Imagine yourself at the base of a cliff, standing knee-deep in the warm, azure Caribbean Sea. Your toes are dug in the soft, smooth sand. You gaze upwards at the Castillo (the Castle), an imposing fortress. To your right, on the opposite cliff, is the Temple of the Wind, where in 900 AD Mayan priests conducted religious ceremonies honoring the Diving God.
You are at Tulum (which is believed to mean “fence” or “gate”), a Mayan ruin in the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico. Compared to other ruins in the area, such as Chichen-Itza, or Coba, Tulum may not seem as impressive. However, its location and surrounding natural beauty are stunning.
We drove to Tulum following a visit to the ruins at nearby Coba, where 95 percent humidity and 95 degree heat of the jungle left us desperate for the beach. We arrived late in the afternoon, just as the Inter-Playa tour buses were departing to the town of Playa del Carmen and the resort city of Cancun. We were greeted by an outlay of craft shops (where a vendor couldn’t possibly make change for a $20 traveler’s check — “Would you like to buy something more?”), American-style restaurants (with not a sliver of authentic Mexican food in sight) and a small, but informative museum. Once tickets were purchased, we boarded the last tram of the day and headed for the park entrance.
We arrived at the main gate with less than 10 other tourists. Tulum once was a gated community of about 600 people. The majority lived outside the fortress wall in stilted huts while the Mayan nobility occupied the city inside. The wall surrounding the city is still partially intact. We took a perfunctory, quick look at the still- impressive Castillo from the city side and then dashed down to the refreshing surf.
We were enchanted to be in the same waters where Mayan seafarers once departed for trade and fishing. After a rejuvenating swim in Tulum Cove (the surf is too cloudy here for snorkeling), we headed back up to the ruins.
The magic of our arrival at this late hour unfolded as we realized we were almost completely alone. The surrounding silence was a stunning accompaniment to the setting sun reflecting colors off the ruins and casting long shadows across the abandoned palaces, temples and dwellings.
We felt that we needed to whisper in reverence — it was almost a mystical experience. The colors were of a muted dusk palate: gray and tan of the stone structures, which were once all red; the green and gold of the meadow, and the golden cast of the sun as it set into a sky as turquoise blue as the Gulf of Mexico. We wondered if the inhabitants of 10th century Tulum appreciated the beauty and tranquility as we now did.
As we began the walk back to the visitor’s center (the tram had quit running by now), we bid good-bye to the walled city that had been abandoned after the Spanish conquest. In the encroaching darkness, the frescoes of the Diving God, the Rain God and the Weaving God were a silent testimony to the once-powerful Mayan civilization.
IF YOU GO
Mexico Tourism Board
Tulum is located 80 miles south of the resort city of Cancun. It is an approximately two-hour drive on Highway 307 (touted as the safest road in Central America, but beware of passing cars!). Tour buses depart regularly from Cancun and Playa del Carmen.
Admission to the park is 20 pesos (about $2US), with an additional $4 fee for video camera use. There are guides available in Spanish, English, French and German for 45-minute tours, and they charge about $20.
The park is open daily 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. from late April through late October. Although we were in the park after hours, we were not disturbed nor were we asked to leave.
Limited lodging is available in the town of Tulum, and newer properties are available in Playa del Carmen or in the nearby resorts of Purto Aventuras and Akumal.