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The Yucatan Peninsula: Caribbean Beauty Meets Mayan Wonders

Aug 28, 2008
The Yucatan Peninsula presents student group travelers with a destination that combines co-curricular adventures in history, ecology, and culture. Here, one can find some of the world's richest archaeological ruins, exotic surroundings, and friendly people. It's said that those who make friends with a local, have made friends for life.

Separating the Caribbean Sea from the Gulf of Mexico, the Yucatan Peninsula lies east of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, a northwestern geographic partition separating Central America from the rest of North America.

The capital of Yucatan, Merida, is an ideal hub from which students can explore the Gulf of Mexico. Combining its colonial roots with a contemporary feel, Merida is known as the "White City," for both its predominance of white limestone buildings and its clean streets and plazas. Guided tours of El Centro Merida introduce students to the city's colonial history and architecture. The Casa de Montejo is considered to be one of the finest examples of Spanish Platersque style in the world. Additional highlights include the oldest cathedral in the Americas and the picturesque Plaza Grande.

The peninsula is largely an irregular limestone formation, comprised of cenotes, underground streams, and caverns. Cenotes, or sinkholes, are widespread in the northern lowlands and served as the main water source for many ancient and contemporary Mayans. A now famous ring of cenotes outlines what is thought to be the site where an ancient asteroid crashed. Located off the north coast near the town of Chicxulub, the site is believed to outline the shock wave of the event which dropped the surface limestone into the underground Yucatan aquifer.

The town of Cuzama is known for its large number of cenotes. Students can board a horse-drawn buggy which travels through the surrounding countryside to visit these cenotes. Incredible clear, blue waters and unique stalagmite formations make for amazing swimming adventures. Chicxulub and Cuzama are just two of the numerous places where cenotes can be found throughout the Yucatan Peninsula.

The porous limestone has also spawned spectacular cave systems throughout the region. Once considered sacred places for the Mayan, these caves are impressive and provide students with vital learning experiences in geology and the ecosystem. Guided tours of the Calcehtok Caves reveal a complicated series of tunnels and fascinating chambers that resemble objects such as waterfalls, elephants, and animals. Pre-historic findings in the caves include quartz hammers, arrow tips, and burial sites.

Further eco-adventures can be found in the little town of Punta Laguna at the Otoch Ma'ax Yetel Kooh Reserve. Naturalist guides lead student groups into the jungle to observe and learn about the spider monkey, as well as the diverse flora and fauna. As groups traverse through the jungle they also have opportunities to see temple ruins from 700 A.D. This excursion provides memorable photo ops for visitors.

Yucatan's archaeological sites provide not only learning experiences in history, but also in math and science. A world heritage site, Uxmal is one of the best restored and maintained sites in the Yucatan. Its most impressive structure, the House of the Magician, is 100 feet tall. According to legend, the pyramid was built by the Mayan god Itzamna in a single night. The structure was situated to face the setting sun at summer solstice. Equally impressive is the Governor's House, an ancient wonder for its architectural precision and beauty.

The famous Mayan pyramids of Chichen-Itza are the Yucatan's most famous ruins and were recently designated as one of the Seven Wonders of the World. Extensive studies of the site reveal three sections, each with its own distinctive style. As students become familiar with the culture and history of the site during their tour, they will marvel at the Maya's knowledge of the cosmos, math, and science. At the entrance to the Chichen Itza, visitors will find an informative museum, dining room, and restrooms. After the setting of the sun, students can also enjoy the light and sound show held every evening.

Overlooking the Caribbean Sea, students should also visit Tulum, one of the most beautiful archaeological sites of the Riviera Maya, and the only site overlooking the Caribbean. Just 1.5 hours south of Cancun, Tulum is believed to have served as a Mayan port and ancient sort of lighthouse. It was the only site still in use during the Spanish conquest. Here, students can explore the El Castillo Temple, built on a cliff with spectacular views of the coast.

Also unique to the Riviera Maya is Xel-Ha, a theme water park where students can spend a day enjoying natural, ecological, and aquatic attractions. A series of freshwater lagoons, fed by underwater springs, form a large natural aquarium with many beautiful tropical fish. Students may spend the day snorkeling in the park's inlets and coves, swimming with the dolphins, or tubing along its lazy river.

Part of the magic of student travel to the Yucatan Peninsula is the cultural appreciation and learning it promotes. Whether it's making tortillas and sharing a meal with a local family, or learning the art of hammock making in the little town of Tixcocob, students have the opportunity to capture the authentic flavor of this amazing region.

Travel Adventures is a student tour provider staffed by educators who understand the needs of teachers. It has served over one half million students since 1987 and its mission is to "empower teachers to create change by expanding the classroom to the world." To discover more about Travel Adventures and its many educational programs, visit http://www.traveladventures.com.
About the Author
travel adventures Travel Adventures is a student tour provider staffed by educators who understand the needs of teachers. It has served over one half million students since 1987 and its mission is to "empower teachers to create change by expanding the classroom to the world."
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