Tulum Ruins and Iguanas Galore!

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April 8th 2010
Published: July 3rd 2010
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On our third day in Tulum we finally set off to visit the ruins. Spectacularly located on a cliff overlooking the turquoise waters of the Caribbean Sea, Tulum is a Mayan settlement which flourished from around 1200 CE until the arrival of the Spanish. The Tulum ruins are the third most visited archaeological site in Mexico after Teotihuacan and Chichen Itza.
We took a taxi to the site and were left in a plaza surrounded by market stalls, with people plying their trade and a few costumed dancers drawing a large crowd in the centre. We eventually managed to locate the ticket booth which offered a return trip by bus to the ruins. Unsure about how long a walk we were facing and deciding that in the heat staggering 10 metres might be a challenge we bought the stylish flourescent green wrist bands and join the queue awaiting the bus. While we waited we watched a group of dancers spin around at the top of a pole before falling off backwards, their feet attached to ropes and circling the pole while one man at the top played on a flute. Finally we crowded onto the bus and left for the ruins. Another bus passed us filled with shrieking students; now that must be some school trip, to be able to visit Mayan sites like this!
It wasn{t such a long distance to the ruins themselves, but judging from the rather red complextions of the people around us at the ticket office we were glad we{d opted for the easy mode of transport!
We walked along the dusty path to the entrance, a small archway of stone, obscuring the city from view until we passed through. I managed to spoil the moment by taking once glance at the grey stone and then turning my back on it to photograph a large iguana sitting behind me. Whatever Tulum was in the past, today it is the capital city of the Iguana Kingdom. There are hundreds of the lizards sunning themselves of every rock, scurrying across the paths and climbing the ancient stones like they know they own the place. Tourists give right of way to lizards and the ruins seem to be frequently upstaged by the creatures as as soon as one darts out all the cameras swing in its direction. Ok, I admit, I have as many photos of iguanas as I do of the Tulum ruins!
Still the ruins themselves are impressive, and with a backdrop of turquoise blue waters, white sands and palm trees the scene is truly stunning. The Tulum site is surrounded by a 5 metre thick wall on three sides, interrupted by five gates. The name of the site, which means "enclosure," is probably modern. Its original name is believed to have been Zama, or "Dawn," reflecting the west-east alignment of its buildings. The main god honored at Tulum is the "diving god," or "Descending God," depicted on several buildings as an upside-down figure above doorways.
The largest and most prominent building at Tulum is El Castillo. A temple as well as a fortress, El Castillo was originally covered with stucco and painted red. A wide external staircase leads up to the temple, which has three niches above the doorway while a beautiful sculpture of the descending god can be seen in the central niche.
Tulum was first mentioned by Juan Díaz, part of Juan de Grijalva's expedition of 1518. The first detailed description of the ruins was published by John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood in 1843 in the book Incidents of Travel in Yucatan. Stephens and Catherwood first visited Tulum in the mid-19th century CE. As they arrived from the sea Stephens and Catherwood first saw a tall building that impressed them greatly. This was most likely the great Castillo of the site. They made accurate maps of the site’s wall and other buildings while Catherwood made detailed sketches of the Castillo and other structures.
The Temple of the Frescoes, directly in front of the Castillo, was used as an observatory for tracking the movements of the sun. It apparently contains interesting 13th-century frescoes, but I am none the wiser as visitors are no longer permitted to enter. Distinctly Maya, the frescoes represent the rain god Chaac and Ixchel, the goddess of weaving, women, the moon, and medicine.
To the left of El Castillo is the Temple of the Descending God, with a small staircase and a carving over the door of the swooping figure which is seen throughout the site. Just north of El Castillo is the Kukulcán Group, made of several minor structures. Especially notable is the Templo del Dios del Viento (Temple of the God of the Wind), named for its round base and finally a wooden staircase leads to the small beach below which is popular with tourists wishing to recover from the heat exhaustion caused by walking around the site!
With its position on the coast, Tulum was evidently an important centre of trade. Copper artifacts from the Mexican highlands have been found near the site, as have flint artifacts, ceramics, incense burners, and gold objects from all over the Yucatán. Salt and textiles were among some of the goods brought to Tulum by sea that would then be dispersed inland. Typical exported goods included feathers and copper objects that came from inland sources. Jade and obsidian appear to be some of the more prestigious materials to be traded here as the obsidian would have had to be brought from Ixtepeque in northern Guatemala, almost 700 kilometres away.
After taking a self guided tour around the site we climbed down to the beach. While the beach itself is very picturesque the number of tourists crowding the small space made it impossible to find anywhere to sit. The sea is also very strong here and the waves wash right up to touch the toes of people determindly protecting their patch of sand. We turned to leave and I immediately lost my shoe to the next wave. Fortunately a girl froliking in the water was perfectly happy to fling herself at my disappearing shoe and retrive it for me. I was rather relieved not to have to hobble all the way home!
We climbed back up to the top of the cliff and walked a slow circuit back to the entrance, too hot to contemplate staying any longer.
We retreated to the hostel, venturing out again in the cool of the evening to buy food, and more importantly ice creams!

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23rd May 2011

green iguana
Very informative post, I must say. This post is fully encouraging in its own ways and I am confident that it will even succeed in inspiring many people like me.

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