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Tulum is one of the few Mayan cities known to have been inhabited when the conquistadores arrived in 1518. In the 16th century it was a trade center, a safe harbor for trade goods from rival Mayan factions who considered the city neutral territory. The city reached its height when its merchants, made wealthy through trading, for the first time outranked Maya priests in authority and power. But when the Spaniards arrived, they forbade the Maya traders to sail the seas, and commerce among the Maya died.
Tulum has long held special significance for the Maya as a symbol of resistance and independence. A key city in the League of Mayapán (AD 987–1194), it was never conquered by the Spaniards, although it was abandoned by the Maya about 75 years after the conquest of the rest of Mexico. For 300 years thereafter it symbolized the defiance of an otherwise subjugated people, and it was one of the last outposts of the Maya during their insurrection against Mexican rule in the War of the Castes, which began in 1846. Uprisings continued intermittently until 1935, when the Maya ceded Tulum to the Mexican government.
At the entrance to the ruins you can hire a guide for $25, but keep in mind that some of their information is more entertainment than historical accuracy. (Disregard that stuff about virgin sacrifices.) Although you can see the ruins thoroughly in two hours, you might want to allow extra time for a swim or a stroll on the beach.
The first significant structure is the two-story Templo de los Frescos, to the left of the entryway. The temple's vault roof and corbel arch are examples of classic Mayan architecture. Faint traces of blue-green frescoes outlined in black on the inner and outer walls depict the three worlds of the Maya and their major deities, and are decorated with stellar and serpentine patterns, rosettes, and ears of maize and other offerings to the gods. One scene portrays the rain god seated on a four-legged animal—probably a reference to the Spaniards on their horses. Unfortunately, the frescos are difficult to see from the path to which visitors are restricted.
The largest and most-photographed structure, the Castillo (Castle), looms at the edge of a 40-foot limestone cliff just past the Temple of the Frescoes. Atop it, at the end of a broad stairway, is a temple with stucco ornamentation on the outside and traces of fine frescoes inside the two chambers. (The stairway has been roped off, so the top temple is inaccessible.) The front wall of the Castillo has faint carvings of the Descending God and columns depicting the plumed serpent god, Kukulcán, who was introduced to the Maya by the Toltecs. To the left of the Castillo, facing the sea, is the Templo del Díos Descendente —so called for the carving over the doorway of a winged god plummeting to earth.
A few small altars sit atop a hill at the north side of the cove, with a good view of the Castillo and the sea. To avoid the longest lines, be sure to arrive before 11 am.
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