Tulum Ruins

Tulum Ruins

Tulum is the archaeological site of a pre-Columbian Mayan walled city serving as a major port. The ruins are situated on 12-meter tall cliffs along the east coast of the Yucatán Peninsula in the state of Quintana Roo.

Tulum stands as a testament to the rich cultural heritage of the ancient Maya. Perched on a cliff overlooking the turquoise waters of the Caribbean Sea, Tulum is a mix of natural beauty and archaeological wonder.

Tulum was one of the last cities built and inhabited by the Maya, it was at its height between the 13th and 15th centuries and managed to survive about 70 years after the Spanish began occupying Mexico.

Tulum had an estimated population of 1,000 to 1,600 inhabitants. Diseases brought by the Spanish settlers appear to have resulted in very high fatalities, disrupting the society and eventually causing the city to be abandoned.

Tulum is today a popular site for tourists.

Tulum’s archaeological site is relatively compact compared with many other Maya sites. The Tulum ruins are the third most-visited archaeological site in Mexico, after Teotihuacan and Chichen Itza. It is popular for the picturesque view of the Caribbean.

Geography & Environment

Tulum enjoys a privileged location amidst lush tropical forests and pristine beaches. Its coastal setting offers visitors a unique opportunity to explore both ancient ruins and natural wonders in one unforgettable journey.

Origin of the Name

This Maya site may formerly have been known by the name Zama, meaning City of Dawn, because it faces the sunrise, and Tulum stands on a bluff facing east toward the Caribbean Sea.

The name “Tulum” is derived from the Yucatan Mayan word for fence, wall, or trench.

The walls surrounding the site allowed the Tulum fort to be defended against invasions. The walls served as a defensive barrier, protecting Tulum from potential invaders and safeguarding its inhabitants.

History & Timeline

Preclassic Period (300 BCE – 250 CE)

While evidence suggests that Tulum was inhabited as early as 564 CE, the city’s initial construction likely began during the Preclassic period. At this time, Tulum served as a small coastal trading post, facilitating commerce between inland Maya communities and maritime traders.

Classic Period (250 CE – 900 CE)

Tulum experienced significant growth and development during the Classic Period, emerging as a prominent center of trade, religion, and governance. The construction of monumental architecture, including temples, palaces, and administrative buildings, reflects Tulum’s flourishing prosperity during this era. The city’s strategic location along coastal trade routes contributed to its economic importance, attracting merchants from distant lands.

Late Classic Period (600 CE – 900 CE)

By the late Classic period, Tulum reached its zenith as a regional power and cultural hub.

The city’s population expanded, and its influence extended throughout the Maya region. Tulum’s rulers wielded considerable political and religious authority, presiding over a thriving society marked by artistic achievement and intellectual sophistication.

Postclassic Period (900 CE – 1544 CE)

Following the decline of the Classic Maya civilization, Tulum entered a period of transition characterized by political upheaval and social change. While the city continued to be inhabited, its significance waned, and its influence diminished.

By the time Spanish conquistadors arrived in the 16th century, Tulum had already entered a state of decline, its once-mighty structures shrouded in the mists of time.

Colonial Era and Modern Times

Following the Spanish conquest of the Yucatán Peninsula, Tulum was largely abandoned, its ancient ruins gradually reclaimed by the encroaching jungle. It wasn’t until the early 20th century that Tulum garnered renewed attention from archaeologists and explorers, who began to uncover its hidden treasures and unravel the mysteries of its past.

Tulum was first mentioned by Juan Díaz, a member of Juan de Grijalva’s Spanish expedition of 1518, the first Europeans to spot Tulum.

The first detailed description of the ruins was published by John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood in 1843 in the book Incidents of Travel in Yucatan. As they arrived from the sea, Stephens and Catherwood first saw a tall building that impressed them greatly, most likely the great Castillo of the site. They made accurate maps of the site’s walls, and Catherwood made sketches of the Castillo and several other buildings.

Stephens and Catherwood also reported an early classic stele at the site, with an inscribed date of AD 564 (now in the British Museum’s collection). This has been interpreted as meaning that the stele was likely built elsewhere and brought to Tulum to be reused.

Work conducted at Tulum continued with that of Sylvanus Morley and George P. Howe, beginning in 1913. They worked to restore and open the public beaches. The work was continued by the Carnegie Institution from 1916 to 1922, Samuel Lothrop in 1924 who also mapped the site, Miguel Ángel Fernández in the late 1930s and early 1940s, William Sanders in 1956, and then later in the 1970s by Arthur G. Miller.

Today, Tulum stands as a testament to the enduring legacy of the ancient Maya civilization, attracting visitors from around the world to marvel at its awe-inspiring architecture and rich cultural heritage.

Tourist Attraction

Spread across approximately 16 hectares, the archaeological area of Tulum encompasses a diverse array of architectural structures. The most iconic feature of the site is its imposing limestone walls, which enclose the city on three sides, offering panoramic views of the turquoise waters below.

Upon entering the archaeological site, visitors are greeted by the Temple of the Frescoes, a two-story structure adorned with intricate stucco decorations and well-preserved murals depicting Maya deities and celestial scenes. Nearby, the Castillo, or Castle, looms large atop a rocky promontory, serving as both a ceremonial center and a navigational beacon for ancient seafarers.

As visitors meander through the maze-like paths of Tulum, they encounter a series of smaller temples, residential complexes, and administrative buildings, each offering glimpses into the daily life and religious practices of the Maya people.

The Temple of the Descending God, with its striking bas-relief carving of a diving figure, and the Temple of the Initial Series, featuring inscriptions commemorating important events in Maya history, are among the site’s most notable attractions.

Beyond its architectural wonders, the ruin area of Tulum also boasts lush greenery and abundant wildlife, providing a serene backdrop for exploration and contemplation. Towering ceiba trees, sacred to the Maya, dot the landscape, while tropical birds flit among the branches, filling the air with their melodious calls.

A large number of cenotes are located in the Tulum area such as Maya Blue, Naharon, Temple of Doom, Tortuga, Vacaha, Grand Cenote, Abejas, Nohoch Kiin, and Carwash cenotes and cave systems.

Did you know?

Tulum was built on the coast, strategically positioned to defend against potential maritime invaders. Its robust defensive walls and elevated location are protected while offering commanding views of the surrounding sea.

Tulum’s location along coastal trade routes made it a vital hub for commerce across Mesoamerica. Tulum served as a gateway for the exchange of goods such as jade, obsidian, and feathers, enriching its culture and economy.

The layout of Tulum’s architectural structures aligns with celestial phenomena, suggesting that the Maya had a sophisticated understanding of astronomy. Key buildings, such as the Temple of the Descending God, may have been oriented to observe celestial events such as solstices and equinoxes.

Tulum was renowned for its salt production, with vast salt flats located nearby. The Maya used innovative techniques, including shallow evaporation ponds and terraced fields, to extract salt from seawater, which was then traded as a valuable commodity.

Despite the collapse of the Classic Maya civilization around the 9th century CE, Tulum continued to be inhabited for centuries afterward. Its residents adapted to changing circumstances, maintaining a semblance of urban life amidst political and environmental challenges.

Tulum is home to some of the best-preserved Maya frescoes found in Mesoamerica.

These intricate wall paintings, located within the Temple of the Frescoes, depict scenes of Maya gods, rulers, and ceremonial rituals, providing valuable insights into ancient Maya art and culture.

Tulum’s proximity to cenotes, natural sinkholes filled with groundwater, played a significant role in its development. These cenotes provided a vital source of freshwater for the city’s inhabitants and served as sacred sites for religious ceremonies and rituals.


Tulum has architecture typical of Maya sites on the east coast of the Yucatán Peninsula.

This architecture is recognized by a step running around the base of the building which sits on a low substructure. Doorways of this type are usually narrow with columns used as support if the building is big enough.

As the walls flare out there are usually two sets of molding near the top. The room usually contains one or two small windows with an altar at the back wall, roofed by either a beam-and-rubble ceiling or being vaulted.

This type of architecture resembles what can be found in the nearby Chichen Itza, just on a much smaller scale.

Tulum was protected on one side by steep sea cliffs and on the landward side by a wall that averaged about 3–5 meters in height. The wall also was about 8 m (26 ft) thick and 400 m long on the side parallel to the sea.

The part of the wall that ran the site’s width was slightly shorter and only about 170 m on both sides. Constructing this massive wall would have taken enormous energy and time, which shows how important defense was to the Maya when they chose this site.

On the southwest and northwest corners, there are small structures that have been identified as watch towers, showing again how well-defended the city was. There are five narrow gateways in the wall with two each on the north and south sides and one on the west.

Near the northern side of the wall, a small cenote provided the city with fresh water. It is this impressive wall that makes Tulum one of the most well-known fortified sites of the Maya.

There are three major structures of interest at the Tulum site. El Castillo, the Temple of the Frescoes, and the Temple of the Descending God are the three most famous buildings.

Among the more spectacular buildings here is the Temple of the Frescoes which includes a lower gallery and a smaller second-story gallery. The Temple of the Frescoes was used as an observatory for tracking the movements of the sun.

Niched figurines of the Maya “diving god” or Venus deity decorate the facade of the temple. This “diving god” is also depicted in the Temple of the Diving God in the central precinct of the site.

Above the entrance in the western wall a stucco figure of the “diving god” is still preserved, giving the temple its name. A mural can still be seen on the eastern wall that resembles that of a style that originated in highland Mexico, called the Mixteca-Puebla style, though visitors are no longer permitted to enter.

Also in the central precinct is the Castillo, which is 7.5 m tall. The Castillo was built on a previous building that was colonnaded and had a beam and mortar roof. The lintels in the upper rooms have serpent motifs carved into them.

The construction of the Castillo appears to have taken place in stages. A small shrine appears to have been used as a beacon for incoming canoes. This shrine marks a break in the barrier reef that is opposite the site.

Here there is a cove and landing beach in a break in the sea cliffs that would have been perfect for trading canoes coming in. This characteristic of the site may be one of the reasons the Maya founded the city of Tulum exactly here, as Tulum later became a prominent trading port during the late Postclassic.


Both coastal and land routes converged at Tulum.

Several artifacts found in or near the site show contact with areas all over Central Mexico and Central America. Copper artifacts from the Mexican highlands have been found near the site, as have flint artifacts, ceramics, incense burners, and gold objects from all over the Yucatán.

Salt and textiles were among some of the goods brought by traders to Tulum by sea that would be dispersed inland. Typical exported goods included feathers and copper objects that came from inland sources.

These goods could be transported by sea to rivers such as the Río Motagua and the Río Usumacincta/Pasión system, which could be traveled inland, giving seafaring canoes access to both the highlands and the lowlands.

The Río Motagua starts from the highlands of Guatemala and empties into the Caribbean. The Río Pasión/Ucamacincta river system also originates in the Guatemalan highlands and empties into the Gulf of Mexico.

It may have been one of these seafaring canoes that Christopher Columbus first encountered off the shores of the Bay Islands of Honduras. Jade and obsidian appear to be some of the more valuable found here.

The obsidian would have been brought from Ixtepeque in northern Guatemala, which was nearly 700 km away from Tulum. This huge distance, coupled with the density of obsidian found at the site, shows that Tulum was a major center for the trading of obsidian.

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