The Quintana Roo coastline is dotted with the vestiges of ancient ports, temples and tiny buildings that are thought to be storehouses and lighthouses, enduring testimony to the vast Mayan trade empire and the intrepid seafarers who navigated the Caribbean in sturdy canoes, venturing as far south as Honduras. Yet one site surpasses all others, a sacred cliff top city that greets the sun as it rises over the Caribbean. Once known as “Zama” or “dawn” in Maya, Tulumis one of the famous sites in the Maya World.
The inscription on a stela or carved standing stone found at the site reveals that Tulum was inhabited as far back as A.D. 564 but it reached its peak during the Post-Classic period (1250 – 1521) as a busy port, strategically located on the sea and land trade routes. Trading canoes may have anchored in the tiny bay at the foot of the cliff crowned by El Castillo, the principal temple in the city. Trade goods such as jade, obsidian, copper, flint and ceramics have all been found at the site.
Spanish explorer Juan de Grijalva and his crew were probably the first Europeans to spot Tulum from afar during their voyage along the eastern coast of the Yucatan in 1518, but it was the 19th-century Maya World pioneers, J.L. Stephens and Frederick Catherwood who brought it to the world’s attention. They visited the site during a perilous journey along the coast in 1841 and their account and Catherwood’s drawings were subsequently published in Incidents of Travel in Yucatán (1843).
The area of the archaeological site we visit today was the ceremonial heart of the city, site of the temples and the palaces of the ruling class. Apart from El Castillo, other important groupings are the Temple of the Descending God, so named for a sculpted diving figure thought to represent a deity, the House of the Columns, the Temple of the Wind and the Temple of the Frescos, which still has traces of murals on its inner walls.
Tulumis one of very few walled cities found to date in the Maya World. A massive stone barrier surrounds the city on three sides, the fourth being the ocean. Archaeologists believe that rather than being used for defensive purposes, it separated the ruling elite from their subjects. The word “Tulum” actually means wall in Maya.
The views of the Caribbean coast from any part of the site are spectacular and if you look inland towards the west, you’ll see the dense canopy of jungle that covers the land for miles around.
After a morning in the sun, you’ll probably be ready for a refreshing dip and you may want to spend time in the small cove at the foot of the cliff or on beaches to the south of the city. Other nearby spots include Xel-Há Park, a huge natural aquarium to the north of Tulum, Tankah and Akumal.