Tulum was part of a series of Maya forts and trading outposts established along the Caribbean coast from the Gulf of Mexico as far south as present-day Honduras . Its original name was Zamá-Xamanzamá or simply Zamá (derived from zamal, or dawn) but was later called Tulum, Yucatec Maya for fortification or city wall, in reference to the thick stone barrier that encloses the city’s main structures.
Measuring 380 by 165 meters (1,250 by 540 feet), it’s the largest fortified Maya site on the Quintana Roo coast (although fairly small compared to other major archaeological zones).
Tulum’s enviable patch of seashore was settled as early as 300 B.C., but it remained little more than a village for most of its existence, overshadowed by the Maya city of Tankah a few kilometers to the north. Tulum gained prominence between the 12th and 16th centuries (the Late Post-Classic era), and coastal trade became especially active and important to the Maya, still recovering from widespread collapse several centuries prior.
Tulum’s strategic location and convenient beach landing made it a natural hub for traders who plied the coast in massive canoes measuring up to 16 meters/50 feet long, laden with honey, salt, wax, animal skins, vanilla, obsidian, amber, and other products.
It was during this Post-Classic boom period that most of Tulum’s main structures were built. Although influenced by Mayapán (the reigning power at the time) and Central Mexican émigré societies, Tulum’s structures mostly exemplify “east coast architecture,” defined by austere designs with relatively little ornamentation and a more horizontal orientation (compared to high-reaching pyramids elsewhere).
Ironically, construction in these later eras tended to be rather shoddy, thanks in part to improvements in stucco coverings that meant the quality of underlying masonry was not as precise. Today, the stucco has long since eroded away, and Tulum’s temples appear more decayed than structures at other sites, even those that are hundreds of years older.
The Spanish got their first view of Tulum—and of mainland indigenous society—on May 7, 1518, when Juan de Grijalva’s expedition along the Quintana Roo coast sailed past the then brightly colored fortress. The chaplain of the fleet famously described the city as “a village so large that Seville would not have appeared larger or better.” Tulum remained an important city and port until the mid-1500s, when European-born diseases decimated its population. The once-grand city was effectively abandoned, and, for the next three centuries, slowly consumed by coastal vegetation.
In 1840, Spanish explorers referred to an ancient walled city known as Tulum, the first recorded use of its current name, though it was probably used by local residents much longer; two years later the famous American/English team of John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood visited Tulum, giving the world its first detailed description and illustrations of the dramatic seaside site. During the Caste War, Tulum was occupied by members of the Talking Cross cult, including the followers of a Maya priestess known as the Queen of Tulum.