History of Tulum

A Brief History of Tulum

When people hear words like “Mexican beach resorts” or “the Riviera Maya”, destinations like Cancun, Cozumel and Playa del Carmen are places that immediately come to mind.  Many view those beach hotspots as the classic beach locations of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.  Funny how Cancun—the oldest resort area of the three—wasn’t transformed into the beach haven that it presently is until 1970.  Meanwhile the mention of Tulum brings quizzical looks that are often followed by questions like “is that new?” or “where is that?”  Sure, the popularity of Tulum has sky-rocketed during the course of the past decade, but to many, it is still regarded as the younger sibling of its more populated counterparts.  What’s ironic is that once you learn the history of Tulum, you’ll realize that it is in fact the “original beach resort” of the Riviera Maya—one that dates back to over 800 years ago.

The Mayans

The Maya civilization started back in the region that is now Guatemala and dates back to as early as 2400 BC.  This advanced society created an empire of city-states and is noted for its advances in Astronomy, Mathematics, Art, Architecture as well as the creation of an accurate calendar system.  The Mayan Empire began to spread north and, by 550AD, had expanded throughout the Yucatan Peninsula.  The civilization continued to thrive and prosper until around 900AD when the collapse of  the once great city-states in the southern region of the Peninsula, leading to a greater focus on the newly emerging powers of the Mayans in the northern part of the Yucatan such as Chichen Itza and Tulum.

History of Tulum Ruins Mexico

The Tulum Ruins

The city of Tulum is believed to have been originally called Zama—a Mayan word meaning “place of the dawning sun”.  A look at the location of the site quickly shows why.  The once great political and religious center was constructed along a 30 meter high bluff overlooking the multi-hued Caribbean Ocean where the city’s  inhabitants would witness the rise of the sun.  Tulum was a rarity for two reasons.  It was one of only a few Mayan cities located along the coastline as well as being one of  only sites surrounded by a wall.  In fact the word “Tulum” comes from the Maya word meaning “wall or fence”.  The entire ruined city is enclosed one 3 sides by a perimeter wall—while the fourth side is set against the cliff and ocean.  It was originally thought that the wall was a means of protection.  This was a common-held belief especially once the once peaceful image of the Mayan people was dispelled when discoveries led to revelation that feuds often arose between competing cities that commonly led to war.  Today, a more popular belief is that the walls were erected as a method of class division.  The inhabitants of the city-state lived outside the walls in wooden residences while the ruling class—royalty and priests—resided within the perimeter.

Tulum’s peak is believed to have been during the Post-Classic period of the Maya, particularly between 1200-1520AD.  During this period, it was a major hub of commerce via both sea and land routes.  Artifacts discovered on the site have revealed interaction with areas such as the Mexican highlands, Central American and Central Mexico and even Honduras.  Navigation by sea was difficult to these early people, but the temple known as El Castillo or “the Castle”—a pyramid that is set right against the rocky bluff—served a second purpose—that of a lighthouse.  Two torches were lit on the structure and boats knew that if they followed the course, revealed when the torches were lined up, they would find access to the shores of the beach below the city via a breach in the Great Maya Reef.  From the city, goods were transported by road as well.  The Mayans exhibited amazing ingenuity in constructed a system of roadways connected various city centers throughout the Empire including Coba and Chichen Itza.

Other important structures in Tulum include the Temple of the Descending God and the Temple of  the  Frescoes.  The Temple  of the Descending God prominently features a carving of a figure falling down towards the Earth while the Temple of the Frescoes’ interior features beautifully rendered murals.  It must have been quite a site to see the city’s buildings painted in the vibrant colors that were a popular form of decoration during those times.

tulum ruins history

Decline of the Maya

Like all cities in the Mayan Empire, Tulum was eventually abandoned.  And by the mid-1500’s, it was empty and left for the jungle to reclaim.  Why this city, as well as the rest of the major centers of power, collapsed is a mystery to this day.  It was once believed that the incursion of the Spanish into the area led to the decline through either conquest or the introduction of foreign diseases.  Today, it is believed that this belief is false because the Spanish exploration of the area actually  dates to a time after the cities were abandoned.   Presently, the most common explanations are either famine or revolution.

The Maya, while productive and skilled in agriculture, practiced a method of farming called “slash and burn”.  This would leave large areas damaged and incapable of new growth.  As the population grew and the need for food increased, it is possible that this non-sustainable practice caught up with the civilization and the inhabitants deserted the city centers for the jungle.

The other theory is that the peasants ultimately revolted.  While powerful, the ruling class of the Maya were small in number.  The common people of the cities were little more than slaves.  Some hold to the idea that eventually the inhabitants revolted against the powers-that-be, ousting them from the capitals, before eventually abandoning the areas and scattering into smaller pockets in the area.

While the true reason for the decline of this immense civilization that at one time seemed to be destined to become a major world power is likely to remain a mystery, it is one that intrigues people to this day.

Mexico History of Tulum


The city of Tulum eventually became ruins, swallowed up by the jungle that surrounded it.  It wasn’t until 1841 until it was rediscovered.  Two explorers, J.L. Stephens and Frederick Catherwood stumbled across the crumbling city and placed it on the map.  Catherwood sketched illustrations of structures such as El Castillo and his discovery was highlighted in his popular travel expedition book “Incidents of Travel in Yucatan”.

Mexico Ruins Tulum History

Tulum Today

Today, the Tulum Archaeological Zone containing the Tulum Ruins is one of the premier tourist attractions of the Riviera Maya receiving over a million visitors per year.  It is a gateway to a mysterious world and provides insights into a culture that most only read about.  Tour buses and cars pack the parking lot unloading guests to witness this still impressive site.  Guests wander the vibrant grassy lawn, surrounded by palm trees and the ruins of a time long forgotten before coming to El Castillo and an awe-inspiring view of the multi-hued Caribbean.  A wooden stairway behind the temple allows visitors to descend to the sandy shores beneath the ruins where they can swim in crystal waters while basking beneath the shadows of limestone cliffs.

And what about the Mayan people?  As people speak with tour guides or leave the ruins to explore the famed beach of the Tulum Hotel Zone, it’s ironic that they might not even realize that there is a chance that they are interacting with descendents of the Maya.  The Mayan people have continued—with a population of nearly 6 million. They reside here and all the way south to Honduras.  Some follow tradition routes such as farming or fishing, while others have adapted to the modern age and have taken on jobs in tourism or construction.  But most importantly, they are carrying on the tradition of their ancestors, adhering to values, customs and beliefs that have been passed on from generation to generation.  Amazing how while  tourists snap  pictures of the magnificent structures of a culture that thrived over 1,000 years ago, the aspects of the culture that are most important—the heart and soul of the people—continues to live on.

tulum ruins 5