Tulum is not the kind of place that even the most wandering GypsyNesting type will stumble upon by accident. It’s not on the way to anywhere. But since we found ourselves on the Caribbean coast of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, what’s known as the Riviera Maya, we hopped on a shuttle to the ancient Mayan site.
We wanted to enjoy both a guided tour and some free time to explore on our own and, since the site is not that large, both could be easily accomplished in one day.
Tulum, the Mayan word for fence or wall, is a walled city that dates back around eight hundred years and served as a sacred site as well as a sea port.
The peak of the Mayan civilization was around the year 1000 and Tulum was occupied late in the Mayan era, in fact it was one of the last cities they built.
Soon after Tulum’s rise, the Spanish arrived and the Mayans, along with the Inca and Aztec peoples, were conquered.
The Mayans proved to be the most difficult conquest, since there was no single king. Their political structure was set up in a number of separate city-states with individual rulers that traded and interacted with one another.
Because of this, and the fact that they didn’t have gold, the Mayans and Spanish coexisted for two hundred years before Spain finally took control of the Mayan lands. Even then, the people, culture and language did not cease to exist. In fact most people in the Yucatan today are of Mayan and Spanish descent, including our guide Carlos.
The most prominent feature of Tulum is El Castillo, previously presumed to be a simply a temple, with steps leading up to a columned shrine on the top.
However, in 1984, this structure was discovered to serve a more worldly purpose, a navigational signal to the large cargo canoes that the Mayans used in their trading with other civilizations up and down the coast.
The discovery, known as “The Secret of Tulum,” showed that small windows in the shrine line up perfectly with a gap in the barrier reef offshore. During daylight hours, the sky is visible through the windows so incoming canoes could line up by keeping equal amounts of light in each. At night another set of windows were lit to guide the vessels safely to the beach. A primitive lighthouse, as it were.
Pretty ingenious, we thought.
Off to the side of El Castillo is the Temple of the Descending God. Above the entrance in the western wall a stucco figure of the “diving god” is still preserved, giving the temple its name.
The sun rises exactly through the temple on the summer solstice, the longest day of the year. This is tré Mayan, as they were obsessed with the movements of the heavens and learned to mathematically predict almost every astronomical event.
They developed stunningly accurate versions of the calendar thousands of years ago. These calculations led to much speculation as to just what might happen when the calendar ended.
The Descending God is also depicted in the Temple of the Frescoes.
Carlos spent a good deal of time showing us the details of this building, since it is the most unique artifact of Tulum.
The surviving frescoes inside are perhaps the finest examples of Mayan artwork remaining anywhere.
It was here that archeologists discovered that the Mayans also painted the outsides of their temples in bright colors, and Carlos showed us some of the remaining original coloring.
With the guided portion of our visit complete, we were free to wander among the ruins on our own, but not before we caught Carlos for a couple of one-on-one questions.
We asked about Tulum’s population, likely around 1,500. He also answered our inquiries about the interaction and trade with nearby settlements, and how the relationships weren’t always friendly.
Hence the walls that give Tulum its name.
Looking out over the beautiful blue Caribbean we could see the island of Cozumel off in the distance, and behind us a sheer cliff with the ruins rising above.
The Mayans sure knew how to pick a good spot. We kicked off our shoes and splashed around in the surf for a bit, but soon our stomachs were more concerned with finding a bite.
Just outside the archeological site there is a small tourist village with food, crafts and, of course, the ever-present crap shops that crop up near any attraction like this. We found a little hole-in-the-wall shop that served up a pretty good street taco and proceeded to burn our mouths after not heeding the advice of the chef about the heat of the salsa.
While we ate, we watched as traditional dancers, acrobats and various barkers vied for the attention of the visitors.
We couldn’t help but notice that Tulum is thick with iguanas. Not only rampant among the ruins, but in the tourist village as well. Veronica had the big idea to try and touch one, but the wild variety of these spiny fellas would have none of that.
Luckily, a guy happened to have a tame one of these prehistoric looking lizards available for touching, holding and photo ops… for a few pesos of course. Well Veronica had her fun, and we got the video to prove it. Worth every centavo.
As was a visit to this incredible piece of history.
David & Veronica, GypsyNester.com