The Yucatán Peninsula of Mexico is a popular holiday destination for those seeking sun, sea, and sand. But on the cliffs of Quintana Roo, lies the ruins of an ancient Maya city. So what’s the story of the Tulum ruins?
The Maya in Mexico
The Maya were an ancient civilisation that lived in southern Mexico, as well as parts of modern day Central America. At the time, this whole area was known as Mesoamerica, not yet divided into countries. The Maya did have different rulers for each of their city states however, some of the largest and most famous being Tikal (in modern day Guatemala), and Chichén Itzá (Mexico). Their apex, the Classic Maya Period, was from around 250-900 AD. At that point, they had become advanced people, numbering over 2 million, with a distinct culture.
The Maya were mathematicians, astronomers, and architects. They built their cities in line with the stars, from which they had developed a calendar of 365 days. They developed advanced farming systems, and had their own hieroglyphic alphabet. And they were fiercely religious, building huge temples, and carrying out elaborate rituals to appease their gods.
In Mexico, the Maya settled mainly in the south, in the Yucatán Peninsula, and also Tabasco, Campeche, and Chiapas. They had many large cities in these areas, including Palenque, Becan, and Río Bec. Chichén Itzá was one of the longest surviving cities, inhabited until at least 1250, long after most of the others were abandoned during the 9th century.
Building the City of Tulum
The Maya Empire collapsed by 900 AD, for reasons still unknown. Theories have included war, famine, and overpopulation, and overuse of resources. At that time, many of the major Maya cities were abandoned. However, the Mayas survived and moved to other, more rural areas. They built new cities, much smaller than their old ones. This era was known as the post-classic Maya period, lasting until the 16th century. The Yucatán peninsula, in particular, flourished, with the city of Mayapán as its capital.
There is evidence of settlement in the Tulum area as early as the 6th century. However, it was in the 13th century that the city we see now was built, one of the last Maya cities ever built, and the only Maya city on the coast. The location was chosen for trade, with access to both land and sea routes. Honduras and the Yucatán peninsula were important locations, but evidence of the goods shows they traded all across Central America. Semi-precious stones, such as turquoise, jade, and obsidian, were particularly important items.
It’s thought that the city was originally named ‘Zama’, a Mayan word meaning ‘City of Dawn’, because it faces the sunrise in the east. The name ‘Tulum’ is a Yucatán word, chosen later, meaning ‘fence’ or ‘wall’. This is due to the large wall that surrounds the city, an unusual feature, not found in many other Maya cities! Inside the walls were mainly temples and shrines, so it’s assumed that the city was mostly used as a religious, ceremonial centre, only home to its rulers. Any peasants would have lived in simpler houses, beyond the wall. It’s estimated that, at its peak, Tulum would have only had a population of between 1,000 and 1,500 people.
Tulum in Ruins
Most Maya cities were abandoned when the empire fell, around 900 BC, but since Tulum was built after this, that’s not the case this time. So why does the city now lie in ruins?
It was due to the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors, in the 16th century. Hernán Cortés was one of the most infamous, who invaded Mexico in 1519, and swiftly conquered the Aztec Empire that had lived throughout the north and central regions of the country. Then, he turned his attention south, to the Maya. Other Spaniards had investigated the Yucatán peninsula earlier, sailing over from Caribbean islands, but none had attempted to conquer it yet. Over the next few years, the invaders slowly conquered Mesoamerica, driving the Maya from their cities. Many also died from Western illnesses, brought over by the invaders, that their immune systems were unequipped to fight off. However, many survived, and their descendants live on today!
The Yucatán was one of the last areas to be conquered. Francisco de Montejo launched his first campaign in 1527, but the Maya were very resistant. It took until the third attempt, by Montejo’s son in the 1540s, for the north, west, and eastern groups to be subdued. The Itzá people, in the south around Lake Petén Itzá, managed to remain independent for the longest. It was only in 1697, that the Spanish finally defeated them. This was the final step in their total colonisation of the Americas.
Tulum was likely conquered around 1545-1546, at the time when most of the eastern groups submitted peacefully to the Spanish. Historians believe it was abandoned fully by the end of the 16th century. The exact reasons for this are still clear. Indeed, much of the history of the Maya remains unknown to us today.
Rediscovery and the Present
The Tulum ruins were first rediscovered in the 19th century, by John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood. They saw the building as they sailed into the Yucatán peninsula from sea, and wrote about them in their book, Incidents of Travel in Yucatan, published in 1843. Work to restore and uncover the site began in 1913, and was continued by multiple archaeologists throughout the 20th century.
The surrounding area of Quintana Roo became increasingly popular for tourism in the late 20th century. Particularly with the development of nearby Cancún, where dozens of hotels sprung up in the 1970s, combined with the beauty of the coastline, known as the ‘Riviera Maya’. The Tulum ruins are a short day trip away from Cancún, and many hotels have been built near the town as well. The ruins are also now protected within the Tulum National Park, which includes much of the nearby forest area, and several cenotes. Given its stunning and convenient location, as well as the fact that it is one of the best preserved, and only, Maya cities on the coast, Tulum has become the third most visited Maya site in Mexico!
The Tulum ruins are much smaller than many other Maya sites, but are very well preserved. They are unique for their coastal location, and the city wall, which gives the town its name. This limestone wall is around 5m thick, and surrounds the city on three sides, with the fourth protected by the 12m cliffs overlooking the Caribbean Sea. There are five gateways into the city, and watchtowers around the wall as well.
Inside the walls, there are a few main temple structures, used for ceremonial occasions. The largest is the Castillo, a temple pyramid. There is a steep staircase leading up to it, and serpent motifs carved. These are evidence of contact with the Toltecs, another Mexican culture and empire, neighbours of the Maya. In front of the Castillo is the Temple of the Frescoes, named for the murals adorning its walls. The building has two levels, a main and upper gallery, and the ascending paintings show the Maya worlds of the dead, the living, and the gods.
The Temple of the Diving or Descending God is another important building, and carvings of the diving god appear on several other temples in the city, including over the door of the Temple of the Frescoes. He seems to have been particularly important for the citizens of Tulum. He is an upside down figure, usually with wings, headdress, and tail. The Maya also believed that the nearby cenotes (water holes), were entrances to the underworld. The Temple of the Winds is also significant, which was used to help guide sailors in from the reef. It is dedicated to a Maya wind god, and sits on one of the highest points in the city, making it very prominent and photographed!
Wildlife & Scenery
Being protected within a National Park, the Tulum is full of native animals. There is a small beach within the ruins, which is sometimes fenced off during turtle breeding season. They lay their eggs in the sand, and once they hatch, the baby turtles instinctively head for the water. Further along the coast, by Akumal, is a popular location for snorkelling with the turtles. You might also see iguanas and coatimundi roaming around the ruins and the town. Most other animals are found out in the forest, away from humans, and in the nearby Sian Ka’an Reserve, to the south. These include flamingoes, snakes, lizards, crocodiles, monkeys, tapirs, and even jaguars.
Walking along the beach, both by the Tulum ruins and the hotels, is a beautifully picturesque spot. The Caribbean Sea is bright and vibrant, bordered by clean white sands and palm trees. The area has been well preserved and unspoiled thus far. The nearby cenotes make for excellent day trips as well, and much of the land is still Maya owned, so they earn money from the visitors. Some cenotes are ‘closed’ as they go deep underground, and involve wearing helmets and head torches, with a guide to lead you through them. Others are ‘open’ to the air, and are like tropical lagoons, where you can jump from the rocks and bask in the sunshine.
Entry price: 65 pesos
Opening hours: Daily, 08.00am – 17.00pm
It is possible to walk or cycle to the Tulum ruins from the town or hotels if you’re staying there, though this will take around half an hour. If you are driving, there is a car park near the ruins, which you have to pay for. A small train, also requiring payment, is available to take you from the car park to the ruins, as they aren’t very close. Public transport, including taxis, buses, and ‘colectivos’ (vans), is available from Tulum town, Playa del Carmen, and Cancún or many companies offer day trips from these towns as well, especially Cancún.
Guided tours of the ruins are also an option when you arrive, which will cost around 600 pesos, for a more in-depth experience.
Have you visited the Tulum ruins before? Leave a comment about your experience!