TULUM, México – When one ventures to Tulum, they embark on a quest to unravel the captivating enigma of the Mayas, who once thrived along the turquoise shores of the Mexican Caribbean. Beyond the obligatory photo in front of a monument to share on social media, Tulum, along with the state of Quintana Roo, stands as a residence of ancient Maya groups. These communities resisted Spanish domination and the forces of independent Mexico, facing alliances of convenience or persecution as subversive criminals.
Today, the descendants of the Mayas can be seen serving morning coffee at all-inclusive resorts or sitting on municipal benches, living side by side with a cosmopolitan population that has bestowed upon Tulum the accolade of being one of the “most beautiful beaches in the world,” according to Trip Advisor. Designated as a “Pueblo Magico” (Magical Town), residents jest by referring to it as a “pueblo trágico” (tragic town), having glimpsed the realities behind its scenic streets and the alarming 14% drainage issue. It is worth noting that Tulum is an urban settlement situated atop a layer of water, with its most significant vulnerability being the contamination of one of the country’s vital reserves of drinking water.
Tulum is far more than just an exotic tourist destination. It was a place where seafaring Mayas thrived, possessing an intimate knowledge of the caves and taming the jungle to create paths, plazas, houses, palaces, gardens, and tombs – all now covered by secondary vegetation. The oldest known Maya settlement in the state is found to the south, at the city of Chacchoben, west of Bacalar (from 1000 to 300 BC), and to the north, at the settlement of Uchben Kat on the outskirts of Cancún (from 200 BC). The foundation of Tulum likely began with the construction of a palace facing the reef’s break, which naturally allowed canoeing merchants to access the highest elevation cliff in the area. The palace of this first lord of Tulum, associated with the lords of the port of Tancah, located a few kilometers to the north and believed to be older than Tulum itself, would later evolve into what is now known as El Castillo.
An elaborate staircase and a platform were constructed on top of this palace (roof) to build a temple in an architectural style known as the “eastern coast.” This transformed the original palace into an artificial sacred mountain where human sacrifices were likely performed, as evidenced by the sacrificial stone at the foot of two massive serpent heads. It also served as a lighthouse or navigation aid, using its location to indicate the reef break where the depth allowed canoers from regions as distant as Honduras or the Gulf of Mexico to safely enter the port of dawn, known in modern Yucatec Maya as Zama.
Even during the Classic period (200 to 800/900 AD), the Mayas of Muyil, to the south of Tulum, constructed a network of canals to access the land route to Coba, a prominent city during the Classic period. They also connected with other major Maya cities in the lowlands, such as Tikal in Guatemala, Copán in Honduras, Calakmul in Campeche, and Palenque in Chiapas, all of which are now part of present-day Mexico.
On this maritime route, canoeists, reminiscent of those who, in recent years, have enjoyed paddling from Xcaret to Cozumel to commemorate their Maya ancestors, could navigate towards Tulum, Xaman Ha (Playa del Carmen), the ports of Cancún, or the islands of Cozumel and Isla Mujeres.
Tulum was and still remains a site of pilgrimage and migration for those of us who are drawn to the living culture embedded in its people and thriving ports. It lies within each of us to carry away more than just a beautiful selfie and to genuinely explore the profound lessons that the history of these seafaring Mayas has to impart.