Quintana Roo, Mexico
What makes this site special? The clifftop setting
Tulum is a picturesque ancient city built as a port and a ceremonial place on a clifftop overlooking the turquoise Caribbean. The home of spectacular scenery and a mysterious Descending God. Very popular with visitors to Yucatán; expect crowds.
Tulum was strategically located near a cenote, a crystal clear underwater cave. The Maya believed that the rain god Chaak resided at the bottom of the body of water and they would bring him sacrifices there. They also believed cenotes to be an entryway to Xibalbá, the underworld. This is why the archaeologists found the body of a nobleman in the Casa Cenote (The House of the Well) in Tulum. The burials of rulers and noblemen were always close to the waters so the spirit could enter the water of the underworld and then be reborn via the tree of life and go to heaven.
This is where I always enter the ruin site, by the Cenote House, on top of the cliff, to get the instant view of the sea and the reef and the whole site, which appears from this high spot as if it's sitting in your palm. Most people enter through the first wall entry on their arrival where, in my view, the scenery is less dramatic for the initial impact. I have been here many times and it never fails. The friends that I take here are always instantly taken by that scenery.
The Name & Age
According to archaeologist Luis A Martos, Tulum was originally part of the settlement Zamá Xamanzamá. Its origin dates back to 150 BC. Zamá appears to be a corruption of Zamal (morning or dawn), a fitting name for a settlement on the east-facing beach. You can still see the unrestored ruins of Zamá at Caleta Tankah Bay, the first bay after Tulum on your way north. This just shows how large the area was (and nobody is checking if there are unrestored ruins also in the next bay, called simply Tankah Bay). The beach/port city grew and I presume at some point had several squares (like Chichén Itzá or Cobá had). One of them was the main square so they named it Tankah, 'the centre of town'. Tulum was built later, from the 12th century onwards, as part of Tankah city because of the need to have a new ceremonial centre placed at a more protected site than Tankah. Hence the Maya chose the clifftop site. And that was not enough; they built walls around it (6m thick and 4m high). To come to that decision, I wonder what dangers or wars they experienced at Tankah that we have no knowledge of. The beaches below the cliff were the additional bonus for convenient embarking and sea trade by canoes. Today one of the beaches is accessible for a swim via a steep wooden staircase (although recently they changed the access time until 2pm only, to get everybody out in time). The other beach is a turtle sanctuary, believe it or not. They come and hatch here.
So Tulum city was built between the 12th and 14th centuries. I always wondered how a cluster of Maya would would just suddenly turn up here in the 12th century and start building? And above all, who were they? Where did they come from? Well, we do have an answer now (thank you, Luis Martos). Tulum was an extension of a much older and bigger city. That way we can also understand that they worshipped the same gods as Tankah (Zamá) and had the same ceremonies and rituals; they did not bring them from abroad although the worship of Kukulkán must have come to them from Chichén Itzá, as it spread across Yucatán.
Today at least 60 Mayan ruins can be found in this city and two watchtowers. Among the structures we find the Temples of the Wind (Templo Dios del Viento), the Diving God (Templo del Dios Descendente), of the Frescos, and Initial Series (Templo de la Serie Inicial). And the Houses of the Platforms, Halach Uinik (the governor's house), Columns, Chultun, and of the Cenote.
The first European mention of the site is owed to Juan Díaz, chaplain of the Spanish fleet of Juan de Grijalva, on 7 May 1518. There is a mention of Tulum in the Catalogue of Churches in 1582 but the town was deserted shortly afterwards.
Like other Mayan cities, the inhabitants were divided into three social groups. Rulers and nobility were responsible for administration, war and religion, the middle class of artisans and traders, were devoted to the production of artefacts, local trade and personal services to the dominant class and the inferior class were farmers, hunters, fishermen (and slaves). There is a poster inside the site that shows us how life would have looked within the walls, before the Spanish conquest. The ruler was carried by slaves and accompanied by musicians, perhaps the image depicts a ritual or a ceremony (these were performed daily by the priests and nobles, if nothing else, at least to welcome the sun in the morning). The highest class lived behind the wall and the 'plebs' lived outside the walls, as far as 6km. They paid tribute to the priests and nobles (such as food, and animal skins). If you walk to the beach from the ruins, you can see many unrestored ruins in the jungle along the beach. These are the houses of the 'plebs'.
Today it is iguanas who live in Tulum. They have this unnerving stare that make me feel as if the old Mayan spirit is inside them. I can't help it, however silly it sounds. They give me this stare because they know I am intensely thinking about the ancestors who lived there and trying to imagine what real daily life was like here. They camouflage themselves and guard the city in this quiet manner.
The sea traders, the middle class, created a network of trade routes and linked the Gulf of Mexico with the Gulf of Honduras and even Costa Rica, Panama and Central America. Salt (from today's area of Las Coloradas and El Cuyo) was traded alongside honey, wax, skins, feathers, tobacco, vanilla, rubber, shells, obsidian, flint, amber, pottery, fish and dried meat. For the navigation system they developed different markers along the coast to indicate sources of fresh water or the navigable gaps in the reef. In other words, the temples and shrines were built not only for religious purposes but also as reference points for sailors. This applies to El Castillo pyramid in Tulum (see below), which was used as a lighthouse. The navigation signals were made with fire, smoke and flags. Large canoes were used for sailing (up to 16m long). These were built from ceiba tree trunks (dug out in one piece) with a high prow for open sea sailing (the canoes for lakes were built with a low prow). The canoes were rowed by slaves who then became bearers once on land. Today, scientists are able to replicate the ancient Mayan canoes and in Yucatán there is an annual sacred pilgrimage in canoes from Xcaret park to Cozumel island.
In 1842 the famous explorer John Lloyd Stephens and artist Frederick Catherwood visited the site. During the so-called 'Caste War' in Yucatán, between the indigenous Maya and the European 'Yucatecos' (1847-1901) Tulum was occupied by the Maya and became an important shrine for the cult of the 'Talking Cross', which sustained the Maya rebellion. Although the war 'officially' ended in 1901, and again in 1915, the Maya rebels held out here until 1933.
At that time visiting Tulum meant risking one's life; non-Mayans who ventured into the jungle could be killed. These were real 'badlands' in those days with little government control: Quintana Roo did nor even become a state of Mexico until 1974. However, there were a few expeditions despite the fear of the Maya. Since 1938 The National Institute of Anthropology and History has been in charge of research and conservation.
The Focus: The Temple of the Frescos
This building sits in the middle of the walled city and is considered to have had a vital social and religious function. First it was a building with one level; later a gallery of columns was erected around the north side and even later a temple (with sloping walls) was built on top. The building was painted blue, grey, white and black and some remnants of the paint can still be seen. Inside the images include Chaak, god of rain and Ix Chel, goddess of the Moon, medicine, birth and weaving. There are serpents that intertwine, scenes of offerings (flower, fruit, corn) and interlaced designs like knots, with the symbol Pop. Pop was a woven mat, which the rulers used when they went to a meeting. They sat on it; in other words, it represented a throne and therefore royal power.
The front of the Temple has mouldings decorated with rosettes, and three niches, two with seated human figures and one with the Descending God in the middle niche. On the corners there are enormous stucco masks. This is most likely the god Itzamná with a curved nose, prominent chin, turned down corners to his mouth and fangs and round decoration around his eyes. This was the creator god, associated with the dew or substance from the sky, and therefore with rain, fertility and life.
The Mystery: The Descending God
Well, I owe this god everything. I was so curious about him back in England that I decided to throw everything away and move to Mexico to see him and to study him and I never looked back. I did my best to find the available information but I must say it is not satisfactory. I have taken many photos of him and they are not satisfactory either (it is always too sunny on the Tulum site and the stucco is pretty damaged as well). I still don't know if it was an extraterrestrial flying down here centuries ago, who then taught the Maya agriculture, mathematics and astronomy. There are other options, a few theories and speculations about him and I have written a separate post about the ongoing mystery. To see more details, visit my post the Descending God.
So in this post I will attempt just a very brief overview. The diving or descending god can be seen on the Temple of the Frescos, The Temple of the Descending God and the Castillo and this led scholars to believe that this city was a special centre of worship for this god. There are other sites in Yucatán where he was worshipped, such as Cobá, Sayil, Dzibanché and Chichén Itzá. So at least we can establish that this worship was not local just to Tulum.
He was named the Descending God because he is shown with his feet in the air as if he is descending from the sky. He looks human but he has wings. The Madrid Codex suggests that the Descending God is Ah-Muzen-Cab, the Bee God, as honey was important as a diet to the Maya as well as a trade product. Another theory is connected to the worship of Kukulkán, the Maya Quetzalcoatl. The Feathered Serpent was known in the legends as descending to ground level from the sky. Could he be Kukulkán? In the Dresden Codex there is a representation of the descending god as Az Tzul Ahaw, the god of Venus (the Venus glyph appears where his face is). Others dispute this glyph and the theory.
Don't Miss: The Castle
When you stand at the back of El Castillo, you have a lovely view of the Temple of the Wind (with rounded corners on its platform so the wind has no obstruction). I have loved this view since my first visit with my husband in 2014. Next, look at the back wall of the castle and you will see two little holes on each side of the wall. They worked as windows. Inside the temple room, the Maya would make a fire and the light from the windows indicated to the traders in their canoes the only safe route through the reef to the city.
There's a mystery here. The general view among researchers is that the Maya were very advanced in many ways, but their seagoing skills were limited to coastal canoes working in daylight. Yet the scorch marks within El Castillo suggest that the lighthouse flame could be used to guide vessels far out to sea, and obviously, at night. So which is right?
The castle also had ceremonial uses, of course. It was not just the lighthouse. If you look from the front, you will see the columns on the top temple. The columns had winding feathered serpents going down, with the head of the serpent at the bottom (like in the castle of Chichén Itzá). The worship of Kukulkán clearly spread to the east coast. He was believed to return from the east to mark the beginning of a new age for the Maya. Above the temple columns there are again three niches (similar to the Temple of the Frescos), with the Descending God stucco in the middle.
Frederick Catherwood named the pyramid El Castillo as it strongly reminded him of a castle from the sea side. The building has several layers as it was common practice to build a new higher level when a new ruler came to power or when the 52-year Mayan life cycle expired and the new era began.
In front of the Castle, within its own walls, there is a square where the ceremonies took place, including human sacrifice and bloodletting (cutting ears for females and penises for males was 'compulsory' for the nobles). This was all accompanied by dances to commemorate the event. For the Maya, dance was a very public affair. It induced visionary trances where individuals went into an altered state of mind. We don't have any evidence of war or captive ceremonies in Tulum, but bloodletting would certainly have taken a place, as would dances such as the rain ritual (a prayer for rain) and the snake ritual (the dancers holding a snake, representing the creation of life).
The Site Map
How to get there: Take the highway 307. If you go by minibus (colectivo), get off the highway and walk 10 minutes to the ruins. If you are going by car, there is a paid car park a few minutes from the ruins entrance, just off the highway.
1. Luis Martos (2006) Tulum: History, Art and Monuments (trans David Caseldine). Monclem Ediciones
3. Map of Tulum