Castillo, Tulum

Castillo, Tulum

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El Castillo and the Lighthouse Theory

In 1985, I took part in the “Tulum Lighthouse Project,” a project of the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (INAH) which was underwritten by the National Geographic Society and the Kempner Fund. The project was the idea of Michael Creamer, an American who came up with the theory that the twin window/vent holes on the ocean-facing side of the building in Tulum known as “El Castillo” could act as a sort of range light system for Mayan canoes attempting to cross over the reef at night to land on the beach next to the building.

The seaward side of El Castillo, showing the two small openings

To help test the theory, I borrowed a dugout canoe that had washed up on the beach at Cozumel and that Arturo Becerra was using as decoration in front of his restaurant on Avenida Melgar. A good friend of mine, Bill Horn, took the canoe to Tulum, along with all the supplies we would need for the time we would be staying at INAH’s base camp the institute maintained just north of the beach by El Castillo. Other members of the team included INAH archaeologists Pilar Luna and Santiago Analco, Texas A&M School of Oceanography graduate student Vel Lena Steed, Michael Creamer, Aqua Safari dive shop owner Bill Horn, and divers Pamela Holden and my wife, Marie-France Lemire.

Creamer believed that by building a fire within the small uppermost room atop El Castillo, the Maya had utilized the beams of lights from the two 18-inch-wide openings on the side of the building facing the sea as range lights for an aid to navigation. Because of the thickness of the wall in which the openings were set, the beams of light they projected could only be seen when one looked directly into them. If one was not lined up exactly perpendicular to the back wall of the building and these openings, the lights were not visible. The reef in front of Tulum, Michael reasoned, must have been dangerous for Mayan canoes to negotiate at night, but if these range lights could help them align their canoe with an opening in the reef directly in front of El Castillo, they could paddle through the pass and land safely. That was the theory.

The first thing Pam and I did after camp was set up was to take our zodiac out to the area where Creamer believed the pass through the reef lay and mark it with buoys. We found a spot in the reef in front of El Castillo that was deeper than the rest of the reef however, although it offered over 10 feet of clearance between the surface of the sea and the sea-floor, it was only slightly deeper than the reef on either side of the passage. Unless Mayan canoes had a draft of over 7 feet, they would not necessarily be obliged to use this pass they could simply glide over other parts of the reef just as easily.

In the early 1990s in Rio Belen, (a small village in Veraguas, Panama), I had a group of fellows cut down a huge bateo tree and carve a 45-foot-long dug-out canoe from its trunk for me. We attached a 45-horsepower outboard motor to this canoe (which I christened the Don Tiki) and I traveled all along the coast of Panama in it, from Costa Rica to Colombia. Even when the canoe was heavily laden with 55-gallon drums of gasoline and crates of supplies, it drew less than two feet of water. I frequently surfed this 45-foot-long craft through the breakers and over shallow sand bars as we entered the mouths of rivers and I never had a problem because of the draft of the vessel. Even if you could double the length of the canoe and make it 100 feet long, the draft would not increase proportionately it would never be more than around two or three feet.

The next thing we did at Tulum for the experiment was to wait until after sunset and place a gas lantern inside the small room atop El Castillo. We were not allowed to make a fire within the room, as INAH felt that the smoke and soot produced by the fire would smudge the walls and ceiling. This got me to thinking if the Maya had built nightly fires within this room so that the light could be seen out to sea, after a short period, the inside of the room would look as blackened and soot-caked as the inside of a fireplace. Why were there absolutely no visible signs of soot or carbon on the walls or in the cracks of the plaster? Granted, we did not take core samples, which would offer the ultimate test of the presence of soot (or lack thereof), but we didn’t see any. The inside of the room was well protected from the elements. The Maya could not have simply scrubbed the residue off of the porous plaster and stone some traces of it must necessarily remain if fires or torches were ever used inside the room. But we saw none. Besides that, if a fire had been built in the room, the heat rising from it would have eventually damaged the ceiling, which was made of limestone and not very heat-resistant.

After we placed the lantern in El Castillo, I took the 12-foot-long dugout canoe that we brought from Cozumel and paddled it out past the reef. As I paddled back and forth in the dark in a line parallel with the back wall of El Castillo, I would see first the light from one window appear, then as I paddled a little farther, the light from the second window would also appear. If I continued to paddle in the same direction, the first light would disappear, then after a few more yards, the second one would go dark. The next thing to do was to see if the patch of ocean where I could see both lights at the same time was directly over the pass we previously marked in the reef. We attached strobe lights to the buoys marking the pass and I tried again. The lights coming from El Castillo were aligned with the space between the buoys.

After we finished the experiment, I could not help but face the insurmountable problem of the lack of any trace of soot in the room, the lack of any signs of heat cracks or heat damage to the walls or ceiling, and the fact that the Mayan canoes were not necessarily restricted to using only the pass to approach the beach to land because of their draft. I was not the only one with doubts. In the report Creamer wrote and later published in the Institute of Nautical Archaeology (INA) newsletter, he stated: “It is unlikely that we can prove how Mayan mariners actually used Tulum’s Castillo Tower…” Creamer went on to say in the report that the experiment only “… demonstrated that vessels with a draft of more than 7 feet would be obliged to use the pass through the reef.”

Be all that as it may be, the story of our experiment took on a life of its own. Creamer later re-enacted the experiment (I did not take part) in 1998 for Arthur C. Clarke’s Mysterious Universe –The Mysterious Maya for Discovery Channel. At the end of the program, he states, “As far as I’m concerned, we have proved it.” Later, in 2009, the program was shown on the Spanish version of the History Channel. A posting was even made on Wikipedia, stating the experiment we conducted “…conclusively proved that Tulum’s El Castillo served as an aid to navigating the narrow gap in the offshore coral reef.” Today, this theory has evolved into a “fact” that is deeply entrenched in the collective belief of the people who saw these TV programs and read the Wikipedia entry. Undoubtedly, at some point during your visit to Tulum, you will hear someone repeat this revisionist version of the results of the experiment.

I want to stress, however, that I am only putting forward what I remember of the experiment and the statements in the original report it generated. The points I have drawn your attention to do not disprove the theory that it was a lighthouse, but in my estimation, offers up a lot of reasons why it was not used as such.

It is one of the most popular places in the Mexican Caribbean, and for sure you have seen the iconic image of the main pyramid on the top of a cliff facing the sea. Remember to take a picture, since this is the most photographed site in the Riviera Maya! Its location contributes to being a one of a kind place in the Mayan world and a favorite for thousands of visitors.

You can reach it by car and walk on your own through the archaeological site. But the best way to discover it is by a Tulum excursion on a comfortable bus, and you can combine it with a visit to Xel-Há or Xenses. Are you ready to follow the traces of the ancient Mayans in a complete tour?

The INAH closes the Tulum Archaeological Zone due to a case of Covid-19

(La Jornada Maya) Tulum, Quintana Roo, (May 11, 2021).- The Archaeological Zone of Tulum, in Quintana Roo was closed down by INAH on Sunday, May 9th, and will not be open until further notice, the Ministry of Culture reported in a statement, through the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH).

The foregoing, in accordance with the protocols, established after a confirmed case of Covid-19 was detected and in order to carry out the corresponding cleaning and sanitization, as well as to keep possible cases of contact in quarantine, as indicated by the health guidelines.

The Ministry of Culture and the INAH expressed that it is a priority to guarantee the health of workers, as well as that of visitors to their cultural venues, so they will continue to implement the essential sanitary and hygiene measures to ensure that their spaces are Covid-free safe.

The INAH also announced that as of May 11, the National Museum of History (MNH), Castillo de Chapultepec, will reopen its doors to the public from Tuesday to Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., with a maximum capacity of 1,800 people per day, once that figure is reached, the venue will close its doors regardless of the time.

All persons entering the MNH must maintain, at all times, a healthy distance, follow the indicated routes and the instructions of the security personnel.

The Yucatan Times



View of El Castillo along coast, Tulum




Geographic Location

Tulum -- Quintana Roo -- Mexico



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Tulum, City of Dawn

Castillo (Fg. 3-24)

On the east coast of Mexico's Yucatán peninsula resides the great and mysterious ancient Mayan outpost of Tulum, formally known as Zama. From early in the 13th century to the mid 1500's, goods from inland were transported here and traded with those arriving by sea. Modern theories suggest the prominent central Castillo structure acted as a lighthouse beacon to direct canoes and ships to safety past a potentially dangerous coral reef just off-shore. Two windows in the Castillo face the sea, one is perfectly square, the other a vertical rectangle. During sunset to the west, these windows light up one at a time depending on a traveler's location near the reef. Fires lit inside the windows may take place of the sun at night, then during the day time it's possible to see a person or colored fabric from a distance on the Caribbean sea. The Castillo once utilized as a lighthouse is one plausible explanation as to its purpose, but perhaps it was also utilized for other, more divine scenarios.

At least 60 Mayan ruins can be found throughout the ancient city which is fortified by three walls, two watchtowers, and a 12 meter Caribbean Sea cliff-side. Among the structures we find Temples of the Wind (Templo Dios del Viento), Diving god (Templo del Dios Descendente), of the Frescoes, and Initial Series. Houses of the Platforms, Halach Uinik, Columns, Chultun, and of the Cenote. Then as mentioned before, El Castillo built using unique elements of traditional Mayan step pyramid architecture. Researchers believe Tulum is a very important site in Mayan history for the worship of the Descending god Kukulcan, otherwise known as the Feathered Serpent, Quetzalcoatl to the Aztecs. According to Joseph Smith, Zama is also known as the City of Zion. He claimed this before any modern excavations of the site, during a period when Tulum could only be seen peaking out of the tops of palm trees. Artwork reliefs and symbols throughout depict scenarios closely resembling those found in the Paris Codex - and also in the Bible. Some of the paintings in particular appear to tell the story of death and resurrection of Jesus. Another unanswered mystery about Tulum is the presence of ancient stele, one dating to around 564 CE, nearly 700 years before construction began on the fort. Two theories give ideas to how this might be possible logically, either the stele was brought later or the city was rebuilt on several occasions up until its abandonment during Spanish invasions.

Tulum: History

Topics include Dining Scene, Mexico: For Foreign Visitors & more!

The word Tulum means fence or wall, and is the name given to the site in recent times because of the wall surrounding it, although its ancient name was possibly Zama, a corruption of Zamal (morning), associated with the dawn. This is an ideal name for the site, as sunrise in Tulum is worth getting up for.

The city of Tulum was at its height during the 13th-15th century, and is thus one of the later Mayan outposts. It flourished during the 14th century and was still inhabited when the Spanish arrived in the early 16th century. Tulum was an important trading post for the Post classic Mayans. There is a beach where merchants could come ashore with their canoes. The highest building, El Castillo, was also a lighthouse to make navigation easier. When two torches aligned, it showed the way through the reef (there is a break in the reef just offshore in front of the ruins).

During the Post classic period, the Maya started to use large seagoing canoes. The canoes were 40-50 feet long and hewn from mahogany or other tropical hardwoods. These canoes revolutionized trading in the Mundo Maya. Prior to the advent of this practice, they could only move what could be carried on a person's shoulders (the ancient Mayans didn't discover the conveniences of the wheel, so land vehicles were not used). The Maya didn't use beasts of burden, simply because there were no suitable large mammals in the area. Their trading voyages ranged from trips to the Gulf of Mexico, the coast of the Yucatán peninsula, and extending all the way to what is today Honduras. There is even historical evidence that they traveled as far as Costa Rica and Panama.

The first mention of this city was made by Juan Diaz, who was on Juan de Grijalva's expedition that reached the coast of the Yucatan peninsula in 1518. In Juan de Reigosa's Las Relaciones de Yucatan, written in 1579, Zama is mentioned as a walled site with stone buildings which included a very large one that looked like a fortress. Pedro Sanchez de Aguilar, author of Informe Contra Idolorum Cultores del Obispado de Yucatan, (Madrid, 1639) mentions the coast of Zama when telling the story of ten shipwrecked Spaniards who were taken prisoner by the chieftain Kenich. Among them was Geronimo de Aguilar, who later became Hernan Cortes' interpreter during the Conquest of Mexico.

After this there are no other references to Tulum until Juan Pio Perez in a letter dated 1840 says that Juan Jose Galvez had visited Ascencion Bay, discovering that between there and Cape Catoche there were two ancient cities, Tankah (located about 15 minutes north) and Tulum, the latter surrounded by walls. In 1842, John L. Stephens and Frederick Catherwood visited tho site and later made it known to the world with the book Incidents of Travel in Yucatan, where Stephen's text is complemented by Catherwood's magnificent illustrations.

During the Mayan uprising of the War for the Castes, which began in 1847 and lasted until 1901, Tulum was occupied several times by rebels because of the protection its wall provided.

Minding the Mayans in Tulum

Tulum, the popular island of Cozumel , and the surrounding Yucatan region is a place where you can travel deeper than geographically. You can step through time and experience the ancient Mayan civilization and traditions too! Learning such history makes the world feel smaller, especially when you realize we’re still using many Mayan creations today.

Beyond ancient man-made Mayan marvels, Tulum offers fascinating natural wonders—from blinding white beaches to fresh-water sinkholes in the jungle. Best of all, Mexican food of the Yucatan and traditional Maya cuisine is so good you’ll be booking your return trip before you even leave the lunch table.

Here’s how to experience Mayan culture in Tulum:

The Pyramid of Kukulcan in Chichén Itzá is a Mayan architectural marvel.

Experience the Mayan era

Tulum and its surrounding areas are rich with Mayan history and architecture. Chichén Itzá , was once one of the biggest Mayan cities and is now one of the seven man-made wonders of the world. Inside this ancient city you’ll find the Pyramid of Kukulcan (also called “ El Castillo”) , a massive pyramid built for the Mayan’s feathered snake god, with an impressive series of terraces. It’s so well preserved you’ll hardly believe it was finished between the years 800 and 900 C.E. and built by hand!

Traveler’s tip: Get there early for the beautiful morning light and to get a jump on the crowds.

Playa Ruinas is another famous Mayan attraction, where you can walk around the ruins of what was once a coastal watchtower. Perched above a white sand beach and glowing Carribean water, it’s one of the most scenic Mayan ruins in all of Mexico.

These incredible swimming oases are a major draw of the Yucatan!

Cenotes are natural sinkholes found all across the Yucatan Peninsula. True natural marvels, these holes have formed over centuries from limestone collapsing to expose flooded caves. Gran Cenote is a popular destination from Tulum, and you can book tours there and spend a few hours swimming and lounging on the wooden platforms.

But with more than 6,000 cenotes in the Yucatan, your exploration is endless. Be careful when you look over the edge—some cenotes are extra large. One of the most well-known is called “ El Pit ” and it’s almost 400 feet deep!

Made with cornmeal and pork or chicken, tamales come from Mayan cooking traditions.

Feast on Yucatan delicacies

The Yucatan is world-renowned for its amazing food and Tulum is a haven for food tourists. Ceviche , fresh fruit, Sopa de Lima (chicken soup), Yucatecan Antojitos (street snacks), and of course tacos are the staples people come for.

But there are some traditional Mayan dishes worth seeking out. The Mayans created dishes by hunting and gathering locally, and growing crops—like maize. Ancient Mayan cuisine used simple ingredients to make flavorful, nutritious meals. Some Mayan favorites? Guacamole, tamales, and corn tortillas are some globally popular foods today that stem from Mayan culture. Oh yeah, and chocolate!

While Tulum and the nearby island of Cozumel have many modern draws—like beach clubs, lounges, dancehalls, late night cocktail bars and more—one of the most unique parts of the Yucatan peninsula is the Mayan heritage. After you let your hair down and dance the night away, you can see truly unique architecture created by an ancient civilization the next day, all in a tropical climate. Talk about paradise!


One of the main attractions that bring people to Tulum, aside from the endless span of white sand beaches, is its own mark on ancient Mayan history.

Once a pre-Colombian port city, Tulum served as a main point of entry for both land and sea trade routes. Situated between ocean and dense jungle brush, Tulum, which translates to "wall" or "fence", sits nestled between these two natural barriers. With this added security, the Mayans could rest assure that their city would be safe from unexpected invasion and remained without struggle of intruders for the majority of its existence. It was eventually disease that drove its occupants out.

As you crouch through the narrow man-made stone entryway into the walled ancient city, it's easy to get lost in imagining what a day might have been like for the Mayans. While the ruin buildings are inaccessible to the public, you can still get close enough to inspect the masonry and detail of the structures as well as peer inside windows and doorways. Possibly the most magnificent structure of all is Pyramid El Castillo. Standing tall before the ocean, this structure served as a lighthouse of sorts to guide incoming ships safely to shore through the jagged corals.

Other highlights include Temple of the God of Wind, and the House of the Columns.

As you begin to wind your way through the stone dust paths around the ruins, you'll be greeted by some of the local inhabitants. The ruins are overrun with iguanas sunbathing on the stone remains and munching on the lush seagrasses around the base of the structures. You might also spot some wild coati, a raccoon-like mammal.

The ruin grounds open around 8 a.m. each day and close at 5 p.m., and you should get there early. I arrived at around 9 a.m. and the grounds were already swarming with visitors by 10:30 a.m. There's a designated area for swimming in front of the ruins but again, be sure to go early. The beaches are usually packed by 11 a.m.

Seeing El Castillo at Tulum in Mexico

I was looking back through the photos of our 2016 Cruise to Mexico last year, and I realized that there are still several of those photos that I have not yet shared here. To help remedy that, here are a few photos for today, from our visit to the Mayan Ruins at Tulum.

The largest building at Tulum is known as El Castillo (previously pictured in this post, by the way). You might guess that the building was used as a castle this would be a good guess based on its name, but you would be wrong. Sort of. It was probably actually more of a temple than a castle, used for the worship of the gods that the people of the city revered. Also, because of its large size and closeness to the coast, it could have been used as a landmark for those sailing along the coast, looking for the trading city of Tulum. No one seems to know for certain, which to me makes it all the more interesting.

Of course, it was interesting to begin with, considering its age, somewhere around 700 years old. Add that to the fact that it was built by ancient people that we don’t know much about, and you get mystery plus age, which is really cool to me.

The view above is probably what you would actually consider the “back” view, even though is the view that greeted those arriving by boat. And yes, it does look rather plain and ordinary, or as plain and ordinary as a 700-year-old building can look, I suppose. So to keep things interesting, here is the “front” side:

As you can see, this side looks even more fascinating than the plain stone side. If you look closely, you can see some of the carving and stone work that gives El Castillo some of its character. Plus, those openings at the top portion look more inviting than just a stone wall that is on the other side. However, you can also see that there were ropes to keep us visitors from climbing on the ruins, no matter how inviting they might look. Even though it like the Mayans just really meant for you to climb, and they even made it easy for you by putting stairs on everything.

But no climbing the stairs for us. So we just got to gaze on it from a distance, while wondering what it might be like on the inside. Still, even though this was as close as we could get, it was still close enough to be able to enjoy the wonder of the area and get a little bit of a feel for the history of the city.

Photos are even better with some human interest, they say, so here is a photo of an interesting human at El Castillo in Tulum. That interesting human would be Laura, of course, and she was quite excited to visit this fascinating historical site. We both were, actually, because it was something that we had not done before. Having someone to enjoy seeing something with makes seeing that something even more enjoyable, even if that is a round-about sort of sentence. This photo also gives an idea of the size of El Castillo, which is around 25 feet tall. Not that I brought along a measuring tape to measure it I just read that on the internet.

So just to say it once more, old things are really cool! Which is good, because I am not getting any younger.

I was young and now I am old, yet I have never seen the righteous forsaken or their children begging bread. – Psalm 37:25

About the photo:

I chose to use the first photo as the main photo of this post on purpose, even though it is actually a photo of the “back” side of El Castillo. I really enjoyed both the composition and the way the colors turned out after the processing, and that is why it is featured. Even though it might be of the slightly less attractive side, I still think it is a great photo, and to me it really captures the feel of Tulum with the Mayan Ruins, the palm tree, and the people walking past.

Because there was an abundance of sunlight for these photos, I did what I could to bring that out even more in the processing. It was slightly challenging for the photo of Laura, since she was slightly in the shadows, but I think it turned out well. There were the usual adjustments to the original Raw files, followed by some Google Nik filter work, too. Here is a before-and-after comparison of the first photo:

Photo: A single Raw exposure, processed in Photoshop. Read more about photography tips, photo software, camera gear, and more at Steve’s Photography Tips.
Camera: Olympus OM-D E-M10
Lens: Olympus 14-42mm IIR
Date: July 18, 2016
Location: Tulum, Quintana Roo, Mexico

You can buy prints of these photos and other images from this site at the Burnsland Photos gallery. Look for the green Buy Photos button. Downloads for commercial license are also available.

Watch the video: Los Mayas en Tulum