The Yucutan peninsula is the bottom bit of Mexico, jutting out in the Caribbean Sea. It’s essentially one big limestone pavement (former school pupils from the north of England think Geography field trips to Malham in Yorkshire) which means poor soils and no rivers. The longest coral reef in the Americas, also running from here to Belize, making it impossible for large boats to land here, meant the Spanish invaders in the sixteenth century and then the Mexicans were happy to leave the Yucutan to the Mayans. In much the same way as Oliver Cromwell, the seventeenth century English dictator, was happy to leave Connaught to the native Irish.
Tulum, perhaps the most picturesque of all Mayan sites, is perched above the Caribbean, about fifty kilometers south of Cancun. As late as the 1920s Mayans, with guns and money supplied by the British to the south in what is now Belize, were fighting to maintain their independence against the Mexican military. The most photographed, and admittedly picturesque, buildings are post Classic Toltec rather than Maya. However one simple stone structure on the cliff, that looks like it’s just really badly built, is pointed to with great pride by Mateo, our Mayan guide.
“Looks terrible, yes. But actually it´s constructed deliberately to lean into its north eastern corner because” a smiling pause for effect. “…because that´s where the hurricanes approach from along this coast. And the walls are curved inwards to channel the force of the winds away. And seven hundred years later it’s still standing. It’s the only aerodynamic structure to be found in any ancient building anywhere in the world.”
Well, I for one go ‘wow’….He goes on.
“There was also for many hundreds of years a great mystery about this site. We know the Spanish could not attack from the sea because they would have run aground on the reef. How then did the Maya get the volcanic stones and other materials they needed to build here? The latest survey equipment has revealed a river running under the settlement which comes to the surface in the sea, just off the coast. The cold fresh water meant at that point the coral could not grow and so a gap in the coral was formed where the Maya could bring their boats in. The problem then was, as this gap could not be seen on the sea’s surface, how the Mayans in their boats could know where to come through. The answer seems to have been that they triangulated, using markers in the settlement,” he points to the respective points, “to navigate through the gap. “
Really impressive stuff, especially considering they never got round to inventing the wheel. (Absence of livestock was apparently the reason for that one…)
At which point, about 10am, it’s time to leave. Tulum is about a soccer pitch in size and it now feels like a pitch invasion is going on. Literally hundreds of tourists are streaming in and queueing way down the track leading to the entrance.
Our friend and driver, Senor Agustin Cruz of Vera Cruz state, has us in the car before dawn on the day of each of our trips and this is the case too for the last trip to Koba, inland from Tulum. Thousands of our fellow tourists are again climbing off their buses as we’re leaving and the ruins deserve a blog on their own, but the highlight of our whole Mexico trip was what followed afterwards.
Trusting to serendipity, and Senor Cruz’s vague recollection of there being some interesting Mayan villages here, we cruise around a bit. In San Juan de Dios, Senor Cruz, easygoing charm personified, gets chatting with some young Mayan women and we’re invited to visit. So, as you’ll see in the videos, Ramona learns how to cook tortillas on a hotplate over a woodfire, and I go through a purification ceremony performed by a local shaman. A strangely humbling experience.
All the villagers are Mayan speakers from birth, and only some of them speak Spanish, and they seemed, despite the centuries of persecution and neglect, to be confident that their culture, language and identity would prosper.
The shaman also performed for us a blessing for travelers, calling on the four cardinal points, east, west, north and south, and finally on the fifth point of the Mayan compass, the place where you are right here and now. A great blessing indeed.