Wander in fascination through the remarkably preserved ruins of a Maya fort; then grab an authentic Mexican souvenir, at a sprawling, local market. Journey down onto one of the most sublime beaches upon that whole coastline, touching the very tip of a national biosphere nature reserve. Along the way, keep your eyes sharp for any number of international celebrities. This is a favourite place for the rich and famous to see and be seen. Then travel just slightly north, into the best open sea aquarium and water park on the Mexican Caribbean.
Two gems of the Riviera Maya lie close enough together for both to be visited in one day. They are Tulúm and Xel-há.
Tulúm is a pre-Columbian walled fort, built to protect the inhabitants and the local port against invaders from the Caribbean Sea. It stands 12m (39ft) atop a cliff commanding imposing views of the sea. A compact site, it nonetheless contains spectacular buildings, like the Temple of the Frescoes, which is decorated with niched figurines of deities; the Temple of the Diving God, with its eponymous god; the Temple of Paintings, where the paint is still discernable after 1000 years; and, of course, the Castillo. The bay below is breathtaking to survey. Tulúm is located 128km (80m) south of Cancún.
The fort at Tulúm was built around 1200 CE. It recycled some of the materials from local derelict buildings of the time. A stele, or decorated stone slab, dating from 564 CE sits proudly in a precinct created 15th centuries later. The fort was certainly an important trading center by 1518, when it was first noticed by the invading Spanish. However, it wasn't abandoned by the Mayans until the end of the 16th century.
During the interim, it would have exported gold, flint, ceramics and incense from all over the Yucatán peninsula, including copper from the Mexican highlands and exotic feathers from the inland regions. The density of Guatemalan obsidian artefacts discovered at the site provides a clue to one of its major imports, alongside salt and textiles.
As well as defence from the sea, the fort also warned of natural dangers. The Temple of Winds was built in such a way as to emit a loud wail, when the winds grew to a certain strength. This alerted the residents to the onset of a hurricane and allowed them to get to safety in time.
Tulúm overlooks the coralled reef biosphere reserve of Sian Ka'an. For many people, the turquoise shores here are more magnificent even than those in Cancún. Sitting above them, within the ruins, is a sublime experience; while many will instantly wish to hurry down and swim in those enchanting waters, before relaxing on the white sands.
Outside the ruins is a large market, where bargains may be picked up. See our blog, 'How to Haggle for Goods at the Mercado'.
Xel-há means 'where the waters are born' in the native Mayan. A settlement was formed around the waters in the 1st Century, which had become a coastal port by 800 CE. It is likely that it formed just one of a chain of such ports, which includes the neighbouring Tulúm, through which merchants could interchange goods. Trade would also have come via the picturesque Caribbean Sea.
Arguably the most dramatic moment in Xel-há's history came with the arrival of the Spanish in 1527. Conquistador Francisco de Montejo sought to turn Xel-há into the first Spanish settlement on the Yucatán peninsula. He changed its name to Salamanca de Xelhá and stationed his troops there. Unfortunately for his ambition, disease, deprivation and the resistance of the local Mayans soon reduced the number of his men. Montejo resorted to the desperate measure of scuttling his own ships, in order to stop any of the remaining Spanish from leaving.
They managed to stabilize their position in the settlement enough to attempt unsuccessful sorties into neighbouring areas, but over half of Montejo's men were killed in battle with the Mayan near the to the River Ake. Meanwhile, most of the 65 conquistadores, left behind to govern Salamanca de Xelhá were massacred by its residents. The whole expedition was in a sorry state by the time that another of Montejo's ships arrived with supplies from Santo Domingo. Eighteen months after arriving, Conquistador Francisco de Montejo abandoned all hope of subduing the eastern coast of the Yucatán peninsula and so left the port to its Mayan population.
Xel-há continued to be occupied until the 19th century, though most of its buildings date from three centuries before. These days, it is better known for its open sea aquarium, where snorkelling and sea treks allow visitors to get up close and personal with 70 different species of freshwater and seawater fish.
Visitors can jump off cliffs into crystalline waters; lounge on hammocks on white sand beaches; discover the jungle, on foot or on a hired bicycle; or vist the El Dorado cave, with its unique geological formations around a blue-green pool. The list is endless in this natural eco-park. A highlight is surely the chance to swim with the dolphins, though that is charged as extra.
Tulum & Xel-Ha All Inclusive
Combine Maya history with natural beauty! Tour the Tulúm ruins, then swim in the Xel Ha natural aquarium.
Xel-Ha All Inclusive
An incredible natural aquatic theme park and Mayan archaelogical ruins.