Operation Tulum: The Ruins

For the second time in one year, I was back in Mexico at the port of Cozumel. We stepped off the same cruise ship dock, crossed the strait to Playa Del Carmen, and boarded another bus. We were going to visit another Mayan ruin, but instead of the more famous Chichen Itza in the north of the Yucatan Peninsula, it was time to head to the southern city of Tulum.

If you flip through a guidebook or look up “Maya Ruins Mexico,” odds are you’ll find one classic view: a huge stone tower above a sandy, tan beach, jungle trees waving in the back over a crystalline, aquamarine Caribbean Sea. What you’re seeing is a little place on the coast called Tulum, touted as the only Maya city situated on the coast. It is undoubtedly the most scenically located. I first learned of this important site by playing “Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag,” where it’s the regional base for pirates and rogues. Obviously it took liberties with the setting (aka looks nothing like it) but nevertheless I was intrigued by its beauty.

El Castillo, Tulum, Mexico

As photogenic as it is, it’s not the most important Maya site. For wannabe archaeologists like me, your first bet is to head straight to Chichen Itza. Tulum, originally named Zama “Dawn” because of its eastward-facing placement, is hardly an archaeological wonder. This is, as I understand, due to the fact that it was inhabited around AD 1000, far after the peak of the Mayan city-states. Whether this had to due with drought, famine, war, or climate change is up for debate, but the Maya were far past their prime. As a result, the architecture is nowhere near as intricate or complex as its earlier counterparts at Tikal, Chichen Itza, or Palenque. My mom noted that the architecture was of a less refined, professional quality- and when you see the packed-in stonework as opposed to the smooth blocks of the earlier ruins, the difference is obvious. However, it must’ve been quite the sight when Europeans first set their eyes on the towers.

When you park at Tulum, there is a huge shopping mall ahead of you, filled with Mexican vanilla, cheap T-shirts, and tequila bottles shaped like Pancho Villa’s revolver. Some cosplaying clowns dressed in the garb of “Mayan warriors” held snakes and posed with tourists, oblivious of the fact that their fake tattoo motifs and clothing designs were obviously part Aztec in inspiration, not Mayan. This was a strange thing that also happened in Belize City, when shopkeepers sold ceramic Aztec calendar disks although the Aztecs never occupied the area. It’s really something when you, a foreign tourist, apparently are more aware of historical accuracy of a place than some of the locals… then again, it’s not like most folks will notice!

From the mall you follow a throbbing line of tourists down a road for what seems like a long time, heading into the Yucatan jungle. We arrived at the outside of the city’s wall, which stretched out in stone on three sides. I ducked and walked through the triangle-shaped gateway and emerged out the other side to see the ruins of Tulum.

Tulum is less notable for its archaeology than for its economic significance in the Mayan trade network. Most people fail to realize that the Maya could be skilled tradesmen and navigators who pursued trade operations up and down the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef. From Veracruz to Panama, Mayan canoes linked many coastal settlements with commodities like obsidian, basalt, vanilla, rubber, and jadeite. (This has personally led me to believe that surely the Mayans at least washed up at Cuba at one point, though obviously no evidence of this has surfaced.) You can go to one of the overlooks and see the closed-off beach that served as an amphibious landing zone for mariners.

“We traveled this coast a day and a night, and the next day, when the sun was about to set we saw in the far distance a town or village so large that the city of Seville could not appear larger or better and a very big tower could be seen.” -Juan Diaz

The view at Tulum (which translates to “fortification” or “city wall”) is spectacular, and as you walk among the ruined stone structures you can see flecks of red and blue paint. Scattered all across the complex are giant, scaly iguanas. They rest on the lawn on the stone floors, or stare from the tops of the ruined buildings, whether to bask in the sun or observe the throngs of tourists. Ignore the landscaping and focus on the crumbling structures, and it may as well be what Juan Diaz saw on May 7, 1518, when he became the first European to set eyes on it. Tulum stayed obscure until 1842, when John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood visited the ruins and made beautiful lithographs of the site. Stephens and Catherwood would be acclaimed for their pioneering exploration of Mayan ruins, showing the American public the long-forgotten cultures that had existed centuries before. Tulum last saw action in the Caste Wars of the Yucatan, when it served as a fort for Maya rebels.

Mérida, Yucatán, Mexico - See lithographs of Maya ruins by Frederick  Catherwood - photos | Maya civilization, Ancient mayan, Tulum
Tulum Lithograph, Frederick Catherwood

Tulum’s most famous building is the Castillo, by far the most impressive icon on the premises. Behind it, you can look out over the Caribbean Sea on a vantage point or a rickety wooden deck.

Overall, I’m glad we visited Tulum, but I doubt I’ll be back for a revisit any time soon. By no means bad, it just can’t compare with the majesty that is Chichen Itza. It’s like visiting Sears Tower, and then going to the Empire State Building- you’ve seen the taller one, so there’s no way the latter could compare to it. That being said, I have to hand it to the Maya. It seems that they mastered the real estate principle of oceanfront property a thousand years before it became fashionable. I give it a 3/5 score, which translates to “DECENT.” But if you’re in Cancun or wherever for a single day trip, my vote goes to Chichen Itza.

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