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Published: March 17th 2016
.The journey to Tulum, a major tourist attraction 130 kilometres south of Cancun, was uneventful and far less stressful than driving in the city, despite markings on the road suddenly disappearing for long periods of time. We had only a tiny map of the town which didn't show our hotel. By the time we found the hotel, after wandering dark alleys and sleepy streets, it was completely dark. The man on the counter spoke no English but we managed to deal with check-in. He handed us a key and then disappeared into a back room. We walked down the corridor and found that none of the rooms had numbers. Confused, we called the man back and he led us to the room. We set about cooking dinner with our camp stove and soon wonderful smells were emanating from our room. Tulum
The Mayans once ruled over a great swathe of Central America, including much of Belize, Guatemala and the South Eastern provinces of modern Mexico. Whilst thirteenth century European crusaders were capturing Constantinople, Genghis Khan was subduing much of Asia and King John was signing Magna Carta, the Mayans were building many of their great cities. One
of the keys to their success was costal communications; especially significant trade centred on the port city of Zamá-Xamanzamá. Here, a walled city grew in a strategic location. Unusually for the Mayans, Zamá was a fortified city; a wall surrounded three sides and cliffs overlooked the Caribbean on the fourth. The city was still there when the Spanish explored the coastline of Quintana Roo in the early 16th century but it now lies in ruins. More recently, the ruined city has been given the name "Tulum" meaning 'fortification' or 'city wall'. Tulum is now famous for being one of the few archeological sites where visitors can swim in tropical seas.
We woke early to get to the ruins as the sun came up. Mexican bureaucracy thwarted this plan sadly as we were not allowed to enter even a few seconds before 8am, despite the cashier being at the desk for at least half an hour before. Not all was lost though, we still had the fantastic early morning light. Whilst most people started wandering around the site, we went straight to the highlight - The Castle - with its cliff-top position, to catch it in the golden morning light.
We had the area to ourselves which was great as later the whole site would be heaving with people.
As the rest of the tourists caught up with us at the Castle, we went back to the beginning to see the whole site. The first building we came to was the House of the Cenote - the city's main fresh water source. Here a natural pool has formed under a large rock. The building on top of this solid foundation housed a well which had been bored straight through the rock.
Beside the House of the Cenote was a small collection of shrines. These are scale miniatures of the temples, with just enough room for an altar, where the Mayans performed their rituals. Beyond the shrines were platforms where dwelling places for the city's elite would have been constructed. Further still was another group of shrines and then, sitting on the headland, another temple. This temple contains an altar and sculptures in a poor state. It is the only building on the site with a circular base, which has led archeologists (by analogy with other sites) to conclude that the temple was dedicated to the wind god. From
this temple there are clear views over the turquoise Caribbean Sea.
From the Temple of the Wind, we moved into the middle of the site. Our first encounter was the back of the House of the Halach Uinic. This Mayan phrase translates literally as "Real Man" but is a term used to designate kings. This structure, deemed to be a palace because of its large dimensions, has a portico formed from four pillars. Over the inner doorway there is sculptured stucco which suggests the whole building may have originally been ornately decorated. The House of the Halach Uinic is surrounded by various shrines and dwelling platforms.
Beyond the shrines and small dwelling platforms we came to the House of the Columns or "Great Palace", the largest residential building in Tulum which also has a four columned portico. A little further still and we came to a smaller but more impressive building, the Temple of the Frescoes, so called due to its well preserved ornate mural, depicting Chaac (the god of rain) and Ix Chel (the goddess of the moon and childbirth). Sadly this is on the inside of the building and was not visible to us. However, the
outside is also ornately carved with figures of seated people wearing headdresses. From the Temple of the Frescoes there is a superb view of the front of the Castle, though with the sun streaming from behind it was difficult to see.
Further down the street connecting the House of the Halach Uinic and the House of the Columns is a collection of ornate tombs and more shrines and beyond these, more platforms for dwelling places tucked into the corner of the surrounding wall. From these the view out to the sea was inviting and it wouldn't be long before we descended for a swim. Before we swam though we had to pause to admire the view back to the Castle and the Temple of the Wind perched upon their cliffs.
From the beach the ruins looked just as stunning. By this time the beach itself was crowded but few people were braving the waters. I jumped straight in and swam until I got the best view of the Castle. I was so tempted to take my camera out and it felt like an opportunity missed when good sense prevailed. The water felt wonderful and it was difficult to
pull ourselves out.
After we'd dried off we left the site and wandered through the markets outside the archeological site. Here we found a good selection of tapestries and carvings of wood and stone, as well as huge amounts of real tat. We had our first taste of haggling with the stall holders which was daunting but with hind-sight also quite fun. It was about 2pm when we left the market. The day was hot and we were hungry. We didn't have time to pause though as we had to get to the ruins of Coba. Coba
The ancient city of Coba is located in the midst of dense jungle about forty kilometres inland from Tulum. It is a huge, almost completely unexplored site. The ruins that have been uncovered are impressive. By the time we arrived we didn't have sufficient time to see the whole site but we we took in the highlights.
The first thing we came to was an immense complex called The Church. This huge pyramid, with its rough steps, is the second tallest building in Coba. It received its name as it has shrines where people are still worshiping.
This surprised me as I had assumed Mayan civilisation had been superseded by more modern beliefs.
Beyond the church we came to a ball court, the first we had seen. The ball court consists of two parallel buildings with a void in the middle. The buildings have tall vertical walls from which a ball is bounced. At the top of each wall, in the middle of the court, is a stone ring. Apparently the game was won when one team got the ball through the hoop. Aside from this and the fact that the ball could only be touched with elbows and knees, there was little information available about the game. Archeologists decoding the carvings on the walls have suggested that there was a spiritual dimension to the games and that ritual sacrifices formed part of the experience.
We had very limited time left after exploring these two complexes so we had to prioritise what we saw. The key feature of Coba is the Nohoch Mul. This literally means "Big Mound" and is a large pyramid temple. The best thing about this is that it is open to the public to climb. We walked the couple of kilometres
to the looming edifice as quickly as we could and arrived with just enough time to climb.
The climb was difficult as the steps were uneven and not uniformly spaced. Also, as we got above the canopy of the jungle, the sun was beating down and it was very hot. Ahead of us we could see many people toiling up. After all of our walking in New Zealand our fitness had improved significantly and we managed to get up without stopping. The view from the top was quite bland, just endless jungle as far as the eye could see. The top was crowded and extremely hot. We were satisfied to have got up but I was very relieved to start the descent again.
We had thought the climb was difficult but the descent was far worse. The thin steps were slippery and the only way we could safely get down was to hold onto a rope and lean backwards. By the end, our arms, legs and backs were aching but we had made it down the treacherous slope. We were hanging around to take some photos a few minutes after we came down when a security guard came
to up and told us we had to leave. We would have liked a bit longer but at least we'd conquered the Nohoch Mul!
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