Tulum, One of Mexico's Greatest Attractions.
Discovery of this ancient ruin, perched overlooking the Caribbean can be done individually or on guided tours

Story and photography by Ken Panton

On a recent trip to Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula I had the opportunity to visit the fabulous Mayan ruins of Tulum. Breathtakingly perched on a bluff overlooking the Caribbean, the views are as spectacular as the ruins are fascinating. "Tulum" means, "wall" in the Mayan language, and this architectural feature, unusual for an ancient site, gave the city its name. Research suggests that this enclave was formerly called "Zama", meaning "to dawn" which is very appropriate for the location. It seems Tulum is the name given to the site by explorers Stephens and Catherwood in 1841, long after the city had been abandoned by its original inhabitants and fell to ruins. These explorers ordered the removal of overgrown trees and Catherwood’s illustrations of the temples are preserved in their famous book, "Incidents of Travel in Yucatan." In actuality, Juan José Gálvez is credited with the rediscovery of the "lost" city in 1840 and the earliest date lifted from the site is A.D.564. Placing Tulum within the Classic period, we now know that its heyday was much later (1200 - 1521 AD).

Tulum was a major link in the Mayan's extensive trade network. Both maritime and land routes converged here. Artifacts found in and near the site testify to contacts that ranged from Central Mexico to Central America and everyplace in between: copper rattles and rings from the Mexican highlands; flint and ceramics from all over the Yucatan; jade and obsidian from Guatemala and more. The first Europeans to see Tulum were probably Juan de Grijalva and his men as they sailed reconnaissance along the Eastern coast of Yucatán in 1518. The Spaniards later returned to conquer the Peninsula unwittingly bringing Old World diseases with them, which decimated the native population. And so Tulum, like so many cities before it, was abandoned to the elements.

The Tulum archaeological site is relatively compact and is one of the best-preserved coastal Maya sites. Its proximity to the modern tourism developments along the Mexican Caribbean coastline (the so-called "Riviera Maya" surrounding Cancún) has made it a popular destination for tourists. Tour buses operate daily, bringing a constant stream of visitors to the site. The Tulum ruins are the third most-visited archaeological sites in Mexico, after Teotihuacan and Chichen Itza. It is popular for the picturesque view of the Caribbean and a location just 128 km (80 miles) south of the popular beach resort of Cancún. For more information and to plan a Tulum getaway, visit the Cancun official site.