The bus from Tulum dropped me off at a cafe in the middle of Cobá, a town with more of a beginning and an end, and not much of a middle. Asking the young man sitting at the bus ticket table in which direction I should walk to get to the ruins, he pointed straight ahead to the far end of town. So, I followed his finger and that’s the way I went.
To find my way to the ruins, I first found Lake Cobá, the waters stirred by the wind that gives the city its name, then followed the signs that led me into the jungle. Once inside the archaeological site the first thing I saw was a large area of bicycles for rent. After I finished my day of hiking through Cobá, along its long, wide, and flat paths, I thought that seeing Cobá the next time with a bicycle might just be a good idea.
But this time I wanted to walk, and I by the end of it all, I was glad I did. Cobá is a beautiful, rustic, site that has barely begun its restoration. Many of its buildings remain as a heap of rocks covered in vegetation and trees. The groups of buildings that have been restored are sometimes more than a kilometer apart, connected by sacbes, or white roads. Built out of raised limestone, these roads and pathways were usually one to three meters above ground and anywhere from three to twenty meters wide. The Maya did not take advantage of the wheel the way other cultures of the world did, so their roads were made mainly for walking and for ceremonial uses. So far, about forty of these roads have been discovered, connecting different sections of Cobá and also connecting Cobá with other Maya cities. Walking them gave me a sense of walking in a purposefully planned urban area.
I had no plan. Walking randomly through the site, people on bicycles and bicycle taxis slowly passed me by. Most were following the signs to Nohoch Mul, The Great Pyramid. On that path I met a beautiful Maya man who drove a bicycle taxi. He was leaning against a wall under the shade of a tree, the taxi parked beside him. In a ploy to get me to hire him as my taxi driver, he flashed a wide brilliant white smile at me and said that I would never find Nohoch Mul if I walked alone through the forest. When I insisted on walking, he then insisted that I couldn’t leave until I could pronounce the words Nohoch Mul correctly. My first lesson in the Mayan language commenced.
Nohoch means big, large, old, which is derived from the Maya word noh which means large and -Vch (och) which works as an intensifier, like very large or largest. Mul means mound or hill, specifically a man-made one.
When he was satisfied that my language and inflection skills had significantly improved, I was ‘permitted’ to continue on my way, to walk the paths of Coba.
Through the jungle and down the wide paths I walked. Iguanas and little lizards sunned themselves as I took photographs of the stones. Birds could be heard through the forest. The trees provided some shade from the heat, even though it was a kind of lightly overcast day. Walking down the paths, buildings made themselves known as they appeared through the trees. Complete clearings were not to be found.
I found Conjunto Las Pinturas, The Paintings Group, called so because of the remnants of murals found inside the temple. The collection of stelae in The Macanxoc Group, which were surrounded by the mounds of unexcavated buildings covered in trees and jungle vegetation, were beautiful with their worn, but still barely visible, sculpted pictorial scenes and descriptions. Exploring The Cobá Group came last, which included the very high La Iglesia and The Ball Court.
Later, towards the end of my walk through the ruins, I saw my first true Maya nose on an actual live person. I couldn’t help myself, I had to stop and watch the man’s profile for awhile as he was having a conversation with someone else. How rude I must have seemed. Hopefully they didn’t even notice me. Up until this point in my travels in the Yucatan, I had always thought that the facial feature of the Maya nose, the ones depicted in the carvings on the walls and in drawings, were an exaggeration, going along with the exaggerated musculature of the Maya body depicted in paintings. But no, there one stood, in perfect profile, directly in front of me. The man’s profile was quite beautiful and extraordinary.
Unfortunately though, the bike-taxi driver was right. I never did find Nohoch Mul that day, with my meandering going off course down every little path, and my fascination with everything else I found along the way. But missing it gives me the opportunity to go back another day, to walk the paths and listen to the forest, to climb The Great Pyramid, and maybe get another lesson in Maya.
‘The Tulum ruins are that way.’ said the young woman at the front desk of the hotel. She pointed in the general direction of the archaeological site and continued, ‘At the end of the road. You can take a taxi, or rent a bike …’ I politely interrupted her by saying, ‘No, I’d like to walk.’
She furrowed her eyebrows and responded, ‘Are you sure?’ (But in retrospect I’m sure she meant ‘Are you crazy?’ :) ‘It’s far for walking. It’s hot now and it will get hotter later, take water with you! …’ She made sure that she got out all of the warnings before I waved good-bye for the day and took off down the road.
Well, at least she knew where I went in case I didn’t make it back.
Walking, walking, walking. It is four kilometers from the hotel to the ruins on the cliff, and it was very hot. The adventure was slow going in the heat although the road going in that direction was fairly flat and smooth. The road was partly shaded on one side by the not-so-tall-thick-forest of trees that lived in the coastal jungle and lined both sides of the road. Along the road I saw a sign to La Playa and I found myself on what was considered to be the public beach in Tulum – the cleanest, whitest, most beautiful public beach I had ever walked on.
About an hour and a half later, I found myself walking on a path through a thin umbrella of jungle and finally reached an arched doorway in a wall. Taking a breathe, I bent my head, entered, and walked the twenty feet through the low arch in the wall and into the sunlight of the city. The setting of this place is truly spectacular, ruins on a cliff, on the edge of the bluest sea imaginable.
Tulum was originally named Zamá, which is the Maya word for dawn, and named so because the ancient city’s location allows for a full view of the sunrise, everyday of the year. It could also have been named that because the site was an important Maya astronomical observation center.
Tulum, which means The Walled City, was the name given to it by later researchers of the area. The wall itself is an unusual feature of the city, being only one of two walled cities found so far on The Yucatan peninsula. The ruins are heavily fortified on three sides by a twenty-foot thick by thirteen-foot high wall, with the fourth side dropping off of a spectacular cliff into the Caribbean. The only way to enter the ancient city was through one of the five arched and guarded doorways in the wall, or to stand on the beach and wait for permission to enter. In any case, Tulum was not an easy city to just walk into. It was known for its strong fortifications and its location as an ancient watch point, guarding the trade routes from both sea and land and even serving as an important center of commerce for the region.
Trading from the ships took place on the beach, theoretically outside the city. A small cove was easily entered on one side by boats, while the merchants and traders from the city entered on the other side which was, and still is, easily gotten to because the cliff drops to the beach in just that one spot.
The oldest buildings in Tulum date from the time that the rest of the Maya civilization was in decline, around 900 AD, and life was still going strong here when the Spanish arrived in the 16th century. Much of the architecture was of the Puuc style – building bases with sloped, tiered steps and columns, and decoration based on carved stone mosaic with most of the decoration being done on the friezes. Only a few sculptures, and faint memories of the a few of the murals on the walls, remain. It is said that when the Spanish explorers found the city, the buildings were stuccoed and painted, as were most of the archaeological sites in their heyday, The Castle being painted a wonderful blue and lit by an eternal flame.
In viewing Tulum, more so than during my visits to the other archaeological sites, I had to use my imagination to reconstruct the buildings, repaint the murals and imagine the city full of life. Damaged by the centuries of neglect, jungle growth, and salty sea air, Tulum is probably one of the most decayed of the major Maya sites. Because of the sheer number of visitors it receives on a daily basis, it isn’t possible to walk into the buildings for fear they will further damage the structures. The only inhabitants of the city, the ubiquitous iguanas, are the only creatures to have free reign here, to hide in the shade of the walls or sun themselves on the rocks.
Besides the wall, The Castle is the main and largest building on the site, although compared to other Maya cities, this castle is small. Its impressiveness comes from its placement within the city, the back of the structure almost lines up with cliff edge, leaving room only for a path to walk on before dropping down onto the beach and the turquoise sea.
Other buildings to visit would be the Temple of the Frescoes where you can see faint remnants of the paintings as well as hand prints, the many shrines on the site, the House of Columns, Temple of the Descending God, Temple of the Wind, and The Bay. Walking along the inside of the wall gave me the opportunity to feel the scope of the site. One great surprise of visiting Tulum is having the sunbathing and swimming access on the beach below ruins.
Visiting the Ruins
The best time to visit the Tulum ruins, as in all the archaeological sites, is early in the morning. Around noon the tour buses from the cruise ships docked near Cancun start arriving in droves at this most visited archaeological site on the peninsula. When they are there your photographs will be filled with smiling tourists wearing funny hats and you will have a hard time exploring on your own. In the morning Tulum is quiet and peaceful, and above all, cooler.