The Ruins of Tulum
Text by K. Mitchell Snow
Photos by Paul Clemence
The moment the imposing if misnamed “Castillo,” or castle, of Tulum, looms on the horizon you can almost hear the equivalent of an ancient real estate developer repeating the Mayan word tuuxil (location) over and over as he guided the city’s founders to this spot. Other ruined cities in the Yucatan Peninsula hold more impressive architectural remains, boast of greater antiquity and cover far more territory, but none of them comes close to equaling the beauty of Tulum, situated on a headland of what is known today as the Riviera Maya.
A few scattered remains suggest that at least part of Tulum was occupied as early as 564, though the surrounding area holds proof of human habitation from thousands of years earlier. The record of humans enjoying the site’s beauty probably extends deep into prehistory.
Tulum was known by the Maya as Zama, or dawn, a name that evokes its location with greater exactitude and poetry than their word for wall that describes it today, in reference to the barriers that surround the city’s sacred center. In its heyday, it seems to have been a stronghold linking seaborne commerce along the Caribbean coast and land based trade roots. Its Castillo may well have served as a kind of signpost guiding trading canoes to its once lovely little beach, recently overcome by climate change-related forests of seaweed.
Tulum’s first recorded foreign traveler was Spanish explorer Juan de Grijalva in 1518, who opined that the occupied city he saw from his ship looked to be just as impressive as Seville. He reported that his ship was flagged down by its inhabitants, but he declined to debark. What Grijalva saw inspired another Spaniard, Hernando Cortez, to return to this promising territory just a few years later with results we all know.
The second recorded outsider visitors, more than three hundred years after that, were John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood who described it in words and drawings in their 1843 bestseller Incidents of Travel in the Yucatan. Though the site had been abandoned for some time, Stephen’s suggests that the locals were still visiting it to leave offerings. Since then the numbers of visitors to the site have continued to grow, reaching boom levels with the development of Cozumel, just a few hours journey to its north, as a tourist hub in the 1980s.
Even at its peak, which occurred between roughly 1250-1550, Tulum seems to have been attractive to people and ideas from outside the Yucatan. The city began its rise after another of the region’s most noted ancient cities, Chichén Itzá, had dwindled in importance.
Like its neighbor, it also displays ample evidence of contacts with other peoples in what we now call Mexico. The serpent columns, with their prominent fanged heads and rattlesnake tails, that adorn the Castillo recall similar features on religious buildings from central Mexico. The “Diving God,” who appears on a number of buildings throughout the city, seems to be hurtling himself headfirst out of the sky. His particular incarnation here also suggests a fusion of homegrown world views and those from beyond the Yucatan.
The ruins of Tulum were once far more colorful than they are today though few traces of its external brilliance remain. The interior walls of the Temple of the Frescoes still hold what remains of a group of mural paintings that, on one level at least, represent the importance of agriculture to the overall society of the era.
On another level, they also seem to link astronomical observations of the Sun and the planet Venus that helped regulate farming and ritual practices. One interpreter even sees the murals as a summation of the pre-conquest world view of the earth as a kind of “flowery mountain” that holds the sea, teeming with fish and even a manta ray, within itself. These too are painted in what some scholars call the “international style,” that blends influences from the various peoples across today’s southern and central Mexico. Once standing out from a brilliant blue-green ground, like the waters of the Caribbean just beyond, these murals too are disappearing and visitor access is restricted.
Even the Spanish conquest and the passage of half a millennium has not altered the local taste for vividly painted walls.
Contemporary murals provide the principal attraction of the contemporary city of Tulum that has grown up around the archeological site in the past few decades. They are just as “international” in their subject matter and approach as their antecedents. It is possible to spend a pleasant few hours wandering the new city’s external art exhibitions to top off a visit to the ruins.
K.Mitchell Snow : author of A Revolution in Movement: Dancers, Painters, and the Image of Modern Mexico (University Press of Florida 2020). He has written about Latin American art and culture for publications such as Américas, Art Nexus, History of Photography and Review: Literature and Arts of the Americas.
Paul Clemence is an award-winning photographer and writer exploring the cross-section of design, art and architecture. A published author, his volume Mies van der Rohe’s FARNSWORTH HOUSE remains to this day the most complete photo documentation of that iconic modern residential design, and a selection of these photos is part of the Mies van der Rohe Archives housed by MoMa, New York. He is widely published in arts, architecture and lifestyle magazines like Metropolis, ArchDaily, Architizer, Modern, Casa Vogue Brasil and others. Archi-Photo, aka Architecture Photography, his Facebook photo blog quickly became a photography and architecture community, with over 970,000 followers worldwide. An architect by training, Clemence is originally from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and now lives and works in Brooklyn, New York.