There has been much buildup of the Mayan calendar ending this year and what (if anything) will happen. I guess you can say curiosity led me, my husband and son to Playa del Carmen. I imagined I’d be much older visiting the Mayan ruins.
We arrived in Playa a couple of days before visiting the Tulum ruins when a cab dropped us off at a villa complex that resembled a tree house with large wooden plank stairs centered around a thick treepole covered in green leaf shingles that spiraled up to a straw canopy leading to the front door. Numero siete. I ran up to the rooftop that housed a pool and lounge area and scanned flat rooftops that make up the horizon, obstructing the sea with television satellites perched on nearly every tinged villa. Nothing looks pristine in Mexico except for the sunset.
Our neighborhood is off the beaten path away from tourists, pricey restaurants and luxury hotels.
The nights are energetic beeps of car horns and locals strolling to and from in the seasoned air that depicts a modest culture opposite of mine. As we explore the nightlife women walk alone down dark streets. A man sits in a chair at an open-air barber shop. Crosswalks and wheelchair ramps are absent as I dodge headlights to get to the other side of the street. Meek street corner markets sell Mexican candy and beer as locals eat in plastic chairs on restaurant patios with barbacoa beef shed on a spit at the entrance of the modest taco shops.
The busiest street in Playa del Carmen is 5th Avenue, a row of desperate vendors, upscale hotels, overpriced restaurants and bars that line the street for many blocks. Shop owners stand out front and incessantly persuade tourists who pass by to come ‘take ah looook.”
As we entered the parking lot for Tulum, giant tour buses lined the back of the parking lot as we drove in. The ruins are nowhere in site but instead rows of shops selling souvenirs and places to eat. We wander through crowds of people and I stop to watch a spider monkey hide from a tourist snapping pictures of it with her cell phone.
A dark cocoa skinned Mayan man with a jolly face and gold-rimmed glasses introduces himself as Hernan, our tour guide. In perfect English, he announces his 52 years as a Tulum tour guide will end today, however, his life as a farmer will continue on.
Hernan makes it clear “Mayans didn’t have predictions. Nostradamus was a predictor.” He laughs at the fact people thought the world would end today.
As we walk into to the Tulum entrance I ask Hernan if the Mayans partook in mind-altering substances. He leans against a tree and recollects eating balche that is made from fermented honey and the bark of the balche tree.
Hernan stares at the ground with wrinkled forehead and confesses how the vomit inducing bark had him “flying for three days.”
We enter the compound through one of five arched stone doorways that continue to maintain its original arch due to the Mayans engineering of a strong foundation and balanced construction. Larger temples, reserved for the elite (think: royalty, priests), symbolized power and being closer to the gods. The lower class lived outside in huts made of wood and palm. Some things never change.
Tulum ruins once decorated in red and blue, symbolized power. Faded red and blue hues are exfoliated by elements and dissolve through the rock on some temples. Mayan artist’s stone-faced gods still remain carved into rock piles that are sanded down by time.
Hernan explained how overtime strong tree roots have destroyed the ruins and the method for restoration. He explained how a building block is never enhanced or artificially altered but is kept in its original form and placed back in its original position after the root is removed. Once a block is destroyed it is never replaced. Now that’s authentic, I thought.
Tulum’s location was ideal for protection due to its surrounding swamps, a huge cliff overlooking the Caribbean, the 2nd largest reef in the world deterring invaders in canoes and a 6 foot wall built around the 16 square acre compound. However, invaders were not the Mayan’s biggest threat, that title belonged to the hurricane. The limestone barricade was long enough for more than 2000 Mayans to line up behind and shelter themselves from a hurricane.
Tulum was a place of politics and ceremonies purposely designed around mathematics and astronomy. It was designed like a calendar housing 52 structures. Fifty-two weeks in a year. Just saying.
Mayan houses were built to scale depending on the size of a family and family members were buried under the house when they passed away. Tourists in name brand clothes and cheap plastic sunglasses stomp over the thousands of ancient Mayan bodies that lay beneath the grounds of Tulum.
Hernan points to the largest castle with steps leading to a small alter and says it is believed to be where human sacrifices were made. I stand behind the white rope that forbids me to explore the massive rock and daydream of convincing Hernan to take me to the top so I could lay on the stone. Beside me a man reminds his wife how they once climbed all over the ancient stones 30 years ago. Better late than never, I guess.
Hernan explains how Toltec’s were fighters and Mayans farmers. Instead of turning on one another they joined forces causing the Toltecs to influence greater human sacrifice on the Mayan culture. Toltecs were violent and forceful when it came to human sacrifice but the Mayans offered themselves, considering it an honor to move on to the afterlife.
On the beach I’m reluctant to swim in the blue gem that is the Caribbean but my husband and son are already aggressively pursuing the waves. I float on my back and hear nothing but silence and stare at the massive castle overlooking the sea. I pretend I am a Mayan floating thousands of years ago seeing the same exact thing and want the moment to last forever but eventually am called to the shore to leave.
As we leave the ruins an old dog slouches in the center of a long road as we head out to eat in downtown Tulum. The road is undeniably his.