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Tulum and Cobá
 Page updated on 03.10.2015
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This is a site which is home to many of the true vestiges of the Mayan universe, an interesting location for inquisitive visitors and also has many swimming and diving opportunities.
Tulum is a Mayan city built three thousand years ago on a rocky peak overlooking  a turquoise sea, with the world’s second largest coral reef just a few steps away from the coast.  In addition, dream beaches are located just over 10 km away (6.2 miles). It looks like the ideal place to share your time between the sea and a thousand year old civilization.
"El Castillo" in Tulum
Tulum is located 60km south of Playa del Carmen and is accessible via the fast and secure federal coastal Road 307. It is the only Mayan city built near to the coast.
Perched on the top of a cliff looking over the Caribbean Sea, Tulum appears to be watching the blue immensity. Hidden behind the walls, Tulum is protected from the silent threats of the surrounding jungle. It’s current name means wall or fort and was given to the city at the beginning of the nineteenth century.  Its old name was Zama, meaning dawn or the place “where the sun rises”.

Left picture : "El Castillo" in Tulum

The distant past

"El Castillo" (in the foreground) , then the Temple of the God of Wind (in the background) Without the presence of a river or a lake on the arid limestone plateau of the Yucatán Peninsula, a natural well was and still is the only possibility of survival. It is therefore the reason why all villages, whether they are ancient or modern, are located close to a "cenote" (well).  This is the case for Tulum.  Around the 10th century the ancient Mayan culture collapsed and big cities were abandoned. The chaos that followed favored the arrival of foreign tribes who were attracted by a different culture.
On the other side of the Yucatán Peninsula, in the marsh and the deltas of the coastal plains of Tabasco and Campeche, lived trader-navigators called the Poutouns. The Poutouns were associated with Mayan language and culture and mixed with the Náhuas people, with whom they assimilated their culture.
Business intermediates were to be found amongst the Mayas and the Náhuas. They sailed up the rivers in their canoes, continued through the forest carrying obsidian and jade stones that they then swapped for cocoa, quetzal feathers and other sought after products found throughout the Mexican highlands.The abandon of the classic cities and the chaos that followed led to the introduction of shipping to the detriment of road transportation which was considered too dangerous at the time.  The Poutons soon controlled the regions’ cocoa manufacturers stretching from the Honduras Caribbean Coast to Yucatán. Small seaports were set up and populated in order to receive fleets of traders and to stock the goods.  This was the case for Tulum.

     Right picture :"El Castillo" (in the foreground) , then the Temple of the God of Wind (in the background)

Small bay previously the Tulum port (Temple of the God of Wind)



Left picture : Small bay previously the Tulum port (Temple of the God of Wind)




The first constructions

Coming from the Mexican highlands, the Toltecs settled in Chichén Itzá, with the supposed accompaniment of the Poutons. They brought with them many innovations to local art as well as the worship of Quetzalcóatl (Kukulkán). Chichén Itzá was, in fact, a city dedicated to Venus, a form derived from Quetzalcóatl, God of Dawn and Day but also God of West and Night, who brought with him the light and life, corn and agriculture, knowledge of the calendar and writing. The influence of the Toltecs soon reached the Caribbean Coast. They created an Empire where the styles and interests were common. The first constructions of Tulum show some of this influence within their sculptures, murals and stucco casts. You can observe proofs of the worship of Quetzalcóatl, often represented in its early morning form of Venus with the feet positioned towards the sky.

Tulum Temple of the Descending God

     Right picture : Tulum Temple of the Descending God

The first sanctuaries and the palaces built by the trader-navigators were located in the same place as the current ones but like almost every other Mayan construction, at a later date they were partially covered with new constructions.

Such was the case for the temple of Frescoes where you can see a stucco sculpture of the Descending God in the oldest uncovered part of the temple. It is also the case for the Castillo and the Temple of the Descending God with blue turquoise frescoes on a black background. The "codex" style of the murals recalls the pictorial art of the Mayan manuscripts. The corners of the roof take the shape of Itzamná’s mask, Creator God with an old man’s face. In this temple, the frescoes and the prehispanic codex are some of the most important sources used for the study of the ancient Mayan religion within the Post-Classic Period.

The Castillo

The Mayan cities were mainly sanctuaries, with temples and palaces. The most important people lived there. They were surrounded by guards and servants while the people lived in the surroundings, in thatched huts.  A road allows access from the large ceremonial place to other buildings.

“El Castillo” is the highest monument in all of Tulum.

North of the large «Castillo" temple, there is a small beach for the canoes to dock. We know that other points of the coast were also set up as seaports, such as Tankah, Kehla, Polé and the Cozumel Island. These seaports were linked to the inland cities by paved roads called "sacbé” which means paved or white road. Two of these roads were discovered in Tulum, one leading to Nabalam, the other leading to Cobá.
The “Castillo” or the temple dedicated to Vénus, the morning star, turns its back to the sea, probably in order to protect itself from the bad weather conditions in a cyclonic area. It was modified several times. The big stairs leading to a temple are supported by serpent shaped columns, which resemble the architecture found in Chichén Itzá.
In the main part of the temple, three holes occupied by stucco figurines can be found in the border. The central figurine represents the omnipresent Descending God (or Bee God) in Tulum.
On the north side, the temple of the Descending God preserves the best example of the “Descending God” in a small niche molded into the roof. In the middle of the place, a small covered altar, typical of the area, looks like a canopy. Take the south exit to go closer to the coast and discover a wonderful view of the sea.

The structure is a small monument located on a pyramid platform. The door to the temple, slightly larger at the base and mounted on a readjusted lintel reveals the narrow confines of the temple. Inside the temple, a painted mural is situated on the far wall which has faded slightly however one can still see drawings comparable to those found on the Temple of Frescoes. Despite the erosion, one can still appreciate some vertical and horizontal panels which allow for the imagination of intertwining serpents. These form a grid of female figurines in a seating position. Other sitting Gods are also represented whilst receiving gifts from those worshipping them.

Temple of Frescoes in the foreground, "El Castillo" in the background and to the left, The Temple of the Descending God
Right picture : Temple of Frescoes in the foreground, "El Castillo" in the background and to the left, The Temple of the Descending God

At the beginning of the 13th century, Chichén Itzá lost its predominance and was replaced by Mayapán, and the dynasty of the Cocoms (a supposed branch of the Poutons who seized power). The reign of the Cocoms corresponded with another time of troubles.  Insecurities led to the construction of walls around their city, this was also carried out by the other cities in the peninsula. The wall of Tulum is 3 to 5 metres high (10 to 16 feet); it has  5 small doors only, two at the north side, two at the south side and one at the west side, facing towards the forest. The west door is the current entrance to the site. It has a rectangular shape of 380 m X 165 m (1247 X 541 feet). The city never had more than 600 inhabitants, priests and dignitaries living inside it’s walls whilst the remainder of the population stayed outside.

The Temple of the God of Wind
Also known by the name of Structure 45, this building has a square base and was built on natural sloping ground. It has been raised with the use of bedrock with rounded corners. In the middle, the stairway leads to a single doorway. The main side of the building is decorated with a simple cornice formed of two straight strips and devoid of ornaments. It is thought that this building, surrounding by stone and dry land was dedicated to Kukulcán, in his role as the God of Wind (Ehécatl-Quetzalcóatl, divinité náhuatl).

The Apogee

Because of its fortified position on the top of a cliff, Zama-Tulum became the most important seaport on the Coast. From this port, local products were exported, such as honey, wax, salt, cotton weavings, incense, fish, dye, plants, etc.  Obsidian objects, jade ornaments, quetzal feathers, amber, turquoise, cocoa, metals and slaves all arrived at this port.

The Decadence

In 1441, when Mayapán fell, the economy of Yucatán collapsed and with it, so did the power of the big trading cities. The rich merchants from Cozumel, Xelha and Tulum headed to the south, to the centers producing cocoa, where they already owned huge properties, or to the old provinces of Campeche and Tabasco. These places were still very important when the Spanish arrived on the Coast. In fact, these seaports were the only ports within Mayan cities that were still inhabited at the time.
When he discovered the coast in 1518, Juan Diaz, the columnist of the Grivalja expedition, wrote: "[...] the following day, at sunset, we caught sight of a city or village so big that Seville could no longer seem larger or better, there we also saw a high tower (pyramid)..." (Séville was then the largest city in Spain).
Temple of the God of WindThe true decline of Tulum began with the Spanish colonization. The Spanish boats were, by far, bigger than the Indian canoes  In this respect, the European merchants soon superseded their Mayan rivals.
The value of objects also changed, steel replaced the obsidian. The new religion eradicated ritual objects. The merchants became farmers in a region where farming and agriculture was almost impossible.

Left picture : Temple of the God of Wind

Step by step, the coastal cities were abandoned. There were epidemics and the survivors fled inland. The wild Indian raids on Central America also contributed to the depopulation. On the map belonging to Juan de Dios Gonzalez, drawn in 1766, Tulum was only a reference. Tulum was gone....
Nowadays, we are sure that the Mayas perfectly mastered astronomy, mathematics and a writing system whose decoding is still in progress.  
But, it might be the knowledge of the secrets of shipping that played a predominant role in the influence of Tulum as a trade city, sentinel and lighthouse, located close to the sea.

In September 2006, a skeleton whose origin seems to date back 10,000 years ago or even predate the Mayas was discovered in the archaeological zone. The anthropologists found it with 3 other remaining skeletons about 100 meters deep inside a close by well. Recall that specialists of INAH have been on the site since 1999 and discovered more than 100 skeletons belonging to different times of Mayan culture and more than 50 pots and other ruins. The last published studies show that Tulum was undoubtedly one of the main Mayan trade cities and one of the most important maritime resource exploitation centers in the 13th and 14th centuries. It was the place to go to for all trade routes and for the exploitation of maritime resources of the Coast of Quintana Roo.  From a politic point of view, Tulum was independent of the other provinces until its depopulation due to the arrival of the Spanish at the 16th century.

Open daily 7AM-5PM, MXN$57 in Tulum and daily 8AM-6PM, MXN$57 in Cobá.

Easy access by road from any city or village of Riviera Maya, Cancun or Chetumal (bus or colectivos).

Map of the archaeological site :

Mexico - archaeological site of Tulum

close to Tulum


Tulum is the only place with both a thousand year old historic site and beaches among the most beautiful in the world. The lodging constructions are well integrated into this wonderful decor.  You can choose from many resorts and comfortable eco-hotels which are powered by solar energy.
A huge plan of hotels development is in process. It is supposed to be more reasonable than the hotel complexes of Cancun and Playa del Carmen ! Beaches, the village and Mayan ruins make for a pleasant combination that is not to be missed !
Foreign exchange offices, post office, laundries, rental bikes and rental snorkel gear are all available in Tulum. There is also a Bus Station in the village.

Let’s be honest, from an archeological point of view TULUM makes for a great visit!


   Right picture : close to Tulum


Located in the jungle of Quintana Roo, 40 km (25 miles) from the Caribbean Coast and 45 km (18 miles) from Tulum, the city of Cobá comprises three large constructions and other smaller constructions, located around several lakes. It was continuously occupied since the Pre-classical time to the arrival of the Spanish but it experienced just two splendor periods, the first one from the 16th to the 19th centuries, the second one just before the Conquest. The larger constructions of Cobá, Nohoch, Mul and Macanxoc (the three most important groups) date from the first period. The architecture recalls that of Petén, Guatemala, which assumes that a part of the population, especially the dominant class, originated there. On the other hand, the style of some of the gravestone engravings looks like that of  Ceibal, in southern Petén. Elaborately dressed people, inscriptions and dates which, as in Palenque and in Yaxchilán, indicate the names and events concerning the reigning dynasties feature on many of the gravestones.

The three main groups were connected  to the secondary groups  via paved roads (sacbe=paved or “white” road) which, sometimes, led to distant cities such as Yaxuna, south of Chichén Itzá, 100 km (62 miles) away. The 45 roads show the importance of this place. Most of the local products may have been stocked there before being transported to inland cities.Ball game in Coba with 1 of 2 rings

Many small platforms (an estimation of 20,000) are scattered around these three main groups. This enables us to presume that the population living here at the time reached 40,000 or 50,000 inhabitants.

Cobá, extends over a surface of 70 km2 (17300 acres) and is classified amongst the largest Mayan cities of the Classical period. Cobá means: “white waters” in Mayan language. It was named after the five cenotes which were situated close by. These lakes were the largest in the peninsula and played a key role in feeding the water to the land via an effective irrigation system.

      Right picture : Ball game in Coba with 1 of 2 rings

Upon entering the site, you will discover the construction called the “church" where you can admire a large collection of archaeological objects. Also see the Ball game, (in the photo as seen above) with two giant stone rings and sculpted skulls. Thought of as a banal hobby, it was in reality a ritual involving human sacrifices. A twenty minute walk away from the entrance stands the Nohoch Mul pyramid, emerging from the jungle; the road is posted with sculpted stones recounting main events of a thousand year old civilization. Several of them are dated from the different calendars used by the Mayans. It is hard work but well worth it to climb the monumental stairs of Nohoch Mul (42 m or 138 feet and 120 steps), the highest in the peninsula.

The pyramid is formed of 7 staggered tiers with corned edges, forming a slope. In the main part of the pyramid base, a temple in the form similar to that of the Tulum Temple can be found. On its face, one can also observe two of the three remaining original niches which still contain representations of the Descending God.

Pyramid of the Nohoch Mul in Cobá

Just as in other contemporary cities, Cobá underwent the decline that ended the classical period, but a few centuries later, during the late 12th century; the city was again occupied and experienced a temporary revival. Other temples and constructions, such as that of the Paintings, (wonderfully adorned with glyphs) were built with ancient construction stones. The steles, sometimes broken, were used as bases. Representations of the Descending God Quetzalcóatl, in the form of Vénus , show the influence from the Caribbean Coast, Tulum, Tancah, Xel-ha and Polé, where there was the coastal trade. During the 16th century, just after the Conquest, Cobá was abandoned and nobody else went there until 1886, when José Péon Contreras and M. Elizlde produced the first description. The first pictures of this site were taken by Téobert Maler in 1891.

      Above picture : Pyramid of the Nohoch Mul in Cobá

View from the Gran Pyramid (138 feet and 120 steps)

Map of the archaeological site :

Right picture : View from the Gran Pyramid (138 feet and 120 steps)

Easily accessible from any city or village of Riviera Maya, Cancun or Chetumal (bus or colectivos).

Collection of Paintings in Cobá.


Photo to the left: Collection of Paintings in Cobá.

Bus from Tulum to Cobá :
7h16/8h36/9h10/9h52/10h25/10h57/11h07/13h01/15h36/17h07/18h07 (rates $32 to $36)
Bus from Cobá to Tulum : 9h/9h30/10h/11h/12h13h30/15h30. 45 minute journey.

In order to save time, you can use the ‘richshaws’ services between the two sites for 50 pesos. A service which is relaxing and also includes a guided tour of the site.


The Collection of Paintings is the third architectural collection visible in Cobá. It is composed of 3 structures and 13 altars, therefore 20 structures in total.  The collection belongs to the final period of the pre-Hispanic occupation of Cobá and presents diverse architectural and pictorial characteristics belonging to the Oriental Coast style, which can be found in Tulum.

4km from Cobá, two wells can be found which are completely underground. Tamcach-ha et Chool-ha: 45 pesos for the visit of the two wells. One of the wells contains two impressive diving boards with 6-10 metres height.


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