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Sure, you’re coming for the beaches, but the Caribbean is more than just sun-soaked sand and calm, crystalline waters. On Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, home to top beach destinations including Cozumel and Playa del Carmen, it’s worth taking a break from the sun to explore the rich history and indigenous culture of the area. Venture inland from some of the region’s most famous beaches and you’ll discover some of the best surviving examples of Mayan architecture.

Chichen Itza

Probably the most iconic of all the ruins, Chichen Itza was one of the largest Mayan cities and today is one of the most well-preserved. A visit to the site offers the chance to view El Castillo, the famous step pyramid that dominates the archaeological site and was the central structure of the ancient city. If you visit around the spring or autumn equinoxes, you may catch a glimpse of the famous serpent deity crawling down the temple’s northwest corner–an illusion created by shadows cast by the setting sun.

Explore the massive site to discover hundreds of other structures, including the best preserved example of a Mesoamerican ballcourt once used to host a game similar to what we call racquetball today. Other highlights include the impressive Temple of the Warriors, a sacred cenote (a sunken, cave-like lake), and the jade-covered Jaguar Throne. Chichen Itza is accessible from Cozumel, and there’s also the option to view the ruins by air.

Tulum

Tulum is famous for being the only Mayan site located directly on the Caribbean coast, which also makes it one of the most picturesque. Perched on a high cliff above a small beach and the region’s beautiful turquoise waters, the city served many functions. In addition to being an important seaport focused on the trade of turquoise and jade, it was also a beach resort of sorts for the ancient Mayans. It’s easy to see why: walk down the cliffside stairway in front of the ruins and you’ll find yourself on one of the area’s prettiest beaches. A quick swim is a great way to cool off after a walk around the ruins, so don’t forget to bring your beach bag along.

Besides the archaeological site, a trip into the nearby resort town of Tulum is also worth doing. If you’re up for a hike, the resorts, restaurants, and shops are a 25-30 minute walk away. If you’d rather not walk, taxis and buses are also easy to come by. Today’s Tulum has become a Bohemian getaway, both rustic and glamorous at the same time. Stroll along the beach and choose one of the laid-back restaurants for a waterfront lunch of ceviche, tacos, or cochinita pibil–a local specialty of tender pulled pork marinated in sour oranges and slowly roasted in banana leaves. Just a block away from the water, wander down the beach road to visit the town’s funky fashion boutiques and local vendors selling cool souvenirs.

Dzibanche and Kohunlich

You may not be able to pronounce their names, but Dzibanche and Kohunlich are two of the most significant Mayan archaeological finds. Until recently, only the most intrepid travelers could reach these remote ruins via a rugged trail. But today, roads have improved, giving more people the chance to explore the ruins. Even so, Dzibanche and Kohunlich still feel somewhat undiscovered. You’ll be rewarded for your trek deep into the jungle with fewer crowds and temples that are still generally open to anyone wishing to walk their steps. Tours of Dzibanche and Kohunlich can be set up from Cozumel or Costa Maya.

Mayan Culture Today

While many think of the Maya as an ancient, long-gone civilization, contemporary Mayans have preserved and still practice cultural traditions today. Traditional foods, dances, arts, and crafts have been handed down and can all still be readily experienced by visitors to the region. Whether sampling chicken pibil and guacamole served in warm tortillas or taking in a traditional dance performance at the Mercado Municipal in Cozumel, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to experience ancient traditions that have been passed down for generations.

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