist traps; others are aquatic paradises, like Gran Cenote, north of Tulum. Cenote Ik Kil near Chichén Itzá can get busy, but it’s a great place to cool down after a tour of the ruins. In the Riviera Maya, Jardín del Eden is a fine place for snorklers to see a rainbow of fish. An all-inclusive resort in the Riviera Maya, Hacienda Tres Ríos, has spectacular cenotes on its adjacent nature reserve.
Visit an outdoor market.
The colors are dazzling: on one wall hang lustrous tapestries with figures of volcanoes and Guatemala’s national bird, the quetzal. In another stall are fearsome painted wooden masks with glaring expressions. Visitors and locals wander through the narrow stone lanes, shopping for keepsakes, such as ceramic Maya figurines or handwoven huipiles (blouses) and bedspreads, with negotiable prices. It’s all part of market day—Thursday and Sunday mornings—in the town of Chichicastenango in Guatemala’s western highlands.
Tour a cacao factory.
Cacao, the essential ingredient in chocolate, has been a sacred delicacy in the Maya world for millennia. Ancient Maya carried it for hundreds of miles along trade routes for use as currency and to drink, often during ceremonies. Today the best place to learn about the history and making of chocolate is on a factory tour at Kaokao, on the island of Cozumel.
The hourlong tour, free for kids under 12, includes an overview of the history of cacao, a hands-on session where you make artisanal hot chocolate with locally harvested cacao, and a view of the factory where Kaokao’s bars are made. The tour concludes with a tasting of chocolate in raw and finished forms, culminating with exotic blends, such as dark chocolate with orange. Mmm, chocolate.
Spend the day at Lake Atitlán.
Cobalt blue waters, puffy white clouds, and tranquil Maya villages, backed by three towering volcanoes—this is Lake Atitlán. A viewpoint on the drive toward the lake is an ideal vantage to take in this dramatic natural wonder before descending to the lakeside town of Panajachel. The best family-friendly way to spend the day is to hop aboard a lancha (boat) to visit one of the dozen or so small towns around the lake. Most popular with tourists are San Pedro and Santiago Atitlán. Lanchas motor past Maya fishermen in dugout canoes called cayucos. Explore these timeless towns before returning to Panajachel to watch the sun set behind the lake.
Swim with stingrays in Cozumel.
Here’s the first thing you need to know about swimming with these graceful sea creatures: the stingrays’ barbs have been clipped. So this adventure on the west coast of Cozumel, near downtown and the cruise ship piers, isn’t just an eye-opening way to connect with rays—it's also safe for kids.
First you learn how to touch and feed the rays, then you’re in the water (1-to-4-feet deep), where the rays “kiss” your palm as you feed them and allow you to touch their silky wings. Afterwards you can snorkel in deeper areas (9-to-18 feet), where you swim alongside the rays and lots of brightly hued fish.
Explore Tulum and the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve.
The Maya ruins at Tulum may not be as big, majestic, or historically important as those at Chichén Itzá and Palenque, but Tulum has the best view. Perched right on the coast, Tulum looks out over an azure sea. A mostly flat trail traverses the compact compound, making it easy for families to walk among its stately structures. Prehistoric-looking iguanas patrol the ruins and adventurous swimmers bob in the water below.
Just south is the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and at 1.3 million acres one of the largest protected areas in the Mexican Caribbean. Book a tour to see turtles, colorful fish, and possibly dolphins.
See baby turtles at Tortugranja.
One of the most uplifting sights in the Maya world is watching baby turtle hatchlings make their way by moonlight from the beaches to the sea. This is a rare sight, but visitors can see turtles at this hatchery on Isla Mujeres. In this protected area, the turtles are safe from predators. After they’re born they’re placed in ponds where they can grow large enough to have a good chance of survival.
Visitors can see the turtles up close; some may have the exhilarating experience of releasing hatchlings into the sea. The admission fee is low (about $3 at press time) and helps support turtle conservation.
National Geographic Magazine Special
The saga of a civilization in three parts: the rise, the monumental splendor, and the collapse.
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