The final leg of our Caribbean cruise adventure landed the Carnival Horizon at the port of Cozumel. My husband was looking forward to the Cozumel stop, because he’d been there before. The night before, he animatedly told me, “Make sure your camera is ready! Cozumel is a beautiful port!” It had been about ten years since he had last been to Cozumel, and he was excited to see it again.
But, we never went to Cozumel, although the ship docked there. Instead, we boarded a water taxi that took us across to Playa de Carmen.
Playa de Carmen was still lovely, though. One of the biggest things I felt like was missing from the islands visited this time was the unique architecture. I love pretty buildings. In Bermuda, you have your colorful buildings and in Azores, everything was this gorgeous white stucco. Every other port we’d been to prior to this cruise had its own depth of character, but we weren’t finding that this time… until Mexico. It was a lovely experience, even if we were only in Playa de Carmen long enough to walk from the ferry boat to the bus!
From Playa de Carmen, it was about an hour bus ride to Tulum. For the length of the ride to the site, our tour guide spoke to us about his experience with the Mayan culture: about how many people in Mexico are descended from the Mayans and they have passed bits and pieces of the language down. He spoke about the Mayan numerical system, and about his own grandmother who had pure Mayan blood.
The bus ride passed quickly, and we soon found ourselves in Tulum.
The parking area for the Tulum ruins is situated on the other side of an expansive tourist area, featuring everything from a Subway to many souvenir shops. I will get to those later, but for now, we walked straight through and headed down to the site, about a mile from the parking lot.
The walkway between the souvenir area and the site itself was about a half mile, so we all trekked in a loose group. At the entrance to the official site area, there’s a ticket takers station, a small gift shop with historical and archaeological books, and bathrooms.
Once of the pairs in our group asked the tour guide to point out any natural animals and wildlife, so he pointed out a couple birds, as well as iguanas and the tamandua.
We don’t really get anything in the anteater family in New England, so I thought the tamandua were a hoot. We only saw them in the walk between the guest services area and the site itself, and all the ones we saw were running solo.
We saw the most animals in the shaded walk between guest services in the site – most likely for just that reason, the shade! It was warm down in Mexico, through I’d say it was definitely hotter last September when we were at Disney.
To get into the site itself, we passed through a hole in the wall that, if you were 6′ 0′, you’d probably have to duck through. Everyone was trying to take artsy pictures through the wall of the site in the opening and all the other people trying to get in the site were getting agitated, so I’m sorry y’all, no see-through picture from the other side. I tried to capture one as we were exiting the little tunnel.
I was totally amazed by Tulum. This wasn’t the excursion we’d originally booked (that one was cancelled) so I hadn’t really looked into the site or anything before we left. I’ve never been to any ruins in Central America, so I guess I just expected something out of Indiana Jones.
This site is completely cleared away and exposed to the elements. Our tour guide explained that when Tulum was first discovered, it was overgrown, up to and including trees that had rooted right into the buildings. In the 20th century, archaeologists excavated the site and worked to restore it and reopen the beaches. In the intervening century, it has become the third most visited archaeological tourist site in Mexico, after Chichen Itza and Teotihaucan.
The name given to the city – Tulum – is not its original name, though it was taken from the Mayan because it means “wall” or “fence”. Tulum is entirely walled in. As a trading city, this would have likely been done for protection just as its location on a cliff face – a natural wall – would have been intentional. It’s a bit difficult to see in the picture, but if you look beyond the palm trees you can just make out the remains of the wall towering behind.
As I mentioned, Tulum was a trading city. It’s speculated that this location traded in honey, obsidian, and other such things. Most of the remaining buildings here at the site are bits and pieces of temples, although the wealthy would have lived within the city limits as well. Poorer people would have resided outside the wall, and therefore were not privy to the protection the city offered.
Most of the buildings had carvings over the doorways. According to our tour guide, these represented different gods. This one, he said, was the honey god. And it would make sense that the Mayans would have worshipped Ah-Muzen-Cab in this city, as honey was one of its chief exports. Ah-Muzen-Cab is generally pictured upside down, which would explain why his headdress is flush with the bottom and his legs are in the air.
The other significant temple on site is the Temple of the Frescos. We weren’t able to go into the site, but on the outside are beautiful carvings. One of the things our tour guide mentioned about the site as a whole was that we should remember once upon a time, all these buildings were richly painted in bright colors, but time and weather would have faded them away. Our tour guide didn’t actually speak much about the Temple of the Frescos, but it was a beautiful building and I would have liked to learn more.
I think that the most striking building on site was El Castillo, or “the Castle”. Like the rest of the significant buildings at Tulum, tourists are not allowed to enter these sites. All those famous pictures you see of people climbing the stairs and Chichen Itza and what not? Absolutely no longer allowed, so don’t visit these archaeological sites thinking you’re about to step into Instagram gold. They are absolutely stunning, but they are very hands-off.
Human interaction with historical sites causes deterioration, so it’s actually a good thing that we can’t touch these buildings or go inside them. The exception to this, or course, are historians, archaeologists, and restorers, but these people are trained for years how to treat these priceless sites. Even then, once a site is excavated and restored, we’ve lost some level of its authenticity.
Sorry, letting my history nerd shine through a bit! Basically, while it bums me out that I can’t really access the sites, I appreciate the rule.
El Castillo – not to be confused with El Castillo at Chichen Itza, which is possibly the most recognized Mayan temple known – dominates the site at Tulum. It stands at about 25′ tall. This building seems to have been built in stages. In the modern age, sometimes it’s difficult to remember that these things were built without the aid of computing software and standard archaeological plans. Each stone was laid by a human hand and the castle, houses, and temples rose from sweat and blood, no shortcuts. Sites like this absolutely astound me.
One thing that makes Tulum stand out from other Mayan sites is its lack of human sacrifice. Whereas laying down your life for the gods was considered an honor in Mayan culture, Tulum celebrated the God of Life. Therefore, there is no archaeological evidence suggesting that human sacrifice ever took place at this site. Instead, it is likely that animals were sacrificed.
I mentioned earlier that Tulum was built on a cliff. That being the case, this is probably the only archaeological site in the world that has a public beach! There’s a “secret” staircase leading down from the cliffside to the water, and anyone who has paid for admission to the site is welcome to lay back and swim.
And, even though I’m not really a beach person, I’ve got to admit that the view from the city is incredible. Outside of being an ideal place for trade, I can see why the Mayans chose this site from a purely aesthetic standpoint. Stunning.
While Matt and I didn’t go swimming (we only had about an hour to explore the site ourselves before the bus left), we certainly appreciated the view. There was also a nice breeze up there, which was lovely because this site is out in the open and there really isn’t any shade.
We explored a little bit more around the site, but this was the one excursion that didn’t include lunch, so Matt and I set off to find something to eat before we left. On the way in, our tour guide had recommend a place near the entrance called Frosty’s that served authentic Mexican tacos (though I love me some Tex Mex) and we thought we’d give it a try.
The food here was pretty good, and the price was right. In fact, I wish that we could get lunch this tasty and inexpensive back home! The tacos reminded me more of the Tex Mex version of enchiladas, and the chips served with pico de gallo? YUM. When they say something in Mexico is spicy, it is SPICY. I really enjoyed it because that was one of the things we’d been missing on the cruise – an infusion of flavor. My husband and I both REALLY enjoy spicy things. I ended up mixing a couple spoonfuls in with my beans and rice and it was DELICIOUS.
Seriously, though, you have to be ready for that habanero heat or this would have been a nasty surprise. But I was born ready – bring on the burn!
After lunch, we only had a little time left, so we got our souvenirs – a mug for my dad, a shot glass for my supervisor, and Mexican chocolate for me! I have this thing where – whenever possible – I like to try candy from the different countries we visit. Even if it’s just from a convenience store – there are so many different kinds of candy around the world. We did this in Europe but hadn’t really run into any candy options in the Caribbean. I ended up with Chili Chocolate (which I already know is yummy) as well as cinnamon dark chocolate and coffee-infused chocolate. I expect them all to be delicious.
The bus ride back from Tulum was bittersweet – there’s that lingering knowledge that the end of vacation is nigh, and so it is here, my friends. Tulum was our last stop on this cruise, and with this post, I say farewell to travel posts for a while. My husband and I don’t have a planned vacation again until November, so it’s going to be a long haul this time. Maybe we’ll do a few fun day trip this summer, but just at the moment I am fully focused on getting settled into our new home (official moving day is the 25th!) and getting ahold of life from there.
I hope you’ve enjoyed our little foray into the Caribbean! It is, as always, fun to bring it to you.
Have you been to any of the ancient Mayan sites? After Tulum, I’m itching to visit the other big two… but there are so many place in the world to travel! Let me know your favorite historical sites in the comments.<3