That is how Juan Diaz described Tulum in 1518. Diaz was a member of a Spanish expedition of four ships and two hundred men led by Juan de Grijalva and organized by the governor of Cuba eager to find Mayan gold. They first landed at Cozumel island and continued south, soon reaching the walled city. The tower that Diaz was so impressed with was El Castillo, a pyramid facing the ocean that served as a watchtower and a lighthouse and is Tulum’s trademark till today. When I saw the ruins on my trip, I could imagine the conquistadors sailing by in their ships, mouth agape, staring at a mighty fortress perched on the top of a rocky coast. They were the first Europeans to see Tulum – or at least the first ones to write about it – and must have been quite in awe given Diaz’s admission that it could rival a contemporary European city. Seville-in-the-Caribbean survived seven decades after the Spanish conquest but eventually was abandoned when the Old World diseases decimated the local population.
Tulum still inspires awe, although throngs on the shore are no longer master-architect Mayas but tourists looking for a perfect mix of mystery and maritime beauty. Strolling among the 60 or so preserved buildings feels almost sacrosanct. The oldest found traces of settlement date back to the 6th century AD but most of them date from between 13th and 15th centuries. Am I disturbing the ghosts of Mayan warriors? Jutting into the Atlantic on the eastern edge of the Yucatan Peninsula, Tulum was the first city of the Mayan World to see the sunrise every day, hence its former name Zama – the City of the Dawn. And it was among the last Mayan cities to fall. Who were the people who for centuries fixed their eyes on the bright eastern horizon to greet the sun, only to greet one day the unfamiliar vessels that spelled their doom?
American John Lloyd Stephens and Englishman Frederick Catherwood, who visited Tulum in 1842, give us a glimpse of what the place looked like – still standing – nearly 300 years after Juan Diaz set his eyes on the Castillo. They published the first detailed description of the site, including beautiful sketches, in Incidents of Travel in Yucatan. Here is their account of how they got there and what they saw:
“In the afternoon we set out for the ruins of Tuloom, a league distant on the coast, and with the Castillo on a high cliff in full sight. Our road lay for a mile and a half along the shore. The beach was sandy, and in some places so yielding that we sank above the ankles, and found it a relief to take off our shoes and stockings, and wade in the edge of the water. At the end of the beach was a high rocky promontory, standing out into the sea, and cutting off all progress along the shore. This we ascended, and continued along the cliff, which sloped toward the sea, in some places forming a perpendicular wall, and on our right rose great masses of rock, cutting off entirely the view of the Castillo. [Next day] ascending again at the other end of the ravine, we entered a gloomy forest, and, passing a building on the left, with ‘old walls’ visible in different places indistinctly through the trees, reached the grand staircase of the Castillo. The steps, the platform of the building, and the whole area in front were overgrown with trees, large and principally ramon, which, with their green foliage and the mysterious buildings around, presented an image of a grove sacred to Druidical worship. … We were amid the wildest scenery we have yet found in Yucatan; and, besides the deep and exciting interest of the ruins themselves, we had around us what we wanted at all the other places, the magnificence of nature. … within the walls the city is desolate and overgrown, and without it is an unbroken forest.”
The “magnificence of nature” is certainly still there but today Tulum is neither wild nor desolate – in fact solitude became a premium in this increasingly popular tourist destination. Also, few reach it from the ocean; most arrive from the land side, having driven along a comfortable highway from Cancun instead of hacking their way through dense tropical bush the way Stephens and Catherwood did over a century and a half ago. You also can’t go climbing the steps of the Castillo. The structure is roped off to preserve it from being trampled by picture snapping invaders (myself included). But the beach is the same, and the feeling of delight with which early explorers dipped their tired feet in the clean, turquoise water is definitely shared by today’s visitors.