I had been sitting bemused on top of the Ixmoja, trying to remember just why, with vertigo that makes the world go dizzy even at ordinary heights, I had lumbered 130 steps up to the top of one of the highest temple pyramids of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, when a peal of delighted laughter made me forget my self-inflicted misery. There, next to me, on top of this 138 feet tall ruin of an ancient Mayan city was an old couple, slightly out of breath, but looking pleased as punch. “Our 50th anniversary today,” she beamed as our eyes met. “We always thought that if we made it this far, we are going to treat ourselves to a spectacular vacation. Isn’t this gorgeous? Would you mind taking a photograph?”
Of course I did mind, stunning view of the lush greenery all around notwithstanding. The idea of precariously balancing myself on the steps of a pyramid vastly different from its more famous Egyptian counterpart, holding on to a rope that served as the only support up and down a flight of steep, age-smoothened stones to take photographs seemed suicidal. But, to be a killjoy to the couple, now holding their arms aloft like Jack and Rose aboard the Titanic and smiling into the camera, seemed equally depressing.
Cancun might well be the enduring superstar of the Yucatan Peninsula, but Coba, a three-hour drive south, past the languid Playa del Carmen and the dreamier Isla Mujeres, is the oyster pearl that only reveals itself to those who come seeking it. Unlike my new acquaintances, we had come upon it on a whim. We had taken off on a driving tour to the ancient port-city of Tulum, when, seduced by the silken ribbon of uncratered road and tourist-friendly direction boards, we took a detour to Coba, stopping by for a quick soak at the Gran Cenote en route one of the many natural limestone sinkholes that abound in the region.
Set deep within a jungle, and flanked by two lagoons, Coba was once an agrarian bastion of the late Mayan period, with an estimated population of nearly 50,000. While the first settlement is estimated to have been between 50 BC and 100 AD, the city was at its height of power around 800 AD. The proximity of the Caribbean Sea at Tulum also meant that they were seafarers, establishing trade and marital relationships as far as Belize and Guatemala. Now, the abandoned ruins make it to the itinerary of the intrepid few who come looking for adventure along its ancient stone-paved avenues and biking trails hidden by thick jungle cover.
Perhaps, it’s the setting, but there is still something primal about the large complex of pyramids that includes an intimate juego de pelota or ball court with extensive stelae, the Templo de las Iglesias (Temple of the Churches) that looks like a giant tiered stone igloo and the Nohoch Mul (Great Pyramid) group, whose pinnacle was the Ixmoja, and which, now after the first headrush, seemed to have been a foolish thing to dare. The climb down was excruciating, but I made it at last, egged on by the cheerful prattle of the elderly couple; the feel of the terra firma sweet under my feet, even though my knees suddenly seemed to have turned into jelly. I needed a pick-me-up and that could only be Tulum, with a coastline like powdered sugar and water the colour of emerald, just a little over half-an-hour’s drive away.
Long before New York Magazine dubbed Tulum as the Williamsburg of Mexico, naming it after Brooklyn’s tony neighbourhood, before Serena Williams chose it as her babymoon destination and Michelin-star restaurant Noma set up its sellout seven-week $600 pop-up here, Tulum, 130 km south of Cancun, was the region’s best-kept secret and a favourite hippie hangout. Skirted by the 5,000 sq km Sian Ka’an Biosphere on one side, Tulum was an ecological haven, where transactions were still primarily cash-only, you couldn’t flush away toilet paper and electricity appeared to be something of a happy miracle.
Now, two years later, it is the hippest holiday destination in the Yucatan, having pipped jaded Cancun at the post. But, even though a steady run of jetsetters have ramped up tourism figures and the development boom has caught up with it, there’s no denying the glamour and magnetic pull of the Caribbean coast here.
Tulum, one of the last of the Mayan bastions to be abandoned, fell into disuse nearly a century after the Spanish arrived in Mexico. The ruins here date back to the post-Classic period and are less imposing than their counterparts in nearby Chichen Itza and Coba. But its ancient inhabitants had reasons to feel smug about its stunning location. The ruins, overrun with iguanas, loom over a jagged coastline of brilliant jewel tones and shimmering whites, its other three sides skirted by partially intact ramparts. The sea is all shades of emerald as far as the eye can see, a few lonely boats marking the meeting point between the shoreline and the sea. It seems like a place where you can rest your worries and learn to breathe easy and deep.
The archaeological site is also the kind of background prop that makes the dramatic landscape pop. If William Somerset Maugham were to set his The Lotus Eater in a tropical country, he would have had to look no further. It’s the sort of place where the sky seems to be forever blue, the sea tranquil and the breeze balmy. While the city proper is grittier and further inland, zona hotelera on the Paraiso beach front is where the party is. Palapas dominate the landscape, fishermen return with fresh catch, and, in the distance, you can hear gentle instructions to perfect the art of the surya namaskar.
We spend the days watching the waves roll, try out snorkelling when we feel particularly adventurous. Most days, it’s enough to just sit and watch the world go by. It’s a vacation cinched by adjectives that have never felt truer, the sort that makes you want to linger on, even though you know life is elsewhere.