There’s Culture In Cancun?

FYI, the term “authentic” is probably THE loaded term in travel. A destination may start out as representative of its culture, but as the word gets out, the more the hotels, bars, and restaurants cater to the tastes travelers are accustomed. Suddenly, barring an exotic tint, the far-away vacation spot looks a lot like home.

Cancun fell into the trap early: it only came into existence as a town in the 1970s and from the first stone was to be a tourist destination. It wasn’t long until the eastern coast of the Yucatan followed suit as the legendary Riviera Maya. But that isn’t to say that amid the party-hard Americans in the tequila bars on spring break and the slightly homogenized luxury hotels that there isn’t a native identity; nay, veritable cultural treasures to be had!

The ruins of San Miguelito in the “hotel zone” of Cancun.

Contrary to what it might look like now, and what all those documentaries inadvertently suggested, the Mayan civilizations did not revolve around a few powerhouse cities existing in near-complete isolation from each other. The Yucatan Peninsula was absolutely spangled with big cities, small cities, almost cities, and a plethora of suburbs, towns, hamlets and random bumps-on-a-log — Cancun included. There was a Mayan presence there long before the modern city showed up.

Smack in the middle of Cancun’s famed Zona Turista is San Miguelito, the bleached-white remains of a Mayan town. Ok, so it’s not Chichen Itza, but the fun part about it is that much of the site is still unexcavated and even better, in one of the last stands of forest in one of the most manicured landscapes in Mexico. You might be 20 feet from the freeway, but you can just get little feel for Indiana Jones and even for the Maya themselves. Take a close look and some of the original frescos can still be seen. San Miguelito may have been on the rural side, but no savages lived here.

A small Mayan chapel at San Miguelito in Cancun.

Practically on top the ruins, and a short walk from my oh-so sweet thread counts at the JW Marriot, is the Museo Maya de Cancun. Perched on pillars (the museum overlooks San Miguelito), it is an open, airy, and possibly the sleekest-looking window into the Mesoamerican past around.

A Mayan procession, frozen in time.

The museum is not big; I covered it in a little over an hour (and it only took that long because I took a photo every two steps). Like their Aztec neighbors to the north, the Maya had an obsession with death. If they weren’t honoring it, they were shuffling somebody off to meet it. Even their artistic mediums had a necrotic theme running through them all. Delicate bone carvings, eternally howling death masks — and they rule — a horrifically artificially shaped skull, stelae of ancient kings smiting enemies, and even a fully bedecked skeleton of a noble: The Maya were lousy with the whole death-thing. Seriously, Goths would love this place if not for all color.

The silent scream of the ages.

I had to remind myself that anytime I saw bare stone, it only meant that the original pigments had since been washed away. Like modern Mexican art, the Maya are all about the colorporn. If there was a surface to be had, it was going to be painted. Usually red. Probably to mimic blood. They did have a thing for the ritual blood-letting, after all.

The Maya really had a thing for red. I heard once that the Maya though the soul existed in the blood.

It was was nice to find that there are still Maya in the Riviera Maya. The whole coast is firmly internationalized, and while that makes for easy communication (I, the American, was speaking most of the Spanish) I don’t want to go hither and yon only to find what I can get back home.

Like those howling death masks. I mean, really. They were awesome.





























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