Where Is Tulum and Why Was It So Important to the Ancient Maya?

Now part of a modern tourist paradise, the Tulum ruins remain a symbol of a once vibrant and powerful civilization.

By Stephen C. George
Mar 18, 2023 3:00 PM
Tulum at sunrise
(Credit: soft_light/Shutterstock)


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What is Tulum known for? Well, anyone who’s ever heard of the place knows it as a buzzy resort, the trendier alternative to Cancun (80 miles to the north), and for the past few decades an increasingly popular (and crowded) destination for foodies, influencers and tourists in general.

But the ancient Maya people were at Tulum long before it was cool. In fact, skeletal remains found in nearby cenotes and underwater cave systems indicate that the area was populated by Indigenous people 10,000 or more years ago.

Read More: A Hard Life and Mysterious Death

Where Is Tulum?

More recently, about 1,500 years ago, it was here, on the Caribbean coast of Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula, that the Maya built a city unlike any other. They called it Zama, which means sunrise or dawn — appropriate for a city facing east across a sweep of glittering sea. Situated in a protected zone just a few miles from the modern city center, the Tulum archaeological site, once ignored and neglected, has now become one of the top Mayan destinations in Mexico. Here's what we know about ancient Tulum. 

(Credit: lunamarina/Shutterstock)

While there may be bigger Mayan settlements or sites with more impressive structures — Chichen Itza, for example, or nearby Coba — Tulum was nevertheless an important city, and believed to be the last great settlement built by the Maya.

Its location wasn’t chosen just to enjoy the sunrise or catch the breeze off the Caribbean. Tulum was a port, the only known city that the Maya built on the coast. Historians and archaeologists note that Tulum was a significant hub of trade for land and sea, dealing in such valuable resources as turquoise, jade and obsidian, as well as textiles, ceramics and other commodities.

Ancient Tulum Was Built Like a Fortress

(Credit: Mariordo/CC BY-SA 3.0/Wikimedia Commons)

For its size and location, Tulum was exceedingly well-fortified. It’s estimated that the building of the city began sometime in the A.D. 6th century, during what is known as the Classic Period for the Maya. Even today, it’s obvious to the most casual visitor that the careful and strategic construction of Tulum took a long time.

While one side faced the sea and so was protected by steep cliffs, the rest of the city was bounded by stone walls that were particularly thick — up to 26 feet — and as much as 16 feet tall in some places. If you were dealing in luxury trade goods, it made sense to protect them, but many archaeologists have concluded that the walls weren’t so much a preventive measure against theft and raids as they were a barrier between social classes. Apparently only the ruling and religious elite resided within the city walls, while commoners lived outside.

Tulum Was Abandoned By the 16th Century

Temple of the Frescoes (Credit: jlazouphoto/Shutterstock)

Tulum reached its peak around the 13th and 14th centuries. Visitors at that time would have seen a vibrant city with buildings painted in bright hues of red, blue and green. One of the site’s most compelling structures, the Temple of the Frescoes, still features evidence of carved deities and murals depicting scenes derived from Mayan culture and mythology. If social media influencers had existed back then, they would have had a field day taking selfies.

The port city continued to thrive for another century or two. Then, in 1518, a very different kind of influencer arrived in the Yucatan: The conquistadors. And they weren’t tourists — they were here to stay.

Read More: Why Did the Maya Abandon Their Once-Bustling Cities?

In short order, disease, conflict and other depredations of colonization helped to wipe out the Mayan civilization as we (and they) would know it. Tulum’s thick walls ultimately offered little defense; the fortified port became a ghost town by the end of the 16th century.

Tulum Ruins: How They Were Discovered

1844 lithograph of Tulum (Credit: Frederick Catherwood, Public domain/Wikimedia Commons)

In the mid-19th century, English explorer Frederick Catherwood and American diplomat John Lloyd Stephens traveled throughout the Yucatan, writing an influential book that would introduce much of the Western world to Mayan culture. In 1841, they first saw the ruins of ancient Zama. Impressed by the thick barriers surrounding the settlement, they named the site Tulum, meaning wall or fence in the Mayan language.

And still the ancient city was off the beaten path for the next 150 years. However, the rise of Cancun in the 1970s, and the overall development of what would come to be called the Riviera Maya region over the next 20 years, all but assured that Tulum would once again regain prominence in the region.

What is Tulum Known For?

In the mid-20th century, the resident population of Tulum was estimated at a few hundred people. By the turn of the millennium, the population had risen to more than 12,000, a figure that has nearly quadrupled in the past 20 years. But that’s still a tiny number compared to the more than 2 million annual visitors that descend on the area today.

Tulum Archaeological Site

While many of these tourists may confine themselves to the resort zone, the Tulum ruins are still one of the most popular archaeological sites in Mexico. Thankfully, the government has taken some steps to preserve the ruins from being hugged to death by so many modern “explorers.” Where once visitors could clamber among, atop and even within some of the still-standing ruins, today the most sensitive areas are restricted. 

But this ancient port city is still worth a look, whether it’s to marvel at the architecture and artistry of a civilization long gone, or to bask in the sunrise and Caribbean breezes of a unique settlement whose charm and mystery have once again made it the crossroads of commerce.

Read More: How the Ancient Maya Practiced Sustainable Agriculture

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