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We sip slushy lime Margaritas on a windy afternoon on the Mayan Riviera while sitting on the beach and doing what all tourists do when they visit Mexico — I lie there on my lawn chair covered in Banana Boat coconut sunscreen contemplating a dip in the ocean.

The Tulum Temple on the Mayan Riviera.

I couldn’t help but overhear a young couple under the umbrella beside me discussing their day trip out to the historical site of Chichen Itza, the inland site of the great pyramids. They playfully bet on who will climb to the top of the steep pyramid the fastest during their tour the next day.

Tourists from all over the world visit Mexico every year to get away from the harsh cold reality of winter, and in some cases, life. When Mexico comes to mind for most we think of sun, surf, and the hangover followed after too much tequila. Many, but not all, take it upon themselves to venture out to the jungle pyramids during their once-a-year weeklong duration in the country.

El Castillo (great pyramid) foreground,
and the Temple of 1000 Columns.

I couldn’t get the thought of Chichen Itza out of my mind the rest of that afternoon. I want to climb to the top of the pyramid as well! It is settled, I grab my boyfriend Marcus and drag him to a tour operator to arrange “the climb” for the very next morning.

Samuel, our private driver arranges the tour through MayaLand Tours, and he picks us up right on time outside our five star hotel, The Bahia Principe Tulum.

Mayaland Tours operates fully-guided tours, self-guided tours, as well as custom private tours that are in length from day trips to overnight excursions. The trips vary from snorkel tours at Xel-ha, full tours of Chichen Itza, to private excursions to the temple of Tulum!

The more than helpful staff arranges a private tour to the Chichen Itza pyramids and a one night stay at the beautiful resort, Mayaland Hotel and Bungalows, right in the Chichen Itza archaeological zone.

Samuel turns up his Mexican tunes, rolls down the windows, and the three of us ride the “highway of death” (according to Samuel) for three hours all the way to Chichen Itza. The experience of self-driving in Mexico is not one I recommend to those who are interested in death while on vacation. With that being said we have a fantastic time taking in the countryside, and listening to Samuel tell us stories about growing up in Mexico.

The Mayaland Hotel and Bungalows is in the
heart of the Chichen Itza Archaeological Zone.

The closer we get to the archaeological site the more excited Marcus and I grow at the thought of climbing the amazing pyramid. What an accomplishment this is going to be! We arrive a little windblown but eager and ready to climb. Quickly calmed by the hypnotic buzz of the lobby ceiling fan, I sit down and read about the Mayaland Hotel and Bungalows as Marcus checks us in.

The hotel was founded in the 1930s by Fernando Barbachano, who successfully convinced the first tourists to venture out with him to Chichen Itza from their ships on the gulf coast. Today, the Barbachano family continues to operate, build, and contribute to organized tourism and hospitality in Mexico. Local tours from the hotel include organized trips to Chichen Itza for 480 pesos or U.S. $42.00 and horseback riding to old Chichen Itza for 400 pesos or U.S. $35.00.  Pavarotti once stayed in the hotel in a custom-built suite during his performance at the ruins in ’97, and one of the hotel restaurants is now named after him.

The Mayanland Hotel and Bungalows Accommodations —

Comfortable ACed rooms . . .

among beautiful gardens . . .

and welcoming pools.

All 93 rooms and suites at the Mayaland Hotel and Bungalows have air-conditioning, ceiling fans, Servibars and satellite color TV. The hotel is three storied, and it is the first hotel built at Chichen Itza, and the world's first within an archaeological site. Mayaland is a landmark, reminiscent of the hacienda nobility of a century ago. The Main House is beautifully appointed with rooms and suites looking across manicured gardens to the pyramids. The Bungalows were built in the 1990s and they are clustered around a secluding pool and were created for guests wishing to commune with nature, but with all the amenities of a first class hotel.

The hotel has several rooming optons, including:

» Superior Guest Room — Two double beds, living area, with a breezy private balcony hand tiled in ceramic, marble, and stone. Located in The Main House, with views to the main entrance of the hotel and some with views to a part of the Archaeological Zone.

Junior Suites — Have a Jacuzzi; the terrace has views to the Observatory of Chichen Itza and of the hotel gardens. These rooms are located in the Main House, with two double beds, and private bathroom with tub. The rooms are tiled in ceramic, marble, and stone, There is a small living area within the room.

» Master Suites — Spacious two bedroom suites with two double beds in each room. Amenities include a living room and private bathrooms with tubs.  The room is hand tiled in ceramic, marble, and stone. Master Suites are located In The Main House, with a breezy private balcony.

» One Bedroom Deluxe — These rooms are built in traditional Mayan-style, with wood, stone, native marble, and thatch. In addition, each comes richly decorated with the work of local artisans, with a shaded terrace and verandahs.

» Deluxe Bedroom — Clustered around secluded swimming pools, the deluxe rooms were built with materials native to the region —  handsome hardwoods for which this part of the world is known. These rooms are individual masterpieces, whose appointments are handpicked from the work of local artisans, with the generous use of rich, aged mahogany, and ethnic ceramics, textiles, and artwork.  The doors are intricately carved with Mayan motifs — stained glass windows set the rooms aglow with understated colors.  Rocking chairs and hammocks await your pleasure on the terrace.

» Deluxe Garden Bungalows — Built in traditional Maya-style with wood, stone, native marble, and thatch.  In addition, each comes decorated with local artisan artwork. These have shaded terraces and verandahs.

The ambiance of the hotel is something right out of Disneyland. Birds of all colors chirp and fly overhead the beautifully manicured grounds.  Enormous century old trees stand tall, shading the hotel and restaurants. Shuttles run along the lush path roadway which leads the way to the private bungalows, all with a hammock to laze around in after a day out at the pyramids. Wild peacocks clearly own the territory and take great pride in letting everyone know it as they spread their beautiful feathers.

The Observatory as seen from
the Mayaland Hotel and Bungalows.

During check-in I have the opportunity to sit down and speak with the hotel’s public relations representative, Quincy. The two of us are into a discussion about the pyramids and how they were founded by a Mayan priest, la Qin Chan, in the 15th century. He explains to me how Chichen Itza is a place of magic, spirituality, and mystery, which is taken very seriously by the Mayan people. He went on to say, (without my lead) that many tourists come to Chichen Itza to climb the pyramids. Apparently this lack of respect for the structures is upsetting to many Mayans who watch their historic kingdom trampled upon by a pair of Nikes visiting for the day.  I remember him mocking how mankind feels the need to “conquer” everything put in our path instead of appreciating and respecting from a distance.  A clear view of the Caracol Observatory catches my eye, provoking a greater and deeper interest in the ruins, but now in a very different way.

Lunch that day is in an open courtyard restaurant. The authentic Yucatan - style buffet is crowded by hungry guests, young and old. A nice surprise during the meal is traditional native Mayan dancers. The women wear “Hipiles” an embroidered Mayan dress that takes approximately one month to make. They sing, dance, stomp their feet, and balance bottles in trays on their heads as we all clap and sing along.

The hotel also operates the main lobby bar and a restaurant overlooking the pool, as well as a poolside bar and grill. Three huge palapas are also within the grounds designed for large groups and special events. The palapas can hold between 25-400 people.

Stuffed from lunch it is time to explore Chichen Itza!

Ancient Mayan motifs run throughout the
Chichen Itza archaeological zone.
El Castillo, or great pyramid, below, is still
held sacred by today's Mayans.

Walking straight off of the hotel grounds we find ourselves running down a hot, dusty, and wooded path.  We continud in awe past walls of historical structures of what was still left standing after so many years. Carvings, pillars, and temples — it just went on and on.

Walking backwards, I playfully take pictures of Marcus to prove to family and friends where we are. Engulfed in my photographic creativity only appreciated by myself, I take a moment to realize that Marcus is standing dead in his tracks. Without saying a word he just points straight ahead like a child who sees something for the first time.

Slowly I turn around, and there they were. The great pyramids of Chichen Itza! Standing taller and stronger than I could ever imagine, they appear out of nowhere down the shaded path we have been following. Situated in an open flat area, there is no shade from the blazing hot midday heat. Ripples of heat surrounded the structures, making them all the more surreal — almost like a mirage.

Walking through the Archaeological Zone is incredibly intense.

The Archaeological Zone of Chichen Itza.

It’s funny, I have no desire to climb the pyramids that day after what I have learned about the culture. Admiring them and appreciating the historical significance from afar is enough for me. Suddenly climbing to the top, as many around me are doing, seems pointless, dangerous, disrespectful, and obsolete.

The rest of our day at Mayaland is spent in the hammock on the bungalow porch, discussing the magic of the pyramids and our newly learned Mayan culture.

Dinner that night is exquisite, served in the main restaurant overlooking the pool. The dim, Mexican romantic setting encourages us to order the Petite Pirah Baja Mexico Red. The spicy wine washes down the amazing assortment of breads: banana bread, onion bread, whole wheat, and white. I’m sorry Dr. Atkins, I have to put your theories to rest this evening, as it is just too good to turn down.

Snowbird in paradise.

Sipping my wine, I take in the surrounding ambiance of the old hacienda-style restaurant. The Yucatan breeze blows through the open courtyard making the atmosphere comfortable. A gigantic Mayan mural of corn and the ocean is obviously in honor of the country's defining staples. With the exception of the squawking peacock in the distance, it is a romantic evening.

Our waiters, Javier and Wilberth, are more than attentive and helpful. That night we both enjoy the sweet tropical Squash Soup. Following my appetizer I dive into the Seafood Crepes, served with three different sauces in the colors of the Mexican flag. Marcus enjoys bread stuffed with vegetables and Mayan Leaf Chilla in a tomato and cheese sauce, accompanied by jumbo shrimp served on rice with peppers.  The dinner is truly unbelievable; needless-to-say, our plates are practically clean.

The temple complex is
elaborate and mysterious.

That evening is spent back at the pyramids for a lightshow and story about the magic and mystery of the old ruins. told under a starlit night. Running down the same trail as we did during the day it is somehow different again, eerie this time. I am still holding my glass of red wine, dripping down my wrist as we quickly maneuver through the barely lit path. The best way to describe the experience is . . . haunting. There is something about the music and the story that takes me back in time and makes me once again appreciate the ruins all that much more. Looking around at the faces in the crowd that surround me I can tell that every last one of them agrees. That night we sleep soundly in the bungalow, with the soothing sounds of ancient tribal drums ringing in our ears.

A modern Mayaland bungalow.

The next mornining it is a full continental breakfast by the pool. Comfortable in my cushioned wrought iron chair I absorb one last time the Mexico surrounding me with this new experience.

After breakfast we are met once again by Samuel, who is right on time, for a ride back on the highway of death to our resort by the sea. Mayaland showed me a side to Mexico I never knew until my visit to Chichen Itza. When I think of the country now it is not just about the sun and the surf, but the ruins and the culture, and yes, I can’t ever leave this out . . . the tequila!

— Feature by Joanna Niebler, Toronto, Canada Correspondent.
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