The Mayan ruins of Tulum are probably the most photographed ruin in Mexico other than Chichen Itza. The iconic image of the structures of Tulum on a cliff above the azure waters of the Caribbean is certainly gorgeous and make Tulum the worthwhile visit that it is.
Tulum – Walled City
Tulum is also the Yucatan Mayan word for fence or wall, and its name indicates the nature of the ancient city. Situated on 40 foot high cliffs against the sea, it was likewise surrounded by a wall that was 10-15 feet in height, 26 feet thick and 1,300 feet long on the western wall parallel to the sea. Defense was obviously important to the founders of Tulum and it was a major trade hub for the city of Coba further inland. A ‘young’ city, it reached its height in the 13th to 15th centuries with about 1,000-1,600 inhabitants and managed to survive about 70 years after the Spanish began their conquests. Old world diseases appear to have been the major cause of the cities abandonment.
The Castle (Lighthouse)
The structures are in excellent shape. While you cannot climb on any of them or enter the structures, you are free to walk about and look at them from pretty close-up. The most famous structure is the Pyramid El Castillo – it seems every Mayan site has a structure so named. Also called the Lighthouse, this building is 25 feet tall and appears to have been used as a beacon for incoming canoes as here is a break in the barrier reef opposite the structure. That break in the reef as well the defensive nature of the site likely is the reason this site was chosen for the city. Artifacts found on-site show that trade was practiced throughout the Yucatan as well as Central Mexico and Central America.
God of Wind
Another important structure is the Temple of the God of Wind (Templo del Dios del Viento), a smaller structure located right along the picturesque coast and right over the landing site for visiting canoes. The god of the wind, Ehecatl from Central Mexico, was related to Kukulcan.
The Temple of the Descending God comes from the relief above the door featuring a figure with its head pointed down. Tulum appears to be the center of the god’s cult as more carvings of him are found in other buildings. The descending god was also called the diving god and was also tied to the bee, an important insect to the Maya. The temple is brightly lit by the setting sun on April 6th – the birthday of the descending god. The planet Venus was also associated with the descending god and while images of him have been found elsewhere, this is the only known temple to him.
Temple of the Frescoes
The Temple of the Frescoes was used as an observatory tracking the movements of the sun. It is filled with murals that have aged poorly. The House of the Columns is more complex than most of the structures on site and had a palace-like four rooms with six columns supporting the roof of the main room.
Since we stayed the night before in Tulum, we were able to arrive as the door was opened and beat the crowds that arrive later in the day. Most visitors to the ruin come via tour bus form other cities, so the crowd arrives a bit later. It is the most visited of all Mayan sites so site can get a bit crowded at peak times.
Besides the crowds, the only thing I have against Tulum is the lack of large pyramids. None of the structures here are particularly large. If you are at all able, spend some time visiting some of the wonderful cenotes in the area or some other Mayan ruins. They are worthwhile.
Read advice from me on how to see Tulum here.
To see a gallery of hi-res pictures from our trip, go here.
My list of favorite cenotes in the area is here.
To see where Tulum fits in my ranking of favorite Mesoamerican ruins, go here.