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While the Maya civilization no longer exists today in its original culture, many of its traditions and lifestyles are still being practised today by the descendants of a people who have gone to great pains to ensure that their history and environment are safeguarded against the onslaught of modernization and expansion.

The Maya have shown skills in writing, astronomy, and mathematics, and have devised one of the most accurate calendar system up to this day. They settled in the area known as Mundo Maya: Yucatan. Campeche, Quintana Roo, part of Tabasco, and Chiapas, in the current countries of Belize and Guatemala, and the western part of El Salvador and Honduras. (Opening Photo: View of La Peninsula restaurant and palapas in the solarium area at Xcaret theme park.)

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Tulum the only Mayan temple
on the Yucatan coast.

The Maya of Quintana Roo left an impressive legacy, which included art and architecture, proof of which are the imposing pyramids in the forest of Dzibanche and Coba, the site of the tallest pre-Hispanic building in the north of the Yucatan Peninsula and the temples of Tulum, on the shores of the Caribbean.

The Preclassic period (500 BC-250 AD) saw the emergence in Quintana Roo of the ceremonial centers of Coba, Dzibanche, and Kohunlich, which also florished during the Classic period (250 AD-1000 AD). During this period, in the south of the state as a result of the use of wells, irrigation, and raised fields to increase agricultural production, the cities of Kohunlich, Oxtankah, Chakanbakan, and Dzibanche, and the surrounding villages eventually housed over one million inhabitants.

Quintana Roo is the gateway to the Mayan World. The major archaelogical sites in this region inclulde Chichen Itza, Uxmal (Yucatan), Calakmul (Campeche), Palenque (Chiapas). Tikal (Guatemala) Lamanai (Belize), and Copan (Honduras).

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Typical Mayan dancer
with ritual costume.

The Maya have preserved a deep respect for nature and their ancestors. They live in small rural communities and have maintained age-old customs, such as the cultivation of the milpa or the plot of land where they grow maize.

Coba was once inhabited continuously for over 1,000 years. Surrounded by five large lakes, the only ones in Norhern Yucatan, researchers think Coba was the largest concentration of humanity in the pre-Hispanic America, containing at one time over 100,000 inhabitants. Excavations have been going on for over three decades with a discovery estimated at uncovering some 20 percent of the city.

Whether solitary temples, modest villas or sprawling cities, all Maya structures have one thing in common; they all are set high up, triumphant over their surroundings, as this is regarded as an instinctive position. As a vantage point, pyramids become the essence of Mayan architecture.

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View of La Caleta restaurant
at Xcaret theme park.

There is probably no other place in the world where pyramidical structures are used as extensively and deliberately as in Cancun. In Cancun's case, the identification is of a visual nature. Emphasis lies on slanted angles reminiscent of pyramids, not in their reproduction. No structure in Cancun even resembles the classic description of a Maya-built pyramid.

Still evident today are the straw huts and palaces crowned by thatched roofs. Unchanged for over 2,000 years, the straw hut is rectangular with rounded extremities. Walls are made using sticks covered in mud or plain stone, and serve to support the structure for a steep double incline roof made of straw.

The frame of these buildings is the prototype of Mayan edifices. These people reproduced the design of their humble dwellings in stone, greatly refining esthetics in the process, and up to today the straw huts are almost an identical to those built in the first century.

The secret to these amazing strutures lies in the most versatile component of the hovel, its double incline, steeply slanted roof, called palapa in Mexican. Although fragile in appearance, this design is weather resistant (such roofs have been know to survive a hurricane), good thermal insulators, cheap to build and maintain.

Straw roofs are not a Mayan invention, as they originated in Africa from where they spread to five continents. In Yucatan, this form of covering was made with the best native materials. First of these is the chicle tree, zapote by its local name. Its latex once served as a base for chewing gum (today, 99 percent of chewing gum comes from petroleum products), and was extracted through deep incisions made in its trunk.

Zapote is a reddish color, among the hardest woods known, impervious to heat or humidity, and flexible. These qualities make it especially useful for adapting to ornate designs. The second element of construction is wild grass, it grows in abundance throughout the peninsula, reaching heights of one meter. Although not widely used, xit palms are another popular roofing material.

Building a palapa is an art, although primitive, and requires much practice and creative ability to master the technique. Palapa builders as generous artisans have revealed many of their secrets. The building process begins with the cutting of wood, a significant cosmic act since it is determined by lunar phases. Trees may only be cut on nine of every 28 days, during seven days of the full moon and two more. Theory has it that just like ocean tides, the sap of trees rises during the full moon and their trunks reach saturation when the cycle is at its fullest. After timbering, when the sap dries, it will provide a natural repellant against boring insects.

Grass must be torn from the ground manually with its roots intact, then left to dry several days in the sun. It must be combed just before it becomes brittle. This is done by laying it on a bed of upright nails and gently pulling it through in one horizontal motion. Bundles are then woven together into plaques and laid onto the framework.

In the case of xit palms, these are cut then broken where main stem and leaf meet. The remaining fronds are separated into three sections and inserted in a horizontal pole that keeps them together.

Assembling a palapa is a delicate process, full of the unexpected. On the coast they must be built in accordance with prevailing winds. Builders must determine the structure's weight, which in turn determines the size of support beams, then they must calculate a sloping angle for the roof (generally 45 degrees.).

That angle is crucial. It allows rainwater to quickly drain away before it can penetrate the roof material and lead to rotting. The steeper the slope, the more durable a roof will be. This formula has one drawback however, as higher means costlier, and as a result there is a compromise on the 45 degrees.

The Maya used palapas to cover homes and temples built for many purposes. Today's examples include restaurants and many businesses. Cancun is filled with monumental palapas. Almost every hotel has one around its pool areas. They link modern Cancun with a remote past.

Quintana Roo, one of the most recently established states in Mexico, has a population of 880,000. Most of the inhabitants live in Cancun, Chetumal, (the state capital), Playa del Carmen, Isla Mujeres, and San Miguel Cozumel.

Aspect of a Mayan performance
in the center on the Mayan
Town at Xcaret Theme Park.

One of the most attractive ceremonies still being carried out is the fertility dance which involves about ten to fifteen warriors in ceremonial costume, headdress, special paint on the face and body, as well as specially-made shoes, accompanied by the beating of drums that carry a message of peace and harmony to those involved.

Against a smoke-filled background, the warriors carry out a lengthy performance to the accompaniment of singing and dancing in perfect unionism.

Cancun is technically an island, with a peculiar shape: from tip to tip it measures 19 kilometers and barely reaches 200 meters at its widest point. The oddity of Cancun is its uniqueness and the fact that it has two shores, one belonging to the Caribberan and the other, to a system of three inland lagoons: Nichupte, Bojorquez, and 'del Ingles'.

The history of Cancun has its origins 140 million years ago during the Pleistocene period. A time when the bed of a warm, shallow sea, began i'ts aeonian rise to the surface.

Ages passed, millenniums of relentless, microscopic advance, in which the sea bottom rose one inch every century. Eventually, it broke above the waves, became covered in vegetation, forming in time, the Yucatan Peninsula.

Cancun then came into being when coastal reef surfaced, imprisoning a large body of water in its upward surge, converting it into a system of lagoons, which eventually evolved into the warm attractive vacation spot for tens of thousands of travelers annually.

When Cancun was selected as a vacation paradise, it had two well-defined topographies: Its southern beach, the upper outer bar of the island's figure, seven is one of them, a massive sand dune, 11 meters high, stretching from Punta Cancun to Punta Nizuc, facing the coast.

Cancun today is recognized as one of the best planned and executed cities in this country with close to 100 hotels that rim the island in an incredible mix of styles, forms and colors. Their variety is striking; from discreet, intimate villas to skyscrapers stretching into the sun; from small bed and breakfasts to sprawling giants offering more than 1,000 rooms; from humble youth hostels to palaces of Oriental luxury; from slab-sided, squat buildings, to harmonious and fanciful structures bearing the unmistakable seal of artistic creation, attracting more than two million visitors annually. —
Feature and photos by Edwin Ali, Caribbean Editor for Jetsetters Magazine.

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