Few historical sites can rival the elegant beauty of the ancient Mayan city of Tulum. Perched on top of a limestone cliff, overlooking the turquoise Caribbean Sea, complete with white sandy beaches, Tulum is the true definition of picturesque. But this historical site is more than just a must-see destination for those hoping to get beautiful photos. Any history fans out there will love its uniqueness as a historical site – for instance, did you know it’s the only known ancient Mayan city located by the beach? It’s also suitably compact, making it apt for those wanting a piece of history without having to dedicate an entire day for the purpose. This blog post provides you with all you need to know about the archaeological site of Tulum.
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From ancient Mayans to iguanas and coatis
Photo: At the Tulum ruins you’ll almost certainly spot iguanas and coatis. This guy was the size of a cat!
A lazy iguana lies nonchalantly sprawled across the thousand-year old remains of the once thriving ancient Mayan city of Tulum. Casually ignoring all the commotion at this popular site he lies almost as if frozen in his spot, basking in the increasingly warm morning sun. Since he is almost the same grey-and-black colour as the ruins he’s relaxing on it isn’t always easy to spot him, or his hundreds or so iguana friends mingling here. In other words, visitors should tread carefully on these grounds to avoid accidentally stepping on them!
While visitors keep a respectable distance to the fenced off ruins, the iguanas couldn’t care less about silly little “Do not cross”-signs. In here they share the same space the ancient royalty did with privileged access into the sacred temples, today inaccessible to most people. The iguanas are not the only animals that have taken a liking to the ancient ruins. Coatis – a raccoon-like creature found on the Riviera Maya –also favour the old temples and platforms visitors today can merely admire from a distance.
Photo: Coatis often move around the site in groups. Fenced off or not, these guys go where they please.
Tulum is crowded but worth the visit
Photo: Since Tulum is small, the crowds don’t spread out over a large area, like at Cobá, for instance. After 10 am Tulum gets very crowded, so arrive early to beat the crowds.
As the sun rises higher in the sky casting its rays over the Temple of the Wind God – once a majestic and integral piece of the bustling ancient Mayan city – hundreds of tourists start to fill the archaeological site. By 10 am you’ll have a hard time finding any spot that isn’t filled with tour groups. In fact, if you’re holding track of the amount of visitors at historical sites, Tulum is second only to Chichen Itzá, one of the world’s seven modern wonders.
Some would call this a tourist inferno or a circus, and might even shy away from visiting for that reason. But even with the hoards of gawkers snapping at every angle of the forlorn and weather-beaten site, Tulum is worth seeing for several reasons.
First of all, it’s hard to find a more photo-worthy archaeological site. If you’re looking for beautiful pictures, this is the place to be! Secondly, in contrast to for example Chichen Itzá, the ruins of Tulum are located just a few kilometres away from Tulum pueblo (the modern city centre). If you’re staying in Tulum pueblo you can even consider renting a bike and pedalling here.
Since the ancient city of Tulum is tiny, this is a very compact historical site. It’s an excellent choice if you’re travelling with someone who isn’t that into history and is prone to moaning after a few hours of historical sightseeing. This might also be a good choice for those travelling with children. Compared to the almost daunting enormousness of for example Chichen Itzá and Cobá, Tulum is easy and doable – even at the spur of a moment if you find yourself with some time to spare. You only need to dedicate half a day for the visit. If you’re fast and skip the option of going for a dip at the beach you might even be done within an hour.
Tulum is a unique historical site
Photo: Did you know that Tulum is one of very few Mayan sites surrounded by walls? This makes Tulum a very interesting site to visit for history-geeks, like myself. The little iguana on top of the wall was peering into the distance, perhaps the way the people of Tulum did in ancient times to try to spot arriving boats? The function of the wall is debated.
The third – and in my opinion most important – argument for visiting the ruins at Tulum is the site’s uniqueness from a history-geeks point of view. Being the only Mayan city known today that is located by a beach it does prompt questions. Why did the Mayans build only this one city by the beach and how did they decide it would be this location? What was life like in this city and how much did it differ from life in the other ancient Mayan cities?
Tulum is also one of very few known Mayan cities surrounded by walls. The walls are made from limestone and are around five metres high and up to eight metres thick. They protected the city from three directions, with the steep cliffs diving into the sea beneath serving as the fourth and final shield. The wall on the longest side – the west side that is parallel to the sea – is around 400 metres long and the shorter walls on each side are around 170 metres. On top of the wall there was a walkway and the corners have small tower-like structures. Building the walls, that altogether measure over 700 metres, must have required a great deal of both time and energy.
Many historians believe the wall’s function was strictly military, protecting the city from any possible enemies. Those supporting this theory believe the towers would have been watchtowers. Another theory is that the wall’s purpose was to mark where the city’s ceremonial part begun and where the administrative part ended. From this point of view the tower-like structures could have served as small temples.
Photo: The walls surrounding Tulum are made of limestone. Can you spot the iguana, expertly camouflaged amid the stones?
The city of dawn – a trading hotspot
Photo: The largest building in the ancient city of Tulum is El Castillo (castle in Spanish). The building is 7,5 metres high.
There are many unanswered questions about the ancient city of Tulum and the life there. What we do know however, is that its zenith occurred pretty late, around 1200-1500 AD. Most of the construction work dates back to the late 13th century, placing it in the Post-Classic Mayan period (900-1500 AD). At this time the city is believed to have had some 1000-1600 inhabitants.
Archaeological evidence suggests the first inhabitants came to Tulum around the 6th century. Tulum was also one of the Mayan cities that survived the longest once the Spanish conquistadors arrived in Mexico. It wasn’t until around 70 years after the Spanish first started conquering Mexico that Tulum was finally abandoned, most likely as a result of the Old-World-diseases the Spaniards brought with them. A rough estimation is that these diseases wiped out a staggering 90 percent of the Mayan population.
Connecting both inland and maritime routes, Tulum was a significant international trading hub. Archaeological findings have led historians to believe Tulum had trade contacts all over Mexico and Central America. The beach by Tulum most likely served as an important port where the Mayan boats – which were actually more like canoes – could dock. Among the goods and products traded in this area were honey, salt, jade ornaments and cotton.
The city’s original name is believed to have been Zama, which means “dawn”. This does seem like a very fitting name for this place – in the ancient Mayan land, this would have been the first city to see the dawn brake every morning.
Today, the city is a melange of subtle grey and black nuances. While it was at its height it would have looked drastically different – a veritable colour parade with beautifully decorated and brightly painted facades. Mural paintings could for example portray gods and priest, everyday themes or draw inspiration from the natural surroundings.
How to visit the ruins at Tulum
Photo: Have you ever been to a more picturesque historical site? Imagine living here in ancient times!
There are three ways to see the ruins at Tulum. The first option is to book an organized tour with pick-up and drop-off at your hotel and maximum convenience, but – in my opinion – minimum freedom. There are plenty of tour organizers taking groups of visitors to Tulum every day. If you’re staying in Tulum, Akumal or anywhere nearby you’ll almost definitely spot a tour you could join. This way you’ll get a package deal with transport and guide included. Just know that you will pay an extravagant sum for this convenience – often around 40 USD. Considering the entrance fee is only 70 pesos, about 3,50 USD, this seems like a lot.
The second way to explore the site is independently. You’ll be paying just the entrance fee (70 pesos) and for whichever mode of transportation you choose. With this option you’ll save a lot of money and you’ll have the freedom to linger longer where you want or skipping the sections that don’t tickle your fancy. However, this option does require more effort and planning on your part. To get the most of your visit I suggest bringing a good guidebook or making sure to do your research online (like reading this blog post you’re reading right now for instance!). Compared to some other historical sites in the world Tulum has a fairly decent amount of posters with information about the different buildings and the ancient way of life in general. So even without a guide, guidebook or researching in advance you’ll still be served some snippets of information. For many people this will be a sufficient dose of history, others (myself included) want more detailed facts.
Option number three is a guided, but self-organized tour of the ruins. If you feel you want to take care of transportation yourself to save a few bucks, but feel you need a guide, then this option is for you. Just head to the ruins with whichever choice of transportation that suits you best and negotiate a good deal with one of the guides by the entrance (at least when we visited there were many near the entrance marketing their services). You can get a guide to take you around the ruins for around 600 pesos.
Top tips for visiting Tulum ruins
Photo: The beach by the Tulum ruins is worth a visit. It’s not often you get the chance to admire beautiful ruins whilst enjoying a dip in the ocean.
Whichever way you choose to visit this historical site, make sure to pack your bathing suit! The beach by the ruins is beautiful and having walked around in the Mexican heat the turquoise water will be looking pretty tempting. There are no changing rooms, so you might want to change into your bathing suit before entering the site.
And speaking of heat, make sure you bring plenty of water. Once inside the site, there are no vendors selling refreshments, so make sure to bring whatever you might need. It gets very hot here, especially if you visit during lunch or in the early afternoon. There are a few shadier areas, but mostly you’ll be walking around in the mercilessly burning hot sun.
If possible arrive early! I highly recommend showing up at 9.30 am at the very latest to avoid the worst crowds and the most suffocating heat. Ideally you should be here once the place opens at 8 am. That way you’ll have time to wander around the place without having to elbow your way through the crowds. Avoid arriving at 10am-2pm, when most large groups arrive.
How to get to Tulum ruins
Photo: Tulum ruins is not just for fans of history. This is definitely a place to see for those who love beautiful views of turquoise sea and white beaches.
If you wish to explore Tulum independently you’ll need to know how to get here. There are several different options depending on where you’re staying.
If your base camp is in Tulum pueblo or by the beach, you might want to consider hiring a bike and pedalling to the site if you’re up for some cardio. If not, or if you’re staying some place further away, you can either hop on a taxi or wait for a colectivo (those Mexican shuttle buses). Both options will drop you off near the highway. From there you’ll have to walk to the entrance located around 800 metres away.
If you have a car and are planning on driving to the ruins there’s parking in the same area that the taxis and colectivos drop off people, close to the highway. The parking fee is around 160 pesos, which is a pretty steep price compared to parking at many other sites.
Most people will walk the 800-metre road to the main entrance, but there is also another option. You can hop on a tram that will take you to the entrance for around 20 pesos. This option might be unnecessary, though, for the walk is enjoyable and has shade from the jungle trees lining the road.
Photo: Bring a hat and sunscreen – unless you’re like these iguanas and have no problem with the scorching heat of the merciless Mexican sun. As you can see, the shade provided at this site is minimal so the hat or cap will come in handy. Others favour umbrellas to provide personal shade.
Visiting Tulum ruins in a nutshell:
- Open daily from 8 am to 5 pm (last entry 4.30 pm).
- Arrive early (before 10 am) to beat the crowds.
- Entrance fee 70 pesos.
- Additional 40 pesos for professional video filming equipment.
- Parking fee 160 pesos at parking area.
- No vendors on site so make sure to bring plenty of water.
- Toilets by the main entrance before you enter. No toilets available inside the site.
- There’s a beautiful beach by the ruins, bring your bathing suit.
- Reserve 1-2 hours to explore the site and some additional time for swimming and relaxing on the beach.
- There’s another beach that visitors are only allowed to admire from a distance, since it’s important nesting grounds for sea turtles.
- In other words, make sure to respect the fenced off areas at the site, it’s not just about protecting the ruins; it’s also about protecting the wildlife!
Fast facts about ancient Tulum:
- Built around 500-1500 AD.
- Was at its height around 1200-1500 AD.
- Is the only known ancient Mayan city built right by the beach.
- One of very few ancient Mayan cities surrounded by walls.
- The walls surrounding the city are 5 metres high and over 700 metres long in total.
- The city was an important trading hub connecting land and sea.
- Is estimated to have had a population of 1000-1600.
- The largest building at the site is called El Castillo.
- El Castillo is 7,5 metres high.
- The first contact Tulum had with the Spaniards was in 1518 when a ship under the command of Spanish captain Juan de Grijalva, sailed pass on an exploratory voyage.
- Part of the Temple of the Wind God has a circular form when seen from above. This is a very rare feature in Mayan architecture.
- Many of the buildings have walls that flare outward and doorways that taper in. This was an architectural style typical of the Post-Classic period in ancient Mayan history.
- The facades of the buildings were beautifully decorated and painted in bright colours.
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