Not so long ago, Cancun was just one of hundreds of tiny settlements dotting the coastline of the Caribbean Sea. It listed only three residents on the isle of Cancun, with its unbroken stretch of white-sand beaches; the caretakers of a coconut plantation; who lived on Isla Mujeres. Just over a hundred people resided in nearby Puerto Juarez, a small military post and fishing village. Cancun’s metamorphous from unsettled territory to one of the world’s top tourist destinations took place in a little over forty years.
While Egypt was building its pyramids, on the opposite side of the world, an industrious people were crafting their own highly-evolved civilization. They built pyramids as impressive and intricate as their Egyptian counter-parts. They engineered raised roads, flawless in their variance of degree for inclines and steps. They had an advanced system of mathematics, an amazingly accurate astronomical calendar, and fashioned surgical instruments from stone, with edges sharper than steel.
The Mayans who left behind these early astrological treasures burrowed much of their technology from their neighbours, the Olmecs. While the Omecs vanished, leaving no clue as to their demise, they did leave behind traces of their civilization, such as the colossal heads found in the State of Tabasco. The evidence concludes these two cultures existed up through a thousand years before the common era.
During the years 300 - 900 CE, Mayan civilization was at its height. It had a well-defined, hierarchal society, divided into classes and profession. Its great cities dominated the southern regions of present day Chiapas, Guatemala and Honduras, but Chichen Itza was one of the most spectacular of them all. The ancient urban centre is believed to have been constructed around 750 CE, dominating Mayan arts and commerce until its abandonment, around 1,200 CE.
Although the Mayans had a written language, many of their books and records were destroyed during the Spanish conquests, leaving much of its history and the reasons for abandoning the great city a mystery that involves guesswork, speculations and careful study. Chichen Itza is a two and a half hour drive from Cancun and is a testimony to the astonishing skills of the early Mayan people.
As with many of the Latin American countries, Spanish dominance over the Yucatan inhabitants was not worn nearly as much by bloodshed as it was the introduction of foreign diseases. By the time the Spanish had arrived, the Mayan empire had dissolved, leaving behind an agricultural people with their own language, customs and religion. They were highly resistant to the pressure to converge to the Roman Catholic faith, despite the vigorous number of thirty convents built along the Yucatan and the stalwart cities of Merida and Campeche. In 1562, frustrated with failed attempts, Franciscan monk Fray Diego De Landa ordered that all handmade Mayan books and statues be destroyed.
This single act was a fatal blow to accurate documentation of Mayan history. Their population was decimated from five million to three million people during the first one hundred years of Spanish occupation, and continued to disappear as a culture through forced conversions and forced labour, ignored by the political structure well into modern times. The assimilation was so complete, many people were of the opinions that Mayans no longer existed.
Fortunately, attitudes are changing. Mayan men and women have been elected to elected to governorships in the Yucatan Peninsula, as well to other important office-holding positions. Their focus on self-determination and self-identity have helped build a new groundwork for information on Mayan heritage and cultural development. The mystery of the Mayans might yet be resolved as the new speakers for the Mayan people take their stand.
It’s almost remarkable that Cancun was surrounded by civilizations that grew to their height, clashed with each other and rumbled to their death blows, yet barely made a rustle in history. Its wilderness setting was nearly unblemished when the first investors decided the sandy beach area would make a great tourist destination. The problem was, not a great many people were willing to invest in an unknown territory with few distinctions beyond its spectacular waterfront.
The first hotel financed was the Hyatt Cancún Caribe, but the first one actually built was the Playa Blanca, now known as Temptation Resort. At the time, Cancun was the get-away location for elite cruise liners and well-heeled hotel guests. The Mexican government wanted more than the trickle-down effect of private industry.
The city began as a tourism project in 1974 as an Integrally Planned Centre, a pioneer of FONATUR (Fondo Nacional de Fomento al Turismo, National Fund for Tourism Development), formerly known as INFRATUR. From a handful of hotels built in the 1970's, it’s now a modern city with well-organized super-blocks containing libraries, malls and parks, insulated housing, bicycle-friendly sidewalks, a large cental market and a population of over 700,000 people. Most of the residents are from Yucatan or surrounding Mexican states, but a growing number are settlers from the United States and western European countries.
Cancun has largely avoided the bloodshed associated with the illicit drug trade that has run rampant in the Central American countries, as well as many Mexican hot spots. During the 1990's and early years of the 21st Century, it was controlled by the Juarez and Gulf drug cartels. It became a centre for money-laundering and retail drug sales to tourists. During the past decade, Cancun has taken steps to reduce violations of international codes of conduct, although the Yucatan Peninsula is still considered a main smuggling route.
The name, “Cancun” has dubious origins. Most believe it’s a Mayan word meaning “pit of snakes,” “the golden snake” or possibly “throne of the snake”. Although the name may be viewed negatively by Western interpretations, serpents were highly respected symbols of Mayan culture. The Cancun of today was awarded the “Best of the Best Award for “excellence and good governance" to the Trust for Tourism Promotion of Cancun on February 3, 2007, by the World Tourism Organization. The city that never was has become the most promising cities of today and a glittering star for Mexico’s future.
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