“During our short sojourn in Yucatan, we received vague, but, at the same time, reliable intelligence of the existence of numerous and extensive cities, desolate and in ruins …”
So begins John L. Stephens’ classic travel memoir Incidents of Travel in Yucatan, an instant sensation upon its publication in 1843. Stephens’ wry accounts of his party’s remarkable discoveries of now-famous landmarks such as Tulum and Chichen Itza contributed to the book’s immense popularity, but it was his companion Frederick Catherwood’s drawings and watercolors of romantic, vine-strewn ruins that vividly introduced the Mayan Yucatan to the Western imagination. A Catherwood book rests on our coffee table.
And so, with a well-thumbed Dover edition of Incidents of Travel (and an excellent guide and transport arranged by the Rosewood Mayakoba), we recently visited the ruins of Tulum. While not as magnificent as Chichen Itza or as mysterious as the jungle-shrouded Coba, as Stephens notes, it certainly wins on location:
“We were amid the wildest scenery we had yet found in Yucatan; and, besides the deep and exciting interest of the ruins themselves, we had around us what we wanted at all the other places, the magnificence of nature. Clearing away the platform in front, we looked over an immense forest; walking around the moulding of the wall, we looked out upon the boundless ocean…”
Tulum is set along a glorious stretch of the Caribbean, and while the days of clambering about on the ruins themselves are long gone (the structures are now roped off), the pathway that runs behind the Castillo (or castle) along the coastline still affords stunning views. The Mayans didn’t settle here for the scenery, however. Tulum was very much a maritime trading town, its inhabitants going so far as to dismantle a stretch of the outer barrier reef to facilitate shipping — the gap is still visible from the break of the waves.
Tulum actually reached its peak in the 13th and 14th centuries (well after the zenith of Mayan civilization), a period marked by internecine warfare and struggle for scarce resources, hence the presence of three massive walls (it was originally called Zama, or “City of the Dawn” for its eastern location, but was later dubbed Tulum, or simply “Wall”). Stephens was very excited by the discovery of these walls, as he had yet to encounter them anywhere else:
“Since the beginnings of our exploration we had heard of city walls, but all vestiges of them elsewhere had been uncertain, and our attempts to trace them unsatisfactory … all at once we found ourselves confronted by a massive stone structure running at right angles to the sea.”
The walls are still very much in place, and as the city grew in population, its inner sanctum was reserved for royalty and the priest classes. There are also a number of lesser temples with wonderful bas-reliefs detailing calendars, royal lineage narratives and creation myths (in particular the aptly named Templo de las Pinturas or “Temple of the Frescoes”). The Castillo, however, remains the main attraction. The temple that sits on its upper level once hosted religious ceremonies that included human sacrifice. Stephens and his crew spent an uncomfortable night up there during a storm:
“The darkness, the howling of the winds, the cracking of the branches in the forest, and the dashing of angry waves against the cliff, gave a romantic interest, almost a sublimity to our occupation of this desolate building, but we were rather too hackneyed travellers to enjoy it, and were much annoyed by moschetoes.”
The “moschetoes” in question are unfortunately still a problem. While we were happy to arrive first thing in the morning before the buses did, the mosquitoes were also eager to greet us. We lasted a couple of hours wandering the ruins before eventually submitting, as Stephens himself did after a few days:
“A savage notice to quit was continually buzzing in our ears, and all that we cared for was to get away.”
Tulum is located roughly 90 miles south of Cancun, and 40 miles south of Playa del Carmen. The site is open every day from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. An excellent aerial high-resolution photograph of the site can be found here.