Tulum, Mexico

Tulum, which is written as Tulu'um in Modern Maya and translated as wall or fortification, was the principal port and walled city for Cobá, the large ruined city of the Pre-Columbian Maya civilization. Located in the state of Quintana Roo, Mexico, it is on 39 feet cliffs extended all over the east coast of the Yucatán Peninsula on the Caribbean Sea and nowadays it is consider one of the best-preserved coastal Maya sites being really popular site for tourists.

The architecture of Tulum is really typical to most of the Maya sites on the east coast, which is recognized by a step surrounding the base of the building and sitting on a low substructure. Inside the rooms, there are usually one or two small windows with an altar at the back wall. Generally, the doorways are narrow with columns used as support when the building is big enough, with two sets of molding near the top walls. According to this type of architecture, Tulum is compare with the Chichen Itza architecture but in smaller scale.

Due to Tulum was a walled city, it needed to be protected, therefore on the landward side there is a big wall averaged about 4-5 metres long and on the other side by the steep sea cliffs, furthermore, this wall is big enough around 8 metres thick and 400 metres long. In order to improve their defense, there are small structures that are watch towers located on the southwest and northwest corners. Also, the wall enclosing the site was slightly shorter, about 170 metres on both sides; and around there are five gateways, with two on each the north and south side, and one on the west. And, according to the studies near the northern side there is a cenote, a type of sinkhole, which would have provided the city with fresh water. Hence, all this construction has taken a huge amount of energy and time which explains how important was the defense to Mayan people and converting this site in one of the most fortified sites.

Visiting this spectacular site, the most impressive building is the Temple of the Frescoes which has a lower gallery with niche figurines of the diving god on the facade of the temple. But, apart of this temple, this god has its own temple called the Temple of the Diving God in the central precinct part of the ruin, joined by the Castillo of 8 metres tall and mortar roof, which is previous to the Tulum buildings being colonnaded by Tulum people. There is also a small shrine breaking the reef opposite to the site which was used as a beacon for incoming canoes. Some other temples and houses are:

Likewise, there is a kind of landing beach that would be useful for trading canoes, making of this site a peculiar trading port and the reason why Maya founded Tulum here. Besides, here in Tulum, both coastal and land routes converge showing contacts between areas all over Central Mexico and Central America, and as a proof, there are copper artefacts, ceramics, incense burners, gold objects, as same as salt and textiles were found in Tulum that would be transported by sea to rivers through the Río Motagua to Guatemala, and the Río Usumacincta/Pasión to the Gulf of Mexico.

Tulum, as an archaeological site relatively compact comparing with other sites of Maya, is one of the best-preserved Maya sites becoming the third most visited and a popular destination for tourists in Mexico with daily tour buses. It is a very popular archaeological site because is near to the most popular beach resort, Cancun, and its pictorial view of the Caribbean coastline.


Before Tulum got this name, it was also known as Zama that means morning associated to the dawn. Harmonious to the inscription found in a stele it is 564A.D. within the Classic period, and their heydays would be among 1200 – 1521A.D. during the Late Post-classic period and being a trade network due to its both maritime and land routes convergence.
The first time that this site has been mentioned was in 1518 by Juan Diaz, who reached the Yucatan peninsula coast on Juan de Grijalva's expedition. Both of them describe the place like a city or town larger than Seville, referring to the castle building of Tulum. With no more references until 1840 by Juan Jose Galvez, Tulum was mentioned in 1579 in Juan de Reigosa's Las Relaciones de Yucatan, as same as by Pedro Sanchez de Aguilar in his book, Informe Contra Idolorum Cultores del Obispado de Yucatan in 1639 telling about the story of ten Spaniards prisoners taken who by the chieftain Kenich.

Later, in 1842, John L. Stephens and Frederick Catherwood made Tulum known by the world through their book Incidents of Travel in Yucatan combining text and magnificent illustrations. When the War for the Castes started in 1847, Tulum was occupied by rebels and in 24 years later it became a sanctuary of the Speaking Cross cult which was led by the Indian woman Maria Uicab, who is also known as the patron saint or queen of Tulum.

In 1895, W.H. Holmes drew the area from his yacht and in 1913 Sylvanus G. Morley and J.L. Nussbaum paid for a visit to the site. Three years later, The Carnegie Institution of Washington organized continuous expeditions led by Morley and including researchers. Finally, in 1937 members of the Mexican Scientific Expedition decided start studying and investigating the site, until Miguel Angel Fernandez, who started with the restoring work.

From then until now, the National Institute of Anthropology and History continue the investigations and maintenance of this important Maya archaeological site.