12/20/2012 01:39 pm ET

Maya Apocalypse 2012: The Trouble With Tulum, Mexico (PHOTOS)

TULUM, MEXICO -- Tulum was once an important Maya trading post and the years have done little to decrease its economic significance. On the afternoon I visited, the line of tourists waiting to hand over their pesos and enter the ruins was exactly 97 people long. Between them, those 97 people were wearing enough clothing for maybe 45 tourists.

These ruins are a draw not because they are unusually spectacular -- bigger sites like Taxha and Mayapan are less trafficked -- but because they are ideally situated. El Castillo, the grandest structure and focal point of the complex, perches above a lovely cove where ticketed visitors can go swimming.

Given that the beach a hundred miles north and south is less than crowded this time of year and more than inviting, it struck me as strange that people should come to these ruins in order to take a dip. The surf was crowded with men and women of every color, and the well-manicured path circling Temple 54, a pillared salt shaker of a building, was deserted.

What is singular about Tulum is not simply the mini-golf landscaping and the sea grape: Tulum is only a few hours from Cancun, 45 minutes from Playa Del Carmen and a few miles from the tourist town borrowing its name. The visitors here did not come to the Yucatan to see Maya Ruins. They came to go swimming and hang out at the beach. Given the opportunity to both, they've said yes, which is in equal turns laudable and troubling.

Any exposure to the monuments of the past brings with it a healthy helping of perspective, but to treat them as a backdrop is to minimize the Maya. This is a project that doesn't need the help. The Maya have already become mascots for Mexican tourism. This year the government used the prophesied apocalypse as a pretext for a massive marketing campaign and hit its annual goal of 52 million visitors by late summer.

The word Maya is written in front of almost everything in the Yucatan: There are Maya hotels, Maya bars and, despite the noble cow's European roots, at least one Maya burger joint.

Which is all to say that the Maya brand is being diluted.

Their resurgence as a marketing tool and their temple's popularity as a sunbathing spot make the ancient Maya -- it is important to differentiate the modern Maya, who have more of an under-exposure problem -- seem like another Mexican product when the reality is the other way around. Southern Mexico owes its existence to many factors -- and the Maya may be chief among them.

If Mexico City is built on the remains of a great Aztec metropolis, and it is, then the same can be said of the entire Yucatan, which was once home to millions of Maya. Cancun's hotels stand amid Maya ruins obscured by runaway development. The Yucatan capital Merida is built on the lost city of T'ho.

At every Maya temple I've visited, there have been cameras and flashes, but at Tulum everyone seemed to be taking self-portraits with their cell phones. The sea and those crumbling white walls were nothing but a stunning background.

Still, I decided to like Tulum and spent a happy half an hour in the waves beneath the ruins. As diverting as I'd found the sense of superiority that came from diligently reading the placards scattered about the place, it felt more natural to simply acknowledge the bigger lesson: Every tourist in this part of the world, no matter how conscientious, is sunbathing outside a temple.

Scenes from Tulum, Mexico