To be honest, Tulum may not have the best Mayan ruins in the Mexican riviera. But there’s no doubt it has the most beautiful!
Even after several weeks of seeing the best Ancient Mayan cities in the world, I’m still impressed when I visit the Tulum ruins. And that’s partly because they have something none of the others has – water views!
It’s not too long after sunrise when I arrive at the Tulum ruins, just minutes after the gates have opened at 8 o’clock.
I’ve come early for two reasons – partly to get the morning light for my photos, and partly to avoid the crowds.
I’m thwarted by an enormous cloud for my first aim (although it clears after about 30 mins and I still get some nice sunny photos).
But, for the second, I’m successful. There are relatively few people here and I’m able to explore some areas by myself and get some wonderful views without anybody standing in the way.
Why are the Tulum ruins so special?
One of the reasons the Tulum ruins are so popular (other than the convenient location) is because they have a unique position on the top of coastal cliffs, creating a stunning vista combining nature and heritage.
Historically, they are not the most important Mayan ruins in the region, but they are relatively well preserved and are a good example of a later city.
When were the Tulum ruins built?
Tulum was one of the last cities the Mayan built, as the civilisation moved towards the coast, and was likely founded in the 13th century, reaching the height of its importance by the 15th century, before finally being abandoned towards the end of the 16th century.
Can you visit the Tulum ruins?
The Tulum ruins are now open to the public and you can visit independently or as part of a guided tour.
The Tulum ruins are open from 08:00 every day and will take at least an hour to walk through and see all the important sights.
It’s not usually like this and within an hour it’s already starting to fill up (and will just continue to get worse throughout the day). It’s no surprise when you realise that Tulum is one of the most accessible Mayan ruins in all of Mexico.
The town of Tulum – and the hip luxury hotels around it – has become one of the most popular spots along the coast of the Mexican riviera. For visitors wanting a splash of culture amongst their margaritas and time in the pool, the Tulum ruins offer an easy option.
Even for people staying in Playa del Carmen, an hour up the coast, the Tulum ruins are easier to get to than the other alternative of Chichen Itza. There are quite a few good tour options, or you can just jump on a bus that will bring you directly here to Tulum for about $80 (US$4.50).
If you’re looking for a good option from Playa del Carmen or Cancun, I would recommend this tour with transfers and a guide.
Chichen Itza is a much more important site historically, has much more impressive buildings, and is a better way to learn about the Mayan civilisation.
But I can see why people who are short of time or patience may opt just for the ruins at Tulum. They are, as I’ve already mentioned, stunning!
It’s also worth noting that you will see some small Mayan ruins if you visit Sian Ka’an from Tulum, but that experience is really about the nature. Although, of course, you can combine the two into a full day trip.
So, I’ve discussed how it’s easy to visit the Tulum ruins, and how they are really picturesque… but are they actually important?
A brief history of Tulum
The first thing to know is that Tulum reached its peak much later than many of the other famous Mayan ruins in Mexico.
This is no great surprise when you know a bit about the civilisation’s history. As I discussed in my story about Mayan Discovery, many of the jungle city-states were hit by droughts and had to abandon their bases. Over time, they moved further north to this region.
Although the area around Tulum is thought to have been first settled around the 6th century, it wasn’t really until the 12th century that the Mayans started to focus on building a proper city, and that’s when it started to grow dramatically.
But this wasn’t just an escape for environmental refugees. Tulum was an important and wealthy city for one simple reason – trade!
This part of the coast formed a natural meeting point between land trade routes and maritime trade routes. It meant that the rulers of Tulum were able to set up a meeting place for merchants – and take their cut, of course.
This also explains the location of the Tulum Mayan ruins. It made sense for the city to be visible from ships at sea so they would come in to trade.
As I walk around the site and look at the buildings, I get a sense – even without being told – that many of these structures have more of a commercial than a religious function.
That’s not the say that the Maya of the time did not still worship their gods, it just means that some of the grand buildings also had to promote a sense of wealth and power. And they had to offer the practical infrastructure needed for a regional marketplace.
The importance of Tulum as a trading centre continued for hundreds of years, including well into the period that the Spanish were making their way across Mexico.
The city was abandoned at the end of the 16th century, mainly because the population had been badly hit by diseases brought from Europe. It was then left to fall into ruins before being ‘rediscovered’ in the mid-1800s.
Things to see at the Tulum ruins
The Mayan ruins at Tulum are not particularly large and you’ll be able to walk through the site and see all the main buildings within an hour – although it is nice to spend a bit longer here just hanging out and admiring the view (or even going for a swim – more on that later!).
As you explore the Tulum ruins, these are some of the main sights to look out for:
Right in the centre of the site is El Castillo (The Castle), a pyramid that is 7.5 metres tall and has been adapted to different purposes over the years.
Although it was probably originally a temple, it was repurposed into a lighthouse because of its position high up on one of the cliffs. A fire could be lit inside the building, with the light coming out the windows facing the water.
Temple of the Descending God
Next to El Castillo is a place of worship called the Temple of the Descending God. The single room is at the top of a small staircase with an entrance facing to the west.
Not much is known about the Descending God, and references to it are only found at four archaeological sites. It’s thought to somehow be related to bees and honey, though. At the spring equinox, sunlight shines right through the temple.
Across the central square, on the inland side opposite El Castillo, are the remains of the Great Palace. It would have been used by the leaders of the city for bureaucratic functions, ceremonies, and even entertainment.
Unlike the traditional concept of a palace you find in other parts of the world, experts think it’s unlikely anybody actually lived in this building, and it performed more of a ceremonial role.
Temple of the Frescoes
Next to the palace building is the Temple of the Frescoes, which was probably used as an observatory to follow the sun as its path changed throughout the year.
As the name suggests, it has some of the best decorations of all the structures at the Tulum ruins, including colourful murals on the interior walls, carved figures on the outside, and stucco masks.
Temple of the Wind God
Although it’s not the largest or the most important building you’ll see when you visit the Tulum ruins, this is one of the most iconic. Why? Because it’s right on the cliff and makes for a perfect photo!
One of the interesting things about the Temple of the Wind God is that it’s thought to have had a special opening in the roof that would whistle when the wind was getting strong, warning the residents that a storm (or hurricane) was approaching.
Tours of the Tulum ruins
You’ll be able to find all of these buildings – and more – by yourself when you visit the ruins at Tulum. But there isn’t a lot of information about what they are, and you’ll definitely get more out of the experience with a local expert.
There are usually guides at the entrance to the archaeological site that you could hire to show you around. You may need to negotiate a price with them.
But if you’re coming from anywhere other than Tulum town, it might make more sense to go with an organised tour that will also cover your transportation. Many of them also combine a tour of the Tulum ruins with some other interesting sights in the area.
If all you’re interested in is the transportation and the guide, then this is the easiest option from anywhere along the coast between Cancun and Playa del Carmen.
In fact, there are lots of choices for tours to the Tulum ruins depending on where you’re staying and what else you want to do, including these interesting ones:
Visiting the Mayan ruins of Tulum
As I leave the site after my morning of exploring, it’s starting to get crowded – and it’s not even 10 o’clock yet! Outside there’s a long queue of people waiting to buy tickets and I can see even more large tour groups on their way in.
If you want to visit the Tulum ruins independently, my main piece of advice is certainly to come early. The Tulum ruins open at 8:00 and it’s worth being here then. You’ll avoid the crowds, get better views, and the temperature will be more pleasant.
Alternatively, come later in the afternoon when the tour groups have all left and it’s starting to cool down after the heat of the middle of the day.
If you’re coming from Tulum town, you can get a colectivo or a taxi to the ruins (or even walk – it’s only about three kilometres).
If you’re coming by public transport from Playa del Carmen, a bus or a colectivo will be the cheapest and many of them will drop you on the main road near the entrance.
If you’re driving, there’s a car park on the site, but it’s likely to get full during the peak times.
Once you arrive, don’t get fooled by anyone trying to sell you entry tickets in the car park. Head through to the official ticket booths at the entrance.
Where are the Tulum ruins?
The Tulum ruins are at the eastern outskirts of the city, on the coast. They’re about three kilometres from the centre of Tulum.
The official address is Zona Hotelera Tulum, 77765 Tulum, Quintana Roo. You can see it on a map here.
How do you get to the Tulum ruins?
If you’re coming from the centre of Tulum (and you don’t want to walk the three kilometres), the cheapest option is a colectivo for about $20 (US$1.10). Or a taxi should cost around $80 (US$4.50).
To get to the Tulum ruins from Playa del Carmen, some buses will stop right at the entrance and cost about $80 (US$4.50), while the bus from Cancun will cost about $260 (US$14.50).
When are the Tulum ruins open?
The Tulum ruins are open every day from 08:00 – 17:00.
How much does visiting the Tulum ruins cost?
The entrance fee for Tulum ruins is $90 (US$5) for adults.
Make sure you buy your ticket from the official booth at the site’s entrance, not at the parking lot (where you may get scammed).
Are there tours of the Tulum ruins?
There are usually guides offering tours at the entrance to the archaeological site and you may be able to negotiate a price.
However, if you are coming from Cancun or Playa del Carmen, I would recommend booking this tour with transfers in advance.
Because the site isn’t huge, you will be able to see everything in about an hour. But there’s more than just ruins here. You may want to bring your swimmers and a towel and head down to the beach!
Tulum ruins beach
The morning cloud had well and truly moved on by the time I explored the majority of the site and there was bright sunshine when I walked down onto the beach.
Feeling the heat coming on, it is obvious why this is a popular spot for a swim.
I didn’t bring my swimmers but I see that some people did and they’re ready to jump in the water now. Still, I walk down to the sand and dip my feet in the refreshing water.
The beach is one of the things that makes the Tulum Mayan ruins such a wonderful experience for tourists – it’s not just the location and the views that makes the site so popular.
As far as my travels in Mexico have gone, I have enjoyed all the Mayan heritage that I’ve discovered along the way, but the Tulum ruins are indeed unique.
Most of my experiences have involved sweating in the humidity of jungles or under the unrelenting sun atop a pyramid. Having a beach and the chance for a swim – well, that is special!