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Saturday, July 31, 2021
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The prosperous and beautiful Mayan city of Tulum

Archaeology Monday provides historical background, photos, and practical information about the wonders of Mesoamerican antiquity and how to get out and enjoy them for yourself. This week we venture to the turquoise shores of the ancient merchant city of Tulum.

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Carlos Rosado van der Gracht
Born in Mérida, Carlos Rosado van der Gracht is a Mexican/Canadian blogger, photographer and adventure expedition leader. He holds degrees in multimedia, philosophy and translation from universities in Mexico, Canada and Norway. Sign up for the Yucatán Roundup, a free newsletter, which delivers the week's top headlines every Monday.
View of Tulum archaeological site with the Temple of the Frescoes in the foreground and the Castillo in the background. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Tulum is an archaeological site that lies on the outskirts of the tourist resort town of the same name on the Caribbean coast of Quintana Roo. In Yucatec-Mayan, the word tulum means wall, but in antiquity the city was known as Záma, meaning sunrise — making reference to its orientation facing the east.

A pair of Yucatán Jays in Tulum, Quintana Roo. Only males of the species have yellow beaks. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

It is unknown when Tulum was first inhabited, but human remains found in and near the site date back well over 9,000 years. The earliest inscription found at the site is of 564 CE, but most constructions still visible today are much more recent and date to the 8th and 9th centuries CE.

Because of its location on a cliff overlooking the Caribbean Sea, Tulum was noticed by European sailors as early as 1518. But the first in-depth description of the site dates to 1843 and was produced by the explorers John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood. 

Temple of the Descending God as seen from the beach below in Tulum, Quintana Roo. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The architecture of Tulum is representative of Maya cities on the eastern coast of Yucatán. It has commonly been noted that this style resembles that of Chichén Itzá, though on a much smaller scale. Most structures tend to be relatively small and have walls featuring two sets of molding near the top, rooms with one of two small windows, and an altar adjacent to the back wall.

It is likely that coastal settlements such as Tulum avoided constructing pyramids or other very voluminous structures in order to make the cities more resilient to hurricanes and tropical storms. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

Tulum became an important trade hub for goods from across Mesoamerica, as it had easy access to well-established trade routes across both land and sea. It is, for example, believed that much of the obsidian which found it was to Yucatán from Guatemala was traded through Tulum.

But the wealth of the city also made it a target for opportunistic looters and invaders. Tulum had a strategic location and was protected on one side by steep seaside cliffs and on land by an eight-meter-tall wall that enveloped the core of the city.

Remains of Tulum’s once-great westward-facing walls. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

There is also evidence for a network of watchtowers and controlled access points to the city through narrow passageways. Given the small size of the city core, it is likely that only the elites resided within Tulum’s walls, with the rest of the population living in its periphery in dwellings made of perishable materials above raised stone foundations. The city is also in proximity to several cenotes, and even has one within its walls.  

Large residential complex in Tulum, Quintana Roo. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

One of the most recurring motifs found in Tulum is that of the figure known as the Descending God. This figure is always shown facing frontwards and upsidedown with arms stretched past the head and bent legs up in the air. The precise nature of this figure or deity is unknown, but many scholars suggest the Descending God was a personification of Venus or perhaps the sun. 

Representations of the Descending God have been found at several sites in Quintana Roo but are most prominent in Tulum. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The Castillo is the largest and most iconic structure in Tulum. It was likely built atop the ruins of a previous building and is adorned with serpent motifs carved into its facade. The structure is eight meters tall and was accessed via an ample stairway leading up to a shrine that likely functioned as a lighthouse for canoes. 

View of El Castillo in Tulum, Quintana Roo. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The Temple of the Frescoes is a two-story structure that served as an observatory to track the movement of the stars. The facade of the temple is decorated with several images of the Descending God.

The eastern wall of the temple has a mural in the Mixteca-Puebla style, but has long been closed to the public. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

The complex known as El Palacio was likely a residential complex for the cities elite. It had three levels and was 85 meters long and 35 meters wide. The design of the structure has elements of both Puuc and Teotihuacan architecture.

Life for Tulum’s elites must have been quite comfortable, given the security provided by the city walls, easy access to fresh drinking water, and a varied diet made up of staples such as corn, beans, seafood, and the occasional wild boar. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

If you go

Tulum is one of the most visited archaeological sites in Mexico and receives hordes of tour buses every day. Because the site is so small, crowding is common and all of the structures are cordoned off to avoid people attempting to climb them. Getting to Tulum from anywhere in the Mayan Riviera is very easy, as tours abound. It is also fairly easy to drive to the site because signage is very good and there is ample parking. You can also choose to take one of the many buses departing from Cancun or Playa del Carmen, which have stops directly in front of the archaeological site. 

Image: Google Maps

Unfortunately, 15 years ago or so the parking lot was moved about a kilometer-and-a-half away from the entrance to the site, likely in an effort to get tourists to pay (two dollars I think) for a ride to the archaeological site. If you are relatively fit, this should not be too bad but on hot days it can really be strenuous. The areas around the site are also full of vendors selling “authentic” souvenirs, which include ponchos sporting NFL logos and figurines with large genitals. I wish I were joking. 

Detail of El Castillo in Tulum Quintana Roo. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

If you go make sure to get there early to beat the crowds at 9 a.m. Most visitors spend less than an hour touring the site, but many choose to descend to the beautiful beach below to snap some photos or take a swim. 

It is easy to see why so many people from around the world are drawn to Tulum. Photo: Carlos Rosado van der Gracht

As with all archaeological sites in Mexico, it is prohibited to bring food or drink, other than water. The entrance fee is 80 pesos Monday through Saturday. And on Sunday admittance is free for Mexican nationals and foreign residents of Mexico with ID. Use of facemasks is compulsory. 

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