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Cancun: the fishing village that became one of the hottest destinations in the world

Cancun . It's all sun, sand and party, right? Well, wrong. This famous tourist spot in Yucatan Peninsula may have become synonymous with excess, but “lucha libre” The more story ae à natural beauty From the nearby jungles, Cancún offers much more than a beach vacation.

Coming here now is also special. It has been 50 years since the first hotel opened in Cancun. In the early 1970s, this was a beautiful, empty stretch of coast except for a small fishing village. The boom here, however, was not organic, but part of a plan to create what the Mexican government dubbed “multimillion dollar park” .

This plan, called Cancun Project , was approved in 1969 and started in 1970, with the aim of building a new city from scratch. It would present an area, still known today as Hotel Zone a part of the city for local residents and workers to live in, and an airport to transport people desperate for good weather and fun.

Quintana Roo, which became a Mexican state in 1974, the same year the first hotel opened, is now home to a series of resorts, of which Cancun is the original.

Fast forward, Cancun has become a huge success. Around 21 million visitors came here in 2023, exceeding the Ministry of Tourism's projections and reminding everyone that this is the must-see place in Mexico.

Fighting with the past

Lucha libre is a popular attraction, with a large fan base in the country

A night out on the town in Cancun doesn't have to involve gunfire, hitting each other with balloons, and dancing in the street, although all of those things have their place. For something truly local, the best thing to do is to play sports, with an evening of “lucha libre”, Mexican wrestling.

A sport with a large fan base, fighters known as “luchadores” fight with masks that, when they lose, they will never be able to wear again. It all makes for a colorful yet brutal experience that you can't help but enjoy, whether it's the wrestlers being thrown out of the ring or the delicious tamales you eat before show time.

While this historic form of entertainment, which dates back to the 1900s, offers visitors a glimpse into local culture, there's something even older to marvel at in Cancun. Thousands of years before the region arrived on the tourist scene, the Mayan Empire built temples and cities here, the ruins of which are still visible among the pyramid-shaped hotels that imitate their original design.

Diving into history

Puerto Morelos is known for its cenotes -- large holes found in this region

To truly experience the highly developed civilization that grew here, it's worth going deep into the jungle. To Puerto Morelos and its iconic cenotes. These deep holes, found throughout this part of Mexico, formed during the last ice age when weakened limestone collapsed, offering the only source of fresh water in the forest.

The word is derived from the Mayan language, whose people believed they were sacred spaces, a way of accessing the underworld.

“They call it Xibalba,” explains Roberto Rojo, biologist and founder of Cenotes Urbanos, a non-profit conservation organization. “Xibalba, that’s the Mayan word for the underworld… it’s not like hell. It's just another place in their universe.

Biologist Roberto Rojo

“Many of the pyramids or temples are built over a cenote or a cave, or very close to these sites, because they were very important to them.”

So important, in fact, that entire cities and temples, such as Chichen-Itza, designated one of the new seven wonders of the world in 2000, were built around them. Sacrifices were also made, with animals thrown deep into the water to appease the Mayan gods.

At Cenote Zapote, in Puerto Morelos, it is even possible to dive and see something that has existed for more than 10 thousand years. “This is a very special cenote because down there [há] a complete skeleton of a large giant ground sloth that lived here during the ice age,” says Rojo.

A spiritual experience

The peninsula's jungle also holds other secrets. Two hours from Cancun, in Tulum, lies an unusual museum and arts center, upside down and absolutely mind-blowing. SFER IK opened in 2019. It is part museum, part gallery and part jungle, in harmony with the surroundings, without flat floors or ceilings, built with local wood, vines and even live trees.

Created by architect and philanthropist Eduardo Neira Sterkel, also known simply as Roth, it was designed to bring visitors closer to the nature and beauty of the Yucatán forest. It does so in a truly unique style, from its undulating paths to the way the vines tumble down the paths, the trees towering above.

Roth explains that, with 200 trees that make up SFER IK, it is a way of bringing nature into everyday life. “I think nature is the last resource we have, we have to take care of it,” he says, when asked why creating this incredible space was so important to him. It is without a doubt a place where you can feel calm and content, in harmony with the world around you. It's not Cancun that's known for its bustling party scene. Far, far from it.

Likewise, the healing powers of a Tamazcal Ceremony differ from the stereotypes associated with the region. This ancient Mayan tradition is still practiced today in the jungle around Cancun, an opportunity to relax, detox and purify yourself among the vegetation.

There are even real local shamans available to lead the ceremony in the Temazcal, a stone igloo inside which is a warm fire. Think of it like a sauna in the jungle. The darkness of the space aims to break down barriers between people, with ceremonies that last up to eight hours and involve sharing feelings and thoughts.

“This is very good for our body; we are healing, detoxifying”, explains the shaman inside Temazcal. It is believed that the Mayans participated in such ceremonies after a battle or court competition. Thousands of years ago, they, like so many ancient civilizations around the world, understood the power of mindfulness.

The old, the new and everything in between

Modern hotel next to ancient ruins in Cancún

While the natural wonders keep tourists away from Cancun, the rain, which arrives here more often than you might think, drives tourists indoors to the city's numerous shopping malls. This may be modern Mexico, but the souvenirs here have a distinctly Mayan feel, from the local crafts to the temple-covered refrigerator magnets.

Luckily, the sun is never far away, which means there's time to simply marvel at the turquoise waters, the boats gliding across the surface, the birds dotting the sky. There's simply no getting away from the fact that this is an extremely beautiful corner of the world.

Just like the Mayans, the visionaries of modern Cancun knew what they were doing when they created this tourist delight. Today it is a heady mix of old and new, a remarkable place worth exploring, from beaches to bars, cenotes to jungle delights.

Source: CNN Brasil

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