Tulum, 130 km south of Cancún, considered by many as the most beautiful
of the Mayan sites, is small but exquisitely poised on the fifteen-meter-high
cliffs above the Caribbean. When the Spanish first set eyes on the place in
1518, they considered it as large and beautiful a city as Seville, Spain. They
were, perhaps misled by their dreams of El dorado, by the glory of its position,
and by the brightly painted facades of the buildings. Architecturally, Tulum
is no match for these great cities. Nevertheless, thanks to the setting, it
sticks in the memory like no other.
The site (open daily from 8am-5pm), is about one km from the main road, so
make sure to get off at the turnoff to the ruins and not at the actual village
of Tulum a few kilometers farther on. You enter through a breach in the wall
which protected the city on three sides. The fourth was defended by the sea.
This wall, some 5m (16ft) high with a walkway around the top, may have been
defensive, but more likely its prime purpose was to distinguish the ceremonial
and administrative zone (the site you see now) from the residential enclaves,
which were mostly constructed of perishable material. As you go through the
walls, the chief structures lie directly ahead of you, with The Castillo (The
Castle) rising on its rocky prominence above the sea.
At The Templo de los Frescos (Temple of the Frescoes), the partly restored
murals that can be seen inside the temple depict Mayan Gods and symbols of nature's
fertility; rain, corn and fish. They originally adorned an earlier structure
and have been preserved by the construction of a gallery around them, and still
later (during the fifteenth century) by the addition of a second temple. Characteristically,
its walls slope outwards at the top. Carved on the corners of the gallery are
masks of Chac, or perhaps of the creator, God Itzamna.
The Castillo, on the highest part of the site, commands imposing views in every
direction. Aside from its role as a temple, it may well have served as a beacon
or lighthouse. Even without a light it would have been and important landmark
for mariners along an otherwise monotonously featureless coastline. You climb
first to a small square, in the middle of which stood an altar, before climbibg
the broad stairway to the top of the castle itself. To the left of this plaza
stands the Templo del Dios Descendente. The diving or descending god-depicted
here above the narrow entrance of the temple appears all over Tulum as a small,
upside-down figure. His exact significance is not known. He may represent the
setting sun, rain, lightning, or he may be the Bee God, since honey was one
of the Mayan's most important exports. Opposite is the Templo de Las Series
Iniciales (Temple of the Initial Series), so called because in it was found
a stela bearing a date well before the foundation of the city, and presumably
brought here from else where. Further interesting places to explore are strung
out south along the coast. If you simply want to take time out for a swim, you
can plunge into the Caribbean straight from the beach fronting the site.