From iconic seaside ruins to Sian Ka’an, Mexico’s Tulum region offers an unmatched Mayan adventure.
Breathe in, breathe out. Breathe in, breathe out. I slowly opened my eyes just in time to see a pelican cruise by the opening of the bamboo yoga dome 30 feet above. Destressing to the hushed tones of Azulik Hotel & Mayan Spa’s yoga instructor, Laura, played into the relaxation touted by the ecofriendly wellness resort an hour-and-a-half south of Cancun.
Azulik’s focus is on experiencing the Mayan homeland in the 80-mile Riviera Maya in its most natural state. That made Sky Villa 35—a spectacular, electricity-free room perched over the Caribbean Sea—not only a serene home base for my husband and me to indulge in the resort but to recharge for the less-commercialized region’s culture and adventure. And Tulum does not disappoint on that front.
Zama, or City of Dawn, as the early Mayans knew Tulum, was once a major stronghold, and where today’s visitors explore the regime’s ruins once lived a population of 10,000. The dense forest and a foundation of porous limestone meant agriculture in what was Mexico’s Jamestown was a no-go. Fish, however, in the Mayans’ only coastal city, were plentiful.
Acquiring a reputation as a powerhouse for trading, the city grew in stature, and the ruins tell of its grandeur. UNESCO-designated Tulum National Park holds 60 structures, and thousands annually come to gaze at the unique Eastern Coastal architecture and learn of Mayan culture and civilization.
Tour guides lead groups through to relate the history of structures such as Temple of the Frescoes, The Palace of the Great Lord and the important Temple of the Descending God, named for a winged figure falling from the sky carved into its lintel. Some structures were built to align with the seasons of the sun’s movement, while still others have vestiges of ancient blue and red minerals used in their decorative finishes.
Iguanas keep watch over the property, including the lawn of The Castle, the site’s major edifice, across from which lies an overlook of the bluest, most beautiful water and white sand imaginable. It’s also where the Mayans watched the Spaniards’ arrival in the early 16th century—Tulum was one of the first civilizations to be conquered and, consequently, abandoned.
At Riviera Maya’s southern end is another significant UNESCO site that gets less attention—1.6 million-acre Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve. Sian Ka’an means “where the sky is born,” and those who stop at Community Tours, operated by the Mayans (800 live in the area; 80,000 Yucatan Peninsula residents still speak the language), will get a fact-filled walking tour of all-natural Muyil—the civilization’s oldest ruins—and the tropical forest.
The ruins here hold important ceremonial sites, Temple 8, aka the Pink Palace, being the most significant. Our knowledgeable guide, Antonio, told stories of his people and detailed the flora and fauna of the reserve’s nine ecosystems. The most important tree is the zapote, or gum, and animals include five cat species, including the jaguar, 363 bird species, howler and spider monkeys, even tapirs, manatees and crocodiles. The biosphere also includes part of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef—the world’s second-largest coral reef.
We passed impressive Castile I on our jungle trek to the wetlands’ dock, where we boarded a small boat to ply portions of three freshwater lagoons and a series of hand-dug canals that connect the wetlands to the Caribbean Sea. On water alternately royal blue and the color of green sea glass, a full round-trip of the 20 miles can take four hours, but most passengers unload at the second canal’s dock to explore Xlapak—a small, well-preserved way station built in 100 B.C.—then jump in (with life jackets) to float to the next pier before returning overland to the boat and the wetlands’ dock.
Back at home base, visitors can also take a spin through Community Tours’ small, informative museum and the butterfly house, home to 15 species.
Sweat it Out
Breathe in, breathe out. Surrounded by the intense smell of burning embers, chants I couldn’t understand and the blackest darkness I’d ever experienced, my senses were on high alert. This was part of the cultural experience at Dos Palmas, a com-munity of 32 Mayan families who share their culture as a way to support themselves. Our journey with Blue Caribe Tours took us just north of Tulum to the sleepy village, where we met a few community members, viewed a traditional bamboo thatched-roof hut, and learned how to make tortillas and blow a conch shell (well, some people mastered it).
Changing into swimsuits, our group of two guides, three Americans, two Mexicans and 20 Italians became participants in a temazcal, or purification ceremony, that found us blowing conches to the Earth’s four directions, drinking “holy wine” (fermented honey, lemon and tree bark), being purified into the inner circle with smoking herbs and casting our “hindrances” into the ceremonial fire. Afterward, we trooped into a 5-foot-tall, igloo-shaped sweat lodge, along with the coals from said fire, to bake. Two participants clapped twice, yelled “Puerta!” (door) and fled when the candle was extinguished.
Following a half-hour of chants, singing, thunderous yelling, cooling water thrown around a few times, plus enough sweat to float a battleship, the door was opened for good. We gleefully received gourdes of water poured over our heads before trekking to the adjacent cenote to jump into 77-degree water. Even though our guide translated as much as possible given the need for quiet respect, and I understood very little, I had to admit I felt amazing.
Living in the Jungle
Breathe in, breathe out. I slowly opened my eyes to see another pelican, this one bobbing in the sea 20 feet in front of my massage table. My Azulik Mayan Spa therapist, Rosie, had lulled me into a stupor with gentle hands that claimed any remaining stress.
Afterward, I returned to the Sky Villa, where the lack of air-conditioning wasn’t a problem as long as the sea breeze was blowing, which was almost constantly. Floor-to-ceiling glass panels covered by nonadjustable bamboo blinds provide unbelievable sunrise views but take a little getting used to. Those bamboo poles (and enclosed toilets) are all that separate neighbors, so discretion is advised. There are two beautiful pottery-mosaic tubs—one inside, one outside—a king-size, mosquito-netted bed and a circular swinging bed deckside.
It’s luxurious and romantic, what with only candlelight and the sea crashing at night, but a flashlight is a must. There actually are 23 hours of electricity from the resort’s own generator daily, but it provides only enough low-voltage power to the villas to charge a cellphone and run a fan over the bed. Shades of modern-day Robinson Crusoe. Breathe in.
Planning Your Trip
To learn more about Tulum, visit rivieramaya.com. For more information about adults-only Azulik Hotel & Mayan Spa, log on to azulik.com. For help planning your Mayan adventure, visit your local AAA Travel agent or AAA.com/travel.