Few would argue that Tulum is a magical place. It’s been an enchanting Caribbean escape for Mayans since at least 564 AD (the date inscribed on the oldest known stone stele), and is the oldest resort town in the Americas for many reasons. The area’s sapphire blue water, glittering white beaches and cenotes hidden in the Yucatan jungle combine to cast the very best sort of spell over all who choose to visit.
So, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Quintana Roo Secretary of Tourism, Juan Carlos Gonzalez Hernandez, and Tulum Mayor, Edith Mendoza Pino, formally requested that Tulum be recognized as a “Magic Village.” This request is passed through the Ministry of Tourism in order for the town to become one of Mexico’s Pueblos Magicos. The decade-old program, which currently includes 48 villages scattered throughout Mexico, would recognize the culture and traditions of Tulum, as well as other factors like the town’s landscape.
The Pueblos Magicos, however, are chosen for their historical and cultural importance, with an emphasis on architectural harmony. Though Tulum’s famous ruins cater to almost as many visitors annually as Chichen Itza, they might not quite qualify.
Each of the 48 villages upon which the honor has been bestowed have had to satisfy three main criteria:
- Be close to a popular tourist destination or a large city
- Be accessible by a modern road
- Have notable historical, religious and cultural significance
In addition, the most important quality must be assessed: magic. Though difficult to define, magic is a widely understood and important quality for Pueblos Magicos. The program is not designed to rescue “dying” areas or those in need of economic stimulus, but instead is awarded to towns that are thriving with architectural vibrancy and cultural identity.
Herein lies the problem. The Yucatan Peninsula was an important cultural and political entity at the height of the Mayan Empire. The poor soil and lack of freshwater left it something of a backwater in the Spanish Colonial era. The Spanish, moreover, preferred to build their cities well inland. It has only been since 1974 that the “Mayan Riviera” was rediscovered, thanks to the National Fund for Tourism Development, as the perfect spot for the Integrally Planned Center known today as Cancun. That was more science than magic.
The peninsula is home to a handful of Pueblos Magicos, all located well inland. Just east of Merida, which is famed for its Spanish Colonial architecture, lays a Franciscan convent built atop a Mayan pyramid that Pope John Paul II visited 1993. Bacalar, just south of Tulum, offers lovely lagoon beaches, but was recognized for a spectacular Spanish fortress and well-preserved Mayan ruins. Another quaint Colonial town, Palizada, Campeche, is known for its colorful festivals.
Enter Tulum. It’s been nearly 1,500 years since the city became one of Mesoamerica’s top vacation destinations, and the modern resort town’s chief attractions is surely the picturesque Mayan ruins, located on beautiful white sand beaches. Sure, the 8 kilometers (5miles) of eco resorts stretching from the ruins to Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve are spectacular, and El Pueblo, the somewhat scruffy service town about 3 kilometers (1.6 miles) inland is pleasant enough; but neither offers the sort of resplendent cultural heritage for which the Pueblos Magicos is known.
Thus, the state of Quintana Roo is asking that the spectacular ruins of Coba, located on the cenote-lined road from Tulum proper, be included in the designation. Will Mexico’s Ministry of Tourism agree to this unusual request? Our crystal ball can’t say; but in the end, such fripperies of the modern era make little difference. Tulum has its own magic, woven in the history of the Mayan ruins and the beautiful beaches.