Tulum's Great Reef

The second largest reef in the world is located in the Caribbean Sea. The Mesoamerican Reef borders the countries of Honduras, Guatemala, Belize, and Mexico. “Stretching nearly 700 miles from the northern tip of the Yucatan Peninsula down through the Honduran Bay Islands” ("Mesoamerican Reef"). The section of the reef located outside of Tulum has a special history. Tulum is well known for being a walled city, “the main set by its sides north, south and west as the eastern overlooking the Caribbean Sea.” (Zona Arqueológica De Tulum). The walled city used the Mesoamerican Reef as the fourth wall to protect their city. The reef was used as an entry point to the ancient city of Tulum. The size of the entry point is unknown due to the deterioration over the years of the reef. It acted as a funnel that would guide the canoes, the only boat that was in using in this region during this time, straight to the El Castillo. At the top of El Castillo, sat a temple and the temple had more uses than just a ceremonial one. The temple doubled as a watchtower and lighthouse. Using an open flame, it would act as a beacon to friendly ships to help guide them safely into port. If an unfriendly boat found its way towards Tulum and tried to enter, they would crash due to not knowing where the reef opened.

The Mesoamerican Reef was used in a variety of ways by the Maya that lived there. Aside from being used as a defensive barrier, they used it as a trade route as well. They used the reef as a guidance system to aid them on their trade routes. They traded as far south as Belize, and imported goods such as salt and gold. Tulum was the trade center and major port for the city of Cobá, which is located just 47.5 kilometers down the road. The Maya at Tulum would follow the reef knowing it would lead them to their destination. Using this to their advantage, Tulum soon became the largest trading hub, not only for Coba, but for the entire east coast of the Yucatan.

During the zenith of Tulum in the 13th century, the Mesoamerican Reef served them well. As they used it for trade, a defensive barrier, and many other reason, it can be contributed to as why Tulum became the great city it was. They respected the reef, and the wildlife that went with it, something we cannot say we do today. When the Maya at Tulum used the reef they were operating canoes, causing very little damage to both the reef and wildlife that live there.

Today with the use of outboard motors and overfishing the Mesoamerican reef is being damaged beyond repair. “More than 60 species of coral make up the reef, and more than 500 species of fish live in its ecosystem.” (Conserving the Mesoamerican Reef). The damage from modern day human activity is so enormous that the reef at some places is all but gone. The conservation of the reef was ignored for too long, but in 2009 as a part of an art museum called MUSA (Museo Subacatico de Arte) over 500 permanent life-size sculptures were sank off the coast of Cancun. This museum is aimed to show how art and the environment interact, but aside from being an art gallery it serves as an artificial reef as well, helping to restore the damaged ecosystem back to a healthy point. The Mesoamerican Reef was once the lifeblood of trade and culture for the city of Tulum. They treated the reef with respect and saw it not only as a tool, but as an important aspect of their society, something we as modern day humans could learn from. Today the Mesoamerican Reef is a tourist site used for snorkeling, scuba diving, and boat driven tours, a far cry from what it once was to the Maya people at Tulum