If you go to Tulum after seeing other famed archaeological sites in the Yucatan, you'll probably feel a bit of disappointment, for it lacks the amazing architecture and grandeur. Ramshackle is the word that came to my mind. When you know something of its history, though, it takes on a fascination of its own. A tiny place sitting right on a bluff above the Caribbean Sea, it was never meant to be a spectacle.

It had no religious or astronomical importance, nor was it a place for mass gathering. It was a practical little place where Mayan merchants lived and traded. The tiny bay is perfect for the sorts of boats that might have set out to pass goods along the coast or the islands of the Caribbean.

Mostly inhabited after the great cities fell, its architecture is a poor, quick imitation with little sense of proportion or great style. It's all practical, purpose-driven. There's a temple of sorts, that building at the highest point, often called The Castle although it's not a castle at all, where at the equinox, the sun rises exactly through the columns.

 Here you can see the much cruder architecture and trim, a mere echo of past glory of the much larger, more influential and powerful cities like Chichen Itzá, Uxmal, Palenque, etc. The stone is not laid in smooth, straight courses, and is in fact only barely cut instead of being trimmed with great precision. The cornices are simple lines that aren't very straight.

Look at this crumbling building. It probably was not constructed with outwardly leaning sides. they
re separating and soon will collapse outward. The courses are very uneven, and there's no mortar. In the very center at the top, you might be able to see the tail and body of a large iguana. CLICK ON THE PICTURE TO ENLARGE and you'll see it. They roam freely about this site, and indeed are everywhere in the Yucatan..
These steps lead to a platform which likely held housing structures, since Tulum was a place where people lived. There may be some stone houses, but most were probably more or less open structures of wood and thatch. They're not only easy to build, they're cooler sometimes, where there's so little breeze, and likely much more comfortable here by the sea. While stone is slower to heat up, it holds heat longer. And in the tropics, it never gets a chance to cool down. Why platforms? I think it's because the entire Yucatan Peninsula is so flt and low, but its an area of high rainfall, with torrents from frequent hurricanes. The rain runs off fast and what doesn't sinks through the limestone. The only way to avoid the sudden flooding torrents would be platforms.

Just to the left of these steps is this round structure in the ground. See how smooth and round the laid stones are inside the hole? I believe it's a well that supplied the family and perhaps others. It probably led to a cenote (see below), but in the centuries since Tulum was abandoned it has filled in.

There is virtually no surface water in the Yucatan Peninsula. Rainwater quickly seeps through the porous soil and limestone in caverns. The ancient Mayas built their culture around these cenotes where water collects, which are open to the surface. Look at the tree roots that have worked their way down through soil and rock to reach to the water. The tree above has a trunk diameter of perhaps 3-4 feet.

This tree is near the entrance to Tulum, but they grow everywhere in the Yucatan Peninsula. Their roots grow down through the limestone into caverns like the one above, reaching for the water beneath the parched land.


This is surely the best known of all Mayan sites, perhaps of all ancient sites in the Western Hemisphere. It's heavily trafficked by tourists all year round, and worthy of its position. It's an archeaological and architectural spectacle really worth seeing and studying even if you only have a little time to devote to it. Compare the methodical, precise architecture and highly stylized decoration with the rather haphazard style of Tulum.

Right outside the site, these fellows perform a sort of dance. I'm not sure what they are called. It's quite a spectacle to watch them in costume being hoisted up this very high pole, then release themselves suspended upside down by one foot, to spin around as they are lowered to the ground. I called them Fliers.

The Caracol, or Observatory, Chichen Itzá. The Maya were amazing astronomers, and used what they learned to develop a calender that is more accurate than the Gregorian Calender used in the Western Hemisphere today. 

 Mexican eagle. Now, if I can only find the bas-relief sculpture of an eagle. It's here somewhere... Oh yes, it's in the same picture as the jaguar. You have to look really close.

Some puzzling things about Chichen Itzá: Does the wall make sense to you? Why would that zigzag piece of cornice trim be down near the ground, with no other decorative material around it? And doesn't the rough, clumsy way the wall was put together above it look different from the other masonry? I suspect it's a fairly primitive attempt at restoration here.

Here's another odd thing: Compare the style of the broken head- Itzamna, with that of the Feathered Serpent, Quetzalcoatl. Both are often found in the same buildings, yet the head looks so primitive compared to the sharply detailed serpent head. It isn't just an obviously more aged sculpture, although it is that. The style is completely different. Itzamna is apparently a much more ancient god than the Feathered Serpent. But it would seem to me the image would have changed with changing styles.

  A broken Chac Mool, left exactly where it was found in the mid-19th Century. And near it, a fractured Feathered Serpent's Head, the fabled Quetzalcoatl.  Next to it, you'll see the Temple of a Thousand Warriors. The Chac Mool statues are found there in abundance. The mysterious statues lie on their backs, knees propped up and head raised, and what appears to be a bowl resting on their stomachs. Looking at them, I can hardly imagine anything other than human sacrifice.

 The painting I've crammed in was made by Catherwood, one of the earliest European explorers of ancient Mayan sites.

Very close to the Great Pyramid, or Kukulkan Pyramid, you'll pass by
what looks like a little hill. The very flat plains of this area of the Yucatan have many of these, and in Chichen Itzá, they mean one thing: an un-reconstructed pyramid. This abandoned city looked much like this all over when the first European explorers began to seek them out. You can see clearly the remains of a building-like structure at the top. Although there's lots of rubble, you can also see the very regular construction of a stone wall.

Look very closely to see the bas-relief Jaguar. In Classic Maya times, he would have been brightly painted. Sometimes little flecks and spots of color can still be found on these carvings.


 This is the un-reconstructed side of Kukulkan pyramid 

Here is one of the two restored sides of the famous Kukulkan Pyramid at Chichen Itzá. This is the famous side. The one above shows you about what it looked like before reconstruction.

MORE coming up on Playa del Carmen and the resort.