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When it comes to Mayan cities, Tulum is not as spectacular as Uxmal and Chichen Itza, but it certainly has the most dramatic location. Built upon a cliff, 33 feet above the turquoise Caribbean, it was the easternmost city of the Mayas. "Zama," they called it — "city of the dawn."

"We're on the highest point of land for over 600 miles," says our guide Miguel. From a corner watchtower, we survey the tortilla-flat Yucatan jungle that surrounds the city on three sides. At our feet, the surf crashes against rocks dividing the beach into sandy coves.

El Castillo towers over Tulum beach.
El Castillo towers over Tulum beach.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Guided tour

In front of us is El Castillo, a pyramid that once dominated the 60 buildings on the site. Today only about 20 remain, all but a half-dozen in ruins.

In 1518, Spaniard Juan de Grijalva spotted the painted red, white and blue buildings of Tulum on an exploratory expedition. He noted that the city was so impressive "that Seville would not have appeared larger or better."

El Castillo was once a lighthouse or watchtower looking out over the reef that guards the coast. "The only opening in the otherwise impenetrable 400-mile reef is opposite Tulum," says Miguel. He points to the area where a channel of blue slashes the dark reef, visible below the water. "Architects speculate that the Mayas broke the reef open to let in their ships."

Mayan ruins

While the steep cliff protected the city from maritime raiders, bunker-thick walls guarded the city from invaders on the other three sides. "Most archaeologists believe that only the priests and ruling families lived inside the walls, while the farmers dwelled outside," explains Miguel.

"When the Spanish arrived in the 16th century, they found many of the ruins overgrown with forest. The Mayas who lived in the countryside claimed to have no knowledge of the writing, math and astronomy learned by the educated class that once inhabited Tulum. This is why some scholars think that a massive peasant uprising overthrew the ruling class."

We walk to the Temple of Frescoes where an outer temple, decorated with masks and bas-relief figures, houses an inner temple adorned with murals depicting ceremonial scenes. Red hand prints highlight the upper level.

Carbon dating

"Scientists used carbon-14 dating of paint fragments to determine that the oldest materials found in Tulum belong to the 12th century A.D.," notes Miguel. "The most important artifacts unearthed here were jade statues depicting women giving birth in the squatting position.

You can see the pain in their faces. Archaeologists believe they were fertility symbols, and that the Mayas worshiped Ixchel, the goddess of fertility.

Rock arch frames El Castillo.
Rock arch frames El Castillo.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Nowadays, the most important figure at Tulum is the curious diving god. We see remnants of bas-relief sculptures on several buildings, but the best-preserved rests in the shadow cast by a thatched roof on the Great Palace.

Mayan civilization

Some archaeologists claim that the bird-winged and tailed upside-down deity depicts Quetzalcoatl. In his controversial book, Chariot of the Gods, author Eric Von Daniken theorized that the figure was an extraterrestrial being. Mayas, today, take offence when people suggest that their ancestors required the help of spacemen to build their cities.

Unlike the Egyptian pyramids, the building stones are small. The grey limestone did not come from distant places. We find it literally beneath our feet all over the site.

"There are other differences between the pyramids here and those in Egypt," notes Miguel. "While many Egyptian pyramids housed tombs, the Mayan pyramids were built for ceremonial purposes. In most cases, the priests and rulers would stand on top to conduct and observe the rituals performed on the platforms below.

Beach below El Castillo in Tulum, Mexico
Beach below El Castillo
in Tulum, Mexico
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

"Since the Mayas cremated their dead, tombs are rare," continues Miguel. "But in 1924, archaeologists discovered a natural cave here, containing two egg-shaped baskets. Inside, they found two adult skeletons crouched in fetal positions."

Jade currency

As Miguel shows us the burial site, he notes that the archaeologists also found two pieces of jade, which were inserted under the tongues of the rulers buried here. "To this day, Mayas put jade under the tongues of their dead," he remarks. "They believe that the deceased can use the stone like money to buy their way into heaven."

Although Tulum is compact and can easily be covered in an hour, there is no shelter from the relentless sun. Sweat beads our brows as we climb the rocks, polished shiny from thousands of feet, to the Temple of the Wind.

Tulum beach

To our delight, we spot a small but beautiful beach, nestled at the foot of the cliff below El Castillo. It's an ideal location for a refreshing dip, and one of the few places in the world where sun-worshipers can rub shoulders with history-buffs.

Sound and Light Show

What is the best way to see Tulum at night? Go to the Welcome Center where you can pick up headsets for the Tulum By Night Show. As you listen to the history of the monuments through the headsets, guides lead groups of up to 10 people through the illuminated Mayan ruins.


Mexican Tourist Board: www.visitmexico.com

  • Bring a hat, comfortable walking shoes, drinking water and sunscreen.
  • Guidebooks are sold in the mall near the entrance, but are expensive. The Lonely Planet Guide to Mexico, for example, costs twice the North American price.
  • Be prepared to pay a fee to bring a video camera into the ruins.
  • If you're visiting Tulum on your own, go early or late in the day to miss the throngs of visitors discharged by the tour buses.
  • If you take a bus tour, pick a day when there's no mega-liner docked in offshore Cozumel. One of these ships can easily swamp Tulum with 20 busloads of tourists.

More things to see & do in the Riviera Maya:

Cozumel Mexico - Things To Do

Mexico Day of the Dead

Mexican Cookbook

Esencia Riviera Maya Resort and Organic Spa

Central America on a Shoestring