Store Banner Desktop

Store Banner Mobile

Tulum, the coastal paradise city of the Maya

Tulum: Maya City of the Dawning Sun, a Caribbean Paradise

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

Eighty miles south of Cancun in Mexico, stands the ruins of an ancient Mayan city called Tulum.  Built atop a 12-meter (40-foot) cliff rising abruptly from the Caribbean waters, this place is considered one of Mexico’s most scenic archaeological sites.  It was the only Maya site not situated in the middle of the jungle and at one time, was adorned with beautiful colors which were visible at sea from miles away.  Tulum was the last city inhabited and built by the Maya and is thought to have been a religious center for priests that remained active during the Spanish invasion.

Maya City of Tulum, Mexico.

Maya City of Tulum, Mexico. (Pascal / Flickr)

A culture of contrasts

The Maya were a civilization and culture that is a study in contrasts. They had respect for nature and considered animals sacred, yet both animals and humans were sometimes sacrificed to appease their gods. They were great historians and builders, yet never used the wheel as a form of transportation. They were superstitious and feared thunder and lightning but predicted astronomical phenomena with stunning precision. This contradiction of the Maya represents some of their mystery. 

First traces

It is believed that Tulum was settled as a fishing settlement as early as 300 BC, but the earliest archeological evidence of human occupation in the area dates to 564 AD.  This comes from an early classic stelae inscription and places Tulum within the Classic Period of Maya history.  However, its peak would come much later, (1200 - 1521 AD), during the Late Post-Classic Period with the arrival of the Spanish when the city was still in use.

Temples painted in red, white, and blue

A Spanish expedition first spotted the city of Tulum on May 7, 1518 and it became the site of the first meeting between the two cultures.  Captain Juan de Grijalva and his crew sailed past Tulum and were astonished at the walled city with brightly painted temples of red, white and blue.  It was described as “a village so large that Seville (a city in Spain) would not have appeared larger or better.”  There would have been many buildings painted in vermillion red, light blue and bright green however, unfortunately, only a few traces of these colors remain today. 

Main temple at Tulum, by Frederick Catherwood

Main temple at Tulum, by Frederick Catherwood (Wikipedia)

A Caribbean paradise

The word Tulum means “wall, trench or fence” in the Mayan language and the ancient name of the city was Zama, meaning “dawn” or “sunrise,” which is appropriate given its location.  Built on a bluff facing the rising sun, this ruin site is the only Maya settlement located on the beaches of the Caribbean.  It was also one of the very few cities in the Maya world that was ever walled or fortified.  These walls are located on three sides of the settlement with the ocean protecting the eastern borders.  They are 3 to 5 meters (16ft) in height, 8 m (26ft) thick and 400 m (1,300ft) long with the western wall parallel to the sea.  Archaeologists believe that rather than being used for defensive purposes, the walls acted as a class barrier to separate the ruling elite from their subjects.  It is estimated Tulum had a population of 1,000 to 1,600 inhabitants.

The castle of Tulum

El Castillo (The Castle) is considered the most important monument at the city of Tulum.  It stands forefront on the bluff, commanding a view of the ocean and coastline for miles and is 7.5 m (25ft) in height, making it the tallest building in the settlement. 

While it is called a castle, it never actually functioned as one. Rather, it was a shrine and ceremonial center.  The upper rooms were carved with plumed serpent motifs and once contained a room to assist navigation — a primitive lighthouse.  When torches were lit, canoes were guided through the coral reef to the trading beach down below the city. 

The beach was an important part of the Tulum settlement and is the area where Maya ships, dedicated to trade, were docked.  The Maya trading empire was vast and extended from Honduras (and possibly Panama and Costa Rica) up and around the Yucatan Peninsula.  This was where both maritime and land routes converged and Tulum was the hub for international trade and responsible for the distribution of goods into the Yucatan through Coba, Chichen Itza and connecting settlements.

El Castillo, Tulum

El Castillo, Tulum (Frank Kovalchek / Flickr)

Temple of the Frescoes

At the Temple of the Frescos, there are fantastic 13th century murals depicting ancient ceremonies and illustrations of the gods of the pantheon that dominated the Maya universe.  One of the few surviving images of the Maya goddess of fertility and medicine, Ix-Chel, can be found here.  Ix Chel figures prominently in Tulum temple murals and the coastline in the Tulum region is fascinatingly female, with a multitude of coastal towns having the feminine Ix (eesh) prefix in their names.  Recently, research has shown that Tulum was a pilgrimage site for Maya women on their way to the holy island of Cozumel.  There, the sanctuary of the goddess Ix-Chel stood.  Her shrine was visited by large numbers of women throughout the Maya territories, making it one of the greatest pilgrimages in the pre-Columbian world.

Temple of the Frescoes at Tulum, Mexico

Temple of the Frescoes at Tulum, Mexico (Wikimedia Commons)

By the end of the 16th century, Tulum was abandoned as European diseases and epidemics decimated the population.  Archaeologists have evidence that the population was killed off by the Spaniards when they introduced Old World diseases into the area as a way to destroy the native population. Documentation of this demise can be found in the writings of Friar Diego de Landa’s Observations on the Yucatan Peninsula.  Tulum would go on to survive 70 years after the Spanish Conquest of Mexico.  Local Maya continued to visit the temples to burn incense and pray until the late 20th century.  Today, Tulum is one of the most frequently visited Maya ruins in the Yucatán Peninsula, receiving thousands of visitors every day and is a favorite destination among celebrities.

Featured image: Tulum, the coastal paradise city of the Maya (Wikimedia Commons)

By Bryan Hill


"Tulum - The Ancient Gem of the Riviera Maya." Los Caracoles BnB Blog. December 11, 2013.

"Tulum Ruins – Tulum." LocoGringo. July 25, 2013.

"Tulum, Mayan Archeological Site - Mexico Archeology." Mexico Archeology.

"Tulum, Yucatan." Sacred Sites.

Chandler, Gary. "The Scenic Ruins of Tulum Archaeological Zone - Moon Travel Guides." Moon Travel Guides. February 2, 2014.

"10 Facts on Tulum Ruins." My Tulum Travel Mexico. July 7, 2009.

"About Tulum Mayan Ruins." Mayasites.

Secrets of Archaeology. KOCH Vision, 2006. DVD.

Bryan Hill's picture


Bryan graduated with a Bachelor of Art in History from Suffolk University and has a background in museum volunteering and as well as working with children’s groups at the Museum of Science and the National Park Service.  He has traveled... Read More

Next article