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Performers re-enact the first meeting between the Maya and the Spanish at the Occidental Grand Flamenco Xcaret, about a 40-minute drive from Cancun.


Stories lie in the stones of the Yucatan peninsula’s Mayan ruins — of war, discovery and blood sacrifices to furious and powerful gods. A closer look at these historic Mexican sites tells tales of awe-inspiring brilliance and chilling barbarity.

Located on Kukulkan Boulevard in Cancun (a Mayan word for “nest of serpents”) are the small ruins of El Rey, or Kinichahau in the indigenous tongue(pronounced, “Keen-EETCH-a-how,” meaning the sun watches over the king).

The site used to be a small city-state dating back to 900 AD, archeologists estimate, and was lived in until the beginning of the Spanish conquests in the mid-1500s.

Many buildings, along with much knowledge, were damaged or destroyed by the conquistadors, but the remains of the palace, school — if you peer inside you can still see the day’s lessons written on the stone — and marketplace still stand, nestled beside the five-star resorts.

Today, El Rey is home to hundreds of iguanas. Park rangers feed them frequently, so these ugly but docile reptiles will keep their eyes on you for food opportunities. Don’t feed them yourself, though, as hundreds will come out of the stonework.

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Apyramid at Chacchoben, which was the site of hundreds of human sacrifices.

If you’re looking for something more out-of-the-way, and decidedly more grisly, head to the ruins of Chacchoben.

The site was discovered in the 1940s by Servillano Cohuo, a farmer who discovered the impressive Maya settlement in his vast backyard. An American archeologist officially reported the site to the Mexican government in 1972, and in 1994, the INAH (National Institute Of Anthropology And History) restored the site, which has been dated as far back as 1000 BC.

Once on the grounds you’ll see the site’s twin pyramids, the “female” Moon Altar and its bigger masculine counterpart, the Sun Altar. At the bottom of the Sun Altar you’ll see the graves of five kings of the last Mayan dynasty. At its top, beneath the stones, are the remains of hundreds of human sacrifices. For the Mayans, blood sacrifices were of great necessity. Offerings were required to maintain kingdoms and satisfy the gods, particularly the rain god Chac (keep in mind that there were hurricane seasons back then as well), and usually comprised of prisoners and slaves.

How the priests did it was particularly gruesome. With the ribcage too difficult an obstacle to penetrate, the holy man would slice open the victim’s belly, reach up and under to their heart, yank it out and show it to them before they died. The priest would then place the heart on a special altar and burn it, sending the smoke up to the gods.

Historians cite drought, famine and the Spanish conquest of the New World as reasons why this once great civilization ended, but you can still see evidence of its culture to this day.

Many worship Christian figures in the Maya fashion, and their language is still spoken by over two million, our tour guide says. The world of the Maya remains as lush and evergreen as the jungles that cover its once-mighty cities.

mayan archeology

brian towie/metro toronto

The Castle at Tulum is a popular site in part because of its breathtaking views.

  • When staying in Cancun, check your resort for guided day tours to many nearby Mayan sites. Two of the most popular ones are Tulum,, for its scenery, and Chichen Itza, a UNESCO world heritage site. While Tulum is reasonably near Cancun, Chichen Itza is a three- hour drive away. It’s a full-day commitment, but well worth it. For more information on Mayan ruins in the area, click on, www.rivieramaya.comand For information on package deals to Mexico visit