Tulum Castillo in 1995

Tulum – the First Maya City Known to the Outside World

Of all the Maya sites I’ve ever visited, Tulum is my least favorite at the moment. But that has nothing to do with the ancient city, and it wasn’t always so. Overcrowded, over-touristed, everything about it screams tourist trap. After visiting it a few years ago, after they “fixed it up” for the crowds, I refuse to return there. However, when talking about all the Maya sites I visited, I can’t leave out Tulum. I actually really enjoyed it. Once upon a time.

And to be fair, if you’ve never been, it’s worth a visit. Maybe. If you are there in the slow season; or… well, you can decide. I’m staying away now, but I visited the site a few times over the years and enjoyed it. The archaeological site of Tulum, its structures, symbolism, and history are amazing.

Tulum – A Maya 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, and the sea on the fourth. On the seaside there was no need for walls; High cliffs about fifty feet tall protected the city.

The original name of Tulum was Tzamá (or Zamá), Maya for “City of the Dawn”.

The First Maya City Known to the Outside 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.

Tulum is the only Maya city built right on the beach, overlooking the ocean. Built between 1200 – 1450 AD, it dates from the Post-Classic period of the Maya civilization, and one of the few cities still occupied when the Spaniards arrived. In fact, it remained occupied for about another seventy years. With its fortress-like design, no army could defeat it. But the diseases brought by the Spaniards eventually did the job.

Looking at it from the ocean side, the way the Spaniards must have seen it, they faced a huge blank wall. This is the backside 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 Quintana Roo, page 129).

Tulum. View from the beach in 1995
View from the beach in 1995. photo credit: Jeff Fromm

My First Visit to Tulum

Unlike the Spaniards, I didn’t approach the peninsula on a boat, so Tulum wasn’t the first ancient Maya city I visited, only the second one, after Xel-Ha Ruins. Still, I roamed through this site during my first trip to the Yucatan Peninsula, in 1995. It has changed a lot since. Not the structures, but the way you can visit the site.

At the time I climbed the Castillo, I walked through the ancient rooms, I touched rocks that the ancients touched, and only shared the site with a handful of visitors. My fondest memories and impressions of the site are from that early visit, even though we returned a few times since.

Tulum structures 1995
Tulum, the site in 1995. photo credit: Jeff Fromm

I remember looking at the Castillo in awe, being the largest and prettiest I’ve seen at the time (I haven’t seen the Kukulcan pyramid in Chichen Itza yet). Although it wasn’t too high, the view of the beach and the ocean was second to none. Yes, we could still climb it. I remember standing there and feeling like I was on top of the world, the ocean breeze blowing my hair.

Walking through ancient rooms I admired colorful ancient frescoes; Wandering through and around the buildings I felt privileged and lucky to be there.

The Archaeological Site of Tulum

Built on a high cliff, overlooking the Caribbean and surrounded by walls on three sides, Tulum seems to have been built for defense. The city had five entrances, one of which is used as the entrance to the ruins now.

Built during the Late Post-Classic age of the Maya civilization, its architectural style reflects this age, Tulum being different from the earlier classic sites. The emphasis 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, so it was an easy visit. It used to be one of my favorite ancient Maya city because it was so easy to get to and climb every structure and roam through the site.

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 than a city people lived in.

The Castillo

The Castillo, the most important structure at the site, stands on top of the edge of a cliff, facing away from the sea. At only 25 feet tall it is much shorter than some of the most impressive pyramids on the peninsula. Still, it is spectacular because of its setting, on the cliff above the sea.

Tulum Castillo in 1995
The Castillo in Tulum in 1995. photo credit: Jeff Fromm

The stairway up the pyramid, leading to the temple on top faces west, and it is adorned with two serpent heads on the sides of the stairs. They remind me of the stairway at the Castillo in Chichen Itza. The same motif is also present on the top, at the entrance to the temple, where two serpent columns form three doorways. Above the doorways, three niches held reliefs of ancient gods, one of them still home to the Descending God, or Bee God, also present on the facade of the Nohuch Mul Pyramid in Coba.

Two other levels on the sides of the stairway house more rooms, smaller on the lower levels, and larger ones flanked by columns on the upper levels.

Main buildings in Tulum Ruins. 1995
The main buildings in the ancient Maya city of Tulum. photo credit: Jeff Fromm, 1995

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. Yes, I’ve seen them, we could still enter the room and marvel at the paintings, old and faded, but still 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 we noticed niches with remains of sculptures.

We walked through and stopped at smaller structures within the walls of Tulum. At Structure 25 we saw a well-preserved carving of the Descending God, while the highlight of Structure 21 was 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 important for the Maya, more so on the coast, where the waning moon looks more 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

Fresco in Tulum Ruins. 1995
Fresco in Tulum Ruins. photo credit: Jeff Fromm, 1995.

Are the Tulum Ruins Worth a Visit?

Most people, most travel books will tell you to go visit Tulum. If it’s your first time on the peninsula, go for it. But it really depends on what you are looking for. If you want to see ancient Maya structures, you’ll find plenty, nicer or bigger ones, in Xel-Ha Ruins or Muyil on the coast. A short drive inland will take you to Cobá, where you can even climb one of the tallest pyramids on the peninsula. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

But none of the other sites sit right on the shore, none of them overlook the ocean, like Tulum. Is it worth battling the crowds to see it? You’ll have to decide for yourself. I am sure if I haven’t seen it, I would consider visiting it, even with the crowds.

The last time I visited Tulum was probably a decade ago, in the past ten years, so I’m not sure quite what to expect at this time. I know that they built a stairway leading down to the beach from the Castillo. We used to stumble to the beach on the hard-t-follow trail, but now it’s much easier, you have stairs leading down to the water. So take your bathing suit if you visit the ruins, that’s another bonus of being in Tulum. To be fair, none of the other ruins offer this.

In a Nutshell – Quick Facts About Tulum

What and where is Tulum

Tulum is an ancient Maya city built on the coast of the Caribbean, on a cliff overlooking the ocean. The area today is known as the Riviera Maya.

When was it occupied:

It was occupied during the post-classic period of the Maya Civilization, up to the Spanish conquest, even some 70 years after.

What was its main purpose?

One of the few walled cities of the Maya, Tulum was a trade center.

Main Gods of Tulum

Tulum honored the Diving God or Bee God, as well as the Moon Goddess, Ixchel.

Tulum today:

The site is a major tourist destination today and the most frequently visited Maya ruin.

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.

About the Author

Emese-Réka Fromm has been visiting Maya ruins and archaeological sites for over thirty years, since the first time she set foot on the Yucatan Peninsula on her honeymoon. Besides exploring well-known and off-the-beaten track ruins all this time, she reads about the ancient Maya, and recently attended a lecture of respected Mayanist and epigrapher David Stuart at the Maya meetings at the UT of Austin. A published travel writer with bylines in publications like Lonely Planet and several others, she is also a language instructor in Phoenix.

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