It will be difficult, if not impossible, to do justice to the three Mayan sites which we have seen in the past week. Tulum, Coba and Palenque.
Why? Because even with a guided tour, you only touch the very surface about what happened 1200-800 years ago, how the Mayans lived and the extent of their sophisticated intellect.
So this is a basic sort of holiday diary highlights package of some photos and the most interesting things we’ve learned. Reading through it I’m shocked at how little knowlege we (I) have retained.
Tulum, on the east coast of the Yucatan Peninsula and 130km south of Cancun.
Being blunt, this was by far the worst experience of the three and it fell far short of the ‘jaw-dropping’ descriptions we had encountered. If we get over our short-term and self-indulgent problems (a bad guide, roasting temperatures, hoards and hoards of tourists which, whether you like it or not, rather kills the mood) we found the ruins a bit, well, small scale.
The ruins are on the coast and the setting is impressive – it was an old port trading mainly in jade and turquoise. The ruins are enclosed by a thick 800m wall with five entrances. It is thought up to 600 people lived inside, essentially the elite and the nobels; the workers lived further out. There is an old palace and the walls of old houses. It probably looks incredible at sunrise and it probably feels incredible if you could walk there alone, but we struggled. We think our guide was paid per tour and after 30 minutes he tried to leave. We weighed him down with questions but he still got away.
Coba, 50km inland from Tulum.
Wow. Less famous than Tulum or Palenque or Chichen Itza, Coba blew us away. We left at 07:30 and an hour later we were hiring bikes inside the grounds of the Coba ruins. Don’t ask us about any Mayan specifics, we decided against a guide and just loved cycling through the jungle from ruin to ruin on decrepit bikes, a bit like that scene with Faye Dunaway from Butch Cassidy. With the sun piercing the jungle canopy and the breeze in our hair we arrived at the Great Pyramid, parked the bikes and climbed up the 42 metres of very steep stone.
The view from the top was unexpected – we didn’t even realise you were allowed to climb some of the ruins – and the board panorama revealed a jungle that is pancake flat. The tower was for scouting both stars and enemies.
Palenque. 12 hours (comfy) bus ride from Tulum in the state of Chiapas.
Palenque is in a different league. The structures are bigger and more dramatic and a whole city has been discovered. You really get a sense that this was the centre of an empire and the ambition and architectural skill of its famous ruler, Pakal, lives on in the buildings.
We were lucky. It was overcast and not very crowded on our visit, plus our guide was lovely and helpful. What hit us most was the similarities with Egypt: a pyramid structure with hidden tomb for the ruler, who was buried with treasure with other people as company; complex hieroglyphics; worshipping many gods.
The photos tell the story better than we can. All the building were covered in a red ‘stucco’, essentially a render of clay mixed with limestone at a very high heat. One of the theories of why the empire crumbled is that they ran out of wood – it took a lot of trees to heat the stucco.
The Mayan elite thought it was better to have large foreheads, so they took babies and forced their skulls to grow in a ‘tall’ shape. They also valued being cross-eyed, which seems the strangest thing. The elite took psychoactive drugs to talk to the spirits and gods, they constructed saunas (with hot stones) and the ruler even had three working loos with effective drainage.
We spent 3 hours at the site and it was an honour. Palenque holds a spiritual air that is simply not felt at Tulum. The backdrop of the jungle hills, with trees crowding the temples, is hard to match.
Our guide says that she expects access to the main palace to be stopped soon, as the Government moves to further protect the site.