Tulum and Xel-Há, Riviera Maya, Mexico
By Candyce H. Stapen
From atop the cliffside Castillo (castle,) Tulum’s most important building, we listen to the crashing waves and the calls of the sea birds. These sounds conjure visions of this once-vital Maya seaport, whose heyday ranged from the 12th century to the early 16th century. Tulum is one of the treasures of the Riviera Maya, a swath of about 85-miles along Mexico’s Caribbean coast that stretches from south of Puerto Morelos near Cancun all the way to Tulum.
Other reasons to visit the Riviera Maya: snorkeling and diving the world’s second largest barrier reef, swimming in underground rivers called cenotes, sunning on sandy beaches and, especially if you have kids, visiting nearby eco-adventure parks. (See additional articles and related links).
Tulum, a sizeable excavation on 60-acres, is a manageable 1 ½ hour drive from Playa del Carmen, the region’s popular pedestrian-only shopping and people-watching hub. Tulum served as an important center for maritime trade. The Maya loaded feathers, jade, herbs, salt and honey into canoes and transported these items inland via a network of canals that the ancient city-dwellers had dug.
Our guide shows us Tulum’s stone arch formation that became known as the Maya arch (korbel arch) and demonstrates how to use the “sundials,” small openings in the limestone. The Maya aligned their major buildings so that on the summer and winter solstices, these small holes captured the sun, creating a straight line to the city’s entrance.
After visiting Tulum, we head to Xel-Há, an eco-adventure park eight miles from Tulum that features dolphin encounters and other adventures. For young kids new to snorkeling, Xel-Há’s a good place to practice even if there’s not that many fish because the calm water gives kids confidence.
Also available are ways to get a diver’s eye view of sea life without having Scuba certification. Snuba enables you to go below by inhaling through a breathing apparatus placed in your mouth. With Sea Trek your face won’t even get wet since you don a helmet which has air pumped into it while you’re still above water.
Getting soaked feels good after hours of walking through Tulum on a hot day. We swim in Xel-Há’s lagoon, float on an inner tube down a river that winds through a mangrove forest and then relax in a hammock on the beach. Other options include kayaking the lagoon and hiking or biking the trails. The big beware: the bustling cruise ship crowds. Try to time your visit for late afternoon, the better to avoid these “boat people.”
We like to stay at the AAA Five Diamond Fairmont Mayakoba even though most of the accommodations do not front the ocean. Instead, the over-sized rooms look out on landscaped courtyards, the golf course or the canals that lace the property. We prefer the canals. After a day’s outing, we enjoy coming back to our room to sit on the deck. We watch herons and other birds dive for fish among the canal’s thickets, something we imagine the ancient Maya did too.