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Tulum Ruins - Historical Overview

Updated: Sep 15, 2023

Initial Existence and Purpose: A Major Port for Coba

The Tulum Ruins, perched on 12-meter-tall cliffs along the east coast of the Yucatán Peninsula, represent an essential part of the pre-Columbian Mayan civilization. Serving as a walled city, the Tulum Ruins were once a major port for Coba, located in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo. The site's strategic location allowed it to flourish as a trading hub, with a particular emphasis on obsidian trade.

Importance of Tulum Ruins during the 13th to 15th Centuries

The Tulum Ruins reached their peak prominence between the 13th and 15th centuries, standing as one of the last cities constructed and inhabited by the Maya. This era marked growth and significance for the Tulum Ruins, playing a vital role in the region's economy, politics, and culture. The city's fortifications and commanding position overlooking the Caribbean Sea made it an essential center for worship, particularly for the Diving or Descending god.

The Tulum ruins on a bright sunny day

Abandonment of Tulum Ruins by the End of the 16th Century

Though the Maya continued to inhabit the Tulum Ruins for about 70 years after the Spanish colonization of Mexico, the city eventually fell into decline. By the end of the 16th century, the Tulum Ruins were entirely abandoned. The once-thriving coastal site transformed into a historical artifact, reflecting the loss of a civilization that once held sway over the region. Complex factors, including changes in trade, political shifts, and European influence, contributed to its abandonment.

Possible Original Name: Zama (City of Dawn)

The Tulum Ruins might have originally been referred to as Zama, translating to the City of Dawn. This name captures the essence of the location, as it faces the sunrise, highlighting its geographical significance on the Caribbean Sea.

View of the cliffs and Caribbean from the Tulum Ruins archeological site

Meaning and Significance of the Name 'Tulum'

The name 'Tulum' has rich meaning in the Yucatán Maya language, symbolizing a fence, wall, or trench. This appellation aptly describes the Tulum Ruins, with its enclosed and fortified nature. The walled city's defenses provided robust protection against invasions, emphasizing the strategic importance of the site.

The City's Strategic Positioning and Defensive Structure

The Tulum Ruins stand on a bluff, facing eastward toward the Caribbean Sea, marking a unique blend of natural beauty and strategic positioning. The city's walls, averaging 3–5 meters in height, encompassed the area, making Tulum an impregnable fortress. Its access to both land and sea trade routes further underscores its significance as an important trade hub. The defensive structures, including watch towers and gateways, showcase the well-thought-out design that made Tulum one of the most well-known fortified sites of the Maya. The nearby cenote supplying fresh water, and the break in the barrier reef perfect for trading canoes, solidify Tulum's status as a masterfully designed city, embracing both function and form.

The detailed planning and architecture of the Tulum Ruins reflect a blend of cultural, historical, and geographical considerations, making it an enthralling site that continues to draw the fascination of historians and tourists alike.

View for the Tulum Ruins cliffside

Historical Accounts and Discoveries of Tulum Ruins

First European Account by Juan Díaz in 1518

The history of the Tulum Ruins as documented by Europeans began with the Spanish explorer Juan Díaz. During the expedition led by Juan de Grijalva in 1518, Díaz recorded the first impressions of Tulum, describing it as a city as grand as Seville. His accounts provided the first glimpse into the mysterious world of the Maya civilization that existed in Tulum.

Detailed Descriptions by Stephens and Catherwood in 1843

The mid-19th century saw a renewed interest in the Tulum Ruins. In 1843, American explorer John Lloyd Stephens and British artist Frederick Catherwood, fascinated by the Maya civilization, visited the ruins. Their detailed accounts and exquisite illustrations became a vital resource in understanding the architecture and cultural significance of Tulum. Catherwood's accurate drawings provided an unparallel insight into the Tulum Ruins, preserving its grandeur and uniqueness.

Drawing of Tulum Ruins as originally found

Subsequent Archaeological Work and Findings Through the Years

After the efforts by Stephens and Catherwood, the Tulum Ruins began to attract scholars and archaeologists worldwide. Throughout the 20th century, excavations and studies at Tulum unveiled a complex and rich history. Teams of archaeologists worked tirelessly, uncovering structures, artifacts, and information that shed new light on the Maya way of life.

Excavation Discoveries: e.g. Ancient Female Skeleton in 2020

One of the most intriguing discoveries at the Tulum Ruins came in 2020 when an ancient female skeleton was unearthed. This finding opened up new conversations and theories about the people who inhabited Tulum, their customs, traditions, and the social structure. The continued excavation work at Tulum has contributed immensely to the understanding of the Maya civilization.

Architecture of Tulum Ruins

The Tulum Ruins are a masterpiece of Mayan architecture, combining both functionality and artistry in a harmonious blend. The city's structure reveals much about the civilization's advanced building techniques and aesthetic choices. Below, we explore the unique characteristics that define Tulum's architecture, including the protective wall and its most significant structures.

Typical Characteristics of Mayan Architecture Found in Tulum

Tulum's architecture is emblematic of the Maya's love for symmetry, precision, and intricacy. Some typical features found within the Tulum Ruins include:

Talud-tablero Style:

Sloping bases with a flat top, often adorned with intricate carvings.

Corbel Arches:

A distinctive Mayan archway technique that utilizes overlapping stones.

Hieroglyphic Inscriptions:

Many structures include inscriptions and carved reliefs that tell the history and mythology of the Maya.

Stelae and Altars:

These carved stone monuments were used for ceremonial purposes and are scattered throughout Tulum.

Description of Tulum's Protective Wall

A striking feature of the Tulum Ruins is the protective wall that surrounds the city. Built to defend against invasions, the wall is approximately 3-5 meters in height and 8 meters thick. The limestone wall encloses the city on three sides, with the Caribbean Sea serving as a natural barrier on the fourth side. This defensive structure underscores Tulum's strategic importance as a major port.

Most Significant Structures

El Castillo

The centerpiece of the Tulum Ruins, El Castillo, is an imposing structure that served both as a temple and a fortress. Standing on a cliff overlooking the sea, its location likely had a navigational purpose, guiding sailors safely to shore. The combination of religious significance and military functionality marks El Castillo as a defining piece of Mayan architecture.

El Castillo at the Tulum Ruins

Temple of the Frescoes

Named for the beautiful murals found within, the Temple of the Frescoes showcases the artistic brilliance of the Mayan people. Inside, the frescoes depict scenes from Mayan mythology, providing valuable insights into their beliefs and cosmology. The building itself is a fine example of multi-level construction, with decorative niches and complex ornamentation.

Temple of the Descending God

The Temple of the Descending God is famous for its unique carving of a figure descending from above, possibly representing a Mayan deity associated with the setting sun or beekeeping. This temple's architecture is a testament to the complexity of Mayan spiritual life, with astronomical alignments that coincide with specific celestial events.

Trade and Economic Importance of Tulum Ruins

The Tulum Ruins are not just a testament to the architectural and artistic achievements of the Maya; they also tell a story of a vibrant and bustling economic center. The city's strategic location along the coast made it a critical trade hub in the pre-Columbian era. Below, we delve into Tulum's significance in trade, exploring the goods exchanged, trade routes, and its interaction with other regions.

Tulum's Significance as a Trade Hub

Situated on the Yucatan Peninsula's cliffs, the Tulum Ruins overlook the Caribbean Sea, providing access to both inland and maritime trade routes. Its position allowed Tulum to serve as a significant port for the city of Coba, facilitating trade with far-reaching territories. This importance in commerce made Tulum an affluent city, attracting traders, artisans, and nobility alike.

Goods Imported and Exported

Tulum's economy thrived on a diverse array of goods that flowed in and out of its harbours:


Key imports to the city included jade, obsidian, gold, copper, cacao, feathers, and exotic animal products. These items were often used for ceremonial purposes or as symbols of status and wealth.


Tulum's exports featured products like salt, textiles, pottery, honey, and copal (incense), as well as locally harvested marine resources like shells and fish.

The constant exchange of these goods led to a flourishing market within the Tulum Ruins, where local artisans crafted unique wares, influencing Mayan art and culture.

Trade Routes and Interactions with Other Regions

Tulum's trade network was expansive, with connections extending throughout Mesoamerica and beyond:

Land Routes:

Overland trade paths connected Tulum with inland cities such as Coba and Chichen Itza, facilitating the flow of goods across the Yucatan.

Maritime Routes:

Tulum's harbours enabled maritime trade with distant regions like Honduras and Belize, as well as other Caribbean territories.

The city's engagement in wide-reaching trade interactions led to cultural exchanges and the spread of ideas, technologies, and religious beliefs.

Experience Tulum Ruins with Mayan Private Tours

Tulum, with its rich cultural heritage and stunning natural landscapes, offers an abundance of unforgettable experiences. At Mayan Private Tours, our Tulum Ruins and Adventure tour starts with a tour of the beautiful Tulum Ruins. You will spend about 1 to 1.5 hours strolling through ancient Mayan ruins with your personal certified guide. Take as much or as little time as you wish with your guide in the ruins as there is no set timeline.

After visiting the Tulum Ruins, your guide and driver will take you to the adventure of your choice. You can go underground snorkelling, or to a cenote adventure park.

To learn more and book your private tour today please visit the Tulum Adventure Tour.

Discover ancient Mayan civilizations and have the adventure of a lifetime.


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