Life in Ruins (Tulum, Mexico) Published in Sydney Morning Herald, April 10, 2009
Melanie Ball laps up sun and sea in the ancient clifftop city of Tulum.
Location, location! That's the catchcry for real estate sales around the world and it's a cliche that best describes Tulum, on the Yucatan Peninsula. Elevation and uninterrupted views of the Caribbean Sea make the city's hugely popular Maya ruins as prime as real estate gets.
Prospective resale value played no part in Tulum's development; more important was its strategic position at the convergence of maritime and land trade routes. And it was not a lifestyle choice to face it east, where the Maya sun god appears each morning. It is believed residents called the city Zama (city of dawn) before the Spanish named it Tulum, the Maya word for walls. Tulum's walled ruins crown a cliff that drops 12 metres to white sand washed by aqua water. This setting is the major attraction for tourists and they invade by bus, taxi and private minivan from the purpose-built coastal resort town of Cancun, about 130 kilometres north-east, and from the nearer neighbour, Playa del Carmen.
In two days here, I find little of the laid-back fishing village ethos that Lonely Planet suggests has survived. Playa del Carmen is a must-go destination for tourists who want a Mexican holiday with apartments, hotels and spa treatments, seafood prepared in every cooking style from Thai to French, boutique clothing and over-priced souvenirs, American chain ice-cream, American chain burgers and American chain coffee.
At night, mariachi bands wearing braided sombreros and hip-hugging charro suits wander Quinta Avenue, playing wonderfully melodramatic traditional ballads on violins, guitars, trumpets, guitarron (deep-pitched bass) and vihuela (high-pitched guitar). Playa del Carmen has a gorgeous white beach, too, from which you can wade into warm Caribbean water or take a boat to snorkelling and dive sites where kaleidoscopic fish hang about coral reefs. But for most of the day through much of the year the beach is crowded with banana lounges and inflatable day beds and beautiful people, the stand-outs being men with huge bellies that strain the buttons of tropical shirts. There are no food stalls, no hawkers, no beggars, no wandering dogs, no corn-cob carts, no shoe shiners, none of the Mexico I fell in love with on my way here.
With its twin rows of shop fronts and two-star hotels facing each other across a busy highway, Tulum town, about 60 kilometres down the coast, is nothing to email home about either, however the Zona Hotelera is a few minutes from the bus station.
One of more than 60 waterfront resorts (and cafes and general stores) strung south from the ruins, with the price per night generally increasing as you go, is Papaya Playa. I deposit my backpack, which is crammed with Mexican carpets, embroideries, jewellery and ceramics, not in one of Papaya's ensuite villas north of the open-air lounge and bar but in a rustic cabana. Built of sapling trunks with easy-insect-access between and fabric sheeting to deflect the rain, which pours down that first afternoon, my cabana overlooks the sea, the rhythmical beat of which lulls me to sleep under mosquito netting. Our share bathrooms are equally rustic, with hand-made saloon doors and no roof. Hot and cold taps release cold water, which the shower heads disgorge in a single flow rather than spray, but running water of any temperature is great after a day of exploring limestone caves.
It is disconcerting at first; then just amazing. Here is an elegant stalactite suspended from the ceiling, there an art deco-style limestone column reaching up from the floor but I am not walking among them, listening to a guide describing the weird shapes and characters, which some people see in these natural sculptures. The limestone formations are submerged, I am swimming and the loudest sound is my breath escaping up a plastic tube.
After a short snorkel with an English couple and their parents, who are leaving to continue their holiday, our underwater guide, Jim, leads me and another woman to a second cavern. We climb down a ladder projecting from a hole in the scrubby ground and wiggle our toes on the lip of an underground pool as clear as unaged tequila. Bats flit about the stone ceiling that domes overhead and sliver-like fish swim in the water. From a metal platform we kick off gently and follow Jim on a longer snorkel between formations distorted by the water, over huge boulders and into a miniature forest of limestone needles. I feel like I am in a church of sorts, though a different denomination from the pagan-Catholic Chamulan ones we have visited recently, with their carpets of pine needles and chicken sacrifices to cure illness, and I understand why the Maya considered these caverns sacred.
Back at Papaya Playa, where my predominantly English travelling companions have spent the day topping up their sunburn, I run around in the shower while palm fronds clatter in the breeze and geckoes click down the minutes to pre-dinner drinks.
Far from gecko-cute are the iguanas that patrol ancient Tulum, munching the seed pods that litter its lawns. I encounter the first of these dinosaur-like creatures immediately on stepping through a gate in the city's imposing northern wall and soon after lose count. Dozens of legless lizards show themselves, too, and a frog-eating snake looks like a crack in the wall of the Templo de las Pinturas (Temple of the Paintings). Chattering Yucatan Jays are everywhere, their blue-black bodies and aquamarine backs gleaming in the sun.
Archaeological consensus seems to be that the Maya city of Tulum was occupied from AD1200-1521 and although built by a declining civilisation it was an important settlement through which came and went, among other things, copper from Mexico's highlands, salt and textiles, flint, ceramics and gold from all over the Yucatan and jade and obsidian from Guatemala.
Tulum was also one of the last Maya cities abandoned after the Spanish invaded. When conquistador Juan de Grijalva sailed this coast in 1518 he noted a walled city rare in the Maya world - of red, blue and yellow buildings, with a fire burning on the watchtower. Back then most of Tulum's inhabitants lived outside the ramparts in timber and palm houses, none of which have survived.
The walls, averaging seven metres thick and three to five metres high, protected the city's civic and ceremonial centre, where priests and rulers lived and tourists now stroll. Fairly flat footpaths make exploring Tulum easy. Resisting the temptation to take gigabytes of photographs is more difficult, for decorated columns, murals and stelae and relief figures and stucco carvings of gods, including the winged descending or diving god, give the temples and palaces a different look from every aspect.
And then there is El Castillo (the castle), as the Spanish named the watchtower, whose tiers narrow to a temple just metres from the cliff edge. Like a stone sentinel Tulum's tallest building overlooks the exquisite cove where Maya seafarers launched fishing boats and sea-going trading canoes and modern-day visitors launch their bodies into cooling waves.
When it comes to selling Tulum as the ultimate tourist destination, it's simply a matter of location, location! The real enchilada!
Mexico springs no bigger surprise on travellers than its cuisine. Authentic tortillas and regional specialties using unfamiliar flavour combinations quickly eclipse memories of half-price nights at franchise restaurants back home. Any one of dozens of types of tortillas and tacos makes a satisfying and inexpensive meal.
Choose from tacos al pastor (spice-marinated pork roasted on a vertical spit topped with a pineapple for moistening and glazing the meat), cabeza (cheek meat from a baked beef head) or tripas (fried intestines). A plate of tacos with guacamole sauce, chilli salsa and fresh limes will fuel hours of sightseeing. Corn on the cob is another popular snack, either blackened on a footpath griddle, or boiled, smeared with mayonnaise and sprinkled with grated cotija (crumbly, hard cheese) and powdered chilli by a man wheeling a mobile cart.
Too rich for some people is Mexico's well-known dish, Chiles en nogada. The large poblanos chillies (green) stuffed with pork, dried fruit and nuts, smothered with a creamy walnut sauce (white) and sprinkled with pomegranate seeds (red) represent the Mexican flag. Chiles en nogada is available July to September, when walnuts are fresh and pomegranates plentiful, and Puebla, on the Yucatan Peninsula, serves up the most original and delicious.
Another seasonal Puebla delicacy is huitlacoche (June-October) and you can tuck into these earthy black corn mushrooms at La Poblanita, in Av 5 Poniente. This hole-in-the-wall night stall just up from the flood-lit cathedral serves crisp molotes (flattened, filled and fried corn meal dough) with huitlacoche, two salsas, cream and cheese.
Yet another version of the all-purpose tortilla is quesadilla and you find the country's best, according to the woman who makes them, in Cholula, 10 kilometres west of Puebla. Home to the widest pyramid ever built, Cholula should be equally renowned for these scrumptious blue-corn tortillas folded over soft cheese and pumpkin flowers and grilled.
Late in Mexico's autumn, also look out for chapulines - grasshoppers purged of digestive matter, then dried, smoked or fried in lime and chilli powder. Sold by footpath hawkers, they taste like crumpled lime and chilli potato chips.
Mexico's most famous dish, and justifiably so, is mole, a complex, time-consuming savoury sauce. Dozens of ingredients including chillies, tomatoes, plantains, raisins, cloves, sesame seeds, almonds and chocolate go into mole poblana (Puebla-style), which often appears on menus outside Mexico.
FAST FACTSGetting there Cheap air fares to Los Angeles are on offer at the moment through Qantas and V Australia and you can buy another fare with Mexicana non-stop to Cancun. Japan Airlines has a fare to Mexico City, via Tokyo and Vancouver, for $1380 return plus tax from Sydney and Melbourne. Then $US125 ($175) one-way, excluding tax to Cancun. Australians require a tourist card, which can be obtained on the flight to Mexico or at any border port of entry. Touring there Tulum can be reached by public transport buses and tour buses from Cancun and Playa del Carmen. One of many tour companies that travel this part of the Yucatan Peninsula, Intrepid, offers several tours that include Tulum. The 31-day Central America Encompassed trip costs from $1210 plus $US400 local payment. Accommodation is in two-star tourist hotels.
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