Travelogue: Riviera Maya
Archaeologists believe that Mayan people first came to the Yucatan in 2400 BC. They were a clever lot the Mayans. They were farmers, astronomers, architects, artists and innovators and that was just in the morning.
They lived large, building cities with plazas surrounded by huge temples to celebrate the lives of leaders. They created a calendar, almost certainly one of the oldest still documented. The ancient Maya were essentially spiritual timekeepers, counting ticks of the day by means of sun, moon, stars and planets. Sadly the calendar reaches completion on December 23rd, 2012, which was as good as reason as any to visit a couple of months back.
The Mayans created a high society but while they were too busy lording it, the Toltecs stole in from central Mexico and collapsed the Mayan empire with the help of the desitute and made base camp at what was later to become Chichen Itza. It was these early Aztecs that set about building many of the incredible structures that can be seen today beginning just after the 10th century.
Finally the Itzaes who themselves were forced out by invaders left the north coast of Mexico and pitched their 12th century tents in Chichen Itza forcing aside the Toltecs and became rulers themselves of the Yucatan for a couple of hundred years as their influence grew south and west.
The Itzaes were obsessed by the scared nature of the natural limestone sinkholes called cenotes, of which 3,000 are dotted around the Peninsula and they were responsible for the naming of Chichen Itza – Mouth of the well of the Itzaes.
The Yucatan Peninsula celebrates the ancient but lamentably it is paid for by the new. The corridor that runs along the Carribean Sea between Cancun and Tulum is stuffed with new hotels, fractional ownership, residential complexes and theme parks. But then hurricanes have taken a sad liking to this coast and a lot of the rebuild had to be been done out of necessity. Both Hurricane’s Wilma (2005) and Dean (2007) caused widespread damage to many glorious towns in the area and if you travel during the hurricane season (June to November) then please note.
Mind you the Mayan ruins are made of stern stuff, they wouldn’t have survived for a 1,000 years if they weren’t, however the proud Mayan’s are having bigger problems bequeathing it’s culture to the next generation. They are having to endure population changes and the influence of it’s collossus neighbour to the north. Young people chase jobs, cruise liner visitors chase waiters and more and more young Mayan’s abandon their language and traditions.
About 3.7m people live in the Peninsula, the boot of Mexico, which is divided into five states but we didn’t venture out of the fastest growing one, Quintana Roo. We flew into Cancun, a traditional American college-kid port of call and hurriedly drove south from there about an hour to what marketing people have named the Riviera Maya but is also known as Tulum Corridor, a 100-mile strip of glistening coastline once undeveloped jungle but now a play thing for tourists.
That said, we dug a little deep to find some unspoilt parts such as Puerto Morelos. This is a town where thankfully the building boom forgot. Little restaurants and bars and a makeshift market edge up to shallow waters stocked full of fishing boats.
We watched the rugged fishermen come in with their catch, weighing pescados with sturdy but decrepit scales. Puerto Morelos was a nice diversion and something of interest was the old lighthouse, which has leant at an angle since being damaged by a 1967 hurricane (left). A newer one sits behind it. We didn’t try it but John Gray’s Kitchen gets good reviews if you want somewhere decent to eat in the town.
Our original plans to travel inland a few hundred miles and ‘discover’ other gems such as the most famous of all Mayan ruins, Chichen Itza plus the Yucatan capital Merida were changed to accomodate a 6-month old baby who made it abundantly clear early-doors that she was not prepared to sit in a car or the heat for hours on end. Fair play.
We did drive down to Tulum though one very early morning and really glad that we did. Tulum’s ruins preside over a rugged coastline that has the unnecessary advantage of a stunning beach. At just $4 to enter the port town that archaeologists believe to have been built between AD 1200 and 1521 Tulum was a must.
The ruins themselves were to a modest scale, but therefore manageable, especially carrying a baby. Tulum is Mayan for wall, and the town is still surrounded on three sides (the ocean makes up the fourth) by ramparts several metres thick. The city was one of the last abandoned by the Spanish and now occupied by hundreds of iguanas, some as large as small dinosaurs.
As you walk a designated route around the ruins, an iguana will stick his head around the corner and stretch it’s neck as if to say “do you mind, you’re on my land!”
Within Tulum’s walls is a small cenote, others nearby are more awe-inspiring. Then the Templo del Dios del Viento (Temple of the Wind God) holds court high up on a bluff. This remarkably intact structure allows for the best views of the sea below.
El Palacio is notable for it’s X-shaped figure and then Templo de la Estela is inscribed with a Mayan date corresponding to AD 564. Many buildings and structures exist but the largest is appropriately named El Castillo (The Castle) wheareas the most elaborate is the two-story Templo de las Pinturas.
Without time for a swim or rest, I would allow for 2-3 hours to walk around Tulum’s ruins. Plenty goes on outside of the entrance with crafts and memorabilla to peruse and the crazy Papantla Flyers to gaze in awe at. The Papantla’s are Totonac Indians performing a dance from a pole high in the air all the while playing flutes and drums. You needed to be there.
The town of Tulum is worth a stop as well, if for no other reason than to escape the tourists. Tulum Pueblo is tiny with some shops and cafes and a lot of thatched roofs. We did it justice by walking around a bit before stopping for a couple of terrific salads and lush smoothies from The Elemental Cafe.
The Yucatan has 3,000 cenotes, which are fathomless dark chambers of perfect coloured water considered sacred by Mayans and to cool off after Tulum we went to the Gran Cenote situated between Tulum and Coba. It was a couple of quid to get in and you can snorkel among small fish or like us just splash around a bit. The Gran Cenote is so called because it is said to have more than 300 miles of interconnected passageways and caves that make up this amazing one of a kind ecosystem.
About half an hour south of our hotel was the busy town of Playa del Carmen, the fastest growing city in the Yacatan. You will come across plenty of Americans here nourished nicely from their cruise ship. The ugly Walmart in the middle of town is a ghastly reminder of the crowd that Playa del Carmen is trying to attract. We walked the main strip called Quinta Avenida (5th Avenue) but was unimpressed. More joy was to be had on the seafront where numerous cafes and restaurants stretch along the powder-white sands.
From Playa a regular ferry service (left) runs to Isla Cozumel, a popular dive site and Mexico’s biggest island. Jacques Cousteau introduced the world the Cozumel’s dive sites and the island is heavily visited despite severe reef damage followimg Hurricane Wilma in 2005 and the tragic death in a diving accident of Kirsty MacColl in 2000.
6 or so miles south of Playa del Carmen is the Disneyfied ‘ecopark’ of Xcaret. Steer well clear unless you really wished you’d booked a fortnight in Orlando instead.
We stayed in a hotel called the Rosewood Mayakoba, about halfway between the aiport at Cancun and Playa del Carmen on the overbuilt hotel corridor. The Rosewood is built around miles of emerald coloured lagoon waters we spent a lot of time in and around it. The hotel was fabulous but that was no surprise to me as I am on a mission to visit every one of the Rosewood hotels. Their service is exemplary.
Our room had a huge deck with a sunken hot tub that led out to the lagoon and a dock so a boat could shuttle us around the hotel. In the mornings we’d feed the fish and stare at pelicans and I actually thought I could move in and live in our room quite comfortably. We ate mostly in the hotel restaurants and every meal was esquisite. Rustic Mayan food was served nightly in the hotel’s Punta Bonita restaurant and one night I was over served a little at the hotel’s tequila tasting.
As always I did a bit of sniffing around to find a local football team and found an interesting story. This part of Mexico is growing at a rate of knots but did not have a top class football team but just a handful of lower league sides such as Huracanes de Cozumel and Inter Playa del Carmen. Then in 2007 storied Mexico City side Atlante were suffering financially in a busy market and relocated to Cancun and began life in a new stadium called Estadio Andrés Quintana Roo.
In it’s first ever season (Mexico has two annually) Atlante won the league title, gaining huge popularity in the area. Atlante then went on to win the CONCACAF Champions League which meant they took their place in the FIFA World Club Cup in the UAE last December. They performed well putting the Maya on the football map and lost to eventual winners Barcelona in the semi-final.
The Maya is also famous for inventing what is said to be the first ever team sport. Mesoamerican ritual ball was played on courts between two teams and in essence the aim was to keep a rubber ball of the ground by using hips, knees, thighs or elbows. Over 500 courts have been discovered at archaeological sites around Mexico and Central America.
The Riveira Maya is a double gem. For discovering ancient Mayan history or spotless white beaches, this area has a lot to offer, but beware, unless you like crowds, over-tourism and clutter, then get away from the cruise-line havens and seek out some of the tiny fishing villages, lonely coves and stunning archaelogical finds instead.