Zama

by Jack Losh

The dozen bodies around me are motionless as I wake. Dawn still feels distant, the air cooler now, the courtyard outside dead. I pull on a T-shirt and stash a few dollars in my pocket for potential bribes should I get caught. Someone lets out a grunt as I creak open the door and descend the wooden stairs into the pitch-black Mexican night. Picking up a bike, I head southwards to the cliffs.

I had arrived the previous afternoon after four days of living a double-life in Playa del Carmen, further up-coast on the Yucatán Peninsula. By day, I felt like just another gringo on the beach, never more than a few steps from a Starbucks, Burger King or Gucci outlet. But by night, I was among the locals - the hotel cleaners, taxi drivers, cafe waiters - sleeping in the suburbs at a friend's modest whitewashed house. Time had come to take to the road again. Fifty miles later by cramped collectivo minibus, I alighted at Tulum, a dustbowl of a town, but home to some of the Mayan civilisation's most spectacular ruins, set high above the Caribbean Sea.

The walled, timeworn city - populated by over 1,500 inhabitants at its peak half a millennium ago - stands atop 40-foot cliffs, gilded by virgin sands and white surf below. El Castillo and the God of Winds Temple dominate the view, marking the dramatic seaward entrance to one of the last cities built by the Mayans. Before invasion and Old World disease, this fortified town and trade hub flourished, exporting obsidian rock, jade and artefacts of gold, with salt and textiles arriving by sea through a gap in the reef. It was originally called Zama, the 'City of Dawn'. And it was this name, this promise, that had brought me here as the town nearby still slept.

Half an hour before sunrise, I make it to the beach after pedalling down a rough dirt-track, tunnelled through undergrowth. It would be hours till the site formally opened but a brief recce the previous day had revealed another way in; cliffs beneath the ancient city rise at the northern limit of the bay, past wooden huts and small fishing boats moored offshore. I reach the foot of the dark wall of rock and, with only the light of my phone to guide me, begin edging along a thin ledge above the inky Caribbean waters, invisible waves breaking close to my feet then sucking back hungrily. After slowly traversing a few hundred metres, I make it to a slanting bluff and clamber up to the foot of El Castillo, the clifftop fortress that guards this dead city.

First light filters through the charcoal clouds, casting the temples and turrets in a ghostly grey. No soul is here, at least none belonging to the living. The manicured lawns are empty, the stony footpaths silent, as I try to glimpse Tulum's half-imagined denizens through squinted eyes. On the far north of the site, I spot the God of Winds Temple, the highest look-out point. Criss-crossing past empty ruins and solitary palms, I reach the isolated building and take my place, back to the seafront wall. Cold, blue light spills over the Caribbean and onto Tulum, illuminating this fabled City of Dawn. I alone may be enjoying the sight this morning but I remind myself that many eyes before mine - of Mayan sentries, traders and conquistadores alike - have taken in this same, serene sunrise.

Within half an hour, a full sun is above the horizon, though obscured by an increasingly unsettled sky. I head back slowly towards the cliffs to make my stealthy escape, taking in the grand emptiness of the ghost town along the way. Then a yell to my right. Just a hundred yards away, two guards spot me. I break into a sprint and they take up the chase. Reaching a gap in the fence, I quickly crawl through, losing my flip-flop which I snatch off the dirt. Behind me the guards are fast gaining ground, El Castillo's imposing facade rising high above them. Turning, I rush towards the cliff-face, scratching my legs on thorny scrub, and scramble down. One guard keeps up the pursuit, faltering, then giving up.

Heart-pounding, I eventually reach the bottom and place both feet on the beach. A few solitary figures have surfaced now - fishermen, early-morning joggers, cafe owners. The sands stretch out beneath a tenebrous sky as a day of drizzle closes in and I make my way back to the roadside hostel, replete with the memory of that slow sunrise. Behind me, the dead city has disappeared.