As much as we try, we fail to adjust the bathing landscape forward to the Mayan era.
A sea of turquoise unfurls, in the breeze, over the coral sand. It doesn't quite touch the gray limestone cliffs that border the coast.
Coconut trees and vigorous palm trees rise from the sand and from the top of the Tulum cliff, already covered in tropical vegetation.
Tulum: Mayan Ruins on a Mexican Dream Beach
Dozens of bathers delight in that eccentric caress of water and salt. They are entertained with floats and beach conversations. Above, the Mayan temple of the God of the Wind seems to praise the painting we've revered and the radiant summer well-being.
Half a millennium had passed since the temple and the inner city had ceased to function. Most of the holidaymakers were - some more, some less - Mayans.
Their short stature, the women's long straight hair, the almond-shaped eyes, and the hooked bird-beak noses left little room for doubt.
The place they frequented is called, even today, Tulum, a Mayan Yucatecan term later inspired by the walls that their ancestors endowed the village to prevent threats coming from the great blue unknown.
It is believed, however, that, in origin, the Maya they will have named it Zama, the City of Dawn, in homage to the esoteric glow that dipped into the ocean every day and that rose from it night after night.
The Iberian conquerors also appeared from those sides. From 1502, the Mayans watched in disbelief as great floating towers rose above the horizon and towered toward them:
they would be the pioneer ships of Cristovão Colombo and his sailors there, which would have anchored to the south, in what is now Honduras.
The Inevitable Intrusion of the Spanish Conquerors
As early as 1517, Francisco Hernández de Córdoba and his fleet were washed ashore. Just a year later, Juan de Grijalva's followed. Grijalva landed on the island of Cozumel. Sailed south.
On that occasion, the Spaniards will have sighted Tulum for the first time.
Offshore reefs made the approach difficult. And immediate contact was still unguarded. For Europeans, it represented a great risk to present themselves to such powerful indigenous cities, without having any idea what kind of welcome awaited them.
Juan Diaz, one of the members of Juan de Grijalva's expedition mentioned Tulum in his writings. Diaz's testimony would later contribute to the invasion inaugurated by Francisco de Montejo.
This one asked the king of Spain for the right to conquer the Yucatan. And he accomplished it in 1521, the same year that, supported by Tlaxcalan warriors,
Hernán Cortéz captured the Aztec emperor Cuauhtemoc and Tenochtitlan, the monumental capital of the Aztec empire.
In 1526, Carlos V granted Montejo the title of Captain General of the Yucatan. Two years later, Montejo returned to the region. Tried to take it from the area of Tulum and Chetumal. The resistance he encountered was, however, fierce.
It forced him instead to try west, through the present province of Tabasco.
He would become the son of Montejo, Francisco de Montejo “The groom” to achieve the conquest of the peninsula.
And to materialize it with the foundation of Campeche and Mérida, still today two of its most impressive colonial cities.
Tulum's Role in the Mayan Empire
According to historical records, the Tulum area was populated from the XNUMXth century AD
It prospered under the Mayan sphere of influence from 1200 AD as a complementary trading post of Cobá, at the confluence of several sacbeobs, paved royal paths from Central Mexico and other parts of Central America.
In Tulum, the Mayans were used to exchanging food, cotton, decorative, work and even war instruments, silver and gold, salt, textiles and feathers. The city reached its height between the XNUMXth and XNUMXth centuries. It had the commercial impulse of another mineral raw material: obsidian, salt rock fromthe Maya.
Obsidian had and still has a special place in their culture and presence in numerous sculptures and also religious expressions. The Mayans associated it with divinity. They considered that she was raised in the infernal underworld of Xibalba, a place where the gods of death reigned.
For these and other reasons, Tulum prospered. For a long time, it bypassed the occupation and destruction disseminated by the conquerors. The dense jungle of the current Mexican region of Quintana Roo isolated it from other areas that the Spaniards took over.
Controversial Reasons for Abandoning Mayan Cities
Although the subject raises heated debate, the idea has prevailed that, when the Spaniards arrived, a good part of the larger Mayan cities had been abandoned a few centuries ago. Already then they were transformed into ruins that the jungle swallowed up.
The most accepted causes for this stampede were the overpopulation of about 15 million subjects throughout the Maya world. And the drought, deforestation and the extermination of large animals that served them as food.
About 70 years after the Spaniards began to liquidate the Mayan Empire obsessed with the demand for gold, Tulum resisted. Until smallpox and other diseases brought from the Old World by sailors, warriors and missionaries arrived there.
At the turn of the XNUMXth to the XNUMXth century, Tulum suffered a general and definitive stampede.
When its people left, the urban structure and the city's architecture were bequeathed to time.
Those who, like us, have the privilege of exploring them, quickly realize that this was not just any place.
Its 1000 and 1600 inhabitants occupied a vast area farther from the ocean and outside the religious complex.
This stronghold was protected by a wall three to five meters high, eight meters thick and about 400 meters long, parallel to the coast.
Around 170 meters on both sides oblique to the sea.
The northwest and southwest sides of the walls were equipped with watchtowers.
Near the north face, a cenote (doline of a complex and vast underground aquifer system eroded into limestone) supplied the city with fresh water.
Others of the same system reinforced the supply around: Naharon, Tortuga, Vacaha, Abejas, Nohoch Kin.
Several of them today serve as alternative bathing attractions on the shores of the Caribbean Sea. Some were recently discovered to contain preserved human bones between 9.000 to 13.000 years old.
It is also known that the cenotes were later used by Mayans for sacrificial offerings.
Tulum's Role in the Mayan Empire II
At the heart of Tulum's walled area was the Castle, a pyramidal temple measuring 7.5 meters and an imposing figure that sets it apart from other buildings, including the Temple of Frescoes and the Temple of the Sun, the two most prominent.
A small sanctuary in the Castle seems to have been built later as a lighthouse. Its function was to indicate a natural entry into the coral reef by which approaching canoes could enter.
Coincidence or not, the beach in the extension of this passage takes the form of a rare cove both up and down the coast.
This small bay was endowed with the Temple of the Winds. It is believed that with the purpose of blessing navigation in an area of Central America that, now as then, continues to be plagued by cyclones.
From Tulum, goods brought by sea could still be transported up the Motagua and Usumacincta/Pasión rivers. These river arteries provided additional access to the lowlands and highlands of the Yucatan and Guatemala.
The favorable configuration of the coast may have been at the base of the foundation of Tulum. Its relevance soon justified that it was endowed with the religious, ceremonial but also empirical and scientific paraphernalia that the Maya they always covered their civilization.
The Temple of the Frescoes was said to have been used as an observatory of the sun's movements. It is believed to be the reason why several figures of the sun god (Kinich Anau) appear in niches on its façade.
Painted stucco coatings suggest that the temple was, however, dedicated to the god Itzamnaaj, creator of writing, patron of the arts and sciences.
Divine Monument (bathing) to the Mayan Civilization
Day after day, the complex keeps outsiders most interested in history entertained with the explanations and assumptions of Tulum's creation and existence. Visitors increase from year to year.
The view of the Temple of the Winds with the edge of the turquoise Caribbean Sea on the right is Tulum's main hallmark. It is one of the observation points that we find more crowded with people.
Thanks largely to this perspective, Tulum has become the third most popular historic attraction in Mexico, after Chichen Itza (another ancient Mayan city) and Tenochtitlan (ancient Aztec capital).
But on days with clear skies and heat like the one we had before, the ruins have a worthy rival on the beach at their foot.
The sun had already risen to its zenith and was descending towards sunset. It had fallen so little into the sky that the blue of the sea remained irresistible. Accordingly, the number of bathers in the sand continued to increase.
At the entrance to the complex, some descendants of the Maya from other times took advantage of this influx and fascination for the culture of their ancestors to earn a living:
"Señores, we invite you to your photos with the mayas. Vengan, vengan.” appealed in costumes and feather headdresses, with glittering jewelry and paintings.
Thus, they incarnated jaguars, birds of prey and other divine figures from the rich Mayan pantheon.
Despite the exorbitant values, several passersby became customers and proudly registered their passage.
More information about Tulum and the Riviera Maya on the Visit Mexico website.