Tulum – Mayan Ruins & Pueblo

Tulum is located on Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula facing the Caribbean Sea. It is the name for a small town (pueblo) and the site of a Mayan civilization that thrived until the 16th century. These ruins are the country’s third most popular archaeological site.

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1 Welcome to Zamá-Xamanzamá, the Mayan Ruins in Tulum, Mexico

When this Mayan trading port was flourishing between the 12th and 16th centuries, it was named Zamá-Xamanzamá or Zamá. This word for “dawn” references its position along the Caribbean Coast facing the sunrise. The rectangular shape measuring 1,250 by 540 feet was protected on three sides with a thick stone wall. This is why archeologists called the ancient Mayan city “Tulum” meaning fortification or walled city. In the background is one of two Watch Tower Temples.

Carretera federal 307 Cancún - Chetumal Km 230, 77780 Tulum, Q.R., Mexico
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2 Watch Tower Temple at Mayan Ruins in Tulum, Mexico

Unlike most Mayan sites, the one at Tulum was built like a fort. It was protected by walls that were up to 23 feet thick and 10 to 16 feet tall. Flanking its western perimeter were two Watch Tower Temples that guarded against intruders by land. This is the tower in the northwest corner called El Torreón. Inside of this temple is an altar.

Carretera federal 307 Cancún - Chetumal Km 230, 77780 Tulum, Q.R., Mexico
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3 House of the Northwest at Mayan Ruins in Tulum, Mexico

The House of the Northwest is one of the first buildings you see after entering the ruins. The rough masonry is immediately noticeable. This is uncharacteristic of other Mayan sites where the construction consisted of precise stonework. Apparently during the Late Post-Classic Period (1200 to 1539 AD) the facades were covered with colorful stucco which led to less refined structures.

Carretera federal 307 Cancún - Chetumal Km 230, 77780 Tulum, Q.R., Mexico
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4 La Casa del Cenote at Mayan Ruins in Tulum, Mexico

Home of the Well was constructed over a cave that once contained potable water. In the Yucatán these are called a cenote. This well is now salty and undrinkable from the adjacent sea. The rectangular building consists of two rooms. In the center is a tomb. This placement is common because the Mayans believed a cenote was an entry to the underworld they called Xibalba.

Carretera federal 307 Cancún - Chetumal Km 230, 77780 Tulum, Q.R., Mexico
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5 House of the Cenote at Mayan Ruins in Tulum, Mexico

A cenote is a geological phenomenon of the Yucatán Peninsula. It consists of a large pool of groundwater exposed after the bedrock has collapsed. The Mayans used these natural wells for their fresh water. Therefore, it was common to build a home over these sinkholes.

Carretera federal 307 Cancún - Chetumal Km 230, 77780 Tulum, Q.R., Mexico
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6 God of Winds Temple at Mayan Ruins in Tulum, Mexico

The Templo Dios del Viento is perched on circular platform on top of a cliff overlooking the sea. It is devoted to Huracán who was the one-legged Mayan god of the wind as well storms and fire. This mythological deity, which is also spelled Hunraqan, is the origin for the word “hurricane.”

Carretera federal 307 Cancún - Chetumal Km 230, 77780 Tulum, Q.R., Mexico
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7 First Spanish Sighting of Mayan City of Tulum, Mexico

Many Mayan cities were in decline towards the end of the Classic Period which ended in 950 AD. But Tulum was thriving throughout the Late Post-Classic Period defined as 1,200 until 1539 AD. On May 7, 1518, the Spanish conquistador Juan de Grijalva saw this beach as his fleet of four ships explored the Quintana Roo coast. He declared the city at the top of the 40 foot cliff to be as grand as Seville, Spain. That day marked the beginning of the end. Within 70 years, Zamá was abandoned. Excavations did not start until the early 20th century.

Carretera federal 307 Cancún - Chetumal Km 230, 77780 Tulum, Q.R., Mexico
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8 House of the Halach Uinic at Mayan Ruins in Tulum, Mexico

The halach uinic was the supreme leader of a Mayan Kuchkabal, the form of government in the Yucatán Peninsula during the pre-Columbian era (through the 16th century). The great lord controlled all power and appointed all administrative officers. The position was then passed on to the eldest son of the family. This building was the halach uinic’s residence in Tulum.

Carretera federal 307 Cancún - Chetumal Km 230, 77780 Tulum, Q.R., Mexico
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9 House of the Halach Uinic Close Up at Mayan Ruins in Tulum, Mexico

If you look closely below the red thatched roof of the House of the Halach Uinic you will see a reoccurring carving on the buildings at Tulum: the Descending or Diving God. This makes archeologist believe the building was not only the residence for their supreme king but also a temple for religious and burial ceremonies.

Carretera federal 307 Cancún - Chetumal Km 230, 77780 Tulum, Q.R., Mexico
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10 House of the Halach Uinic Raised Platform at Mayan Ruins in Tulum, Mexico

This side view of the House of the Halach Uinic shows its raised platform. This was a common Mayan architectural feature reserved for temples, pyramids and houses for their leaders. The height of the stone terrace suggested the importance of the building. They were used to conduct ceremonies.

Carretera federal 307 Cancún - Chetumal Km 230, 77780 Tulum, Q.R., Mexico
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11 House of Columns at Mayan Ruins in Tulum, Mexico

It is easy to see why this is called the House of Columns. But it is also named The Palace because it once served as the residence for Mayan leaders. El Palacio must have been a very impressive perhaps even imposing structure. Its three stories were built on a 279 by 115 foot foundation in the center of the Mayan community.

Carretera federal 307 Cancún - Chetumal Km 230, 77780 Tulum, Q.R., Mexico
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12 Temple of the Frescos Carvings at Mayan Ruins in Tulum, Mexico

Above the columns on the left side of Templo de las Pinturas are three carvings. The center one is the Descending God flanked by masks. They represent Chaac, the god of rain. The Mayans frequently held banquets in honor of this deity. During the Cha-Chaac ceremony, young men were sacrificially drowned in cenotes. This patron of agriculture is also spelled Chac. Just to the right of this temple is a five foot stela (altar) with a calendar from the year 1261.

Carretera federal 307 Cancún - Chetumal Km 230, 77780 Tulum, Q.R., Mexico
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13 Temple of the Frescos at Mayan Ruins in Tulum, Mexico

The oldest section of Tulum is the Temple of the Frescos. Archeologists believe it was built in 1263 AD. Inside are murals dating from 1450. The paintings, which are faded yet still visible, decorate three floors of the temple. They illustrate several deities including Chaac (rain god) and Ixchel (moon goddess). In the background is the House of the Columns.

Carretera federal 307 Cancún - Chetumal Km 230, 77780 Tulum, Q.R., Mexico
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14 Roped Off Walking Path at Mayan Ruins in Tulum, Mexico

A minimum of two hours is suggested to tour the Mayan ruins at Tulum. You must admire the approximately 60 buildings from a roped off walking path. The most important structures have a brief description but they do not provide enough information to satisfy a real history buff. For example, only a good tour guide would explain the three levels of the Temple of the Frescos represent the underground (Xibalba), the living (earth) and heaven (Tamoanchan).

Carretera federal 307 Cancún - Chetumal Km 230, 77780 Tulum, Q.R., Mexico
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15 Temple of the Descending God at Mayan Ruins in Tulum, Mexico

The Temple of the Descending God derived its name from the relief above the door. The carving shows an upside-down male figure. At the vernal or spring equinox a ray of sunlight streams below it. Some archeologists believe this sculpture on the Templo del Dios Descendente represents Ah-Muzen-Cab, the Mayan god of bees and honey. Similar icons are found throughout Tulum and other nearby Mayan ruins. His counterpart is Colel Cab, the goddess of bees.

Carretera federal 307 Cancún - Chetumal Km 230, 77780 Tulum, Q.R., Mexico
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16 El Castillo Full View at Mayan Ruins in Tulum, Mexico

Most of the Tulum’s buildings are short, boxy and devoid of ornamentation except for the city’s centerpiece: The Castillo. It was the largest building in Zamá but much smaller than several Mayan pyramids on the Yucatán Peninsula. Evidence suggests El Castillo was constructed in stages. The grand staircase leads to a platform at the temple entrance which is supported by upside-down serpent columns. At the corners are threatening masks borrowed from the Toltec culture. In the center is a craving of the Descending God, the deity believed to have been worshiped in this ancient Mayan community.

Carretera federal 307 Cancún - Chetumal Km 230, 77780 Tulum, Q.R., Mexico
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17 El Castillo Close Up at Mayan Ruins in Tulum, Mexico

El Castillo controls a commanding position within Tulum. Its massive staircase faces west towards the central square of this ancient Mayan civilization. Religious ceremonies were held on the platform at the base of the temple’s columned entrance. Its eastern side hugs a 40 foot limestone cliff along the shore of the Caribbean Sea. It is believed two fires were lit from the top of the 40 foot pyramid to help canoes navigate the dangerous reefs at night. This is why The Castle is often called The Lighthouse.

Carretera federal 307 Cancún - Chetumal Km 230, 77780 Tulum, Q.R., Mexico
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18 Temple of the Initial Series at Mayan Ruins in Tulum, Mexico

Just south of El Castillo is the Temple of the Initial Series. Not much is known about Templo de la Serie Inicial. However, it is famous among archeologists based on the explorations of John Lloyd Stevens in the mid-19th century. He discovered a stela which is a large carved stone. Tulum Stela 1 shows a Mayan king surrounded by Mayan hieroglyphs (script). This limestone pillar dates from 564 AD, hundreds of years before Tulum was built. The historic artifact is now exhibited in London’s British Museum.

Carretera federal 307 Cancún - Chetumal Km 230, 77780 Tulum, Q.R., Mexico
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19 Tourists Exploring the Mayan Ruins in Tulum, Mexico

The Mayan ruins at Tulum are located about 80 miles from Cancun. This historic attraction is visited by about two million people a year, making it Mexico’s third most popular archaeological site. So if you want to avoid throngs of people, it is best to arrive early in the morning. You will also avoid the afternoon heat.

Carretera federal 307 Cancún - Chetumal Km 230, 77780 Tulum, Q.R., Mexico
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20 Mexican Spiny Tail Iguana at Mayan Ruins in Tulum, Mexico

At its peak during the 15th century, approximately 1,000 to 1,600 people lived in or just outside the walled city of Tulum. Today the only inhabitants are hundreds of iguanas like this Mexican spiny tail. The less than attractive Ctenosaura Pectinata can grow up to 4 ½ feet. They spend most of their day basking in the sun or hiding in sparse vegetation. However, when they want to move, they can reach a speed above 20 miles per hour.

Carretera federal 307 Cancún - Chetumal Km 230, 77780 Tulum, Q.R., Mexico
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21 Caribbean Sea Beach at Mayan Ruins in Tulum, Mexico

People who visit the Mayan ruins at Tulum are quickly surprised by the heat. The average, year-round temperature is 88° and the site offers no shade from the intense Mexican sun. So bring your bathing suit. When you get too hot, walk down the staircase, go for a refreshing dip in the Caribbean Sea and then spread your towel on the sandy beach. What a perfect combination: ancient ruins without ruining your sunbathing time.

Carretera federal 307 Cancún - Chetumal Km 230, 77780 Tulum, Q.R., Mexico
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22 Overlooking Ancient Seaport at Mayan Ruins in Tulum, Mexico

There were numerous Mayan cities within Mesoamerica, a region stretching from central Mexico to Costa Rico. They date from 750 BC until the end of the 17th century. Most of their communities were built inland. This makes Tulum unique for two reasons: it was constructed on a coastline and is the furthest east. Archeologists belief it was a port city for an active marine trade. Evidence suggests canoes up to 50 feet in length regularly arrived at this seaport.

Carretera federal 307 Cancún - Chetumal Km 230, 77780 Tulum, Q.R., Mexico
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23 Aztec Sun Calendar in Tulum Pueblo, Mexico

This is a sun calendar used by the Aztecs to measure days, months and cosmic cycles. In the center is the face of Tonatiuh who was the mythological deity of the sun. This carving resembles one discovered in Mexico City in 1790. That major archeological find, which is named the “Sun Stone,” weighs 24 tons.

AV. Tulum, Region 1, MZA01, Lote 02,, Centro, 77780 Tulum, Q.R., Mexico
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24 Description of Tulum Pueblo, Mexico

Along Mexican Highway 307 is the town of Tulum. The locals call it El Pueblo. For decades it was a small, undeveloped community. Its unspoiled beaches attracted sea turtles but very few foreign visitors. Recently it has started to boom and now has over 30,000 residents. You’ll find some boutique hotels but most don’t have cell phone coverage, Wi-Fi or even direct electricity. Come enjoy their beautiful seclusion before it becomes another tourist town.

Calle Alfa Sur 1066, Tulum, Q.R., Mexico
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25 Jaguar God Statue in Tulum Pueblo, Mexico

There were many jaguar deities in the Mayan religion. Based on its appearance, this sculpture at Tulum Park probably represents the Jaguar God of the Underworld. According to mythology, this animal personified the Night Sun as it traveled through darkness.

AV. Tulum, Region 1, MZA01, Lote 02,, Centro, 77780 Tulum, Q.R., Mexico
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26 Kukulkan Statue in Tulum Pueblo, Mexico

This carved sculpture in the Tulum Park resembles Kukulkan who was a feathered serpent. He is sometimes portrayed as a man, which was his origin, and at other times as a horrific beast. He is credited with controlling the earth’s four elements and establishing the Mayan calendar. Several Mayan temples are dedicated to him. The most famous is the pyramid at Chich’en Itza.

AV. Tulum, Region 1, MZA01, Lote 02,, Centro, 77780 Tulum, Q.R., Mexico
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27 Deity Sculpture in Tulum Pueblo, Mexico

I was unable to identify the name of this god who is clutching a serpent. This is not surprising because the Mayans worshiped over 250 deities who controlled almost every aspect of their underworld, life and heaven. In addition, similar gods had different names depending on the location of a Mayan civilization. This sculpture is in Tulum Park in the town of Tulum.

AV. Tulum, Region 1, MZA01, Lote 02,, Centro, 77780 Tulum, Q.R., Mexico
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28 Catholicism History in Yucatán Near Tulum Pueblo, Mexico

This is the humble Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Tulum Pueblo. Its classic Spanish missionary style struck me as ironic given the history of Catholicism in the Yucatán Peninsula. In 1519, a Spaniard named Hernán Cortés arrived to conquer, colonize and to religiously convert the indigenous people of today’s Mexico. Although he succeeded, his army and Franciscan friars spread small pox and measles. These Old World deceases killed up to 90% of the population in certain areas. This caused the demise of the Aztecs and accelerated the decline of the Mayans which began in the 9th century.

Calle Sol Ote. 2, Tulum, Q.R., Mexico
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El Castillo Maya Ruin Mural in Tulum Pueblo, Mexico

The town of Tulum, Mexico, is best known for its well-preserved coastal Mayan ruins including the El Castillo or The Castle shown in this 2009 mural by Mamubas. But Le Pueblo is also proud of its wild Yucatán Peninsula inhabitants like the Goldman’s jaguar and colorful toucan. The bicycle is real.

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