What is Tulum famous for? Well, anyone who has ever heard of the place knows it as an elderberry resortthe trendier alternative to Cancun (80 miles north) and over the last few decades an increasingly popular (and crowded) destination for foodies, influencers and tourists in general.
But the ancient Mayans were in Tulum long before it was cool. In fact, skeletal remains found in nearby cenotes and underwater cave systems indicate that the area was inhabited by an indigenous population 10,000 years ago or more.
Read more: A hard life and a mysterious death
Where is Tulum?
More recently, about 1,500 years ago, it was here, on the Caribbean coast of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, that the Maya built a city unlike any other. They named him Zama, which means sunrise or the dawn — fitting for a city facing east across a wave of glittering sea. Located in a protected zone Just a few miles from the modern city center, the once ignored and neglected archaeological site of Tulum has now become one of Mexico’s top Mayan destinations. Here’s what we know about ancient Tulum.
While there may be larger Mayan settlements or sites with more impressive structures – Chichen Itzafor example, or nearby Koba — Nevertheless, Tulum is an important city and is believed to be the last major settlement built by the Maya.
Its location was not chosen just to enjoy the sunrise or take in the Caribbean breeze. Tulum was a port, the only known city that the Maya built on the coast. Historians and archaeologists note that Tulum was significant center of trade for land and sea dealing with such valuable resources as turquoise, jade and obsidianas well as textiles, ceramics and other goods.
Ancient Tulum was built as a fortress
(Credit: Mariordo/CC BY-SA 3.0/Wikimedia Commons)
For its size and location, Tulum was extremely well fortified. The construction of the city is believed to have begun sometime in the 6th century AD, during what is known as Classical period for the Maya. Even today, it is obvious to the casual visitor that the careful and strategic construction of Tulum took a long time.
While one side faced the sea and was thus protected by steep cliffs, the rest of the city was bounded by stone walls that were particularly thick – up to 26 feet – and up to 16 feet high in some places. If you were dealing in luxury trade goods, it made sense to protect them, but many archaeologists have concluded that the walls were not so much a preventative measure against theft and raiding as they were a barrier between social classes. Apparently, only the ruling and religious elite lived within the city walls, while the common people lived outside.
Tulum was abandoned in the 16th century
The Temple of the Frescoes (Credit: jlazouphoto/Shutterstock)
Tulum reached its peak around the 13th and 14th centuries. Visitors at the time would have seen a lively city with buildings painted in bright shades of red, blue and green. One of the most fascinating site structures, Temple of frescoes, still contains evidence of carved deities and murals depicting scenes derived from Mayan culture and mythology. If social media influencers existed back then, they would have had a field day taking selfies.
The port city continued to flourish for another century or two. Then, in 1518a very different kind of influencer has arrived in the Yucatan: The conquistadors. And they weren’t tourists – they were here to stay.
Read more: Why did the Maya abandon their once bustling cities?
In a short time, disease, conflict, and other ravages of colonization helped destroy Maya civilization as we (and they) would know it. Tulum’s thick walls ultimately offered little protection; the fortified harbor became a ghost town by the end of the 16th century.
The Ruins of Tulum: How They Were Discovered
Lithograph of Tulum from 1844 (Courtesy: Frederick Catherwood, Public domain/Wikimedia Commons)
In the mid-19th century, English explorer Frederick Cudderwood and American diplomat John Lloyd Stevens traveled through the Yucatan, writing an influential book that would introduce much of the Western world to Mayan culture. In 1841, they first saw the ruins of ancient Zama. Impressed by the thick barriers around the settlement, they named the place Tulum, i.e wall or fence in the Mayan language.
And yet the ancient city was off the beaten track for the next 150 years. However, the rise of Cancún in the 1970s and the overall development of what would be called Riviera Maya region for the next 20 years, almost certain that Tulum will once again regain prominence in the region.
What is Tulum famous for?
In the mid-20th century, the permanent population of Tulum was estimated at several hundred people. By the turn of the millennium, the population had swelled to more than 12,000, a number that had nearly quadrupled in the past 20 years. But that’s still a small number compared to the more than 2 million visitors a year who descend on the area today.
Tulum Archaeological Site
Although many of these tourists may limit themselves to the resort area, the ruins of Tulum are still one of the most popular archaeological sites in Mexico. Fortunately, the government has taken some steps to keep the ruins from being hugged to death by so many modern “explorers”. While visitors were once able to climb among, on top of, and even into some of the still-standing ruins, today the most sensitive areas are restricted.
But this ancient port city is still worth exploring, whether it’s to admire the architecture and art of a long-gone civilization, or to enjoy the sunrise and Caribbean breeze of a unique settlement whose charm and mystery have made it once again at the crossroads of commerce.
Read more: How the ancient Maya practiced sustainable agriculture