When I woke up, it was to a late morning sun seeping in through the pale blue linen curtains. I yawned, stretched my arms, and looked across at my friends Evie and Betsy sleeping on the other double bed. The sound of ocean waves dimly roared in the distance as I crawled out of bed and padded towards the bathroom. The sun filtered in softly through the windows. Over heaping plates of custom-made omelets, fresh pieces of watermelon, kiwi, and mango, chilaquiles, mugs of hot Mexican coffee, and chilled glasses of mimosas, Betsy and Evie discussed our plans for the day. Meanwhile, I gazed admiringly at the shades of brilliant colors outside the window of our restaurant. The sapphire sky dusted with a few clouds blended into the midnight of the far ocean horizon, lightening to a sparkling clear indigo towards the shore. I was in Mexico’s paradise and I had never seen a landscape so full of life.
The Road to Tulum
An hour later, right on the dot of ten past ten, we found ourselves outside the hotel’s gates waiting for our ride. As the car slowly motored along the lone and dusty highway I gazed out of the window at the reddish dust rising and falling alongside and the blur of the faded foliage. Here and there the monotony of the plain was broken by small ramshackle huts where naked children happily ran around resting pigs and pecking chickens. Men in torn shirts and backpacks walked along the side of the road to get to their destination. Women in old but brightly colored blouses and white frilled skirts set out their laundry in the yard and stared at our car as we passed by. Every house consisted of the basic necessities of a tin corrugated roof, four bare wooden walls, and glassless windows.
Eventually the car turned off the main highway that ran parallel to the beach resorts and local towns and entered a narrow dirt trail covered on both sides by the tangle of foliage known as the Mexican jungle. The unpaved road twisted and turned so that we could not see anything in front of the car except thick leaves and branches. In the back seat, I turned my head to stare out the back window and saw the thick jungle closing behind me. Evie and Betsy turned to me warily, and I felt my heart beating faster as the red road opened up slightly to reveal some cut trees and a short stone cairn rising out of the ground. We kept silent amid the heat, dust, and noise of the drive and it was in this silence that we had our first glimpse of the ancient ruins of Tulum. This eleventh century Mayan citadel by the sea doubled as both ancient fortification and astronomy observatory. Today, its stone towers rose alluringly before me from a steep cliff fronted by golden sand and warm Caribbean waters.
Amidst a Mayan Ruin
Exploring the ruins of Tulum was an education in Mayan urban planning and architecture. Every plot of land and every building had its specific purpose, most of which were dedicated to the religion of astronomy. Colonnaded temples, some of which were raised on a pyramid of stone steps filled the small outpost’s every corner. While one tracked the movement of the sun, another depicted ancient mythical creatures in phantasmal caricatures.
Dark galleries opened into small shrines, whose actual purpose was lost to history.
Still surviving murals gave us girls a glimpse into the complex past of this military trading center. Under the harsh sun, in the quiet of the afternoon, it was difficult, Betsy told us, to imagine what Tulum would have sounded like in its Mayan heyday. Nevertheless, she imagined the straight and intersecting pebble-lined avenues carrying soldiers to their sentry duties, while priests and government officials pored over archaic astronomical data from the windowless interiors of their grand temples. As the tropical sun heated the entire complex, Betsy even thought she could see the faint outlines of ancient Mayans peeking out from the guard towers.
Evie decided it was getting too hot to be walking the streets of Tulum, so we headed next to an oasis of cool adventure, the ecological park of Xel-Ha. Here, hours could be spent floating serenely along the moss-colored lazy river on rubber tubes. While Betsy and I decided to take things slow along the winding waterway, Evie decided to try crossing along the river on a traverse rope. As we paddled down the slow moving stream, we became enamored by the twisting mangrove trees, and watched local boys dive from adjacent small cliffs into the cool jade waters. An hour and a half later, we met up with Evie, who had successfully completed her rope course, and went to snorkel in a protected inlet of the sea within the park. Here hundreds of colorful tropical fish played hide and seek with us amongst the coral. As the sun slowly sank into the latter half of the sky, we found ourselves resting on hammocks, discussing the astonishing beauty of Xel-Ha. Soon though, we subsided into a mutually respectful and relaxed silence as we simply let the ambience of the Riviera Maya soak into our souls.
The Riviera Maya is more than a sun worshipper’s destination. The wealth of natural resources and cultural traditions here provide a deeper understanding of one of its unique empires. The ancient Mayans considered the wildlife and topography of this region essential to their dynastic anatomy and a transformational influence. Preserving both nature and ancient customs for the rest of the world keeps the Riviera Maya a vibrant community.