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Tulum: The Mayan City by the Sea

December 12, 2015 , , Richard Quinn


Tulum is not all that large, as Mayan sites go, but its spectacular location, right on the east coast of the Yucatan Peninsula, makes it one of the best known, and definitely one of the most picturesque. This was a late post-classic Maya site that was was at it’s peak from 1200 AD right up to the time of the Spanish Conquest. It was still inhabited for at least 70 years after the arrival of the Europeans, until the Old World diseases brought along by the Spaniards took hold and decimated the population, causing the town to be abandoned.

Tulum was a walled city, built for easy defense, perched on ocean-side cliffs nearly forty feet high. This fortress-like town of perhaps 1500 inhabitants served as the port for Coba, a much larger Mayan center that lay inland, 27 miles to the northwest. There was a significant volume of coastal trade in the ancient Americas. Large seagoing canoes followed routes that hugged the coastline from the Gulf of Mexico, around the Yucatan Peninsula to the Caribbean. They carried mostly low density, high value trade goods, things such as obsidian, jade, turquoise, rare birds, and finely woven cloth. There was also trade in ideas and in artistic styles, which helps to explain some of the similarities between disparate cultures that were separated by significant distances.

Tulum means enclosure, or wall, in the Yucatec Mayan language, but scholars believe that’s a modern name. It’s thought that the original name may have been Zama, which means dawn, in reference to its location on the eastward facing coast.

(Note: All photos below can be clicked for an expanded view).


The eastward, seaward facing side of the largest building in Tulum (née Zama), called El Castillo, the Castle, as seen in the dawn’s early light. 

El Castillo is located right at the edge of the seaside cliffs, so it does indeed catch the full, unobstructed rays of the rising sun. This elegantly designed building, which resembles a Moorish castle, was readily visible from the sea. Also atop the cliffs was this building:


The Temple of the Wind, a smaller structure, elevated to a point of prominence by a small hill.

These buildings, the skyline of ancient Zama, no doubt served as important landmarks for the ancient mariners. Other prominent features of note in this complex of ruins include:


The nearly intact defensive perimeter wall.

In its original condition, the wall averaged twelve feet in height and was more than 25 feet thick. The section facing the sea was a quarter of a mile long, one side of a rectangle completely enclosing the entire site of about 20 acres. Construction of this massive wall would have been an enormous project requiring a huge amount of manpower, which is a good indication of the importance placed on the defense of this location. Tulum, or Zama, was literally a treasure house for the nobles of Coba, a repository of the luxury goods both taken and given in trade to the merchants that plied the coast in their big canoes.

Other buildings of note include:


The Grand Palace


The House of the Cenote, a structure enclosing a natural well in the limestone that provided water for the inhabitants.

Tulum is very easy to get to from the resort city of Cancun, just a two hour drive south along the coast. You can rent a car, or you take an intercity or regional bus from Cancun to the town of Tulum, where the ruins are located. Last but not least, you can hook up with a tour, and ride in a big, air conditioned bus that will take you to the ruins, wait for you, and then take you back to Cancun. Many of the tours are packages that include round trip to Tulum, the entry fees to the ruins (57 Pesos if bought at the site), a ride in the tractor drawn cart that hauls people from the ticket booth to the entrance (a distance of a bit more than a half mile that you would otherwise have to walk), plus the services of an English speaking tour guide who will take your group on the clockwise circuit of the ruins and tell you all sorts of tales. Not cheap, but definitely informative, as the guides often have insights you won’t find in the tour books.  You can do all those things on your own, of course, including the hiring of a guide–the package tours simply make it easier.  Just be prepared to pay a hefty markup to the tour company for the convenience.

In my view, the best bet is to either rent a car or take a regular passenger bus from Cancun to Tulum, and get a room in the town. There are quite a number of reasonable options for lodging, some of them extremely nice. Follow the same basic plan of attack that I spelled out in my previous post, “Assignment: Chichen Itza”.  Travel to Tulum, get your room (if you don’t have one reserved), and then go out to the ruins in the afternoon. It will be very crowded, any time of the year, because this is an extremely popular day trip from Cancun, and there are busloads of tourists pouring in, one after another, every day, throughout the day. All the visitors are chased out and the site is closed by 5:00 PM. That’s too early to catch the sunset, but during that last hour before closing, the crowd starts to thin out, and there’s good light on the landward side of the Castillo and the other buildings as the sun starts dropping in the west. Odds are, you’ll get great photographs, especially if there are a few clouds to add some drama to the sky. Tulum is truly a beautiful place, from almost any angle.

The next morning, be there at 8:00 AM sharp for the opening bell. Your goal is to be inside the wall and snapping photographs before the tour buses start rolling in at 9:00. You’ll have a good hour to make the circuit of the ruins, really taking your time. You’ll have wonderful morning light, especially on the seaward facing side of the Castillo and the Temple of the Wind. Again, you’re all but guaranteed some of the best photos of your whole vacation. It’s hard to miss!


Click the thumbnail (above) to open a gallery of the “couldn’t miss” images from my visit to Tulum

Next up: Quintana Roo-ins: Coba and Muyil

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