Story by Sarah Frey
Mexico and I had met before, but never with so little supervision. My shoes scuffed the polished floors of the Tijuana International Airport as I shouldered my bulging backpack, wondering if I was being naive for tackling this trip alone. Spanish rattled off the tongues of those around me, a buzz of language I struggled to pick through. I hadn’t pursued Spanish in school, but I was determined to see the Mayan ruins I would be studying as an anthropology student.
The week before I left was a blur of warnings about how dangerous Mexico is and how unprepared I was for the risks as a woman traveling alone. Although newspapers, television, and friends, had informed me how unsafe Mexico is time and time again, I chose to ignore the propaganda. Too often Mexico is represented as a drug-infused modern Mordor full of grime and danger; I knew the city of Tulum in Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula would prove to be different.
I trusted Tulum, a city whose seaside cliffs had sustained Mayan ruins long before Columbus, would unlock an archaeological fervor deep within my being. I had taken this journey to study, to observe, to grasp for some kind of connection to the people who built these long-standing monuments. If no one was looking, I hoped to run my hand down the ruin’s rough stone or trace the curves of Mayan serpents as they spun their symbols of infinity into the rock.
Ancient stone snakes didn’t bother me, but I disliked encountering the country’s insects. The Palapas Tulum hostel, where I would stay, was hidden behind a chain-link fence, buried in overgrown foliage, and looked foreboding. Its ceiling was not a true ceiling; rather, it consisted of a series of tin roof plates that provided little insulation and even less protection against the aggressive insects trying to penetrate my mosquito net. The strange bugs with jagged wings whacked against the thinly spun net as I hid behind it on my bed trying not to listen to their low, threatening buzz. Luckily, they were unsuccessful.
The couple that owned Palapas Tulum made breakfast for me and the only other traveler staying at the hostel. In careful, broken English they told us about the nearby sites. “Not as much fun to go alone,” the woman said when I asked about Akumal, a nearby beach known for its turtles. “Not with valuables. They will get stolen while you are in the water,” she emphasized. I briefly scrutinized my hostel-mate, Donald, over the wobbly breakfast table before inviting him to travel with me for the day.
As we squished into the colectivo, a van that would take us to Tulum’s ruins three miles south of the city, I asked Donald why he had traveled halfway across the globe alone. His enthusiasm was palpable. Much like me, he had an interest in archaeology and had finally decided to travel the stretch of Mexican coastline known as the Riviera Maya. No whisper of danger, no fears expressed. “My friends back home in London warned me about traveling here,” he confessed, “but I did a lot of research before I came. I don’t feel unsafe; I feel excited.” The van ambled along the sandy road until it reached a mercado, a street market, with bright fabrics flapping in the ocean breeze. The driver pulled over and we squeezed out, looking for the gate that would lead us into Tulum’s ruins, which are one of the only Mayan ports accessible to visitors.
The ancient city of Tulum is occupied. Not by tourists, archaeologists, or even park employees. Tulum is inhabited by iguanas—miniature monsters with scaly green faces and thin claws. Donald and I counted them together. The reptiles were so numerous I was surprised they didn’t regularly fall off the foliage-lined cliffs overlooking the cerulean-blue sea.
As Donald and I trekked inland to visit the Chichén Itzá ruins, we decided to stop at Cobá, which boasts the tallest Mayan pyramid on the peninsula. Although the stop had not been part of my original itinerary, I had left America as a solo traveler, which gave me the freedom to change my route, grasp at new ventures, and explore at my leisure. Donald and I were the first people at Cobá that morning, and the first to see its rundown edifices and touch the ancient ball courts. I admired the stones that were still solid after hundreds of years, still tragically holding together a structure that had long been abandoned. The highest point in Cobá’s forested park was the temple, a structure stratified by wide stairs. There were no fences, no rails, no blaring warnings. Only two things: a rope resting down the temple’s crumbling stairs, and a small sign written in English that read, “Climb at your own risk.” Donald and I scrambled up. Greenery spread out in every direction, the peaks of other ruins barely visible as we scanned the horizon.
The excursion to Cobá cut my time short, so Donald and I split ways and I continued to Chichén Itzá, one of the most celebrated archaeological sites in the world. I boarded a colectivo heading to the ruins and found so many people crammed inside I had to brace myself against the window. As the bus drove into the gigantic park surrounding the ruins, I tried to mentally prepare myself for the sight. Surely I would be enamored instantly, my perspective on archaeology enriched, and my purpose fulfilled.
The epiphany didn’t come as quickly as I expected. Chichén Itzá was probably the hottest place I had ever been. Words like oven and sauna did little justice to the sweltering pocket of land cradling the site. I could feel myself burning up as sweat drenched every limb, and the taste the salt appeared on my lips. Before reaching the ruins I had to pass through a maze of vendors huddling in the shade, yelling at passersby while hawking their wares. The path was a gauntlet to conquer before arriving at the temple’s feet, but I was not disappointed.
The ruins were glorious. Chichén Itzá’s pale stones reflected the onslaught of sunlight, and set the site apart from Cobá and Tulum simply by their hugeness. The heralded temple of Chichén Itzá was impressive, but I have never felt more in awe of a structure than I did upon seeing its massive ball court. Intricate carvings interrupted the smooth slant of stone. The central corridor between its two rising walls was large enough to make me imagine horses, not just men, had been involved in the court’s activities. A snake eating its tail, a shape carved into many of the slabs, was meant to represent eternal life. This cosmic symbol was in evidence everywhere.
After leaving Mexico, the images of Chichén Itzá, Cobá, and Tulum remained etched in my mind as glowing reminders of the immemorial. These structures are not measured solely by their ancient lifespans, or what the stones have seen. They are part of Mexico’s cultural heritage—a resource that provides visitors and locals alike with a picture of the past. While the ruins now reside in my subconscious, their shadows and stones linger as I continue studying anthropology. My journey through the Yucatán Peninsula’s remnants of civilizations long past deepened my understanding of global cultures and enhanced my love of travel.