I didn’t get much sleep last night. I do feel much better, in that I don’t think I’m going to pass out, but my back is still tender to the touch. Putting on a shirt is torture as needles stab at me. Oh well. That’s what I get for not wearing a shirt while snorkeling.
I leave first thing in the morning and rent a bicycle so I can get around town easily and quickly. I am at the Tulum ruins by 9AM, but the site is already filling up with tour groups. The ruins themselves are not particularly large or impressive. They are in a striking location atop a 10m cliff overlooking the Gulf of Mexico. White limestone blocks glint in the sun like the water below. Waves crash into the cliff sending sea spray up toward the ruins. White edifices reach toward the sky, as though aspiring to be clouds. Palms drift in the breeze that does little to cool me or wick the moisture from my sweat-drenched shirt.
Tulum was a port city and a commercial hub for the Maya city state of Coba. It was one of the last cities to be constructed by the Maya during the Classic period and one of the last to fall, as it survived until the Spaniards arrived in the 16th century. Whereas the depopulation of other major Maya city states is uncertain, few would argue with the hypothesis that the local people were decimated by diseases brought by Spanish settlers.
It is but 10 AM and the heat is already oppressive. I soak through my shirt and move between patches of shade. I only stay for about an hour due to the site’s small size. It probably only supported between 1000 and 1500 inhabitants, who were probably primarily merchants protected by a wall toward the land and the sea itself to the east. The tourists from nearby Cancun, Playa del Carmen, and Tulum already outnumber the number of structures on the site and there is no time to be alone and reflect on the beauty.
After the ruins, I hop on the bike and ride another 7 km to a cenote called “El Gran Cenote.” Cenotes are natural formations where limestone bedrock is dissolved and collapses to expose groundwater that lay beneath. They are fairly common given the limestone-dominated karst topography of the Yucatan. Given that the region has almost no rivers and few lakes, the cenotes were incredibly important for Maya city states which developed in the region. Many were constructed near cenotes because they offered a ready supply of potable water. They also were important culturally, as they represented gateways to the afterlife. As such, the Maya were known to throw sacrifices into the cenotes, including gold, precious stones, and even human sacrifices.
I descend a set of stairs into the cenote itself. A number of small trees and vines drop their roots from above into the water like fishing lines, forming a living candelabra around the rim of the cenote. I step in. The water is cold and refreshing given both the heat, the bike ride here, and my sunburn. It is crystal clear, allowing me to peer down. Small groups of fish swim amongst the stalactites and stalagmites, which extend to the cenote floor. Below the surface, I see that the walls do not extend to the limestone floor, but instead dip back to form dark caves to who knows where. This is the realm of long-barbelled catfish and scuba divers. The aquamarine waters near the surface transition to turquoise, cerulean, Aegean, and navy blue, and finally to inky black nothingness, where no light filters through. I surface, take a breath, and dive down again, sinking down to look into the caves, but am met by nothingness. There is no light, no sound, just a void. A gateway to the afterlife indeed. I dare not explore these areas, instead opting to enjoy the blue of sky and sun and the cool, calm waters of the surface.
I also meet two German tourists with whom I chatted as we waited for a combi from Akumal. We both want to go to Chichen Itza, but want to avoid the heat and throngs of tourists in the afternoon. Unfortunately, the first bus leaves Tulum at 9AM, which is the same time that most of the tours depart the city. However, a rental car would not be any more expensive than a bus between the three of us, so we decide to join forced and travel there together tomorrow. I head to sleep early, or rather try to, given the pain from my sunburn has not abated after the dip in the cenote and that my fellow hostel guests seem to want to party every night, so that I can prepare for the early morning tomorrow. We will depart at 6 to arrive at the site when they open the doors at 8.
Damn it’s hot. I wake up, shirt soaked in sweat, glistening like Rocky mid-fight. The humidity is high and it feels like I’m breathing through a wet sock shoved down my throat. My sunburn radiates heat. I lay staring at the bunk above me. Eventually I manage to drift off…