Mayan Ruins of Tulum

The ancient Mayan city by the sea

Tulum is a very trendy place in Mexico. Ideal for a great beach holiday with a proper share of nightlife. But that wasn’t always the case. The small town first became famous for the Mayan ruins of Tulum. Here is what you can discover there.

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What does Tulum mean in the Mayan language?

The name of the city means u0022wallu0022 or u0022fortressu0022 in Mayathan. Probably the reason for this is that the whole city was surrounded by a six-meter-wide wall. The wall was only open to the sea. There were five entrances and two watchtowers. At that time, the city wall must have been practically unconquerable.u003cbru003eu003cbru003eBut earlier, around the 16th century, the city was also called u003cemu003eZamáu003c/emu003e. This name means u0022dawnu0022 in the Mayan language. No wonder – the sunrise over the sea looks quite spectacular from the ancient town.

Mayan Ruins of Tulum - Sunrise

Where exactly is Tulum located?

Tulum is located in u003ca href=u0022 target=u0022_blanku0022 data-schema-attribute=u0022aboutu0022 rel=u0022noreferrer noopeneru0022u003eMexicou003c/au003e, more precisely in the state of Quintana Roo on the Yucatan Peninsula. The region is also known as the u003cemu003eRiviera Mayau003c/emu003e. From u003ca href=u0022 target=u0022_blanku0022 data-type=u0022postu0022 data-id=u0022861u0022 data-schema-attribute=u0022mentionsu0022 rel=u0022noreferrer noopeneru0022u003eCancúnu003c/au003e to Tulum it is about 130 km to the south – two hours by car. From u003ca href=u0022 target=u0022_blanku0022 data-type=u0022postu0022 data-id=u0022887u0022 data-schema-attribute=u0022mentionsu0022 rel=u0022noreferrer noopeneru0022u003ePlaya del Carmenu003c/au003e it is about 65 km, which you can do in an hour. And starting from the u003ca href=u0022 target=u0022_blanku0022 data-type=u0022postu0022 data-id=u00221347u0022 rel=u0022noreferrer noopeneru0022u003eseaside resort of Tulumu003c/au003e itself, the Mayan ruins are… well, actually on the outskirts of town.

Mayan Ruins of Tulum on the Map

Tulum on the map

Short history of the Maya in Tulum

The oldest date carved in stone in the Mayan city of Tulum is the year 564 AD. In the 13th and 14th centuries, the town was one of the largest Mayan cities on the Yucatan Peninsula. Probably because of its location by the sea, the city was an important hub for Mayan trade. The strong fortifications would also speak for this. The town was easy to defend.

When the Spanish arrived, Tulum was still an active religious center in the region. The annalist Juan Díaz first described the city in 1518. He said Tulum was about the size of Seville in Spain. And that was already quite a big and famous city at the time.

The American explorer John Lloyd Stephens was the first “modern” traveler to visit Tulum in 1841. He wrote extensively about the city. Together with the architect Frederick Catherwood, he discovered not only Tulum, but also many other ancient Mayan cities for the modern world. The journeys of the two adventurers are described in detail by their books and richly illustrated with detailed drawings.

During the Caste Wars of the Maya, Tulum was an important center of resistance. Between 1847 and 1901, the Maya fiercely resisted the Mexican occupation of their living space. During this time, Tulum was led religiously, politically, and militarily by a woman. This is remarkable, as these roles were not open to women in the Mayan culture.

However, María Uicab was a Mayan priestess whose authority was beyond question. She was called the “Queen of Tulum” and had a talking cross, an important oracle for the Maya. The Mexican army was not able to kill her until 1872. And for that, they needed a squad of 1000 men under arms.

Mayan Ruins of Tulum - Short History

The Mayan Ruins of Tulum

Unlike all other Mayan sites, Tulum is located directly by the sea. This privilege probably gave the town great importance as a port – also for the Mayan cities in the back country of the Yucatan Peninsula, some of which were much larger and more powerful.

If you are lucky enough to visit the old Mayan Ruins of Tulum, well – there are some things you should not miss.

1. El Castillo

El Castillo (“The Castle”) is the tallest building in Tulum and dominates the whole city. In fact, the Spanish annalist Juan Díaz wrote that it was the largest building he had ever seen. At its top there is a temple with three entrances decorated with columns in the shape of snakes. In front of the building there was a platform for ceremonies.

Mayan Ruins of Tulum - El Castillo

2. The Temple of the Descending God

The Temple of the Descending God (“Templo del Dios Descendente”) is located in the north of the ancient Maya town. It takes its name from the impressing mural relief in its facade. The descending God is often found in Tulum.

In the Mayan language it is called Ah Mucen Cab, which means the bee god. He is associated with sunset, rain, lightning and beekeeping. But it could also be possible that this building just was the residence of the sovereign.