WHEN WE ARRIVED IN TULUM later that day, we just wanted to find a hostel and a hammock. We found both a short walk from the bus station. Our room was a private thatch-roofed hut on the second floor next to a large balcony that was strung with hammocks from one end to the other. There was a kitchen downstairs and breakfast was included. The only drawback was the husband of the lady who ran the place. He turned out to be one of those overly friendly drunks who can’t seem to shut up until they pass out. Luckily for us he was usually snoring by noon.
The town of Tulum had a beach vibe, but it wasn’t much of a vibe. At least not compared to Playa del Carmen and Cancun just up the coast. I suppose it was more of an island vibe where nothing happens in a hurry and everyone seems to be hanging out in the shade. The main drag featured some good eateries and shops, but it was the nearby Mayan site of Tulum that brought most people to town. This was to be our final stop on La Ruta Maya, but first we went to see a lucha libre wrestling match.
My girlfriend had spotted a leaflet stuck to a telephone pole as we were walking up the street. It was a poorly mimeographed black and white advertisement featuring a couple of masked, shirtless men.
“I’ve always wanted to see a lucha libre match!” she said. “Do you want to go?”
She wrote down the address and we showed it to a man at the tourist information booth. He smiled when he saw it, evidently recognizing the venue, and gave us directions.
Later that night we showed up for the event, which took place in a walled, outdoor lot. A wrestling ring had been set up in the middle of the yard with folding chairs on each side. Before long the place had fairly filled with local families and a smattering of tourists. The crowd gave a great cheer as the first pair of luchadores approached the ring. They wore capes and had colorful masks that were laced up at the back. They stopped to pose for photographs, showing off their barrel chests and bulging biceps. One of them wore a black costume with white trim that had a tiger motif, while his partner – a much smaller wrestler – was shirtless and wore a red mask with gold trimming. Their opponents were much bigger and wore shirts that read Perros del Mal (Bad Dogs). Despite the size difference, the first pair struck upon an effective strategy when the match began: El Tigre would throw his partner into his opponents and knock them down. Before long however, the Bad Dogs figured out how to dodge this assault and tricked El Tigre into launching himself out of the ring. Then they had the red-masked wrestler alone and soon he was against the ropes. They looped his hands and feet into the ropes so he couldn’t escape, then one of the Bad Dogs ran across the ring and launched himself feet first into the smaller wrestler, who received the blow full on his chest and crumpled out of the ring. Things didn’t go any better for his partner when he returned, having to handle both opponents now. They threw him against the ropes and knocked him down, even smashing a wooden board over his back when he was on the canvas. These tactics displeased the crowd and they began shouting ¡Heelo! at the two. The hulking twosome seemed annoyed by the crowd’s criticism and shouted back at them, at times threatening to climb out of the ring and mix it up with the disapproving mothers and shouting children. It was all the respite El Tigre needed as he flung himself off the ropes and leaped in the air, scissoring his legs around the neck of the first opponent while hooking an arm around the other. Spinning forward, he catapulting the Bad Dogs out of the ring. The crowd erupted in cheers as the Bad Dogs slunk away.
I couldn’t remember having this much fun at an event since watching women’s roller derby as a child.
The next day we scoured the shops for luchadore masks. There were plenty to choose from and the shopkeepers taught us the names of some of the more famous wrestlers. There was the Blue Demon, Rey Mysterio, and the most famous one of all: El Santo. I was told that these masks hearken back to the days of the Aztecs. Perhaps they were the modern equivalent of the Flayed God masks, which would explain why an unmasking during an event is considered the ultimate humiliation: it would have corresponded to a beheading.
Now we were ready for the Postclassic site of Tulum.
Tulum was one of the ruins that immediately caught my eye when I was researching our route. Situated on a bluff overlooking the Caribbean Sea, it stands like a medieval fortress above the white sands of the Riviera Maya. Picturesque and Postclassic, it seemed like the perfect final stop on our journey.
It was a simple matter to reach the ruins, requiring only a ten-minute bus ride from town. Second only to Chichen Itza in popularity this Maya site was also a fraction of the size, so the crowds did not disperse upon arrival and we were in considerable company all afternoon. Nonetheless, the site lived up to its postcard allure with well-preserved temples set amidst green lawns and palm trees, with the turquoise waters of the Caribbean just beyond. The main building was known as “El Castillo” – which is a kind of catch-all appellation given to numerous buildings in the Maya region – and did, actually, resemble a castle. It was flanked on one side by an oddly shaped structure that was reminiscent of a decrepit hut. Like something out of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, it appeared slightly askew regardless of the angle at which it was viewed. This was not a result of the ravages of time but an expression of the architects intent. Known as “negative batter”, it gave the building a rather quirky appeal.
Occupied sometime in the early 13th century, Tulum had become one of the most prominent Maya cities at the time of its discovery by Old World explorers some three centuries later. Its importance seems to have lain in its highly defensible location and the fact that it was well-positioned along the coastal trading routes. Seaborne merchant trade had increased in the Postclassic as the Maya moved away from monumental building projects and focused their energy on erecting more utilitarian structures such as warehouses and ports. This new economy appears to have spread the wealth in a way never before seen in the Maya world as an emergent middle class blurred the old distinctions between elite and nonelite. This extensive trade network also revitalized areas to the south, especially sites that were located on navigable rivers that could reach the inland regions where prestige items such as pelts, feathers, copal, and cocoa could be obtained. Sites like Lamanai, where our journey had begun.
This was Maya life when the Grijalva Expedition of 1518 explored the coastline of the Yucatan and spotted Tulum, declaring that “Seville could not be better or larger”. Less than a year later, the Conquest had begun.
At the end of the day, as we left the ruins of Tulum behind us, I found myself trying to put together what I had learned from this adventure, what it was that I would be taking away with me when I left the world of the ancient Maya. Over a late lunch that consisted of several margaritas I made a brave effort at a summation that would bring my trip to some kind of edifying – or at least functional – conclusion, but all I could think about was the pageant of splendid cities which had risen from the jungle like exotic models in a Paris fashion show, only to fall to ruin again and again. The Maya saw life as a cyclical arrangement and may have seen these changes as a simple matter of the stars in their courses. As we read in The Ancient Maya:
The myth of the Hero Twins also highlights the dualistic theme that permeates Maya ideology. This can be seen in the eternal struggle between the powers of good and evil, day and night, life and death … This eternal contest is depicted in the codices, where Chaak, the rain deity, is shown caring for a young tree; behind him follows the death god, who breaks the tree in two.
[Author’s Note: This will be my last post for awhile as I work to put together another series of travel tales. Thanks for reading!]