Tulum is located 82 miles south of "Cancun. Coba is about 30 miles west of Tulum.
Tulum sits on a cliff overlooking the Caribbean and actively engaged in overseas trade. Interestingly, the site was apparently not populated until the Postclassic period (12th to 16th centuries A.D.). This also tends to explain why the buildings are of lower quality, compared to other sites.
Tulum's fame resides in the fact that it is the only walled community in the Yucatan. Three sides of the city receive protection by wall, while the fourth side is flanked by the sea and a high cliff.
Like other Mayans, the residents of Tulum were divided into three social classes: rules (priests, astronomers, warriors, and tradesmen); middle class (assistants to the rulers and craftsmen); lower class (farmers, laborers, fishermen, hunters).
The members of the first two classes lived inside the walled area, where there are obvious differences in the range of buildings - from what amounted to palaces to simple houses. The numerous lower class lived outside the wall. The actual site which is today open to tourists is only a small portion of the Tulum picture. During its height the community was spread out over a several square mile area. In short, Tulum is much bigger than it looks.
The Tulum wall has five arched gateways and each is topped by a parapet and walkway. Today, only one entrance (west) is used. Inside the walled compound the layout of public buildings and private residences suggest an effort toward urban planning. Some of the buildings stand along what looks like a main street and a low inner wall sets off the core of the civic and ceremonial structures from the rest of the buildings.
The name "Tulum" remains the subject of debate. Tulum is the modern term applied to the site because it means fence, trench or wall. Its ancient name may have been "Zama", a corruption of the word "Zamal" (meaning morning or dawn).
Another matter of controversy concerns inverted relief figures found throughout the ruins. There is no doubt that religion played a very prominent role in Tulum's civic life. This is attested to by the presence of numerous altars, temples, shrines and mural paintings showing military and religious subjects. The dominant deity is known as the Descending God. These diving gods often had insect stingers on their posteriors. But what did they represent? Some scholars believe they were images of the planet Venus, known as Xux Ek or the "Wasp star". Other authorities associate the diving god with the setting sun, rain or lightning. Still others believe the descending god symbolized the Bee-God (called Ah Mucen Cab). This makes sense since honey and wax were important trade items.
By the time the Spanish arrived in the area the city was largely abandoned. However, in 1518 an explorer took note of the place and wrote of a "town so large that Seville (Spain) would not have appeared bigger or better."
Tulum was all but forgotten until the early 1840s when archeologist John L. Stephens visited the overgrown site. He was accompanied by Frederick Catherwood who made drawings of the various structures located there. These renderings were transformed into lithographs and reproduced in books - thus acquainting the world with Tulum. Nevertheless, Tulum remained relatively obscure until a May uprising against Spanish/Mexican oppression began in 1847. This episode, which lasted until 1901, was known as the War of the Castes. During this period Tulum was occupied several times by rebels, who used it as a safe haven. In 1871 a cult known as the "Speaking Cross" sprang up and was led by a Mayan woman called Maria Uicab. This sect also used Tulum as a sanctuary.