Ancient City of the Dawn: Tulum
Mayan Ancient City Is a Top Visitor Draw
By Susan J. Young
Rising above the beach along Mexico's Riviera Maya, Tulum is an ancient city that lives on -- at least in the hearts and minds of eager travelers -- through its well-preserved ruins.
This Mayan city is dramatically perched atop rugged cliffs. It offers superb seaside views of the Caribbean's aqua waters.
A visit to peruse the ruins at Tulum is a popular shore trip for thousands of cruise visitors annually. Tulum is Mexico's third most-visited archaeological site, following Teotihuacan, just outside Mexico City, and Chichen Itza, Mexico's most magnificent Mayan city.
How do you get to Tulum? Cruise ships typically call at either Playa del Carmen on the Mexican mainland or the island of Cozumel.
Those arriving at Cozumel then take a high-speed ferry to Playa del Carmen (see photo at left*), from which the motorcoach excursions to Tulum depart.
Tulum -- a Yacatec Mayan word for "wall" or "fence"-- is accessible via a modern, coastal roadway. It's just 80 miles south of Cancun.
Travelers enter through an ancient gate (see photo at right*) -- as the Mayans did centuries ago.
Another name for the Maya site is Zama, meaning city of the dawn.
In its heyday, Tulum was a supply port for Copan, a major Mayan city located within modern-day Honduras.
Tulum was religiously significant to the Mayans -- a place for worship of the Descending God.
Occupied around 1200 AD, Tulum was inhabited up through the explorations of the Spanish in the early 20th century.
Juan Diaz, a Spaniard who was part of Juan de Grijalva's 1518 expedition, was the first western explorer to venture into the city (See one major building at left).
Approaching from the sea, Diaz wrote that the expedition followed the coast day and night and "we sighted a city or town so large that Seville would not have appeared bigger or better...a very tall tower was to be seen there."
Descriptions and sketchings of the ancient city appeared in a 1843 book, "Incidents of Travel in Yucatan," by John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood.
Archaeologists began work at the site in the early 20th century.
Tulum is relatively compact, compared with other major Maya sites. Today, most tourists traipse easily over the site, which is relatively flat. Guides (such as the one above right*) explain the ancient city's history.
The inhabitants of Tulum were divided into three social groups. The upper two groups lived inside the city walls (shown at left*).
This upper class included craftsmen and members of the ruling class - residents who devoted themselves to government, religion, war and trade.
Outside the walls lived the lower class, consisting of farmers, fishermen and hunters.
Religion was critically important in this society, as demonstrated by Tulum's numerous altars, temples and shrines.
Today visitors flock to Tulum for glimpses of its past. The ancient ruins exude a look and aura of the Mayan world. And the seaside setting makes a great photography backdrop.
The Castle -- the dramatic centerpiece of Tulum (shown above*) -- is the city's tallest building. Set against a tropical backdrop, the rear of the temple is reinforced by a large sloping buttress.
Located cliffside, this temple is perched 36 feet above the Caribbean sea.
Throughout the site at Tulum, you might view tropical flowers in bloom (as at left*) or spot iguanas (see below*).
Editor's note: Take time to walk "behind" this Castle on the path next to the cliffs.
You'll be rewarded with incredible views of the Caribbean, a nearby beach, a lovely cove, and the Temple of the Wind in the distance.
Temple of the Frescoes
The Temple of the Frescoes (shown on the right side of the photo at left*) is a significant building within the ancient city.
The photos (shown below*) offer close-up exterior detail and a view to one of its murals.
The Cove at Tulum
Located between The Castle and the Temple of the Wind (shown in the photos above and below*), this cove was used by both the Maya and the Spanish as a sheltered place for landing their boats.
From here, trade goods began their journey to cities throughout the Mayan world in Central America.
Walking Through Tulum
I've visited Tulum three times. Each time I glean something different. From the tropical foliage to ancient temple ruins and spectacular seaside views, Tulum delivers a mystical sense of time and place that's not easily found in today's world.
Cruise ship excursions usually encompass 90 minutes to two hours at the site. The local guides are excellent for those who want to delve significantly into the site's historical significance.
As a visually focused individual, I most enjoy snapping images of ancient sites. Thus, we provide these original photos of the enticing world of Tulum.
Photos were taken in September 2008 on a shore trip from Silversea Cruises' expedition ship Silver Explorer (formerly named Prince Albert II).
The weather was a bit overcast. But you can get a sense of the sites.
(At left, cruise travelers navigate a path outside Tulum's walls, before entering the walled city shown below*)
If You Go
In terms of weather, Tulum is often hot. Visitors stand in the open -- without shade most times - to hear commentary. While the tour is on relatively flat land, surfaces at times can be uneven.
Three essentials for Tulum-bound visitors include:
(1) Bottled Water - at least one, and better yet, two bottles;
(2) Umbrella - not necessarily for rain. An umbrella is a blessing on sunny days for keeping out the strong rays as you stand in the blistering sun to listen to the guide's commentary; and
(3) Comfortable walking shoes.
Motorcoaches with tourists pull into a colorful Mexican souvenir shopping area.
Here you'll leave your coach and walk to a tram.
The five-minute tram ride (see tram at right*) will take you to the entrance of Tulum.
Restrooms (shown at left*) and a model of the ancient city are located at the entrance to the ruins.
Important note: Use the facilities as there are no restrooms within the walled ancient city.
Tulum is an enticing day trip for cruise visitors. In my view, it's not particularly appropriate for children. Most kids we encountered along the way seemed bored. That said, if you have an older child entranced with history, then this tour may delight.
The tour isn't razzle-dazzle. Many times, you are simply standing to admire ancient ruins as the guide offers commentary.
Most tours offer 15 minutes of free time. Some cruisers might appreciate a walk cliffside to view the turquoise sea scenes and the beach below.
If you wear your swimsuit under your clothes, you might take a quick dip, with an emphasis on the "quick." There are no lifeguards at the beach. It's a "swim at your own risk" situation.
And you'll likely have just minutes to hit the surf before heading out of the site to catch a tram back to the motorcoach.
Those who have seen enough once the formal tour ends, might use their 15 minutes of free time to hop a tram for an early ride back to the shopping area. You'll find refreshments, restrooms and souvenir and craft shops.
A Tulum tour often can be combined with other half-day attractions in the area. Many cruise lines offer a combo-experience from Playa del Carmen.
I highly recommend snorkeling and swimming at Xel-Ha, a great way to cool off and view colorful Caribbean fish in a protected area. It's also a lovely tropical setting for those who simply want to sit and relax, or admire tropical flowers, birds and marine life.
Choosing Tulum as a shore trip will give any history buff an immersion into the world of the ancient Mayan civilization.
*Photo are owned, copyrighted and used courtesy of Susan J. Young, SouthernTravelNews.com. All rights reserved. Please do not link to nor copy these photos. Thank you.