Journey into Tulum and Cobá to uncover ancient secrets

Journey into Tulum and Cobá to uncover ancient secrets 

Originally posted at Star-Telegram

Fascination with the mysteries of the Maya is at an all-time high this year, and while nearly 3 million Americans flew into Cancun last year to vacation along 100 miles of sparkling beaches extending south from Cancun to Playa del Carmen and on to Tulum, only about a third of tourists ventured outside the resort districts to explore the Mayan ruins nearby. This year, however, those numbers are rising.

Chichen Itza Yucatan Riviera Maya
Mayan Ruins in Riviera Maya

Increased attendance at Tulum and many other Mayan ruin sites is due to a conglomeration of prophecies, said to have come from the ancient wisdom of the Maya, written down in their books and preserved from destruction through the centuries since the Spanish conquest in 1521.

They predict that the Earth and Sun will align with the center of the galaxy, the magnetic poles of the Earth may reverse, the god Quetzalcoatl will return, and then on Dec. 21, 2012 — the winter solstice — the world will end.

While I am skeptical of such doomsday predictions, I welcomed the opportunity to learn more about the history of the Maya, visit the ruins and be on-site at Tulum for what some say could be the last summer solstice.

I met others on a similar quest: to explore two of the most significant ruins located in the Mayan Riviera, Cobá and Tulum, and to solve the mysteries surrounding the ending of the Mayan calendar in 2012.

On our first evening, our group gathered at the Rosewood Mayakoba resort to get acquainted and meet archeologist Julia Miller, a tour guide with Catherwood Travels and an expert in ancient Mayan architecture and culture who would accompany us to two of the nearby ruins, beginning with Cobá, and share her wisdom about the Mayan calendar.

The ancient city of Cobá

Early the next morning, we left behind the beckoning beaches near our rooms to board an Alltournative tour bus for transport to Cobá, a 90-minute drive inland. Our Mayakoba hosts had arranged for us to take a mini version of Alltournative’s 10-hour Cultural Mayan Encounter, one of several full- or half-day cultural and adventure expeditions into the Mayan world offered by the tour company.

During the drive, Miller gave us a crash course in the Mayan calendar. We learned that the Maya actually used lots of calendars, and that they didn’t all begin on the same date. Unless you are a mathematician, the explanation of the Maya’s intricate and very accurate system of calendars gets a bit tedious. But one thing is for sure: Time was very important to the Maya, and their calendars were used to place the actions of their rulers and gods firmly in time.

Cobá dates to the Classic period of the Mayan civilization (the years 200-900). It was home to an estimated 45,000 to 50,000 people at its peak, and covered an area extending over 50 miles, much like our present-day cities, with lots of suburbs branching from its center. While most of the hieroglyphic inscriptions found throughout the site on flat, upright stones called stelae date to the seventh century, Cobá remained an important site in the Postclassic era (900-1500). One of its many roads led to Tulum, an important seaport more than 25 miles away.

Cobá has been open to tourism only since the early 1980s, and much of it has yet to be restored. More than 400,000 tourists visit Cobá each year, less than half of the 1.1 million who find their way to Tulum, the beachfront walled city we will visit the next morning on the summer solstice.

The must-see sight at Cobá is the Nohoch Mul pyramid, the tallest in the Yucatan Peninsula at 138 feet. While I didn’t climb its 120 steps to the top, others in our group did and were rewarded with panoramic views of the dense jungle, the tops of other pyramids rising through the treetops. Many climbers held onto a rope on the way down, as the rocks can be a bit unstable on the decline. Conserve your energy for the climb by renting a bicycle to get from one area to another, or do as I did: Rent a pedicab to the pyramid.

The Mayan world of today

Even though the Mayan civilization declined after the Spanish conquest, it didn’t disappear. Mayan languages are still spoken, and many aspects of the culture continue. Our visit to a simple Mayan home, surrounded by tropical flower gardens, was like taking a trip back in time. Inside a small thatched hut, we found a Mayan woman forming tortillas from a corn masa mixture, thought by her ancient ancestors to be the stuff of human creation. Minutes later, we were eagerly accepting her offer of a taste, fresh from the griddle. It was like manna from heaven.

Next, we traveled a short distance to the Cenote de la Vida (Life Cave), one of hundreds of cenotes (see-NOTE-ays), sinkholes that are fed from underground streams and rivers found throughout the Yucatan Peninsula. We descended into the rain forest via a flight of slippery stone steps to reach the deep pools. A source of fresh water, they were considered by the Maya to be sacred entrances to the underworld.

As we emerged, a bit breathless from the climb, a Mayan shaman waited, ready to bless us in a traditional ceremony. We stood in a semicircle as he walked around us, surrounding us with smoke from incense burning in a chalice, chanting ancient words meant to purify us from any evil we may have picked up on our journey below.

Tulum on the solstice

Arriving at Tulum the next day, we entered through an opening in the 20-foot-thick, 13-foot-high walls that surround the ruins, built as a fortress on cliffs high above the Caribbean Sea. Tulum was a major seaport during the Postclassic period of Mayan civilization (900-1500), then was abandoned by the end of the 16th century.

Its rulers and priests once inhabited or worshipped in the buildings that we walked among; commoners lived outside the walls. Most impressive is Tulum’s castle, El Castillo, standing at the highest point, and once used as a watchtower and a lighthouse to aid merchants coming to shore.

What better place to seek answers to a doomsday prediction, and what better time than this, the longest day of the year, to receive enlightenment? Like other date-setting prophecies that have come and gone, this one, too, our archeologist guide assures us, will pass.

Miller explained that many Mayan texts imply they expected life and the calendar to continue without interruption, far beyond 2012: “The completion of the Mayan Long Calendar’s 13th bak’tun only marks the end of a cycle, making way for a great renewal — much like the arrival of a new year, but on a grander scale.”

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