Visiting Mayan Ruins - Tulum
A Mayan Fortress
The world Tulum derives from Mayan for "wall", "fortification", or "fortress". Indeed, the city looks like a fortress, surrounded by a wall on three sides, the fourth side being the sea. On the seaside high cliffs about fifty feet tall protect the city.
The original name of Tulum was Tzamá (or Zamá), Maya for "City of the Dawn".
The First City Known in the New World
"Of all the larger Mayan cities known, Tulum is certainly the strangest and the most awe-inspiring. When the first Spaniards sailed up the coast they compared Tulum with Seville. (...) Tulum was the first sign, with the other cities on the coast, that there was anything like a powerful culture on the American continent. (...) Peru nor Aztec Mexico was known when suddenly the Spaniards spotted the first city of the New Wolrd, the city of Tulum, which rises up on the summit of the only cliff on the Quintana Roo coast." - wrote Michel Peissel, in his book "The Lost World of Quintana Roo, published in 1963.
Indeed, Tulum is the only city built right on the beach, overlooking the ocean. It dates from the Post-Classic period of the Mayan civilization, built between 1200 - 1450 AD. It is one of the few Mayan cities still occupied when the Spaniards arrived. In fact it remained occupied for about another seventy years. No army could defeat it. But the diseases brought by the Spaniards did the job.
Looking at it from the ocean side, the way the Spaniards must have seen it, only a huge blank wall is visible. It is the back side of the Castillo, the main structure, built on top of the cliff, "presenting to the mariners the large blank wall of a mighty tower, a citadel" (Peissel, The Lost World of Quintant Roo, page 129).
Tulum was built on a high cliff, overlooking the Caribbean and surrounded by walls on three sides. It seems that the wall had to be a defensive feature. The city has five entrances, one of which is used as the entrance to the ruins now.
Built in the Late Post-Classic style of architecture, Tulum is different from the earlier classic sites. The emphasis seems to have shifted from elaborate structures to simpler ones. People seemed to have worried more about necessity rather than aesthetics.
All the interesting structures are enclosed within the walls and the site is relatively small and very well cleared, so it is an easy visit. It used to be one of my favorite sites, but that changed in the past years. It is too crowded for my taste, and they turned it into a tourist trap. The trail that goes through the site is confined through a cordon, making it impossible to get close to any of the buildings.
There is no more roaming around the site, no more climbing on the structures or entering the temples. But, if you have never been there, it is still worth the visit. I also understand the need for this type of rules. With thousands of visitors every day, th eneed toprotect the structures made it necesary. The tourists need to stay on the trail, off the buildings, and relatively far from them. You can still enjoy them, from a safe distance.
El Castillo is the most impressive building at the site, with two smaller temples on the two sides of it. A few other structures stand close to it, smaller temples, and two watchtowers. They are on the corners of the enclosing wall.
The site is only about 16 acres altogether, and archaeologist Michael D. Coe has suggested that it was home to no more than about 500-600 people. It seems to have been more important as a major trading center.
The Castillo stands on top of the edge of a cliff, facing away from the sea. At only 25 feet tall it is much smaller than some of the most impressive pyramids on the peninsula. Still, it is spectacular because of its setting, on the cliff above the sea.
The pyramid, with a temple on top, has a stairway leading to it, facing west, with two serpent heads on the sides of the stairs. They remind me of the stairway at the Castillo in Chichen Itza. The serpent motif is also present on the top, at the entrance to the temple. Two serpent columns form three doorways up there. Above the doorways, there are three niches, one of them still with the relief of the Descending God.
There are rooms on two levels on the sides of the stairway. The lower level rooms are smaller, the higher level ones are larger and have columns on their sides.
I haven't been in Tulum in the past ten years. Last time I was there, it seemed too crowded and too touristy for my taste. I know though that they built a stairway leading down to the beach from the Castillo. There used to be a trail, a bit hard to go down on it, now they made it easier. So take your bathing suit if you visit the ruins.
Temples and Other Buildings
The Temple of the Descending God has a niche above the door with a depiction of the God it is named for, also called the Bee God. It also has remains of murals inside. I was lucky to visit the site at the time when it was still open, when we could enter it and marvel at the paintings. I have to say, as old and faded as they are, they are all spectacular.
The Temple of the Frescoes is a two-story building with four columns that form five doorways. Inside the doorways a corridor surrounds an inner chamber with remains of a few mural paintings. The upper story has one room with a doorway. Above all the doorways there are niches with remains of sculptures.
There area few other, smaller, structures within the walls of Tulum, worth stopping for. Structure 25 has a very well preserved depicting of the Descending God, While Structure 21 has an x-shaped crossbar in its interior window.
I realize that now the visitors can not see the inside of any of these structures. But if you go to Tulum, it is still worth to look at them, even from a safe distance.
The Moon Goddess in Tulum
The Moon Goddess Ixchel was worshiped by the Maya. She was especially important on the coast, where the waning moon looks especially dramatic.
According to archaeologists and art historians, the mural paintings in Tulum may depict the aged Moon Goddess Ixchel. (Miller, 1982, Taube, 1992). She is represented with a serpent headdress carrying a serpent staff in her hand and a maize symbol on her back. She is the waning moon, descending into the waters of the Underworld.
Reference: Star Gods of the Maya. Astronomy in Art, Folklore, and Calendars by Susan Milbrath, pages 147-148
Quick Facts About Tulum Ruins
- Tulum is built on the coast of the Caribbean, on a cliff overlooking the ocean.
- It is one of the few walled cities of the Mayas.
- Tulum was a trade center
- It was occupied during the post-classic period of the Maya Civilization, up to the Spanish conquest, even some 70 years after.
- Tulum honored the Diving God or Bee God, as well as the Moon Goddess, Ixchel.
- Tulum is a major tourist destination today and the most frequently visited Mayan ruin in all of the Yucatan
How To Get There
From Cancun, follow Highway 307 South towards Tulum. The archaeological zone is on the left of the highway. You need to take a shuttle to the entrance to the ruins.