The Riviera Maya has a lot to offer those looking for a Caribbean vacation on the coast of Mexico. You’ll find fantastic attractions up and down the coast–from nature parks to fishing villages to beach clubs.
But half way down Mexico’s Caribbean coastline in Tulum, is one of the must-see attractions in all the Caribbean. Sitting on a cliff looking at the stunningly blue Caribbean is the ruins of the old Mayan city. The main attraction, the highest building, El Castillo dominating cliffside.
Let’s learn a little bit more about the ruins of Tulum and find out whey they are so special.
About The Tulum Ruins
Tulum was a powerful Mayan trading post and acted as a port for Coba. It was the only Mayan City on the coast. Tulum was thriving during the 13-15th century, peaking around the 14th century and still inhabited by Mayans when the Spanish invaded in the 16th century. By the turn of the 16th century Tulum was no longer inhabited. Certain theories suggest there was a plague or crop failure.
Tulum is the Mayan word for fence, wall or trench, but originally the city of Tulum may have been called Zama, meaning dawn. One of the first mentions of the city of Tulum was made by Juan Diaz who was on Juan de Grijalva’s expedition in 1518. He wrote that they sighted a city or town so large that Seville would not have appeared bigger or better. A very tall tower was seen there too – surely a reference to El Castillo.
Tulum’s First Impression From European Explorers
In 1579, in the writing of Juan de Reigosa’s Las Relaciones de Yucatán, Zama is mentioned as a walled site with stone buildings, one looked like a fortress. Another book, Informe Contra Idolorum Cultores del Obispado de Yucatán, written in Madrid in 1639 by Pedro Sanchez de Aguilar, tells the story of shipwrecked Spaniards on the coast of Zama. The first detailed description of the ruins with detailed sketches was published by John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood in 1843 in their popular book, Incidents of Travel in Yucatan.
Archaeology at Tulum
Sylvanus Morley and George P. Howe continued the archaeological work started at Tulum in 1913. Following this, work was continued by the Carnegie Institution from 1916 to 1922; Samuel Lothrop mapped the site in 1924 and continued work until late 1920’s. Miguel Angel Fernandez worked the site in the late 1930s and early 1940s, then William Sanders in 1955, and later was Arthur Miller in the 1970s.
The Tulum Ruins Today
Today, for the fee of 40 pesos, roughly $4, you can walk around this ancient Mayan spiritual ground, taking in the stunning buildings and admiring original Mayan artwork.
The most significant ruins have information plaques explaining what they are and the significance to the site, these are in Spanish, English and Mayan.
El Castillo (The Castle) is the main building in the Tulum ruins. This ancient imposing building was said to act and many things, one of them being a lighthouse.
Tulum Ruin Carvings
You can still see remains of the masked sculptures carved into the castle. The doorway to the temple has columns in the shape of rattlesnakes, with the tails supporting the roof and their heads adjoining the floor.
The ground level has two small temples, these are where offerings would have been placed to the Mayan god Kukulcan on the site’s highest point. Kukulcan was the wind god, also known as the feathered serpent god.
Some theories say Mayan people believed Kukulcan would one day return from the east to mark the beginning of a new and prosperous era. With Tulum’s location as far east on the Yucatan mainland as possible this would be a great lofty place to keep a watchful eye for the royal return.
On two of the fortress’ corners there are towers that served as temples, called El Torreón. Archaeologists do not believe that the towers played a roll of defending the city and, judging by the alter along the back wall, this building probably served as a place for sacrificial offerings.
Temple of the Descending God
Templo del Dios Descendente (Temple of the Descending God) – is one of the most beautiful temples in Tulum. Tulum has scripts and drawings relating to the descending god throughout many of its ruins and they can also be seen in the ruins at the ruins of Coba, located around 30 miles (50km) to the west.
The temple gets its name from a sculpture located there that represents a God in human form wearing a headdress, descending from the heavens, holding an object of some kind.
Temple of Paintings
Temple of the Frescoes or Templo de las Pinturas (Temple of Paintings) – this two level building is the best preserved in Tulum. The colored murals on one of its inner walls gives the name. The upper level temple is decorated with red hand prints. The lower level is comprised of two temples built one inside the other. The inner temple is decorated with murals. The outer temple boasts sculptures and carved masks of Chac, who is presumed to be the creator god or god of rain.
The outer temple has many sculptures, including one of the descending god. The reason for the murals being painted in three levels was the representation of the dark underworld of the deceased, the middle order of the living, and the home of the creator and rain gods.
The Palace at Tulum
El Palacio (The Palace) – was a residence for Tulum’s most important inhabitants. You can still see benches around the walls that were used as seats and probably also as beds. At the back of the building is an area where the family held religious ceremonies.
Templo de la Estela (Temple of the Initial Series) – archaeologists were puzzled when they came across fragments of a stele – a stone monument – inscribed with the Mayan date of 564 A.D inside this temple, since most buildings in Tulum dated between the 11th and 14th century. Research points to the stele being brought to Tulum from Tankah, a settlement about 3 miles (4 km) to the north. The stele is now located in the British Museum in London.
The Well House
Passing the temples heading towards the ocean, you encounter another relatively small building called La Casa del Cenote translating as The Well House. Built on a cenote – a natural well or sinkhole – religious ceremonies were held here.
Other ruins of interest are The House of the Columns or La Casa de las Columnas. This was used by the Halach Uinic, or king, to do businesses with those holding lower rank, such as a lord.
Tulum has a series of small scale reproductions of temples called Templos Miniatura as they are so small researchers believe they were used for shrines with sacrificial offerings inside.
Before you enter the actual site of the ruins don’t miss the voladores. Five men in costume recreate a ceremonial ritual first started by the Totonac Indians from Veracruz, probably a fertility ritual.
The flying men begin by climbing a tall pole, then four of the men place a foot into a loop at the end of a rope wound around the top of the pole. The fifth man performs a special dance upon the top of the pole while playing a flute to each of the four cardinal directions.
At just the right moment, the four flying men release themselves from the small cap on the pole and fall to earth, circling around the pole in expanding circles as the rope unwinds, amazingly eventually touching ground. This is truly spectacular but don’t try this at home!
These incredible ruins of Tulum are in my opinion, the biggest reason to visit the Riviera Maya and the Mexico’s Caribbean coast. Of course there are beautiful beaches with big resorts that take care of your every need, but visiting these Mayan ruins that over look the sea is something you just can’t find anywhere else.
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If Tulum is now on your MUST VISIT list, good for you! Here are a few of hotels and villas we recommend staying at. They will put you close to the ruins and give you a unforgettable experience.
The last thing I want to recommend is this guide book about Tulum and other Mayan ruin hot spots. I always love reading up on a location before I go so that we don’t miss a thing when we go.
Cheers and never stop exploring!
Ryan – RumShopRyan
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