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The Ruins of Tulum

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Memorably set on a bluff overlooking the turquoise waters of the Caribbean, the ruins of Tulum are perhaps the most picturesque on the peninsula. The site itself is small and compact, and none of the surviving buildings are particularly large, but this doesn’t make the place any less impressive.

The archaeological zone can be extremely crowded, especially on a sunny day like the one we chose for our visit. To view certain buildings, or take a picture from the designated vista panorámica, we were even forced to queue up. But that was alright. It was a beautiful day and the ruins were so lovely that not even hordes of other tourists could spoil our moods.

All the buildings in Tulum are small, which was by design. Just as at Cozumel’s San Gervasio, the Maya knew better than to build huge pyramids in zones regularly afflicted by hurricanes. Unfortunately, visitors are kept well away from any of the ruins. Climbing around on them is strictly prohibited, and you can’t even get close enough to look inside. This is particularly frustrating at the Templo de las Pinturas, which contains amazing interior murals.

But the exterior detail on many of the buildings is also stunning, and the best part of Tulum has nothing to do with antique masonry at all. At the foot of the site, there’s a gorgeous public beach. Bring swimsuits and a towel, and you can swim in pristine water with the ruins of Tulum rising majestically on the cliffs above you.

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February 8, 2014 at 3:09 pm Comments (0)

Sayil

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The third ancient city which we visited on our trip along the Yucatán’s Ruta Puuc was Sayil. Long since abandoned to the jungle, this extraordinary site is still paying silent testimony to the magnificence of the Maya civilization.

Sayil Maya Ruin

Sayil rose to prominence between AD 800 and 1000, toward the end of the florescence of Maya culture. The city was completely desolate by the time the Spanish arrived in Mexico, but recent excavations suggest that at one time up to 10,000 people lived here.

Before our move to the Yucatán, I had never given much thought to the complexities of the Maya. I suppose I had just considered them to be a single powerful kingdom that eventually collapsed. But this is so far from the case that it’s laughable. At best, the term “Maya” is extremely vague. It refers to a people who shared a counting system and certain cultural aspects, but were never unified. The Maya consisted of innumerable kingdoms, each with its own history and identity, and over twenty completely different languages. The biggest enemy of Copan was Kalakmul, for example; two totally distinct, warring empires we now refer to under the blanket term “Maya”.

I tried to keep this in mind while visiting Sayil. Here was a major city of the Terminal Classic era, which ascended only after the collapse of the grand civilizations of the southern highlands. The people who lived here traded with Uxmal, spoke Yucatec Mayan, and were as far away in time from the pre-Classic Maya of Guatemala, as we are today from Sayil.

The most imposing structure is found right at the entrance: the Great Palace, boasting three stories and nearly a hundred rooms. Unlike the compact site of Labná, Sayil is an expansive place, stretched out on a long, straight sacbé, or road, which leads into the woods. Eventually, we reached a flat structure called The Mirador and, farther down the path, we found a strange phallic statue.

Sayil was our third set of ruins in a single day and we were starting to feel a little fatigued by the time we finished here. But there was no opportunity for rest; the hour was growing late, and the nearby site of Kabah still remained on our list…

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Sayil Maya Ruin
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December 28, 2013 at 11:29 pm Comments (0)

San Gervasio – Cozumel’s Maya Ruins

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The lack of awe-inspiring temples on Cozumel belies its true importance to the Maya civilization. Home to the goddess Ix’Chel, the island was a sacred place of pilgrimage and a major center of commerce. We took a tour of Cozumel’s main cluster of ruins at San Gervasio, in the center of the island, and learned more about the beliefs of this fascinating people.

San Gervasio Maya Ruins Cozumel

Though disappointing to modern tourists, the absence of towering Maya pyramids on Cozumel is actually proof of their practical wisdom. The Maya knew that Cozumel was a regular victim of hurricanes, and thus constructed their buildings low to the ground. During our horseback tour through Cozumel’s jungle, we had even seen an ingenious Maya hurricane detection system: a round hut with conch shells molded into the ceiling. When strong winds would sweep in, the air circulating within the hut would be forced through the shells, emitting a noise loud enough to be heard across the island.

Accompanying us on our tour of San Gervasio was Elizabeth Palm, an anthropologist based in San Miguel. As we walked between the site’s various structures, she filled us in on colorful details about life during the era. Cozumel was known to the Maya as “Tantún” and was believed to be the sacred realm of Ix’Chel, the goddess of fertility. Couples who were having trouble conceiving, or women who hoped to birth great warriors, would travel hundreds of kilometers and cross the channel to pray at the sacred temples.

Battling against the fog of mosquitoes which had descended upon San Gervasio, we encountered vestiges of these temples and some of the roads, or sacbeob, along which the pilgrims would arrive. We saw the Arch, which the faithful would pass under on their way to worship. And farther away, we found the Ka’na Na Pyramid, where oracles would deliver their prophecies. Elizabeth explained that, just like modern-day politicians, Maya rulers weren’t above manipulation to keep their people under control. Thanks to their advanced understanding of astronomical cycles, Maya scientists were able to predict celestial events such as eclipses. To the normal Maya farmer, such revelations must have seemed like magic.

To be sure, San Gervasio isn’t the most memorable collection of ruins on the peninsula, but its history as a center of pilgrimage is fascinating. The site takes around an hour to see, and makes for a great cultural excursion on the island.

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If you’d like to learn more about the Maya, and can read Spanish, check out Elizabeth’s blog: Portal Maya, where she clarifies some of the most common misconceptions about this ancient people.

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San Gervasio Maya Ruins Cozumel
San Gervasio Maya Ruins Cozumel
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San Gervasio Maya Ruins Cozumel
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December 13, 2013 at 4:41 pm Comments (3)
The Ruins of Tulum Memorably set on a bluff overlooking the turquoise waters of the Caribbean, the ruins of Tulum are perhaps the most picturesque on the peninsula. The site itself is small and compact, and none of the surviving buildings are particularly large, but this doesn't make the place any less impressive.
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