Tulum Mayan Ruins
View of El Castillo from the ocean
Tulum is the most visited of the Maya sites in the Yucatan and not only
because of its proximity to Cancun. Although the Tulum ruins are structurally
less impressive than Chichen Itza or Uxmal and much less extensive, they have
the azure Caribbean as a backdrop - a startling contrast, and heaven for the
photographer or artist. Because the area is small and there is comparatively
little climbing involved, you can gain a fair appreciation of the site in a
couple of hours.
Tulum was built around AD 1200 as the Mayan
The most important contribution to your enjoyment here is your arrival
time - the site is open between 8:00am and 5:00pm and from around 9:00am as
many as 80 tour buses a day will deposit holidaymakers from Cancun and
cruise ships outside the gates. Arriving at 8:00am is best, otherwise wait
until the end of the day.
In 1994 access to the site was redesigned so that cars and coaches could
no longer park adjacent to the ruins, and a new car park was built about 10
minutes walk away. A shuttle now provides easy access (at a fee) for those
unable or unwilling to tackle the flat and paved pathway. The modern and
shiny-clean visitors' center at the car park houses numerous souvenir shops
in addition to cafeterias, refreshment stalls, toilets and telephones.
Rear of El Castillo
The huge number of tourists visiting the site today belies the fact that as
recently as the 1960s the site was accessible only by sea. In fact this was
how the Spanish came across the city during Juan de Grijalva's expedition of
1518, at which time it was - uniquely among the Maya cities - still
inhabited. Grijalva reports of the fortifications and buildings painted red
white and blue, and compares the city favorably in size and stature to
Imposing as it may have been, Tulum was built around 1200AD as the Mayan
civilization declined and lacks the elegance of earlier structures. For
instance, whilst earlier Maya buildings typically had vaulted roofs, the
ones in here were often flat and have consequently fallen much sooner. The
layout of the site is unusually structural, with parallel streets surrounded
by walls originally five meters high and seven meters deep. Most of the
walls can still be seen, indeed the present day entrance to the ruins is as
it was in ancient times, through a gate on western side of the
As recently as the 1960's the site
was accessible only by sea
There are three major structures of interest: El Castillo (the
tower which dominates the area and is perched on the cliff edge), The
Temple of the Frescoes and The Temple of the Descending God.
El Castillo is the result of several phases of building. Steps lead to an
upper temple featuring columns decorated with plumed serpents as seen in
Chichen Itza and an indication of Toltec influence. It would also have been
used as a watchtower, with visibility over land and sea. Beneath El Castillo
is a small but perfect beach, where the Mayans would have landed their
The Temple of the Frescoes
The Temple of the Descending God is to the left of El Castillo when
looking out to sea. Above the door of the temple is a stucco relief of a
figure prevalent at Tulum, the upside-down winged god that also shows
bee-like features. This figure is sometimes referred to as the "diving god"
because of its position and the resemblance to a bee signifies the
importance of honey to the Mayans.
The Temple of the Frescoes lies between El Castillo and the entrance to
the site. Here fragments of color can be seen on murals depicting Maya life.
Amongst the frescoes is a portrayal of a man on a horse, which indicates
that these drawings were still being worked on after the Spanish invasion.
(The horse was introduced by the Spanish and clearly had a disarming effect
on the Mayans - originally it was thought that horse and rider were one
being and later, when one of Cortés's horses died, its skeleton was
worshipped as a god).