Miles of white sand beaches stretch along Mexico’s Caribbean coast from Cancun to Tulum forming the popular tourist destination known as the Riviera Maya. A straight road shoots through the jungle parallel to the sea providing access to an adventure traveler’s mecca. If you drive an hour from the airport in Cancun to Tulum, you will find yourself in a land brimming with mystery. Why did the Mayans leave their homes? No one really knows. But if you take the time to visit the ruins of Tulum and Coba, you can stand still and feel the magic that remains.
Tulum Ruins Above the Sea
Stand on the limestone cliffs at the base of El Castillo–the castle–and taste the salt spray. Far beneath you lies a secluded strip of beach where massive canoes were once pulled from the waves, their hulls full of turquoise and jade. Imagine a blue-black sky full of stars. Imagine fires in the narrow tower windows, their light streaming out across the sea to guide oarsmen through the treacherous cut in the reef.
Once home to a thriving maritime community, Tulum now lies quiet, her only residents the dinosaurish black iguanas that sun themselves on the worn stones. The site is well cleared and rolling g
reen lawns sweep past roofless houses and crumbling colonnades. Intricate carvings depict strange faces on building corners and above doorways, and paint from ancient frescos still clings to temple walls. After you explore the ruins, descend the staircase that spirals from the cliffs to the gleaming beach below where Caribbean blues look like something out of your kindergarten coloring box. Make sure to wear your swim suit under your clothes and bring a towel, lots of water, and a picnic lunch. You can’t buy food or water in the ruins. And, unfortunately, there is no restroom. These amenities are all available at the handicraft market near the entrance, but you will need to walk or ride the trolly out to the archeological site. The park opens at 8am and I suggest you get there early to avoid the crowds. Cost? 38 pesos (about 3 bucks US)
Coba in an Indiana Jones Jungle
When the sun is still low on the horizon and the mist is rising from the jungle, rent a bicycle and ride down an ancient road where brilliant blue butterflies flit about like the souls of long dead Mayan kings. A corner here and a left turn there and soon you will find yourself peeking through the palms at the second tallest pyramid in the Americas, Nohoch-Mul. You’ll swear you just rode into an Indiana Jones movie.Stash your bike and scramble up the 120 uneven steps to the platform where ritual sacrifices were once held and look out across the vast expanse of green. You’ll see smaller ruins rising from the canopy and a crocodile laden lake sparkling in the sun. If you are lucky, you may even hear a howler monkey or two. Coba still lies hidden in the jungle. Of its over 80 square kilometer expanse, only 2 percent has been excavated. The rest remains buried among the strangler figs and ceiba trees. Once a thriving metropolis of over 50,000 people, Coba’s columned homes and stadium- seating ball courts are now home to jaguars, parrots, and coatimundis.
Located about a half hour inland from Tulum, Coba is easily accessible by rental car, bus, or taxi. The roads are well marked and you can stop in one of the tiny villages along the way and buy a coco frio—a cold coconut with the top chopped off and a straw stuck inside. After you swig down the last drop of milk and wipe your chin, hand the coconut back to the vendor and ask for sal y limon. The old woman will scoop out the still soft meat, put it in a plastic bag, and sprinkle it with salt and lime.
When you arrive at the ruins, stop at the bike shack and either rent a bicycle or hire a taxi-cycle. Don’t forget to bring water and bug spray and wear shoes suitable for climbing. After all, Nohoch Mul is the only pyramid in the Riviera
Maya you can still climb. The park opens at 8:30 daily and the cost is 57 pesos (that’s about 4 bucks US).