Riviera Maya is not only about beautiful beaches with powder white sand, azure oceans and pristine coral reefs. There is more on offer than even the chic Quinta Avenida (5th Avenue) lined with fashionable shops and stylish restaurants. Hidden in the rainforest and snuggled between the Cenotes are amazing Mayan archeological sites; Cobá or Tulum.
Tulum is the ancient cliffside city which was once an important trading harbour for the Mayan civilisation. Set high above the crashing waves of the Caribbean it is a particularly spectacular setting for any city. The high pyramids of nearby Cobá are missing but there are many other impressive buildings and it attracts more visitors than its sister site.
This popularity is possibly due to the compact nature of the site as well as the spectacular setting. It is easy to walk around, taking less than an hour but there is often a queue waiting at every vantage point to pose and take pictures. Photography is at best a challenge and sometimes a genuine struggle.
One of the most popular of the buildings here is the ‘Temple of the Frescoes’ which as its name implies has an interior decorated with colourful murals. According to our guide some of these are apparently still relatively well-preserved but access was not possible when our group visited.
There is in fact a low-level pyramid; the Pyramid El Castillo (castle) which is the largest building on the site. It has a palace base and temple upper level but apparently was a defence watchtower and lighthouse for navigation. The castillo is now unfortunately roped off and access is no longer allowed.
Tulum is also known as the ‘City of the Dawn’ because it was the first Mayan city to witness the sunrise each day. Our guide explained that it was also the Mayan ‘Stonehenge,’ apparently each of the seasonal equinoxes were celebrated here. The sun shining through specific windows at exactly the right time of day and year.
The Mayan port was an important trading hub for the civilisation, jade, obsidian, ceramics. and chocolate were bought and sold by merchants before being distributed throughout the realm. Chocolate our guide informed us with a degree of dramatic emphasis was the currency of the Mayan people. I wonder what two bars of Galaxy would have bought me then.
The city is surrounded by a thick wall which is another reason why the site is so popular as it is uncommon within the archeological sites of the region. It seems likely it was important for defence of the city which in effect is a large fortress with a strategic position overlooking the ocean and nearby river deltas.
The beach that the site overlooks is the equal of any in the region. The waves of a clear blue sea lap on the pure sugar like sand of the protected beach. It is so stunning that endangered Loggerhead and Green turtles choose it as a nesting site, coming ashore in waves to lay their eggs between May and October. Thousands of sea reptiles can’t be wrong.
The views are breath-taking, stunning bays and especially looking across to Templo Dios del Viento (God of Winds Temple) which stands as a lone sentinel to the bay.
The entrance to the ruins is more commercial than nearby Cobá, with more souvenir shops and food stalls. There are also a number of ‘models’ in full costume which display from a high pole which makes Maypole dancing seem extremely tame. Climbing to the top, the performers suddenly drop off attached to a rope and spinning around as they slowly lower to the ground. These Hard-core entertainers are the Papantla Flyers. Designated as a UNESCO intangible cultural heritage and definitely deserve any loose change in your pocket.
Apparently it is possible to walk but we were ushered on a road train for a short trip to the site itself, access to which is then gained through a number of ‘holes’ in the surrounding wall. The old trade road from Cancun to Guatemala is still visible in many spots and iguanas laze around in the nearby trees possibly contemplating making a reptile pilgrimage.
Visiting the sites at Cobá and Tulum were highlights of the trip to Riviera Maya. Our guides at both sites were knowledgeable and entertaining, especially at Tulum as the slightly eccentric guide provided as many reasons to smile as snippets of information.
Tulum will probably continue to attract more visitors, its compact size and stunning setting will guarantee its popularity but both sites offer a great insight into Mayan culture. If time is available visiting both is recommended, afterwards there will be sufficient time for some beach time, cenote swimming or retail therapy on 5th Avenue.