The Edmond Sun

March 15, 2014

Riviera Maya region lures with history, beautiful resorts

Elaine Warner
Special to The Sun

EDMOND — I’m ready to leave and I know where I want to go. The Riviera Maya region of Mexico is beautiful, safe and warm.

And, in addition to wonderful accommodations, it has great heritage sites.  Jack and I were there in December and our stay was way too short. I’m ready to go back.

The state of Quintana Roo, where the Riviera Maya is located, consists of almost 20,000 square miles, almost all of which is untouched. On the east side of the Yucatan Peninsula, it boasts 373 miles of beaches facing the Caribbean.  Along those beaches are numerous enclosed, all-inclusive resorts. We were hosted by Azul Sensatori, a luxury resort with amenities to please every family member.

There are so many things to do there that many visitors never leave the resort.  That was tempting but I wouldn’t have missed the chance to see the Mayan ruins at Tulum for anything.

Although begun between 800 and 900 A.D., Tulum reached its peak between 1400 and 1521. Before the Spanish conquest of Mexico, the city was an important seaport. Its name means “wall” or “enclosure” and the site, bounded on one side by the sea, is surrounded on the other three by remnants of this stone barricade, which was 22-feet thick and 9- to 16-feet tall.

Speculation is that about 500 of the highest class of Mayans — priests and nobility — lived inside the wall with up to 2,000 peasants outside.  

The Mayan civilization was remarkably advanced in mathematics and astronomy. Tulum was the last great city of the culture, the only walled Mayan city and the only Mayan coastal city in Mexico. Both land and sea routes made it a vital trading center. Archaeological explorations uncovered copper objects from central and western Mexico, flint and pottery from other areas of the Yucatan and jade from Guatemala. Skulls found in Mayan tombs revealed jewel implants in the teeth of young males and evidence of head-binding of babies to produce flattened frontal areas of the skulls.

The Spanish conquest of Mexico completely changed the native culture.  Indians were killed with weapons or European diseases. Many were made slaves.  Tulum was completely deserted by the late 1500s. Surrounded by jungle, it lay undiscovered until the mid-19th century. Serious archaeological examination was not undertaken until the early 20th century. Today, with the build-up of the resort areas from Cancun south, it is one of Mexico’s most visited historic attractions.

Outside the entrance to the site is a mishmash of touristy attractions, crowded parking lots and lines of buses. Shops offer souvenirs, sombreros and sunscreen.  Entrepreneurs in costume vie with folks holding monkeys or iguanas and encourage tourists to pose for pictures for a price. I would have paid $5 to hold a large iguana, but his owner held out for $10. I’m not that much of a lizard lover!  

Although there will be crowds inside the site, once you pass through the entrance, you’re in an uncluttered environment. A walk through the jungle-like forest leads to one of the five breaks in the wall. To step through the stony tunnel is to step back in imagination five centuries.

While the Mayans may have disappeared from Tulum, there are still Mayan descendants today. Our guide, Froylan, was one of them.

The most impressive building on the site is the Castillo, generally assumed to have been a temple. A steep stone staircase leads up to a small building at the top of the structure and is possibly a shrine. But it’s just as likely that it was a lighthouse; it could be both. The Castillo is perched atop the cliffs overlooking the beach and Caribbean Sea. The view from the ocean must be spectacular but it was impressive enough from the land.  

Beside the Castillo stands the Temple of the Descending God, one of the major deities of the Mayan people. It is oriented so that sunrise of the summer solstice shines directly through the structure.

There are a number of other buildings with a variety of carved and painted (faded) ornamentation. You can wander the property without a guide, but it’s best to start with one. After Froylan gave us a good overview, we were on our own. Atop the cliff, behind the Castillo, a path runs along the cliff edge and provides great views of a small temple — the Temple of the God of the Wind — and the ocean. Steep steps lead down to the beach but the prospect of sand in my sandals and climbing back up the cliff overcame my desire to go all the way down.

Slightly footsore after tramping around Tulum, Jack and I treated ourselves to a seaside massage and a soak in the spa tub at the Azul Sensatori.  

History and heaven — a great combination I highly recommend.

ELAINE WARNER is an Edmond-based travel writer.