What was Tulum?
A small, oddly-shaped traveler pondering the ruins. Photo by Jim.
This small but important port city on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula was probably the last and best-protected of all Maya settlements with steep cliffs onto the Caribbean Sea on one side and walls up to 16 ft high (5 meters) and 26 ft thick (8 m) on the three other sides, watch towers on corner points and five narrow gateways in the wall.
Tulum’s population at the peak of its power between the 13th and 15th centuries is thought to have been about 1, 500 inhabitants.
The port’s main purpose was as a trading post on behalf of other Maya settlements such as Coba, 27 miles (44 kms) inland, especially for obsidian stone which was used to make weapons and domestic cutting tools, but it was also a center for worship of the Diving/Descending god.
Tulum continued to function for around 70 years after the Spanish conquistadors arrived in Mexico but was eventually defeated not by advanced weaponry, horsemen or Spanish tactics but diseases introduced by European settlers, with smallpox featuring as Top Gun.
How to see Tulum at its best
Tulum is a compact, easy-to-reach Maya site in pretty good shape and parked uniquely on a spectacular piece of Caribbean coastline, liberally spread with sunbathing iguanas.
However, it’s also not as interesting structurally as several other Maya sites which offer massive pyramids (that you can climb in some cases), intricate bas reliefs, scary sculptures and more variety of buildings.
Tulum is also heavily touristed in a small area as it is so easy to reach from the Maya Riviera’s beach resorts such as Cancun, Playa del Carmen and Cozumel island. In fact this is the third most-visited archaeological site in Mexico after Teotihuacan and Chichen Itza.
For the best possible Tulum experience you need to observe two suggestions: Firstly rent your own wheels or go with a very small tour group that aims to arrive very early (or quite late) in order to avoid the sheeple that graze the site after about 9. 30 am and flock off about 4. 30pm. Secondly you need either a very good guide book to explain all the little oddities and quirky historical interest of the place or hire a guide when you arrive there. One or two hours would be enough for most visitors, though hanging out on the superb adjacent beaches could easily be a full day’s work.