Have Walker, Will Travel
By Mildred Boyd
Tulum, standing as it does atop the highest point of the Caribbean coast, was easily visible from far out to sea. Consequently, it was one of the first Mayan cities sighted by the Spanish as they explored the mainland of the New World. Juan Diaz, the chaplain on Juan de Grijalva’s expedition in 1518, reported it as a “town or village so large, that Seville could not be better or larger; and in it could be seen a very large tower...”
The first detailed description of the ruins was not published until 1843. John Lloyd Stephen’s Incidents of Travel in Yucatan describes how he and his artist friend, Frederick Catherwood, as they arrived from the sea, first saw a tall building that impressed them greatly. This was most likely the great Castillo of the site and the same building that had impressed Juan Diaz three centuries earlier. They made accurate maps of the site’s wall and other buildings while Catherwood made some stunning sketches of the Castillo, along with others, which would have been as close to a photograph as possible at the time. Stephens and Catherwood also discovered the earliest stela dated AD 564.
Today, Tulum is one of the most visited pre-Columbian ruins. It is also one of the most user-friendly to those who are not as spry as they once were. Admittedly, since the place is built atop a cliff overlooking a small harbor, some of the ramps were steep. Once the main plaza is reached, however, smoothly paved walkways make sightseeing easy.
It was on the first, and steepest, ramp that I discovered once again that the milk of human kindness is not always curdled in the human breast. As I reached the top and turned to my following family to crow, “I made it!” dozens of people climbing the adjacent stairway cheered!
I was able to keep up with my little group all the way. The Temple of the Frescos was once filled with murals of which only tantalizing traces remain. The Kukulcan Group is comprised of several small buildings, including a temple with a circular base. Such structures were traditionally dedicated to the God of the Winds, Ehecatl. The Temple of the Descending God is named for the carved facade showing the figure of a man, head down with arms and legs extended as if from plunging a great height. This figure is seen in a number of Mayan sites and is now thought to represent the Bee God, patron of honey gatherers.
On the east side of the city square stands the Castillo, sometimes known as the Lighthouse. The tallest structure in Tulum, this is undoubtedly Juan Diaz’ “very large tower.” It overlooks the lovely little harbor where merchants once anchored their ships loaded with trade goods.
This had been my first visit to Tulum and all 1 can say is that, like Diaz and Stephens and Catherwood before me, I found it pretty impressive.