St. Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)
Date: November 26, 2000
Author: GIG GWIN
The pyramids of Tikal Photo by Gig Gwin

* Day excursions allow visitors to combine beach fun with trips to ruins in Mexico and Guatemala.

Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, known primarily as a sun-and-fun playground, now has something else to offer: day excursions to ancient Mayan locations.

Visits to Mayan ruins had always been inconvenient and rugged and often required an overnight stay. Now you can combine beach resort extravagance with adventure tours, right from your hotel doorstep. Tours include Tulum and Chichen Itza in Mexico and Tikal in the Guatemalan jungle.

After I checked in at the hotel, my first stroll reminded me why millions of travelers flock yearly to Cancun's beaches. The water is crystal clear, ranging from aquamarine to sapphire blue. New hotel properties now line the main peninsula in varied price ranges. All the great diversions are available - water sports, golf and tennis. Eating places range from walk-up taco joints to elegant restaurants. The Mexicans have made an art out of nightlife, with discos opening around 8 p.m. and pulsating until the wee hours of the morning.

One of my favorite Cancun properties is the Casa Magna Marriott. A January package for seven nights, including two days of golf, breakfast, a dinner and taxes, runs approximately $1,300 per person. You'll enjoy this luxury property, but remember to add the cost of airfare in your vacation budget.

Pleasure seekers can spend their sabbaticals within their resorts, sipping pina coladas and perfecting their tans. But those intrigued by history and exploration should consider a Mayan adventure.

Visitors conclude a visit to Xel Ha by relaxing in hammocks Photo by Gig Gwin

Tulum and Xel Ha

This leisurely excursion departs around 8 a.m. for an hour's drive south, past the burgeoning resort area of Playa del Carmen. Tulum, the only walled city the Mayans ever built on the Caribbean coast, is situated majestically on cliffs overlooking turquoise waters.

A guided walking tour can last an hour or two, allowing time for a gentle climb up the stately central pyramid. Twenty minutes away, visitors can explore the natural wonder of Xel Ha (pronounced shell ha). This protected inlet is perfect for snorkeling among abundant marine life. Afterwards, hammocks strung between palm trees are available for an afternoon siesta. The tour concludes in late afternoon, leaving time to relax before dinner.

Chichen Itza

Situated near the middle of the Yucatan Peninsula, Chichen Itza is one of the most impressive and intact ruins of the pre-Columbian Mayan civilization. The Mayans were tremendous stone builders whose architecture and art were uninfluenced by Europe and Asia. Most central structures are well preserved through years of archaeological restoration.

My $70 full-day excursion included motorcoach, lunch, tour and a refreshing swim at a natural grotto. Also available was a $140 tour that included round-trip airfare, making the trip less strenuous.

From Chichen Itza's main square, impressive pyramids stand in every direction. To stretch my legs from the coach ride, I energetically climbed the 91 steps of the center pyramid The Castillo, also known as Kukuikan. The climb challenged my stamina, but the view was worth it. Several other pyramids and stone structures are visible from atop the pyramid.

Nearly every Mayan ruin includes a ball court, a site for sports-type activities. Chichen Itza's Ball Court is particularly well-preserved with stone carvings and is the largest ball court in Mexico.

Tikal, Guatemala

Deep in the northern jungles of Guatemala, Tikal is a 224-square-mile national park containing highly impressive ruins. Tikal is often rated among the three most magnificent ruins in the world, the other two being Machu Picchu in Peru and the Valley of the Kings in Egypt.

Prior to jet service from Cancun on TACA Airlines, getting to Tikal was a difficult task using outdated Guatemalan air force transportation. Now the trip can be done in a day. The Boeing 737 jet lands in Flores, Guatemala, where customs is quick and convenient. It's an hour's ride through a lush jungle full of exotic birds and monkeys, then a fair amount of hiking to see the pyramids of the central square. The size of the site is astonishing.

Huge temples rise above the undulating rainforest. Several temples face a common Ball Court area, where I climbed the Temple of the Great Jaguar. From there the enormity and richness of Tikal is overwhelming. Archaeologists have mapped Tikal, revealing more than 3,000 separate structures, including temples, palaces and residences for the nobles.

After lunch beneath gigantic trees, the excursion concludes with a picturesque trip around a fresh-water jungle lake. This was the best $370 I've ever spent.

The Mayan ruins are truly an experience of a lifetime. The combination of Cancun's beaches and the historical ruins makes for a rewarding vacation.

Gig Gwin, owner of Kirkwood-based Gwin's Travel, is a world traveler who has been to more than 300 countries.