History of Tulum

 

Tulum—The Riviera Maya’s Original Beach Resort

When you think of a Mexican beach destination, places like Cancun, Cozumel, and Playa del Carmen likely come to mind. Over the years, these hotspots have gained notoriety for being the classic go-to escapes in the Riviera Maya.

In truth, Cancun—the oldest destination of the three—wasn’t transformed into the tropical haven we now know until around 1970. Meanwhile the mention of Tulum elicits confused looks, followed by questions such as: “Where’s that?” and “Is that new?” Thanks to the onslaught of press the region has recently received, people can’t help but think of Tulum as the younger sibling of its more popular counterparts.

One thing we can be sure of is that Tulum is certainly not new. While the area’s popularity has sky-rocketed over the past decade or so, the fact is that Tulum is the original beach resort of the Riviera Maya—one that dates back to over 800 years ago.

The Mayans

The Mayan civilization—dating back to as early as 2400 BC—originated in what is presently Guatemala. An advanced society in its time, the Mayans created a vast empire of city-states and made significant contributions in arenas such as Astronomy, Mathematics, Art, Architecture, and even created a fairly accurate calendar system.

The Mayan Empire began to spread north and, by 550AD, had expanded throughout the Yucatan Peninsula. The civilization flourished for hundreds of years with the main focus of power centered on major city-states based in the southern region of the Yucatan Peninsula. But times change and, by 900AD, those city-states collapsed, paving the way for the emerging Mayan powerhouses in the north such as Chichen Itza and Tulum.

 

History of Tulum Ruins Mexico


The Tulum Ruins

Tulum’s original name is believed to have been Zama—a Mayan word meaning “place of the dawning sun”. One visit to the site will tell you why. This historic 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 sun rising from the horizon.

Even then, over 1000 years ago, Tulum was something special. It was one of only a few Mayan cities located on the coastline or surrounded by a wall. In fact, the word “Tulum” comes from the Mayan word meaning “wall or fence”. The entire ruined city is enclosed on 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 meant for protection. This belief made even more sense when—thanks to the revelation that feuds between competing cities commonly led to war—the once peaceful image of the Mayan people was dispelled.

Today, a more popular belief is that the walls were erected as a primitive method of class division. The inhabitants of the city-state lived in wooden residences outside the walls while the ruling class—royalty and priests—resided within the perimeter.

Tulum reached its peak between 1200-1520AD. During this period, it was a major hub of commerce providing both sea and land trade routes. Artifacts discovered on site revealed interaction with areas such as the Mexican highlands, Central America, Central Mexico, and even Honduras.

Navigation by sea was difficult for these ancient people, but the temple known as El Castillo or “the Castle”—a pyramid set right at the edge of the rocky bluff—served a secondary function as a lighthouse. Two torches were lit on the structure and boats knew that if they followed the course, they would find a breach in the Great Maya Reef that protects the shores and find access to the beach below the city. From the city, goods could also be transported by road thanks to an ingenious system of roadways connecting various city centers such as 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 features a carving of a figure falling down towards the Earth while the Temple of the Frescoes’ interior boasts beautifully rendered murals. It must have been quite a site to see the city’s buildings painted in the vibrant colors, a popular form of decoration during those times.

tulum ruins history

Wandering the ancient stone pathways of the ruins in Tulum.

Decline of the Mayans

Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end. Like all cities in the Mayan Empire, Tulum was eventually abandoned. By the mid-1500′s, it was empty and gradually reclaimed by the jungle. Why this city, as well as the rest of the major power centers, collapsed is still a mystery.

It was once believed that the Spanish incursion into the area led to the decline by means of either conquest or the introduction of foreign diseases. Today, this theory is thought to be false because the Spanish exploration of the area actually dates to a time after the cities were abandoned. Presently, the most common explanations for the decline of the Maya are either famine or revolution.

The Mayans, 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 favoring life in the jungle.

The other theory is that the peasants ultimately revolted. While powerful, the Mayan ruling class were small in number. The common people of the cities, who greatly outnumbered the elite, were little more than slaves. Some theorize that 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.

We may never know the truth about what happened. But the decline of this immense civilization remains a mystery that intrigues people to this day.

Mexico History of Tulum

Guests can descend the wooden stairway at the ruins in Tulum to enjoy a perfect, unspoiled beach.

Discovery

The city of Tulum eventually crumbled, swallowed by the surrounding jungle. It wasn’t until 1841 that it was rediscovered. Two explorers, J.L. Stephens and Frederick Catherwood stumbled across the ancient city and placed it on the map. Catherwood sketched now famous illustrations of the city’s structures and his discovery was a highlight of his popular travel expedition book “Incidents of Travel in Yucatan”.

 

View from the rocky cliffs at the Tulum ruins.

Tulum Today

Today, the Tulum Archaeological Zone containing the Tulum Ruins is one of the premier tourist attractions in 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 eager to see 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, they might not even realize that they’re probably interacting with descendants of this ancient civilization. The Mayan people have continued—with a population of nearly 6 million. They reside here and all the way south to Honduras. Some follow the traditional 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—continue to live on.