Maya city of Tulum

Tulum lithograph by Frederic Catherwood, 1841

It’s a long walk from the parking lot through the jungle paths under the slow gaze of iguanas beneath the trees or perched on walls. Brightly coloured birds in the branches overhead look down and ruffle their wings as, somewhere up ahead, monkeys yell to each other in the undergrowth. You pass through the ticket booth and step through an archway in a stone wall into the ancient past. The sunlight, after the shade of the path, is almost blinding but what actually dazzles is the bright city rising from the plain before you: Tulum.

Tulum with Temple of Frescoes in foreground and El Castillo behind. © Joshua Mark.
The Maya city of Tulum was first brought to the world’s attention in the mid-19th century when John Lloyd Stephens and Frederic Catherwood popularized the civilization through their best-selling books Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan (1841) and Incidents of Travel in Yucatan (1843), both narratives of their explorations and mapping of ancient Maya sites. Most Maya cities had been steadily swallowed by the surrounding jungle since their abandonment in c. 950 CE but Tulum was a late city, still occupied and operating as a trade centre in 1518 CE when the Spanish arrived.
Tulum was built on a cliff 39 feet (12 metres) above the sea sometime in the 6th century CE and surrounded on three sides by a wall, It’s original name may have been Zama (City of the Dawn) and it seems to have been a ceremonial/religious site from at least 1200 CE until the Spanish Conquest in the 16th century CE. The present name Tulum means `wall’ or `fence’ and is a later designation. Most Maya cities were not walled which suggests that Tulum held special significance for the people and this was almost certainly religious in nature.
Temple of the Frescoes, Tulum. Photo © Joshua Mark.
Once your eyes have adjusted to the city across the field you’re standing in, you move toward the buildings with an increasing sense of awe. Tulum is a small city clustered on a green plateau atop the cliff but cleverly designed so that one always has a sense of open space. In its time there were over 1,000 people living here but the diseases brought by the Spanish invaders devastated the community which resulted in its abandonment.
You walk down a lane with buildings rising to either side but you have to stop at the two-storey Temple of the Frescoes at the corner. This was an ancient observatory and gets its name from the paintings inside on the eastern wall. The building is closed to the public and roped off (as all the structures at the site now are) but you can get pretty close and still see the original red paint on the wall from thousands of years ago and the fascinating ornamentation honoring the Descending God, a mysterious deity most likely associated with Venus.
Temple of the Frescoes, Tulum. Photo © Joshua Mark.

Leaving there, you walk in the opposite direction down another lane and then up toward the impressive El Castillo but first you have to pause at the Temple of the Descending God. This building is roped off at quite a distance from the path but you can get a good view of it and even better through a camera lens. El Castillo, however, is the most striking building in the city and it rises up on your left as you continue down the path. You walk around it and out toward the seaside where there is a beach below and jungle stretching immediately to the left and right with the Temple of the Wind God far off on a knoll. The sky is incredibly blue and the waters a soft aquamarine and the winds come strong and warming off the sea. You could stay there for hours in a timeless trance but you can’t remain and you know it; so you turn and make your way out through the walls of Tulum and back into the present. You take something with you when you leave, though; what that is, depends on what you came with.

Advertisement