Close up with ancient Mayan ruins
From my perch at Coba’s highest pyramid, a sea of green jungle spread before me, only interrupted by jutting stone structures. I marvelled at the idea that this must have been the same view the ancient Mayans enjoyed some 2000 years ago, and I did not want to descend again, back to reality.
A week earlier, I had touched down at Cancun Airport, where the thermometer showed a warm 28 degrees. While Cancun is the tourist centre of the Mexican state of Quintana Roo, I opted to stay in the much smaller Playa del Carmen.
Thanks to the internet I found and rented a small apartment for a few days from Agustin, a friendly local, just a block off the main street.
After a day of strolling the streets of town, and going for a swim and snorkel to cool off in the turquoise blue water, I had a good night sleep before getting ready for my days of Mayan adventure in Tulum, Chichen Itza and Coba.
PERCHED ON A CLIFF
While bus tours are available daily and with various operators, I chose to rent a car on Playa del Carmen’s main shopping street, 5th Avenue, to visit all three sites during the week of my stay.
Only 65 kilometres to the south, Tulum was my first destination. This ancient Mayan fortress is arguably one of the most picturesque archaeological sites in the Riviera Maya and the only one perched on a cliff overlooking the ocean.
The parking lot was located a 10-minute flat walk away, but before I set foot into Tulum, my eye caught sight of a creature I would come across here many times—the Black Spiny Tailed Iguana. Relaxing in the sun and without any fear of humans, this relative of ancient dragons lived a life of eating, sun bathing, and bobbing its head in communication.
Tulum means “wall” in the Mayan language. Access to the 60 or so structures of the complex is through various holes in the fortification, which measures 380m in length, 200m in width and 6m in height. Navigating the complex was easy as an expansive walkway extended around the ruins.
Even though it was a busy day, visitors spread out in a space, which used to be home to about 10,000 Mayans in the past.
Unlike other cities, the pyramids of Tulum are small and the most recognisable building is the cliff-top El Castillo. Even though the building was not accessible to the public, its location on the site’s highest point, decorations, and architecture comprising different levels left no doubt that this was the centre of the ancient city.
After spotting a staircase nearby that conveniently led directly down to the shore, I decided the best way to finish a visit to Tulum was by taking a refreshing swim at the beach.
YUCATAN’S GRANDEST SITE
For any history buff, no visit to the Yucatan Peninsula would be complete without a visit to Chichen Itza, one of Mexico’s most popular tourist destinations.
Located 260km from Playa del Carmen, the self-drive was easy on the remote Mexican streets, which wound through small villages and thick jungle.
The first view of the Temple of Kulkulkan, also known as El Castillo, was awe-inspiring and made me feel small and insignificant. The nearly 30.5m-high pyramid counts 91 steps on each of the temple’s four sites, and the top platform makes the 365th; one step for each day of the year.
I was told that during the fall and spring equinoxes a fascinating display of mathematical and archaeological advancement could be observed; a shadow falls on the pyramid in the shape of a serpent. As the sun sets, this shadowy snake descends the steps to eventually join a stone serpent head at the base of the great staircase up the pyramid’s side.
Throughout the whole complex, I was amazed at how well preserved sculpted decorations were on the buildings, depicting mostly battle scenes. Warriors and serpents, present on columns and substructures, were easily made out everywhere.
The stepped pyramids, temples, columned arcades, and other stone structures such as the astronomical Observatory and imposing Temple of Warriors, made it impossible to look at every single detail in Chichen Itza.
I spent a few hours here and could have easily spent double the amount of time, but I wanted to see the next Mayan structure before leaving the thick jungle and heading back to civilisation.
Of the three sites I endeavoured to see, Coba was by far the most rugged and undeveloped, but as it was located between Tulum and Chichen Itza, just off the main highway, the decision to also stop here, was an easy one.
Archaeological evidence indicates that Coba was first settled between 100 BC and 100 AD and it is estimated to have had some 50,000 inhabitants at its peak of civilisation.
Today, a series of gravel stone and plaster roads connect the ruins, covered by lush jungle green. As the ruins stretch out over a significant area, it is possible (and in hot weather advisable) to rent a driver with a bike, which sits two people in the back.
Although I visited Coba at peak time, early afternoon, the segmentation of the ruins into four different groups, meant that it never felt crowded, though a couple of times I had to jump out of the way not to be run over by the above mentioned bikes.
A dominating feature of Coba is what is known as the Nohoch Mul group of structures. Being about 42m in height, Ixmoja is the tallest pyramid on the Yucatan peninsula. To my great delight, it was permitted to ascend the rugged stone structure (I counted 130 steps). When overlooking the vast Mexican jungle, I felt certain that not all Mayan sites had been found by archaeologists and that this wilderness had not yet given up all its secrets.
My week of Mayan discovery passed in the blink of an eye. I felt humble to have been able to see these amazing places and yet I sensed that there was still so much more to discover.
I made a promise to myself to come back to Mexico soon.
IF YOU GO
GETTING THERE Various international airlines fly into Cancun International Airport daily. From there it is a 45 minute drive to Playa del Carmen. It is advisable to rent a car, however public buses are a cheap and reliable alternative. $10 per person; 65 min; Bus@Cancun-Airport.com
LODGING The author stayed in a spacious 2BR private apartment which was managed by Las Flores Properties lasfloresproperties.com. There is a wide range of accommodation options in Playa del Carmen including upscale all-inclusive resorts on the outskirts of town.
RESTAURANTS Playa del Carmen has an abundance of good restaurants along the main street, 5th avenue. For casual dining, head to the small Kaxapa Factory (Venezuelan food), the drinks sampler makes all the difference. For a light snack and a taste of the most delicious Mexican coffee in town, try Coffee Stop (coffeestopplaya.mex.tl)