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Day 241 – Life’s A Beach (Tulum Ruins)

June 8, 2011

Location: Tulum Ruins, Quintana Roo, Mexico

Date: Wednesday, June 8, 2011

As I walked the long, shadeless path to the ancient walled city of Tulum, paid my entrance to the site, weaved through the throngs of tour groups, and picked past the mundane ruins, there was nothing to suggest Tulum was special. The ruins are not well-preserved nor are they impressive. The buildings and temples are not architecturally significant nor are they religious icons that merit pilgrimage. It does not have a climbing, feathered serpent during the equinox nor does it boast a towering pyramid to the gods. Once I reached the cliffs, though, I discovered that what Tulum does have are the mystical three “L’s”: location, location, location.

If these ruins were in the middle of the jungle, no one would visit. However, here, on the shores of an electric turquoise ocean, Tulum is special. A description of the site read like a real estate ad. “The former City of the Dawn is a beachfront, Caribbean fixer-upper. Only two hours south of Cancun. Original stone counters, walls, and foundation. Custom sculptures and murals throughout. Unimpeded views of sunrise. Includes two private, cliff-bound beaches!”

Its locale makes it the third most popular ruins in Mexico. The site is smaller than its more popular and historically significant brothers Chichen Itza and Teohtihuacan, so even though there were fewer visitors Tulum felt more crowded. Waves of the day-tripper horde swept through the site following the rhythm of their chattering tour guides, pausing in the infrequent shade as their leaders administered them their oral dose of exotic, ancient culture.

The site’s most memorable feature required no guide to provide no historical context. That feature: the ruin’s private beach. Visitors were allowed to take a dip in the jade colored waters that crashed into the fine, hourglass quality sand. I could imagine 12th century Mayan priests bathing in the waters beneath the city’s Temple of the Diving God. I could see ships floating into the city’s port, laden with imports from the Caribbean islands and Central America. The city would have felt secure, surrounded by 16 foot (5 meter) stone walls (Tulum means “wall”). The Mayans would have unloaded the goods and moved them into the city.

I quickly made my way down the wooden staircase to the beach. Stripping out of my sweat soaked t-shirt, I propped my bag on a rock so that I could see it from the water; if someone stole it, I’d have at least be able to give the thief the stink eye as he carried it away, never to be seen again.

Amongst the Mexican, Argentine, German, and American tourists, I bobbed in the warm, crystal waves. The water was a relief from the blazing sun, a thousand times better than a cool breeze. Between the crashing breakers I heard German, English, Spanish, and French. I didn’t hear anyone speaking Maya.

Afterwards, I trekked south of the ruins to a stretch of nearly deserted public beach. The white sand was dotted with shelters erected by low-slung hotel, bar, and bungalow proprietors. An Indian man in his 50s, accompanied by a college-aged American lounged under one of a sea of thatch umbrellas. The man sipped plain coconut water while the girl opted for the “special” (read: the one with vodka). A shameless European plopped down onto a wooden lounge chair, his bikini bottom riding high under his gut. A couple of Aussie girls forsook shelter and quietly tried their best to contract skin cancer.

I chatted with the Mexicans working a beachside bar. Back home, they might be in college. Here, they mixed drinks, cracked Coca-Colas, and sold fresh cut fruit. One of the older ones sagged into a hammock and took a drag from a hand rolled cigarette. “This place is packed during high season, güey [pronounced: ‘way’]. But it’s low season and there’s nobody here, güey,” he said, punctuating each sentence with the Mexican equivalent of “dude.” The others murmured agreement, each killing time in the shade, waiting out the afternoon sun and listening for the beck of a lazing tourist.

Empires come. Empires go. The Spanish invade. Priests die. Temples crumble and fortressed international port cities turn into tourist traps. But the beach and the sun, well, they are forever, güey.

GALLERY: No bonus pictures, though, you can click through to see a slideshow of today’s gallery.

Mervyn is a traveler who brings too much, eats too much, and writes way too much.  To learn more, read his overwritten FAQ or flip through the archives.  If you enjoyed this post, feel free to recommend it using the buttons below.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Gibralter217 permalink
    August 11, 2011 6:28 am

    Very nice. I especially liked the phrase “electric turquoise.” Seems like Bourdain may have used it. Or maybe it’s just so good I feel like it must have always existed, like how George Washington Carver felt when he invented peanut butter.


  1. Color Research in Tulum, Mexico – Jade & Turquoise «

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