Long before visitors came to Tulum for its beautiful sandy beaches, they came to see the ruins of Mayan temples perched high above the sea.
Tulum in Context
After the Mayan empire had reached its peak and was breaking into warring factions 800 years ago and several centuries before the arrival of the Spanish, the Maya built a new city along Mexico’s Caribbean coast. Today we call this city Tulum (wall), although the Maya who lived here likely called this east-facing city Zamá (dawn).
Spanish records describe Tulum was a city of 600, although it is not clear how many people actually lived within the walls. Most people probably lived in wooden houses in the jungle beyond.
Nor is it clear what god or gods were worshipped here. Tulum is noted for its depictions of the Descending God, an upside-down figure (perhaps a god in flight) found on several buildings. This figure is unusual in Mayan iconography – although it is also found at Sayil and Cobá – and its meaning is not really understood.
Tulum is also unlike other Mayan cities in that it was built alongside the sea and surrounded by high walls. These features seem to indicate it was a port of some kind, with beaches suitable for landing and unloading boats and perhaps a lighthouse to guide those boats through the reef. Beyond that, little is understood about this city in the years between its founding in 13th century and abandonment in the 16th.
Although Tulum was abandoned during the colonial period, that abandonment proved temporary. The site was reoccupied as a military stronghold during the Maya fight for independence (the Caste Wars). During those wars, only Mayans were allowed in Tulum (or most of the rest of today’s Quintana Roo); non-Mayans entering the region would have been killed. Thus, following Frederick Catherwood’s visit in 1842 (just before the start of the Caste Wars), Tulum again became the sole preserve of the Maya until sometime after 1910. Today several million people visit Tulum’s ruins each year.
Entering the ancient city
Today we enter the ruins on the north end of the site, reaching this access point along a causeway that is not unlike those used by the Maya to connect their ancient cities. The low jungle vegetation is thick enough that it’s hard to believe there are ruins hidden here until the wall that surrounds the city actually comes into view. However, once we see the wall, the path soon leads to an arched opening – one of the wall’s original five entrances.
We duck through and then there is no doubt that we have arrived at a very special place.
From this entrance, near a ruin called the House of the Northwest, we can see the site spread out far in front of us. It seems to go on forever.
I’m surprised by the vastness of it. For some reason I imagined Tulum as a small site with only a couple of buildings – a site that was popular mostly because of its location along the beach not far from the mega-resorts of Playa del Carmen. Instead, I am surrounded by rolling hills, carefully leveled platforms, and ruins of all sizes and all degrees of decay. Some of the ruins are simply heaps of collapsed stones, but others stand tall, structures with distinct features rendered in shades of black and white and grey. Like other Mayan cities, the buildings here would have been painted in brilliant color, but it’s pretty impressive even in this more subtle form.
(This overall view was taken near what was probably originally the main entrance.)
The House of the Halach Uinic
One of the first ruins we come to is located along what would have been the main street through the length of the site. Referred to as the House of the Halach Uinic (Great Lord or King) or sometimes just El Palacio, it’s believed to have been the home of an important leader. A thatched roof protects a figure representing the Descending God. It is generally believed that most of the residents of Tulum lived in traditional wood housing outside the wall, with only a few key political and religious leaders living in stone homes like these within the enclosed site.
The House of the Columns stands next to the House of Halach Uinic along the main street. While a few sources describe this as a residence, most believe it is where the Halach Uinic conducted business. In other words, this building housed government offices.
The Temple of the Frescoes
The next building along the main street is the Temple of the Frescoes (Templo de las Pinturas). archaeologically, this is one of the most important buildings at Tulum, as it preserves the remains of exterior carvings (with bits of original paint), a carving the Descending God, and interior murals.
The House of the Chultun
Across the “street” stands the House of the Chultun, about which there seems to be little information.
Following the crowd
From here the next logical step is to follow the crowds up to the Castillo (the Castle), which was probably a lighthouse and temple, rather than a fortress or a castle.
The Temple of the Initial Series
Along the way we pass the small, oddly named Temple of the Initial Series (Templo de la Estela).
This small structure was named for a Stela (a story stone) found here. The Stela included a type of calendar that used an accounting system called an Initial Series. This Stela caused a bit of confusion, as its date predates the generally agreed on date of construction at Tulum. Today archaeologists believe the Stela was brought to Tulum from a nearby settlement.
Courtyards perfect for a break
While most of the park area is open and sunny, the area near the Temple of the Initial Series is cool and shady. This makes it a good place to take a lunch break . . . if you don’t mind sharing a snack with the local coatimundi.
There are also a couple lovely little courtyards (or maybe just the very limited remains of other structures) along the side of the Castillo. They would be a perfect place to seek a bit of solitude, but fences and gates prevent visitors from entering.
The Castillo is the most well-known structure at Tulum. Although smaller than similar structures at other sites, its location on a cliff directly above the sea makes it seem larger and more dramatic than it would be otherwise. It is sited to face directly east over the sea, which does little to clarify its purpose. Two small windows in the building are said to align in a way that would allow the building to serve as a lighthouse to guide mariners through the reef. Of course, its orientation toward the rising sun is also significant and could indicate that this was a significant temple. Some sources suggest it was both. All we know for sure is that the building offers both a commanding view over the sea and a dramatic landmark for those arriving by sea.
A modern stairway here leads down to a beautiful secluded beach . . . when it is open. (During my visit the stairs were closed about a third of the way up from the bottom.) Descending the stairs provides a close-up view of the cliff below the ruins, which is a fascinating mass of twisted limestone with plants growing out of every odd hole in the stone.
I was hoping I would also have a good view of the Castillo from here, but all I can see at the top of the cliff are other picture-taking tourists!
Back on top and farther around the back of the Castillo, an opening in the trees provides lovely views of the Temple of the Wind on its perch high above the beach.
(Usually that beach would be crawling with people, but it was closed to protect hatching turtles when we visited.)
Back in the interior of the site, we pass the Temple of the Descending God, a funky little building named for the carved figure above the door.
While the beach is closed, we can get close enough to get good views of the Castillo on the cliff high above us.
The Temple of the Wind
We climb up from the other side of the beach to the Temple of the Wind, a small structure set on an unusual round platform high above the sea.
The House of the Cenote
Our final stop is the House of the Cenote, a small structure built into the hillside over a (salty) cenote. It is an interesting building, but it also has a doorway through the wall, as well as great views over the excavated site and the jungle beyond.
Now we have seen most of the site. It’s tempting to do it all again, but by now the sun is high in the sky and very hot. Instead I will plan to return again someday as part of a future trip.
Plan your trip to the Mayan ruins at Tulum
We visited Tulum on a mostly sunny morning last November, arriving within an hour of when the park opened for the day. Even at that time of day, we were far from the only ones visiting. My pictures don’t really reflect the number of visitors at the park with us because you can’t enter or climb on any of the ruins. This is both good (you can actually see and photograph the ruins without a crowd blocking your view) and bad (you really can’t see the detailed carvings and paintings or get much of an overview of the site).
Despite the number of visitors to the site, there are no maps of the site and little information in general. This is true of all of the archaeological sites we visited in the Yucatán. My personal theory is that this encourages visitors to hire guides who may (or may not) provide deeper insight into the site. We wandered through the site rather randomly, working our way between the buildings based on whim and the desire to avoid large groups. A guide is not necessary to tour the site, just be sure to bring a good guidebook with you.
See all my Tulum ruins trip planning tips at Know before you go: Tulum ruins