Photo by: Shutterstock/John Kropewnicki
As 2012 quickly approached, I was sure the new year would thrust the Mayan culture into the spotlight. I, for one, was not too concerned about the completion of the 5,125 year Mayan calendar or the world ending (not much I could do about that either way), but I had always been fascinated with the Mayan culture. The society peaked in between 250 AD to 900 AD, with a population in the millions, complex political and economic system, and the only written language in pre-Columbian America. A visit to one of the Mayan archaeological sites dotting the Yucatan Peninsula was a great way to introduce a bit of education into our Riviera Maya vacation.
One of the best preserved Mayan sites along the coast is Tulum. A walled city once occupied by priests and rulers, Tulum sits 40 feet above the Caribbean Sea on a lush jungle-covered cliff. The height of activity within the walls occurred between 1250 and 1550 AD, but once the Spanish invaders came to the region, it only took a couple of decades for Tulum to lay abandoned. It wasn’t until 1843, when a British artist and American explorer came across the ruins sitting in overgrown jungle, that the modern world rediscovered their existence.
These days, thousands of people discover Tulum on guided tours of the site. These tours are usually given by Mayans who call the people who originally lived in and around Tulum their ancestors and still speak the Mayan language at home. I loved learning about how each building was built with a very specific purpose and design, including faces carved into corners and windows aligning with eclipses. My pre-teen niece, Cecilia, who was my adventurous travel partner, was actually very interested in the guide’s description of all we were seeing and learning. Was it her favorite part of the trip? No, but it is pretty hard to compete with dolphins and zip lines!
Even children without a big interest in history and culture will appreciate the beauty of the iguana-filled ruins and surrounding scenery. Yes, you read that correctly- iguanas. They are everywhere and seem to think that they are the true rulers of Tulum. They sit atop temples, basking in the sun, and it’s hard not to fall in love.
It can definitely get hot at Tulum but thankfully, the Caribbean lies just below. A staircase takes visitors down to the water where they can frolic in the very place that Mayans have been enjoying the surf for years.
After visiting the ruins, most people take a shuttle back to the van pick up area where there are several stands selling a variety of Mayan goods and Tulum Voladores often put on a show. The show is put on by five men who climb up a tall pole. Four of the men slide their foot into a loop at the end of a rope that is wound around the top of the pole while the fifth team member performs a special dance at the top of the pole while playing a flute. Suddenly, the four flyers fall from the pole towards the earth, only to circle around the pole in expanding circles as the rope unwinds and eventually touches the ground. It is quite a spectacle, but it is also the way these men make money so if you opt to watch the performance, bring a couple of dollars to throw in the bucket.
Disclosure: I visited the Riviera Maya in the spring of 2011 as part of a press trip in order to write a story about the region. I fell in love with the region and felt it was incredibly family-friendly so my article has now turned into a series! All accommodations, meals, and activities were provided. The Riviera Maya did not request that I express any particular opinions and, as always, all opinions reflect my honest opinion.