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Ted Campbell By
Posted 13 Jun, 2021 | No comments
Posted in: Mexico

A blocky white fortress stands on rugged cliffs over the calm sapphire water of the Caribbean Sea. This is Tulum, one of the most spectacular archeological sites in Mexico.

Compared to other ancient Mayan cities, Tulum’s structures are rather small, the architecture isn’t especially detailed, and the site itself can be explored in less than an hour.

Despite this, the Tulum ruins are among the most famous and popular in Mexico — even the world.

Why? It’s all about real estate: location, location, location. Although most archeological sites in Mexico are inland, Tulum faces the sea, where sucrose beaches are hidden in coves under cliffs spotted with tropical plants.

You can climb down a tall wooden staircase to one of these beaches and swim out to view the limestone buildings from the sea. This experience makes the Tulum ruins on the beach one of the top destinations in the Mayan Riviera.

I’ve visited the ruins of Tulum many times on my frequent trips to Playa del Carmen and the town of Tulum.

It’s close to both and even easily reached from Cancun farther north. Indeed, no trip to the area is complete without a pilgrimage to Tulum.

In this guide, learn how to visit the Tulum ruins in Mexico.

History of the Tulum Mayan Ruins

The Mayan word “Tulum” means “wall” or “palisade.” As the name suggests, Tulum was a walled city, and the excavated ancient wall forms the boundaries of the archeological site today.

Tulum was first settled in the 6th century and peaked around 1200 CE.

Unlike other ancient Mayan cities in Mexico and Central America, most of which collapsed and were eventually abandoned a thousand years ago for reasons still unclear, Tulum remained a prosperous city until the Spanish conquest of the early 16th century.

tulum mayan ruins in Mexico

Tulum’s strategic location made it an important trading center that linked the land and water routes of the ancient Mayan world. Its sturdy wall and tall cliffs along the sea fortified it against attacks from any direction.

After the arrival of the Spanish, Tulum’s decline was unfortunately rapid. This was due to European diseases rather than Spanish aggression, however, as the Spanish mostly left Tulum alone.

Tulum Pyramids and Temples to Visit

The site of the Tulum Mayan ruins forms a large rectangle along the coast. It can be divided into three general areas.

The central part is open and flat and has the largest buildings. The jungle is thicker in the areas to the north and south, where there are fewer structures.

A logical way to visit the site is from north to south, mostly because the entrance is to the north and there’s an exit to the south.

tulum pyramids

The site is small enough to see in an hour, but with swimming, wandering, and backtracking, you could extend a visit to three hours or so.

To explore the area to the north, take a left immediately upon entering the site. This path through leafy trees is often missed by people headed straight for the famous photo opportunity on the sea.

Right away you’ll see the House of the Cenote, which was the city’s source of fresh water and where residents worshiped the Mayan god of water.

Next to the sea and standing high on rocky cliffs, the Temple of the God of the Winds is the largest structure in the area to the north.

The little beach south of this temple is Playa Tortuga, which is designated for nesting sea turtles and off-limits to visitors.

The central area of the Tulum ruins is where most tourists gather. If you arrive early and want to get great photos, head here immediately before the crowds form and the sun gets high.

Among the excavated buildings, you’ll see countless iguanas sunning themselves on the stones or scrambling on the grass.

The tallest and most significant structure in Tulum is El Castillo, the Castle. It was used as a lighthouse and comprises three ornamental temples with columns, snake carvings, and animal-god figureheads.

A wide staircase leads to the top from the opposite side of the sea, but you can’t climb it.

Next to the Castle is the Descending God Temple, which features a sculpture of the deity above the entrance. Variations of this image of the Descending God can be seen throughout Tulum.

Across the path is the Temple of the Frescos, which was an observatory and contains impressive murals depicting the Mayan Underworld. The House of Columns and the House of Halach Uinik are farther down the path.

The southern section has the fewest structures. It’s also somewhat hilly, with paths winding through dense jungle. Make sure to take the path that follows the cliffs along the water for another perspective of the Castle on its seaside perch.

Things to Do at the Tulum Ruins

Aside from photography, you can enjoy two activities within the Tulum ruins: walking around the site and swimming at its little beach.

You can’t miss the beach located south of the Castle and the wide wooden staircase that leads down to it. There’s no place to change, so you may want to arrive with your swimming suit under your clothes.

things to do at the tulum ruins

Farther south of the Tulum ruins is Paradise Beach, commonly known as Tulum Beach. Wide and full of powdery sand, it’s regularly included on lists of the best beaches in Mexico.

A short road leads from the Tulum ruins down to Paradise Beach.

You can get to this road by exiting the ruins from the gate at the southwest corner of the site. Don’t step through this exit until you’ve seen everything in the archeological site, because you won’t be allowed back in once you leave.

If you walk for a while down the beach, eventually you’ll get to where another road leads to the town of Tulum.

It’s a long, hot walk on the side of the road to get to town, so you may want to take a taxi. The trip into Tulum town should cost around $100 pesos (5 USD).

As you walk down the beach, don’t forget to occasionally look behind you to see the ruins from a distance.

Where Are the Tulum Ruins Located?

The Tulum ruins are located a few miles north of the town of the same name. They’re easily accessible from anywhere on the Mayan Riviera, Mexico’s stretch of Caribbean coastline on the east side of the Yucatan Peninsula.

From Playa del Carmen, it takes about an hour to get there by car or colectivo, the white passenger vans that serve as public transportation.

It’s a longer trip from Cancun, about two hours, but it’s still possible to visit the Tulum ruins on a day trip from there.

From Tulum town, the easiest way to get to the ruins is by colectivo, which takes about 15 minutes.

Colectivos leave frequently from several stops on the highway through town, starting from near the ADO bus station. Make sure you’re on the correct side of the road.

Walking from town is also possible, which I did once. It takes about an hour.

A great option is to ride a bicycle, which takes only about 20 minutes. It’s easy to find a rental in town, or many hotels and hostels provide free bicycles for their guests to use.

In the area between the highway and the ruins are several decent but overpriced restaurants, some flagrantly overpriced souvenir shops, and lots of tour guides and hustlers. You don’t need to buy tickets until you reach the entrance of the archeological site.

When Is the Best Time To Visit?

Any time of year is a good time to visit the Tulum ruins on the beach.

The weather is beautiful and sunny year-round in the Mayan Riviera. Summer months are hotter and wetter, but regular winds from the Caribbean cool things off then.

best time to visit tulum

One concern is hurricane season, which lasts from August to October. There’s obviously not much you can do about this, however.

Weather aside, an important thing to keep in mind is that the ruins near Tulum get extremely busy during peak travel season and Mexican holidays. At these times, a long line may form of people waiting to take the staircase down to the beach under the Castle.

Peak travel season is late December to early January (especially between Christmas and the New Year), and late July and early August.

Another time you should absolutely avoid is Semana Santa (Holy Week), the week before Easter, when many Mexicans travel. The Tulum pyramids are absolutely packed then.

Also, because the ruins near Tulum are free to enter on Sundays for Mexican citizens and foreign residents of Mexico, this day can get crowded as well.

It’s a good idea to get to the ruins early in the morning. If you arrive right when they open, you’ll beat the crowds, especially the tour buses that usually arrive at least an hour later.

Getting there early also means that you can walk around and enjoy the site before it gets too hot, and you’ll also get better photographs.

Best Tulum Ruins Tours

Taking a tour to the Tulum ruins is a good idea for several reasons.

You won’t have to arrange your own transportation, which is especially convenient if you’re staying in Cancun or Playa del Carmen. You’ll also have a guide explaining the history and archeological significance of the place.

Some tour agencies sell tickets that allow you to skip the line at the entrance, which is a great benefit if you visit during a busy time of year.

Many tours combine a visit to the Tulum ruins with other activities, like swimming in cenotes or exploring other archeological sites.

1. Cancun: Tulum and Cenotes 5 Hour Guided Tour

Departing from Cancun, this Tulum ruins tour follows up a two-hour guided visit to the archeological site with a visit to a nearby cenote, most likely Dos Ojos, one of the largest in the area.

Cenotes are fresh water caves and sinkholes found throughout the Yucatan peninsula. They’re great for swimming, snorkeling, and scuba diving.

2. Tulum and Cenotes Tour

If you don’t mind spending less time at the ruins, this tour is shorter than the previous and also includes a stop at a cenote.

After one hour at the Tulum ruins, you’ll go to the Kin Ha cenote near Puerto Morelos (between Cancun and Playa del Carmen). There’s an extra fee if you want to swim.

The tour departs from Cancun, and all transportation is included.

3. Day Trip to Tulum and Coba Ruins Including Cenote Swim and Lunch from Cancun

This Tulum ruins tour not only stops for a swim at a cenote, but also takes you to the ruins of Coba. Coba is another fascinating ancient Mayan city located inland about 45 minutes by bus from the Tulum ruins.

Coba is larger and quite a contrast from Tulum. It’s set deep in the jungle instead of next to the sea, and it has notably different architecture, including a tall irregular stone pyramid and a ball court.

Between the two archeological sites, the group cools off by swimming in the Casa Tortuga cenote.

The tour departs from either Cancun or Playa del Carmen, and it includes a large buffet lunch of Yucatan specialties.

MORE TULUM TOURS

Tulum Ruins Entrance Fee

The Tulum ruins cost 80 pesos to enter, which is about $4 USD. Make sure you bring pesos, not dollars or another currency. You’ll be charged an exorbitant rate if you exchange dollars outside of the site.

Entrance for Mexican citizens and foreign residents in Mexico is free on Sundays.

Tulum Mayan Ruins Hours

The current hours for the Tulum Ruins are 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM, with the last access at 3:30 PM.

These hours will likely change as COVID-19 restrictions are eased, so check the official website of the Tulum ruins for updates.

Parking at the Tulum Ruins

The Tulum ruins don’t have a designated parking lot, although there’s plenty of parking in private lots outside the ruins. A spot with unlimited time should cost around $100 pesos (about $5 USD), although this depends on how busy the place is. Expect to pay more in peak season and during holidays.

Can You Climb the Tulum Ruins?

Climbing any of the structures is forbidden, as well as leaving the designated paths.

At archeological sites all over Mexico, I’ve met travelers who were convinced it would be a good idea to hide in the park overnight in order to climb one of the pyramids in the morning to catch the sunrise.

Forget about it for Tulum. There’s nowhere to hide, and you’ll surely be caught and arrested. (This goes for all ruins in Mexico, by the way.)

Swimming at Tulum’s Beach

Swimming at the Tulum ruins on the beach is one of the great pleasures of visiting the Mayan Riviera.

Playa Ruinas, usually known as Tulum Beach, is located directly to the south of the cliffs below the Castle. A sturdy wooden staircase leads down to the small beach.

tulum beach

As you can imagine, it sometimes gets incredibly crowded. If you arrive early, you may want to go there first to get a swim before the hordes descend upon it.

As mentioned, Paradise Beach, the big beach in Tulum, is located directly south of the ruin complex. Walking there is easy after visiting the ruins.

5 Top Tips for Visiting the Ruins Near Tulum

Here are my top tips for a great trip to the Tulum Ruins:

1. Don’t buy tickets from the hustlers or little stores between the highway and the entrance to the park, but buy them right at the park entrance.

2. Get there early, both to beat the crowds and also to have enough time left in the day to either head down to Paradise Beach or visit a nearby cenote.

cenotes in Dos Ojos

3. One of the closest and best cenotes in Dos Ojos. Catch a colectivo (passenger van) on the highway outside the ruins for the short trip to Dos Ojos (or another cenote). You can also go scuba diving in Dos Ojos!

4. Bring lots of water, some snacks, and everything you need for the beach. Keep in mind that officially you aren’t allowed to bring in big bags or large amounts of food. A normal size backpack won’t be a problem, though.

5. For getting the best photos of the ruins, you’ll either want to get there right when it opens or stay until it closes. In the morning, the sun is over the sea, and in the afternoon, the sun is over land away from the sea.

Conclusion

If you have a limited amount of time in the Mayan Riviera and can only visit one Mayan ruin complex, then I recommend Tulum.

Chichen Itza is incredible. It’s a much larger site with better architecture, carvings, and sculptures. It’s also much farther away and requires a full day to properly appreciate.

Tulum, on the other hand, is an easy day trip from anywhere in the Mayan Riviera. It’s small enough that you can see it in only a few hours and then head to the beach, to a cenote, or into Tulum town for seafood or tacos.

Also, although Tulum’s Castle may not be as impressive as the iconic pyramid in Chichen Itza (also called the Castle), its location above the bright turquoise water of the Caribbean more than makes up for it.

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Ted Campbell

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Ted is a writer and university professor who moved to China in 2020 after living in Mexico for 10 years. He has a Master’s Degree in English Education and has taught ESL/EFL in four countries and many different types of schools. While in Mexico, Ted traveled extensively, climbed volcanos, went on epic bike rides, explored underground rivers, ate countless types of tacos, learned Spanish, and wrote two guidebooks. You can read his stories about living and traveling in Mexico on his blog No Hay Bronca.
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