It is slightly past 8am and the sun has been up for less than one hour. The Caribbean Sea cools me down a bit as it is quite hot already and I feel the strong sun rays on my face. I stop swimming to take the unique scenery in: the turquoise waters of the sea, the white sand on the beach, the green vegetation, the yellow coconuts hanging in palm trees, the orange tropical flowers, and on top of the 12-meter-high limestone cliff rising in front of me: El Castillo, one of the most prominent buildings of the ruins of Tulum, Mexico.
Despite the rolling waves and the red flag on the beach, most likely due to the Mexican pace of the lifeguard than to the currents, I shoot a few pictures before swimming back and exploring the ruins of the only Mayan city built on the coast.
Very well preserved, the ruins are majestic, standing on a field of gently-rolling hills since its construction in the late 13th century (during the Mayan post-classic period). I try to imagine what they must have been like when the Spaniards saw them from the sea in 1518 with their bright colors. They didn’t land then, and it was probably a good idea as if Tulum was enclosed on 3 sides by a strong wall on land, it was also very well protected on its sea-side by the reef. Strategically built right in front of the only narrow break to allow their own canoes to navigate through, the Spanish ship would have most likely crashed on the reef trying to approach the city.
Each Mayan city had a specific purpose and Tulum was so well protected because it was an important seaport linking sea and land in the commerce from Central Mexico to Honduras, trading mainly in cotton, ceramics, honey, salt, feathered capes, turquoise and jade. Inhabitants relied on resources from the sea, and also fed themselves from hunting in the jungle to growing crops of corn, beans, chilly peppers, tomatoes… in their gardens and drinking water from the cenote.
The nice sea breeze and the sound of waves crashing against the cliffs wakes me up from my contemplations. The smells of sun tan lotions and mosquito repellents announce the herds of tourists. After a last glance on the Caribbean Sea from El Castillo, I exit and head a bit more South along the beach to enjoy the view on the ruins in a relaxed and quiet atmosphere.
Text and photographs: Claire Lessiau & Marcella van Alphen
- Arrive early… 5 minutes prior to opening time will give you about 1 hour to enjoy the ruins without tourist groups.
- From the crossing or from the cabanas along the beach, the walk to the ruins can be a bit long. The best way to get around is to hire a bike. This will also allow you to explore the beach, Grand Cenote (from the ruins, it is roughly a 7-km bike ride, one way) and Tulum.
- Inspired and in need for more information? Find out how to get to Tulum.
- Walk south along the beach to enjoy great views and swim in the Caribbean Sea. Beach clubs provide good Mexican food and drinks.
- In preparation of your trip to one of the stunning Maya sites you might want to read this practical and interesting guide written by Christian Schoen.
- Check out this interactive map (quick tutorial) for the specific details to help you plan your trip and more articles and photos (zoom out) about the area!
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