Recent brash innovations are a mere blip in the rich history of the Yucatan peninsula, writes Annabel Langbein.
It's been six years since I last visited Tulum, Mexico, and the change is mind-boggling. It's as if someone has exploded an enormous pinata of cash over the town, transforming its once low-key hipster-hangout vibe into the most instagrammed fashion-conscious place on earth.
But for all the over-cooked vibe, Tulum is still a great place to base yourself for a Mexican adventure where you can enjoy excellent food and a comfortable bed at the end of the day. And if you want to head to that glorious beach and hang out on an expensive lounger and drink expensive cocktails and watch the beautiful people drift by, well, you can, it's always there.
But it's much better to leave behind the new-found glitz and delve into the rich history of the region and the Maya people who lived here.
Mayan civilisation was noted for its art, architecture, mathematics, calendars and astronomical system. Its logosyllabic script was the most sophisticated writing system in the pre-Columbian Americas.
Tulum itself is an ancient Mayan site that served as a watchtower against enemies approaching by sea. The beach below is beautiful for swimming. From here, head 45 minutes inland to Coba, one of the oldest and certainly the biggest of the ancient Mayan sites in the Yucatan region.
We make the drive and take a guide. He is Maya, and tells us first his own family history before weaving in his own potted version of Mayan history, a heady blend of legend and fact.
He flips through pictures inside his grey plastic folder, relating stories gleaned from a long-lost past. We see sci-fi-looking babies with squashed snake-like heads – a "beautification" practice amongst the upper class required the foreheads of new babies to be pressed between boards in order to create a flattened surface in the shape of a snake, the symbol of fertility and wisdom.
Next up, a macabre image showing multiple skulls, their front teeth inlaid with tiny studs of jade – another practice indicating not just high status but the talents of skilled dental surgeons.
The Mayan solar calendar is made up of 18 months of 20 days and one month of five days. This one short month was thought to contain all the bad luck days. During this time no one worked, there were festivals, dancing, drinking and human sacrifice.
Annabel Langbein: Mexico's off-the-beaten-track holiday hot spot
Ball games were big in Mayan times but, according to our guide, when games were played during the five-day bad luck month, the victor's glory was not the fame and fortune we might imagine. No, it was death. You win the ball game, you get the "now we are going to sacrifice you" prize. Go figure.
In those days, death was valued more than life, and to be the protagonist in a ritual sacrifice was considered the ultimate glory. This may go a long way to explaining the fascination with death that prevails throughout Mexico to this day.
Hallucinogenic drugs such as peyote, morning glory, certain mushrooms, as well as marijuana, tobacco and plants used to make alcoholic substances were commonly used in Mayan culture for rituals and sacrifices. They were also used in everyday life as painkillers and, we are told, often enjoyed as enemas. Who would have expected all this, 1500 or more years ago?
Up above us, a volley of birdcall breaks the almost eerie silence. "Toucan," announces our guide, pointing up into the trees.
Here we are in the jungle standing in what was once the 2sq km plaza of a huge 70sq km site. Around 100,000 people once lived here. It's hard to conceive of the world that existed here and the fact everything built was made by hand, without the aid of wheels or horses.
Whether for a pyramid, a temple or any of the other 6500 buildings constructed here, every stone was manually put into place and then secured with a complex mortar made from burnt lime, limestone, tree gum and honey (the wood required to make this Mayan cement resulted in major deforestation and is thought to be one of the reasons behind the collapse of the Mayan sites), before being lime-washed to a smooth plaster finish and then finally painted – solid red on the outside, and on the inside decoratively painted in murals of vibrant colours.
Here and there you can still see tiny patches of red paint, colour that has
endured for more than 800 years.
You aren't really aware of the steepness of the Grand Pyramid known as Nohoch Mul (the tallest in the Yucatan at more than 40m) until you start to climb it – 120 stairs straight up. If you are prone to vertigo there's a rope railing to keep you upright and the climb is well worth the effort.
The jungle canopy reaches out as far as you can see and, here and there, unexcavated temple mounds peek above the trees. The Grand Pyramid is dedicated to the honeybee god, Ah-Muzen-Cab, a deity that features widely in Mayan culture and, at the very top, there is a small temple with two carvings of the bee god, looking much like an upsidedown frog.
Stingless honeybees known as meliponine bees are native to the tropical forests of Mexico's Yucatan peninsula and symbolised a gift from the honeybee god, a link to the spirit world. For centuries, Mayans harvested honey from the log nests of these large-bodied, stingless bees.
Cobans used honey as their currency – it was important as a sweetener, an antibiotic, in the construction of Mayan mortar and also used to make a type of fermented honey drink called balche, a ritual alcoholic beverage. Sadly the practice of such bee-keeping has nearly vanished in the Yucatan as a result of deforestation and the introduction of Africanised bees.
It's best to hire a car to visit Coba, and if you get up early enough you can also take in the wonderful colonial town of Valladolid about an hour further inland northwest, but we decided to do it as a separate trip.
The city of Valladolid was founded on May 28, 1543, by Francisco de Montejo and built over the debris of the ancient Mayan ceremonial centre of Zaci. Valladolid was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1998.
There are seven colonial churches in the city nicknamed the "Sultan of the East," because of its richly hued colonial splendour.
You need to park the car then just walk and take in the beautiful pastel buildings. We wandered down the fashionable Calle de Frailles, where we found lots of incredible high-end boutiques. On the recommendation of one of the boutique owners, we stopped at the tiny Mexican cafe Yutsil for a casual but tasty lunch before heading over to the famous 16th-century convent.
Known as the Sisal Convent, it's one of the most beautiful colonial buildings in Valladolid. Inside the church are original frescoes and housed within the walls of the convent are orchards, gardens and a large cenote (underwater sinkhole).
As you come out of the convent there's a cafe, Yerba Beuna de Sisal, where you can find a fresh vegetarian oriented menu, as well as cooling juices and coffee. Up on the main square, Las Campanas restaurant is famous for its regional Yucatan cuisine - grilled Yucatan sausage, and Cochinita pibil de Vallalodid - Yucatan-style roast pork, and pollo escabeche - marinated chicken.
The Mercado Municipal market is a 15-minute walk north from the main square. Rick Bayless (from the TV series Mexico One Plate at a Time) called the Valladolid Mercado "one of the most authentic and best in Mexico". Unfortunately, we arrived late and it was closing. All the more reason to come back for another visit.
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Dining in Tulum
Each night we would come back to Tulum and enjoy an amazing meal. There are so many good restaurants and bars to choose from but here – from street food to high-end, high-priced fine dining - are some of our favourites:
Tulum Eats : Traditional Mexican, cheap, terrific tacos.
Tacos Tulum los major : This red umbrella stand on the corner by the Supermarket Aki always has a line, and for good reason - the tacos are so tasty and super cheap. Mama, who looks about 90, collects the money at the end where you get the sauce and salad fixings.
Gitano : Beachside cocktails and Friday-night dance with live music, big space with lots of different bar areas, big gay scene, very NYC.
Arca : We had one of the most memorable meals here. Gorgeous outdoor setting and exciting food, with a fire-to-table ethos and a microseasonal menu.
Be Tulum : At the south end of the beach. Super styley, a great place to head for delicious but expensive cocktails.
La Zebra Beachside : Ceviche, cocktails and beach loungers. On Sunday nights it comes to life with a salsa band and free dance lessons.
Hartwood : Probably the most famous restaurant in Tulum. In 2017, Denmark's two-Michelin-starred Noma did a pop-up here with a tasting menu and beverage pairing for US$600 per person, plus 16 per cent local tax, and a 9 per cent service charge.
Air New Zealand flies non-stop to Houston from Auckland, with connections available from across its domestic network. One-way Economy class fares start from $899 one-way per person (including taxes). airnewzealand.co.nz
There are about five daily direct flights from Houston to Cancun. All flights depart before noon.
A private airport transfer from Cancun to Tulum costs from $100-$200. Or you can take a bus from Cancun airport to Tulum town, six-times daily, for around $20.