In our previous adventure, we had just dipped our toes into the azure-hued waters of the Riviera Maya, located between Cancun and Cozumel and stretching along the Caribbean coast of what is called the Yucatan Peninsula.

One of the most beautiful areas of Mexico, the Riviera Maya possesses a deep, rich Mayan history—the people who were thought to have risen to prominence around 250 A.D. and were eventually dominated and almost wiped out in the 16th century by the Spanish conquistadors.

During their rein, they occupied a wide swath of territory in what was once called Mesoamerica—North and Central America, including southern Mexico, northern El Salvador, Guatemala, Belize and western Honduras.

Possessing a wealth of knowledge, ingenuity and spiritual strength, the Mayans are regarded by some historians, archaeologists and researchers as one of the most advanced civilizations. Their profound beliefs and practices, many of which are still emulated and revered around the world today, encompassed astronomy, religion, medicine, mathematics and communicative writing, among others.

Today, an estimated 6 million Mayan people still live among these countries and continue to play a significant role in every aspect of the religious, social, economic and cultural landscapes.

REVERENCE TO THE GODS

One of the most well-known aspects of the Mayan culture is their amazing and elaborately detailed architectural structures, including extensive roads, palaces, temples and pyramids. Each had their own significance and use, but they were primarily built to honor their gods and are deeply tied to their respective beliefs.

Today, there are several Mayan archaeological sites in the Cancun and Riviera Maya region, including Chichen Itza, Dzibilchaltun, Tulum, El Rey and Chacchoben.

To say that the remnants of these archaeological sites are amazing is an incredible understatement, particularly once you experience and fully understand the complexities and size of these structures designed and built thousands of years before the advent of the wheel, sophisticated rope and pulley systems, cutting tools and the like.

Each year, thousands of tourists from all over the globe visit the ruins, each one possessing its own unique story, artifacts and edifices. At some, visitors can not only tour and climb the pyramids but also participate in traditional Mayan ceremonies.

THE ANCIENT CIVILIZATION OF COBA

On this particular visit, we embarked upon a truly awe-inspiring, all-day excursion—the Coba Maya Encounter. One of the best things about this tour is its intimate size, with a maximum of about eight people, each picked up by passenger van from their respective hotels. Along the way, the knowledgeable guides regale you with great insights into the region, Mayan people, customs and how their history interconnects with the overall history of Mexico.

The one and a half hour scenic drive provides a unique opportunity to experience the rural countryside and appreciate how, despite many of the communities being impoverished, the people have managed to create their own livelihoods without many of the basics—electricity, indoor plumbing and the like—that people often take for granted.

Upon our arrival at the village of Coba, we learned that the Mayan people here are intimately involved in every aspect of the experience and that our tourism dollars here have enabled them to establish a school, improved homes, stores and other social necessities.

Moreover, they still consider their villages to be sacred and that it is a great honor to invite others, and to be respected, upon their ancestral lands. After a short 15-minute hike through the jungle paths bursting with an abundance of tree life, flora and wildlife, we suited up to zip line over the trees and a lagoon—a very easy and great beginner zip line for those who’ve never done it before. (In fact, one of the women in our group did it for the first time—at age 75!)

After another short hike, we arrived at a Mayan ceremonial area, where a shaman performed a special blessing ceremony—in his native Mayan tongue—encompassing burning special herbs and blessing each one of us with leaves and an individual prayer of thanks, good health and safety.

From there, we prepared to rappel into an incredible “cenote” (pronounced say-note-tay), which means “’sacred well” in the Mayan language—a natural, subterranean fresh water pool formed over thousands of years from the surrounding limestone bedrock.

They are considered sacred in part because the Mayans believed they were a portal to speak with the gods, and they served as a source of fresh water in times of drought. What also makes them unique is that because they are naturally filtered by the Earth, they are completely clear and you can see your feet, fish and plant life below. Some cenotes are open, more like an above-ground swimming hole, whereas others are in caves, as in this village. And at a constant 60 degrees, they are a refreshing experience year-round.

After rappelling approximately 50 feet below the surface, we splashed around in inner tubes or swam around before ascending via either the pulley chair or climbing the ladder rope up to the surface. I have to say for someone who is claustrophobic and a bit acrophobic (afraid of heights), it was well worth it!

Next came a relaxing canoe trip across a tranquil fresh water lagoon to the village hut where the local Mayan women prepared an outstanding, authentic Mayan feast that consisted of stewed chicken, vegetables, soup, rice, beans, potatoes, pasta, empanadas and hand-made tortillas—all cooked with traditional Mayan ingredients.

From there, it was about a 25-minute drive to the ruins of Coba, which means “water stirred by wind.” Coba is one of the oldest and most important Mayan sites in the region, thought to have been home to an estimated 50,000 inhabitants stretching over a 50-mile area. Here, the guides provide a detailed background history and take visitors to explore the legendary ball game area and other various temple ruins, which are in remarkably good shape considering they were thought to have been built somewhere between 400 and 1100 A.D.

The centerpiece here is Nohuch Mul (“large mound”). At 140 feet high, it’s the tallest pyramid in the Yucatan Peninsula. Climbing to the top is both exhilarating and treacherous, as the pyramid is incredibly steep and many of the steps are worn from present-day use. However, it is an incredible experience at the top, where you’ll enjoy jaw-dropping views of the surrounding subtropical jungle and region.

The Coba Maya Encounter is one of the most authentic Mayan experiences and best archaeological site excursions offered in the region, and a must for any Riviera Maya traveler. It provides a wonderful appreciation for the amazing accomplishments of this early civilization that continues to influence us today.

Lysa Allman Baldwin is a freelance writer and the publisher and editor of Amazing Escapades, featuring “adventures for the mind, bod and belly” (www.amazingescapades.com).