When you think of the ancient Mayas, what comes to mind? Do you envision towering temples flanked by tropical trees? Or do you begin to contemplate the achievements of this advanced civilization?
The Mayas are renowned for their refined skills in writing, mathematics and astronomy. The mystique and exoticism associated with this once ruling civilization draw millions to famous Mayan sites every year. One location near Costa Maya, Mexico has only begun to unveil its secrets to visitors. This site is called Chacchoben, and it stands for the “place of the red maize.”
Chacchoben is a lesser-known Mayan ruins site surrounded by an unspoiled jungle not far from the Costa Maya port. A Chacchoben ruins tour provides an enriching experience for Costa Maya visitors, and it’s a shore excursion you don’t want to miss. Let’s explore the Mayan way, the story of Chacchoben and other treasures that await you in Costa Maya.
Mayas in Quintana Roo
To appreciate the beauty and majesty of the Chacchoben ruins, you need to know a little about Maya history in Quintana Roo, the state where Costa Maya is located. The Mayas first appeared in Quintana Roo during the pre-classic period, which lasted from 500 B.C. to 250 A.D., though they had migrated into Yucatan around 2500 B.C. While in Quintana Roo, the Mayas established religious centers throughout the region. Quintana Roo became known as the gateway to the Mayan world.
In 987, the Toltecs arrived in the area and greatly influenced Mayan culture. For example, the Toltecs believed that their god Quetzalcoatl demanded human hearts, and they obeyed by performing human sacrifices. The Mayas also held sacrificial ceremonies for religious purposes, and this aspect of the Mayan culture is commonly associated with their massive temples.
The post-classic Mayan period ended somewhere around 1250, and many of the cities were abandoned. Because the Spanish destroyed most of the Mayan writings, the reasons for the civilization’s decline remains a mystery. However, the Mayas did not completely disappear. Today, millions of Mayas continue to follow some of the practices of their ancestors throughout South America.
The Chacchoben Ruins Near Costa Maya
When the Maya civilization collapsed, Chacchoben remained as a ceremonial center where many rituals took place. However, the Caste War, which began in 1847 and lasted over 50 years, brought about drastic change. During this war, many Mayas lost their lives and their homes. The Chacchoben was abandoned as a result and eventually disappeared beneath the jungle.
The ruins re-emerged in 1942 when a local Maya man, Serviliano Cohuo, accidentally discovered them during his search for farmland. He built his home at the site and raised his family there. In 1972, his family welcomed Dr. Peter Harrison, an American archeologist, onto their land.
As the first professional to encounter the ancient ruins, Harrison made maps of the site and reported it to the Mexican government. Serviliano was designated guard of the ruins until his passing in 1991. In 1994, the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) began to restore the site. Finally, in 2002, the restored complexes were officially open to the public.
Chacchoben is a unique Mayan ruin site that showcases the harmonious relationship between the Mayas and their natural surroundings. While at Chacchoben, visitors are transported to the Maya days through their senses. Cohuo kept the jungle surrounding the temples largely untouched, so visitors experience many of the same sounds, sights and perfumes as the Mayas. You may even catch a glimpse of a spider monkey swinging overhead while touring the site or a kinkajou peering through the trees.
As you approach Chacchoben, you’ll be struck by the beauty of tall palm trees and lush vegetation surrounding the land. While at the site, you can stroll around two main temple pyramids dating from 200 B.C. to A.D. 700, and you can view a third smaller pyramid. There are also plenty of other moss-covered stones, stairs and buildings to explore. If you choose to take a guided tour of the site, you’ll get to learn the history of Chacchoben in more detail.
Chacchoben is roughly 50 minutes from Costa Maya, and shore excursions or tours will provide transportation to the site. You can also rent a taxi at the cruise ship docks or rent a car to discover the area on your own. The Chacchoben ruins are not frequented as often as other Mayan ruin sites, and there are many secrets yet to be uncovered.
The Mayas and Human Sacrifices
One of the most intriguing and macabre aspects of Maya culture was their custom to perform human sacrifices. These ceremonies took place at temples such as those at Chacchoben. The sacrifices most commonly involved heart removal or decapitation.
If the sacrifice involved heart removal, the victim was painted blue and held down while an official cut out their heart. Then, a priest would smear the blood onto an image of the god. The body would then be thrown down the temple steps and skinned by assistant priests. Lastly, the head priest would wear the skin and perform a ceremonial dance symbolizing rebirth.
Mayas did not believe the victims died. Instead, they believed the victims moved on. To many Mayas, it was an honor to die for the gods, and usually, only high-status prisoners of war were sacrificed while other prisoners were used for labor.
Other Fascinating Facts About the Mayas
The Maya civilization continues to fascinate and attract travelers from around the world, and for good reason. Not only was this civilization one of the most advanced in ancient history, but their way of life and culture also stimulates the imagination as well as the senses. Although some of the customs may seem bizarre, it’s hard to deny their intrigue. Here are some interesting facts about the Maya civilization that will enhance a tour of Chacchoben:
- Pyramids were not only used as temples where ceremonies were held but also served as huge tombs for deceased rulers and sacrificial victims.
- The exterior pyramid levels represent the nine levels of Xibalba, the Maya underworld, and the secret levels descending to the tombs represent the levels of the Maya heavens.
- Out of all the ancient calendar systems in the world, the Maya calendars were the most complex and accurate.
- The Mayas believed the gods guided the sun and moon across the sky and that even in the darkness, the sun and moon continued to journey in the underworld.
- They believed heavenly bodies needed human help, which they provided through sacred rituals and human sacrifice.
- Calendars, mythology
andastrology were integrated into a single system of beliefs.
- The Mayas developed the concept of zero.
- Much of the Maya world remains buried underground and is yet to be excavated.
- The Mayas enjoyed saunas to cleanse their bodies and minds.
- Blood sports were very important to the Mayas, and some researchers believe human skulls were used as balls.
- They valued unnatural physical appearance and used techniques to create flattened foreheads, crossed eyes and sharpened teeth, to name a few.
- They were one of the first civilizations to practice tattooing.
- One of the most popular Mayan drinks was made from fermented honey and tree bark.
- They had a complex written language and books.
- Their decline remains a mystery, but they never disappeared.
- They believed in a cyclical existence, meaning nothing was ever born, and nothing ever died.
- They believed every person had an animal companion spirit who shared their soul.
Ways to Savor the Costa Maya Port
It’s true that a trip to Costa Maya provides the opportunity to explore the ancient Maya ruins of Chacchoben. This excursion helps visitors understand and embrace the culture of Costa Maya, and it delivers a thrilling historical experience. However, there are plenty of ways to enjoy Costa Maya and everything it has to offer. But first, where exactly is it?
Costa Maya is a small region in the state of Quintana Roo near the village of Mahahual. It has only been open to cruise ships in the 21st century and has since grown as an attractive tourist destination. However, when compared to other Mexican resort towns, Costa Maya is a hidden gem. Here are some great ways to enjoy time in Costa Maya and the surrounding areas — you may find it hard to leave.
1. Observe Rare Wildlife
As a whole, Mexico is one of the most biodiverse countries on the planet. The Yucatan Peninsula, in particular, is home to many endangered birds, mammals, sea life and reptiles, which you may catch a glimpse of while visiting. Endangered birds include a variety of hummingbirds, parrots, quails and many more. Endangered mammals include spider monkeys, jaguars, ocelots and black howler monkeys. If you listen closely, you may even hear a howler monkey’s unusual roar.
While you might not spot one of the rarer animals, there are still many beautiful, colorful and lively creatures to observe. For example, the waters are teeming with tropical fish, and the beaches are nesting places for sea turtles.
If you travel a few hours north of Costa Maya, you’ll find Sian Ka’an, where you can immerse yourself in nature completely. Here you can observe many bird species, dolphins, manatees and more. Located near the town of Tulum, the Sian Ka’an biosphere reserve features thousands of plant and animals species and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There are plenty of things to do here, from snorkeling among dolphins and turtles to taking a boat tour of a Maya canal built over 1,000 years ago.
Plant lovers may wish to tour mangrove swamps or take in the sight of more than 300 varieties of orchids growing wild throughout the region. There are also exotic bromeliads, coconut palms, cacti and a wide range of dune plants painting a complete picture of a tropical paradise.
2. Relax on Gorgeous Beaches
An excursion to Chacchoben calls for contemplation afterward. Why not ponder the mystery and beauty of ancient ruins on a powdery white beach bordering shimmering turquoise water? You can find some of the most beautiful beaches in Mexico near Costa Maya and Chacchoben for relaxing and swimming surrounded by palm trees.
For example, Maya Chan is a reservation-only beach resort that includes glass-bottom kayaking, snorkeling, fresh Mexican cuisine and more. Visitors may also enjoy the crystal clear water at Mahahual Beach or simply spend a luxurious day near the port, where there are restaurants, unique shops and a spa.
3. Indulge in Authentic Mexican Cuisine
Would you like to dine like the ancient Mayas? You’ll have the chance in Costa Maya and the surrounding areas to treat your taste buds and your spirit to satisfying authentic cuisine. The Mayas greatly influenced the cuisine in this region and inspired culinary delights such as:
- Chocolate: Chocolate lovers will feel at home in Costa Maya, where Mayas saw chocolate as a sacred gift of the gods as well as a mood enhancer. They valued cacao so much that they used the beans as currency. Although the Mayans did not add sugar or milk to form candy bars, you can permit yourself to savor chocolate in any form you wish. Perhaps stop at the Kakaw Chocolate Factory in Costa Maya for a delicious energy boost.
- Guacamole: It’s hard not to love the creamy, nutty avocado, and guacamole is just one way to eat this tasty fruit. The Mayas treasured avocado for its buttery flavor and combined it with chilis and other ingredients to create guacamole. You might try the guacamole at Fernando’s 100% Agave, a well-loved restaurant in Mahahual.
- Poc Chuc: This slow-cooked pork dish is uniquely Yucatecan. In this dish, the pork is combined with tangy orange juice and vinegar to balance the saltiness of the meat, then topped with sauteed onions.
- Corn tortillas: Simple and delicious with black beans or guacamole, nothing beats authentic, handmade corn tortillas. According to Maya myth, people were made of masa or corn dough, and corn was an important part of the Mayan diet. They loved corn so much that they had maize gods, one of them named Yum Caax. Corn tortillas make a hearty addition to any meal — perfect in preparing for a day of exploration.
Other essential foods in the Mayan diet include beans, squash, chile peppers, various meats and fish and plenty of fruit such as guava, papaya and custard apple. If you’re in the mood for something lighter, you shouldn’t have any trouble finding a fresh fruit smoothie or tropical cocktail to cool down with by the sea.
4. Enjoy Thrilling Recreational Activities
While in Costa Maya, you’re never far from an adventure, whether you want to roam Chacchoben or swim with dolphins. Some excursions to consider include:
- Swimming with dolphins: When you arrive at the Costa Maya, the amazing opportunity to swim with dolphins at Dolphin Discovery will be only a short distance away. For anyone who’s ever wanted to have an unforgettable experience cuddling with a friendly dolphin, Costa Maya welcomes you.
- Snorkeling among tropical fish and coral reef: There are numerous snorkeling opportunities for travelers near Costa Maya in warm, clear water. You can easily get close to rare, beautiful marine life like puffer fish and sea turtles. From Costa Maya, you can snorkel among the Mesoamerican Reef, which is the largest coral reef in the Atlantic Ocean and extends nearly 700 miles. The reef is home to more than 500 species of fish and 65 types of coral. Imagine exploring an underwater bouquet of various shapes, colors and brilliant creatures you’ve never seen before.
- Kayaking: Kayaking is a tranquil, stress-relieving way to get close to nature and spend time with loved ones. You might kayak the waterways at Xcalak National Park or tour the Bacalar Lagoon surrounded by tropical forest.
5. Take Other Mayan Ruin Excursions
Although Chacchoben is the largest site for Mayan ruins in the area, it’s not the only ancient complex near Costa Maya. You can explore other Mayan ruins not far from Chacchoben too. For example, there’s a roadside pyramid in the village of Limones if you’d like to snap a photo. There are also two Mayan ruin sites with temples called Dzibanche and Kohunlich located about two hours from Mahahual.
Dzibanche means “writing on wood.” This site was an important city to the Mayans from 300 to 900 A.D. It was once the location of homes, temples, a ballcourt and an acropolis. Kohunlich was built around 600 A.D. The origin of its name is unknown. However, the cohune tree is a type of palm tree common in the area. Although the buildings look different now, many of them would have been painted red and decorated with figures and geometric designs.
History Enriches a Costa Maya Cruise
A trip to Chacchoben is the perfect shore excursion when you dock at Costa Maya — history adds context to any new experience. After Chacchoben, you’ll be able to dine, relax or swim while seeing through the eyes of the ancient Maya because you’ve been there. You’ve felt their lingering presence, and you’ve seen their temples and listened to the jungle that once surrounded them. After Chacchoben, you’ll better understand how this part of the world fed the bodies, minds and spirits of one of the greatest civilizations.
Explore Chacchoben and Other Yucatan Treasures With Windstar Cruises
The Yucatan Peninsula is like no other destination in Mexico. What was once the region of the greatest Mayan cities, Yucatan and Quintana Roo have been mostly hidden from the world for most of history. It was until the 1950s that Yucatan was connected to the rest of Mexico by railroad, and finally, a decade later, a highway was built.
As a result of its isolation, the Yucatan has a culture all of its own. It’s now recognized as home to the largest Maya population, and it’s famous for its thousands of ruins, various freshwater pools and hundreds of bird species.
At Windstar Cruises, we’re ready to transport you to Costa Maya, where you’ll be free to explore Chacchoben and any other hidden ruins you may find. It’s up to you how you wish to discover and experience the Yucatan, and you’re sure to feel like a true explorer by vacationing this way.
A trip to Chacchoben is an unforgettable way to experience ancient history and the place where brilliance, innovation and spirituality once ruled. You’ll always remember the touch of cool, mossy limestone where the Maya once laid their hands. It’s all within your reach.
To learn more about our life-changing cruises to unspoiled beaches, hidden villages, vibrant ports and everything in between, contact us today. If you’re ready to pack your bags and head to a tropical paradise waiting to bathe you in the sunshine, cool your skin with crystalline water and expand your mind with Maya secrets, book your cruise to Costa Maya.