I had that good fortune to visit Tulum recently. These stunning Mayan ruins command a cliff over the Gulf of Mexico, and are noted for being heavily defended not only by the sea, but also by 30 foot thick walls. It’s the most popular tourist attraction in the region, and hosts thousands a visitors each day.
If you take a tour, you’ll start at a “tourist village,” where locals sell crafts, t-shirts, and Chinese goods with the words “Mexico” and “Tulum” embossed on them. There’s even a Starbucks and a Subway if you’re afraid of local cuisine.
While this might take away from the ambience of Pre-Columbian ruins, they did a good job of separating it from the actual site. You have to walk five minutes through a wooded path to get to see ruins, and then once you’re there, there’s only minimal invasion from modern society.
Most people visit with a highly trained guide. Mexico has pretty high standards for guides, including extensive testing and licensure. Many of the guides are of Mayan ancestry, so to them, this place is more than just a collection of old buildings—it’s their heritage.
And yet, despite all their knowledge, the two times I’ve been there, one amazing fact about Tulum hasn’t been mentioned. And I couldn’t find it on the plaques. In fact, let me read you what the plaque says for the main pyramid, known as El Castilo:
The is one of the most beautiful temples in Tulum. Neither the walls nor the door adjust to a straight vertical line. This is not a result of the passage of time, but rather the way it was originally designed. It was constructed upon another temple which was filled in, in order to serve as a base. In the recess above the door, there is a sculpture representing a personage descending from the heavens with a headdress crowning his head and holding an object in his hands. The temple was decorated inside and out with a mural painting of several representations of gods, which unfortunately, can no longer be admired.
By “no longer be admired,” the plaque means that the public is no longer admitted to this space. The language leads me to believe that it was written in Spanish and then translated to English. But what’s striking is what’s omitted: the temple was much more than that: it was a very clever light house.
The Mayans were a seafaring people. They constructed 50-60 foot long canoes and may have travelled as far as Panama and Costa Rica. Tulum was a seaport as well as a temple and fortress, and El Castillo is dramatically visible from the sea. At the top of the structure are two windows. The walls are thick, so the openings have a tunnel aspect to them. Imagine a fire burning behind each one. From the sea, there is exactly one place where you could see both lights… and that place is directly opposite a break in the barrier reef—the safest place to paddle through to the landing beach below the temple. It’s possible that the entire site was chosen because of its advantages as a protected port site.
That’s a remarkable achievement, and a fascinating story. Is it true? That’s another interesting story. All of history is “story.” In the case of the Mayans, we have very little written history, thanks to the Catholic Spaniards efforts to wipe out all but their own culture. We do have logs and reports from those Spaniards, as well as some archeological interpretations and it’s from these that we form the modern story of the area. But the lighthouse idea just seems to fit.
The real mystery for me is—why wasn’t the lighthouse theory mentioned to me on my two visits or on the official plaque?
What was mentioned was human sacrifice and astronomy. Any enclosed area is going to have points that line up with astronomical occurrences, but it seems pretty clear that the Mayans were interested in making sure the sun came back at the end of each winter. And as for the human sacrifice? One Mayan guide was adamant that it was the Toltecs who practiced that ancient art, and that the Mayans were only participants under pressure.
So it’s clear to me that the guides at Tulum and in all places, tell a narrative that’s dictated by a bit of politics and a bit of personal preference. But as I and others have noted, I can’t think of a good reason for omitting the lighthouse. Maybe they just think such a topic is of no interest to Americans.