Story and photos by Bob Schulman
Imagine it’s a dark night in 1518, and you’re a crewman on a Spanish galleon sailing off the Caribbean coast of the Yucatan Peninsula. As you get closer to the shore, it looks like there’s a big fire on the clifftops towering over the beach. Still closer in, you see there’s a city up there, and what you thought was a fire is actually a line of temples, shrines and towers shimmering in the glow of rooftop torches.
The city was a showstopper the next morning, too. When the first rays of the sun began bouncing off its crimson-colored buildings, it lit up like a fireball – perhaps explaining why it was originally called Zama, or City of the Dawn.
It was renamed Tulum (roughly meaning “walled city”) when a wall was built around the three sides of the city not protected by the cliffs.
For hundreds of years, Tulum thrived as a trading port for the inland mega-city of Coba, home to as many as 75,000 people. It's believed the city had thousands of ceremonial, government and residential buildings covering an area the size of Denver.
Historians say Tulum's beaches were likely packed with canoes paddled there by merchants from across the Maya empire as far away as Honduras. No wonder Tulum stood out from the smaller ports – places such as Xel-Ha, Xcaret, Akumal and Xaman Ha (now Playa del Carmen) – running down the eastern coast of the Yucatan.
Fast forward to today, and the 80-mile-long strip of powdery beaches (called the Tulum Corridor by early developers) stretching from Cancun down to Tulum is Mexico's largest resort area (having been re-tagged the Riviera Maya by newer developers with deeper pockets). And Xel-Ha, Playa del Carmen and the other old-time Maya settlements along the coast are now upscale hotel zones, ritzy residential enclaves, huge Maya-themed amusement and theme parks and sprawling cities.
Only Tulum is still the way it was, having been designated as an archaeological site and thus spared from commercial projects. Chances are, you'll rub elbows with hundreds of other tourists wandering around the site's 60 or so roped-off temples and shrines. Among stand-outs are the magnificent 40-foot-high temple called El Castillo (the castle), the Temple of the Descending God (featuring an upside-down figure of the Maya god of the bees) and a cliffside sanctuary named the Temple of the Winds.
It costs the equivalent of a little over US$4 to get into the site and another US$40 if you want a guided group tour. For just US$1.60 more you can take a trolley ride (the ticket is good both ways) along a quarter-mile walkway from the entrance of the park to the archaeological zone. A tip: Take the trolley... it can get blazing hot out there.
Tulum City: Say Hi to Mick, Ben and Angie
The ruins may be spared from development, but it’s a whole different story outside the archaeological park. Once home to a few hundred farmers and temple builders, Tulum City is now a budding metropolis of 30,000 or so (and growing every day), complete with supermarkets, shopping malls and residential areas running from slums to million-dollar mansions.
What’s more, the six-mile-long road running down the beach from Tulum to the northern mangroves of the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve is fast turning into a sort of Mexican St. Bart’s. Not too long ago, the road was lined by run-down hotels, lots full of hippie vans and straw-roofed bars where ganga smoking was strictly forbidden (wink, wink).
But then the silky set discovered this tropical Shangri-La in the shadow of the ruins of Tulum. Mosey around the area’s dozens of boutique hotels (most built in the last couple of years) and its chic shops and restaurants, and chances are you’ll hear stories of visitors of the likes of Oscar-winning movie stars, A-list rappers and rockers and even people who rate bows back home.
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