Mexico Day 2: Tulum

Kingbird sp.

Kingbird sp.

It was about an hour’s drive to Tulum from Playa Del Carmen, and we arrived at mid-afternoon. The shuttle deposited us at the main entrance to the park, and at first we weren’t sure where we needed to buy our tickets as the entire area looked like an outdoor flea market with vendors selling a variety of foods and wares in different booths and buildings. Doran was immediately intrigued by the colourful Mayan calendar disks displayed outside one of the buildings and spent some time looking through them before eventually purchasing one. From there we found the ticket booth, and after buying our tickets we proceeded down the main avenue that leads to the gate.

Just as we were leaving the market area I spotted a bird on the wire that looked different. It was bright yellow on the front, and reddish brown on the back, which I noticed when it turned around briefly while I was photographing it. I’m glad I was able to see both sides as the reddish wings and tail distinguish the Great Kiskadee from the similar-looking Boat-billed Flycatcher – another life bird for me. The Great Kiskadee is one of the birds I had hoped to see, not just because it’s a common species in the open areas of Mexico and Central America (no. 4 on my list of target birds), but also because of its flashy colours. This bird did not disappoint!

Great Kiskadee

Great Kiskadee

On our way to the gate we came across the following “welcome” sign which says “The within is a Federal Natural Protected Area, enacted on April 23, 1981 with the aim of preserving, protecting and restoring ecosystems and elements; maintaining environmental services they provide; and promoting sustainable development” (not an official translation).

P.N. Tulum

P.N. Tulum

As we made our way toward the entrance I noticed a tourist photographing a bird perching in a tree right next to the path. I did a double-take when I saw the bright blue wings and tail against the velvety black body, recognizing it immediately as a Yucatan Jay (no. 10 on my list of targets)! There were three in the area, including an immature bird which had a yellow ring around the eye and bright yellow bill.

Yucatan Jay

Yucatan Jay

They were interested in a cluster of fruit, and after seeing one bird grab a berry and fly off, I waited a few moments to see if any of the other birds would return. Sure enough, one did. This species is endemic to the Yucatan Peninsula, and was another of the species I really wanted to see. I just didn’t think it would be this easy!

Yucatan Jay

Yucatan Jay

We came across one more sign before arriving at the gate where we surrendered our tickets.

Tulum

Tulum is one of the few Mayan cities protected by a wall, and we had to pass through a narrow opening in the wall to enter the grounds. It is the only Mayan city located on the coast; it was believed to have been named Zama, which means “City of Dawn”in the Mayan language – an appropriate name given its location on the eastern coast of the Yucatan Peninsula. The name “Tulum” means “wall” or “fence”, and it was given this name in 1841 by explorers Stephens and Catherwood long after the Mayan city was abandoned.

The Coast at Tulum

The ruins are situated on 12-metre high cliffs along the shore, and given the height of these cliffs, there is no wall on this side. The wall around Tulum varies from 3 to 5 metres in height, and is 8 metres thick. The western wall, which is the longest, is 400 metres long.

The main building within the walled settlement is known as El Castillo and is sometimes referred to as a lighthouse. It is the tallest building on the site, and given its position on the cliffs, it is the most famous. A tiny cove lies directly beneath El Castillo, which allowed small trading canoes to come ashore.

El Castillo

El Castillo

El Castillo

El Castillo

To the left of El Castillo is the Temple of the Descending God. It bears a carving of the Descending God above the doorway, his feet in the air above his head in the traditional depiction found on many other buildings in the city.

Temple of the Descending God

Temple of the Descending God

The Temple of the God of the Wind is another famous structure at Tulum; it is different from the other structures in that the temple was built on a round platform.

Templo del Dios del Viento (Temple of the God of the Wind)

Templo del Dios del Viento (Temple of the God of the Wind)

Although people have inhabited this site as early as the 6th century, it reached its prime as a major trading and religious center between the 13th and the 15th centuries, with estimates of its population ranging from about 1,000 to 1,600 inhabitants. It was abandoned approximately 70 years after the Spanish Conquest, after most of the native population was killed off by foreign diseases introduced by the Spanish army.

Ruins at Tulum

It was an impressive site, with many other interesting buildings scattered around the open grounds. Unfortunately it was also quite crowded, which detracted from the experience a bit. There was something just a little distasteful about viewing these gorgeous ruins over a sea of tourists with selfie-sticks. Fortunately many areas were roped off to prevent people from wandering among the ruins, so these photos can at least give you the illusion of being there alone!

Ruins at Tulum

Ruins at Tulum

The Coast at Tulum

Despite the openness of the site and the heat of the day I found some interesting birds at the site. When I noticed a group of blackbirds in a tree, I assumed they were grackles at first – until I realized they had a much shorter tail. A quick look through the binoculars revealed another important feature: the dark red eyes of a Bronzed Cowbird! This was my third lifer of our visit to Tulum (no. 27 on my list of target species).

Bronzed Cowbird

Bronzed Cowbird

Bronzed Cowbird

Bronzed Cowbird

The other interesting bird that I saw was a kingbird sitting in the same tree with the cowbirds. It is either a Tropical Kingbird or a Couch’s Kingbird, both of which look almost exactly alike. The most visible difference to people experienced with these species is the bill – the Tropical Kingbird has a bill that is a touch longer and thinner than the shorter, thicker bill of the Couch’s Kingbird. I have no experience whatsoever in determining whether this bill is long enough for a Tropical Kingbird, or short enough for a Couch’s, but fortunately these two species can be told apart by their vocalizations, and knowing this, I studied the songs of each in advance. Unfortunately for me, this bird was not vocalizing.

Kingbird sp.

Kingbird sp.

Two Tropical Mockingbirds were also in the area, and one posed nicely for a few photos.

Tropical Mockingbird

Tropical Mockingbird

Several swallows and swifts were hawking for insects above the site, and at one point three Magnificent Frigatebirds and one Brown Pelican flew over. Given the hour and our anxiety about making it back to the main entrance in time to catch a shuttle back to Playa Del Carmen before the park closed, we weren’t able to explore the site fully. Still, the ruins of Tulum exceeded my expectations in their beauty; even the grounds themselves and the exquisite turquoise waters that formed the backdrop for the Mayan ruins were breathtaking.

Palm Trees at Tulum

Seashore at Tulum

Although Tulum’s status as one of the top three tourist sites in Mexico and its accessibility from Cancun and Playa Del Carmen make it one of the most crowded, the ruins are definitely worth visiting. I only wish we could have had more time there!

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