Cruising along Mexico's enchanting Caribbean coast
Apr. 29, 2007 10:00 PM
Don’t forget to bring along a beach towel when you tour the ancient walled city of Tulum, for the magnificent sprawling ruins share center stage with glistening, turquoise waters and some of the most beautiful powdery white-sand beaches on the Yucatan.
Tulum is one of Mexico’s few Mayan sites built directly on the coast, a constant reminder to visitors of its historical role as a major seaport and trade center—and its modern role as a destination for spectacular beaches and a wide array of water sports. Whether approached by sea or land, the darkened stone remains of the civilization that thrived on the Yucatan Peninsula in the 13th century can only make you marvel at the level of sophistication the Mayans achieved. Precise holes and windows engineered in some of the stone structures filtered in sunlight and moonlight in such a way that Mayan dwellers developed accurate clocks and calendars and tracked astrological events and special occasions such as solstices.
Originally named Tulum Zama, which means “sunrise” or “dawn” in Mayan, the fortress city faces east, with walls on three sides and steep limestone cliffs that tower above the sea on the fourth. Some historians believe that the city may have been built originally to worship the sun gods, and certainly a more ideal location could not have been chosen. But Tulum’s advantageous position also linked it to commercial centers, and it became a prominent stop on the Central American trade route. Long, double-hulled canoes arrived in those days, filled with cotton, salt, honey, jade and feathered capes. Today, private yachts can anchor where that thriving trade once took place, and guests can disembark to tour the ruins and enjoy the beaches—and, no doubt, honor the sun gods!
Touring the ruins
Tulum’s many structures sprawl out across a parched, grassy plateau high above the sea. Enter through the arched gate in the thick, north wall and you’ll feel as though you’re stepping back about a thousand years. Sixteen major constructions, accented by almond trees and a few fruity-colored bougainvillea and hibiscus, await exploration, from shrines and graves to temples and buildings that once housed farmers, laborers, astrologers, religious leaders and nobility. Most prominent is El Castillo, the castle, which sits high above the Caribbean, with commanding views of the coast. At one time, it most likely functioned as a lookout and a lighthouse to guide boats through the offshore reefs. Today, those reefs teem with vibrant sea life, and you can snorkel right from the beach beneath El Castillo.
Unlike Mayan archaeological sites such as Chichen Itza and Coba, which are situated inland and thus better protected and preserved from the elements, Tulum’s advantageous position on the coast has also exposed it to repeated poundings by surf and wind. As a result, many of the decorative stone carvings have lost their fine details. Steps have eroded. The red paint that once swathed the buildings has almost completely worn off, though if you look carefully, you can still see traces of the ochre color on some walls and around certain figures. And because Tulum is one of the most frequented destinations on the Yucatan, the sheer number of visitors has added to the wear and tear, prompting a conservation effort that now prohibits visitors from climbing and entering the ruins.
While it’s frustrating to know that fabulous frescoes lie just beyond some of the doorways, being unable to view them adds to the mystery of the whole experience. So much is known—yet unknown about this civilization and community. Visitors are amply rewarded with the architectural details that are still in evidence, from massive columns and steep limestone steps, to finely chiseled figures of gods and agricultural forms.
The diving god is an image that can be spotted throughout Tulum—on both interiors and exteriors. One of the most visible is the stone carving on the Temple of the Descending God. The building also shows traces of some of the original red pigments, in the shape of two hands. Our tour guide tells us that inside the Temple of Frescoes, there’s a mural honoring both the diving guide and the goddess of corn. The guide also notes that while the diving god is depicted as descending from the heavens to receive the offerings of men, he may also have represented birth.
When you visit Tulum, keep in mind that weather conditions can be brutal—and humans are not as impervious to the sun as the city’s current occupants: large, leathery iguanas that lie motionless on walls and ledges, seamlessly blending with the gray-black palette and the rough texture of the stone. Be sure to wear a hat, bring water, and apply plenty of sunscreen. Try to avoid going at midday. And when you’re through wandering in awe, pull out your towel, and head to the beach for a dip in yet another magical setting —beneath El Castillo, on the Riviera Maya.
On Isla Mujeres, a small island up the coast and across the bay from Tulum, another Mayan ruin, a temple dedicated to Ixchel, the goddess of fertility, is perched above the sea. Built on the easternmost point in Mexico, it’s the first place to receive the rays of the sun. A plaque on the site invites: “Come back early enough tomorrow and you can tell everyone you were literally the first person in Mexico to see the sun that day!”