History of Tulum

Exploring Tulum: A Journey Through Time and Beauty

Tulum, a name that resonates with history and beauty, is a place where ancient Mayan civilization meets the turquoise waters of the Caribbean Sea. Nestled in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo, Tulum is not just a destination; it’s a testament to the enduring legacy of the Maya people. In this article, we will embark on a journey to unravel the secrets of Tulum, from its rich history to its stunning architecture, and from its significance as a trading hub to its modern-day allure for tourists.

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tulum beach landscape

History of Tulum and Description

Tulum’s history is as captivating as its picturesque landscape. The name Tulum is believed to have been derived from the Yucatán Mayan word ‘Tulu’um,’ meaning fence, wall, or trench. This name is quite fitting, as Tulum is known for its formidable walls that once protected this ancient city from invasions. These walls played a crucial role in the city’s defense, making Tulum a significant trade hub, especially for obsidian, a valuable resource during ancient times.

The city’s origins date back to the 13th century when it was established as a major port for Coba, another prominent Maya city. Tulum reached its zenith between the 13th and 15th centuries, even as the Spanish began their occupation of Mexico. Remarkably, the Maya continued to inhabit Tulum for about 70 years after the arrival of the Spanish, highlighting the resilience of this ancient civilization. However, by the end of the 16th century, the city had been abandoned, leaving behind an archaeological treasure trove.


Tulum’s architecture reflects the distinct style of Maya sites along the east coast of the Yucatán Peninsula. One of the defining features is the step that runs around the base of buildings, typically resting on a low substructure. Doorways, often narrow, are supported by columns if the building is sufficiently large. As the walls rise, two sets of moldings near the top add an artistic touch. Within these structures, one can find one or two small windows and an altar at the back wall, often covered by a beam-and-rubble ceiling or a vaulted roof. This architectural style bears resemblance to Chichen Itza, albeit on a smaller scale.

Tulum’s Wall

One of the most striking aspects of Tulum is its protective wall. This massive fortification was constructed on the east to guard against the Caribbean Sea and averaged about 3–5 meters in height. Its width extended to approximately 8 meters and spanned 400 meters along the side parallel to the sea. This feat of engineering underscores the importance of defense in the minds of the Maya who chose this location.

At the southwest and northwest corners, small structures identified as watchtowers stand as silent sentinels, further emphasizing the city’s defensibility. The wall featured five narrow gateways, with two on the north and south sides and one on the west. A small cenote near the northern side provided the city with a source of fresh water. Tulum’s impressive wall remains a symbol of its historical significance as one of the best-preserved fortified Maya sites.

Most Famous Buildings

El Castillo

In the heart of Tulum stands El Castillo, a pyramid towering 7.5 meters tall. This structure was built atop a previous building, which had a colonnaded design and a beam-and-mortar roof. Lintels in the upper rooms bear intricate serpent motifs. The construction of El Castillo appears to have occurred in stages, and it served as a beacon for incoming canoes, guiding them through a break in the barrier reef opposite the site. This strategic location contributed to Tulum’s role as a thriving trading port during the late Postclassic period.

Temple of the Frescoes

Among Tulum’s most remarkable structures is the Temple of the Frescoes. This building featured a lower gallery and a smaller second-story gallery, which served as an observatory to track the movements of the sun. The facade of the temple is adorned with niched figurines of the Maya “diving god” or Venus deity. A stucco figure of the “diving god” is still preserved above the entrance in the western wall, giving the temple its name. Although visitors are no longer allowed inside, a mural on the eastern wall, resembling the Mixteca-Puebla style, offers a glimpse into Tulum’s artistic heritage.

Temple of the Descending God

The Temple of the Descending God is a single-room structure with a west-facing door and a narrow staircase built atop another temple. At the top of the door, a sculpture of the “descending god” stands, a motif found throughout Tulum. This enigmatic figure is depicted with wings, a headdress, and an object in his hands, inviting speculation about its significance in Maya cosmology.


Tulum’s strategic location facilitated both coastal and land trade routes, making it a vital hub for commerce. Archaeological finds near the site include copper artifacts from the Mexican highlands, flint tools, ceramics, incense burners, and gold objects from various regions of the Yucatán. Salt and textiles were among the goods brought by traders to Tulum by sea, later dispersed inland. Feathers and copper objects, sourced from inland regions, were typical exports transported by seafaring canoes, reaching both the highlands and the lowlands.

Jade and obsidian were among the most valuable items traded in Tulum. Obsidian, in particular, was brought from Ixtepeque in northern Guatemala, a journey of nearly 700 kilometers. The abundance of obsidian at the site testifies to Tulum’s prominence as a trading center for this precious material.


Today, Tulum stands as a testament to the enduring allure of the Maya civilization. Its archaeological site is relatively compact compared to other Maya sites in the region, but it is one of the best-preserved coastal Maya sites. The proximity of Tulum to the modern tourism developments along the Mexican Caribbean coastline, as well as its short distance from Cancún and the surrounding “Riviera Maya,” has made it a popular tourist destination in the Yucatán Peninsula.

Daily tour buses bring a steady stream of visitors to Tulum, making it the third most-visited archaeological site in Mexico, after Teotihuacan and Chichen Itza. In 2017, Tulum welcomed over 2.2 million visitors, a testament to its enduring charm.

The region around Tulum also boasts numerous cenotes, such as Maya Blue, Naharon, Temple of Doom, and Grand Cenote, offering unique opportunities for exploration and adventure. Tulum’s beaches are renowned for their pristine beauty, with Playa Paraiso, Playa Ruinas, and Playa Akumal among the most popular.


Modern Controversies

Despite its natural and historical splendor, Tulum has not been immune to controversies. Concerns over the environmental impact of the local tourist industry have grown over the years. The delicate balance between preserving the natural beauty of the region and accommodating the demands of a growing tourism industry has become a subject of debate and discussion.

Safety and Climate

For tourists, safety is a paramount concern. According to crime statistics provided by Numbeo, Tulum is generally considered a safe destination. However, natural occurrences such as hurricanes during the months of June to October are important factors to consider when planning a visit.

Tulum enjoys a tropical savanna climate with a pronounced dry season. The region’s climate classification is Aw (Tropical Savanna Climate), characterized by warm temperatures throughout the year.

In conclusion, Tulum is a place where the past meets the present, and nature’s beauty harmonizes with human history. Its ancient ruins, protective walls, and vibrant trade history stand as a testament to the ingenuity of the Maya people. As a modern tourist destination, Tulum continues to captivate visitors with its stunning beaches, cenotes, and the timeless allure of a bygone civilization. Tulum is not just a place; it’s an experience, inviting all who visit to step back in time and embrace the wonders of the Yucatán Peninsula.

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