Destination Mexico

The walled city of Tulum

Tulum, its wall, and its temples represent the 900-year-old legacy an ancient culture bequeathed to subsequent generations. The city invites visitors explore a historic past and a present where the ruins, the ocean, and the sandy beach distill into a perfect destination.

Text and photos: Ricardo Montaner

On a 40-foot cliff overlooking the turquoise waters of the Rivera Maya, on the eastern coast of the state of Quintana Roo, a certain excitement prevails in what was the city of Tulum, known in ancient times as Zamá (dawn in the Maya tongue). The view is overwhelming and I understand why the Maya chose to settle here. The ruins are tiny in comparison with other Maya archeological sites, but the panorama is glorious: the soft caress of the breeze and the gleaming, mesmerizing sea draw you in. The city was home to 350 to 500 residents, who had the good fortune to enjoy this incomparable landscape and the beautiful dawn every day.

Some nine hundred years ago, Tulum was a center of trade, meetings, rest, and worship in the great Maya culture. It is instantly recognizable by its 60-foot wall, which gave the settlement its modern name of Tulum, meaning wall in Maya. My tour starts here on the cliff top, in an entrance tunnel that separates the city inside the walls from the outside. While leaders, scientists, artists, and priests resided inside the city, more than 12,000 farmers, hunters, and service providers lived outside its walls. Nonetheless, the “city dwellers” respected the “country dwellers.” The sages in the city had no knowledge of farming or hunting, so they understood that they could not survive without those living on the outside.

The privilege of living inside the walls brought with it sumptuous clothing made of fabrics embroidered in gold and decorated with precious stones of jade and malachite. Nonetheless, divisions in Tulum were not between rich and poor, but between those with different types of knowledge. In the countryside, there was no point in hunters wearing elaborate capes and necklaces, since the attendant noise would alert the animals. Farmers needed to wear light clothing to harvest corn in the hot sun. It was a reciprocal relationship: some of the people produced food and provided labor, while others predicted the rains and droughts, determined the best seasons for planting and harvesting, communicated with the gods, studied the climate and the stars, and prepared medicines for everyone.

I ask my guide if people outside could ever live inside. He replied that the only way in from outside was for a city dweller and a country dweller to experience that sublime feeling we call love. If those two people decided to marry, the person living outside would be brought into the city and immediately sent to school, regardless of sex or age. Tulum was distinguished not only by its wall, but also by other aspects of its organization, such as the absence of a ruling noble class. Unlike other cities, such as Chichen Itzá or Palenque, the highest-ranking person in Tulum was a wise man elected by the society’s best-educated elders. The position was earned rather than inherited.

The city’s small houses were generally inhabited by a father, a mother, and around five children. Life moved quickly in Tulum, where 8-year-old children demanded their own houses. The children’s houses were built alongside their parents’ house, with the children visiting their previous home to eat and wash their clothes in a show of limited independence. Children attended school, did their chores, and participated in social activities linked to their studies. For example, if a child wanted to be an astronomer, he helped observe celestial phenomena as a learning experience. Children were expected to be independent and educated by the age of 14, which was considered the age of marriage.

History tells us that Tulum was dedicated to Venus, which was associated with a dual deity representing the planet’s binary identity of morning star and evening star. The fact that the entrances and façades of certain buildings are oriented in the direction of the planet provide evidence of this cult.

The most imposing structure is the Castle, a temple to the god of rain and the descending or diving god. Tulum’s size and strategic location on the cliff top made the city an ideal place to keep watch for enemies and light the way for sailors. During the day, the sun beamed through two windows in the Castle that pointed to the correct road, and at night, large fires guided travelers home as they crossed the great coral barrier in the Caribbean Sea.

Near the Castle stands the Temple of Ixchel, goddess of female matters, fertility, midwifery, and birth. To this day, Maya women head for the jungle to perform rituals to which men are not invited. There is also the Temple of the Frescos, where interior walls still harbor paintings in grays and blues, and the Temple of Kukulkán —meaning “one-leg” or “lame” in Maya— who is the god of wind, storms, and fire, and is also known as the Heart of the Sky.

The guide tells me that the first European person to mention the city was Juan Díaz, a member of Juan de Grijalva’s 1518 Spanish expedition, when the first Europeans reached Tulum. However, the first detailed description of the ruins was published in 1843 by John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood in their book Incidents of Travel in Yucatan. As Stephens and Catherwood approached by sea, they were impressed by a tall structure that was likely the Castle.

Magnificent Tulum, with its walls and its temples, still stands above the same turquoise waters that bathed these shores 900 years ago, and it has become one of the three most-visited archeological sites in México. The city represents the legacy an ancient culture bequeathed to subsequent generations. Tulum offers an invitation to explore a historic past and a present where the ruins, the ocean, and the sandy beach distill into a perfect destination.

How to Get There

Copa Airlines offers 7 flights a day to Cancún, México from North, Central, and South America and the Caribbean through its Hub of the Americas in Panama City. Tulúm lies about 81 miles from Cancún.

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Where to Stay

There is a wide range of hotels for all budgets in Cancún and on the Riviera Maya. During our reporting, the Panorama of the Americas team stayed at the Iberostar Paraiso Maya, located between the beaches of Cancún and Playa del Carmen