7 Top Things to See & Do at the Tulum Ruins
Tulum is one of the most famous archaeological sites in Mexico because, well, look at it. How could it not be? The fortified Mayan city of stone sits perched on a cliff 40 feet above sheer white Caribbean sand and the shockingly blue waters of the sea. But the view is just one of the things to see and do at the Tulum ruins.
Tulum is the only fortified Mayan town by the coast, believe it or not. It was believed to be a military stronghold, given its sea-facing location. The fascinating structures create part of Tulum National Park, which is one of the most famous cities on the Yucatan Peninsula.
The site dates from the Maya Late Post-Classic Period after AD 1200, although its most important buildings were probably not erected until the 15th century, just a few decades before the Spanish spotted the stony tower from the sea. Tulum was inhabited right up until 1544, when the Spanish conquered the northeast of Yucatan.
Perfectly positioned just an hour or so from the resort destinations of Cancún and Playa del Carmen, Tulum is a must-see tourist attraction when visiting the Mayan Riviera, and has some of the best all-inclusive resorts nearby. To help you get the most out of your visit to the many points of interest in and around Tulum National Park, be sure to refer to our list of the top things to see and do at the Tulum ruins.
1. The Beach at Tulum
We said it up top because this is probably the biggest draw to the Tulum ruins. One of the main attractions for tourists visiting Tulum, and one of the features that sets this remarkable historic site apart from others in Mexico, is the beautiful stretch of beach below the ruins.
A set of stairs leads down to the oceanfront, offering a refreshing break from the sun for those who remember to bring their swimwear. The turquoise water lapping against the white-sand beach is irresistible on a hot day, and makes for a welcome break if you're spending any length of time exploring the ruins.
2. The Walls of Tulum
The relatively small area occupied by the ruins of Tulum is surrounded on the landward side by a fortified wall, an enclosed area measuring 380 meters by 65 meters. The stone wall itself was originally between three and five meters high and, on average, seven meters wide.
It also contained five exit points protected by stone slabs-features that suggest Tulum also included a dwelling area. A circular walkway protected by a parapet led along the length of the wall, and at each of the two inner corners was a small temple, also used as watchtowers.
3. Temple of the Frescoes
The most important of Tulum's buildings is the Temple of the Frescoes (Templo de los Frescos, or Edificio 16). Standing in the middle of the walled area on an east-west axis, the building was constructed around 1450 and built over on several occasions.
The only ground floor room has an entrance on the west side that is divided up by four columns, above which is a double ledge sectioned off by three niches, the central one containing a stucco sculpture of the God Descending, while the others are decorated with reliefs depicting seated figures with elaborate headdresses. The corners of the ledges consist of large bas-relief masks that were once painted and depict Itzamná, the old Sky God revered by the Yucatán Mayas.
Over the door of the upper floor is a niche with the remains of a stucco relief representing the God Descending, and the wall of the interior room is decorated by interesting codex-like paintings depicting other Mayan gods. In the upper section, two representations of Itzamná face one another, flanked by the rain god Chac, while the central part of the frescoes depicts the moon and fertility goddess Ixchel.
Also of interest, in front of the temple on an altar, stands a nearly five-foot-high stela bearing a post-Classic Maya calendar for the year 1261.
4. The Castillo
The largest and most striking building on the site is the Castillo (Edificio 1), located at the eastern end on the cliff-edge overlooking the sea. Believed to be built during three separate periods, this large structure is notable for the broad steps leading to a terrace on which the two-roomed temple stands, along with a stone used as an altar for human sacrifices. The entrance to the temple is subdivided by two serpent columns, and in the niche above the central door, a stone figure can be seen representing the God Descending.
5. Temple of the God Descending
Directly north of the Castillo is the Temple of the God Descending (Templo del Dios Descendente), erected on top of an older structure and notable for the fact its walls taper downwards, a method of building believed to provide stability. Possessing a single room, the temple's interior includes interesting features such as the niche over the entrance containing a stucco sculpture of the God Descending with wings on its arms and shoulders, as well as a bird's tail. This winged figure has various interpretations, including a swooping bee, the evening star, the setting sun, or even lightning.
Also of interest is the Temple of the Initial Series (Templo de la Serie Inicial, Edificio 9) named after a stela found here that was dated as AD 564 and which now resides in the British Museum in London.
6. Casa del Cenote
The Casa del Cenote is a structure at the Tulum ruins that consists of a house built at the entrance to a cenote. Cenotes, in Mayan culture, are of deep importance. According to Mayan belief, cenotes (natural sinkholes) provide the entrance into the spiritual world.
Within the Casa del Cenote, archaeologists found a tomb and Mayan remains, so it was believed that it was used as a mausoleum. This theory would make sense, given its proximity to the believed entrance to the underworld.
This isn't a cenote for swimming (although swimming in a cenote is one of the top things to do in Mexico). The conditions aren't as nice as other cenotes around the peninsula. Still, the historic significance and the archaeological importance makes this a top thing to see and do at the Tulum ruins.
7. Touring Tulum
A variety of bus tours are available for visitors to Tulum from the region's major resort towns, including Cancún and Playa del Carmen. These generally include the services of an English language guide.
You can take a Private Tour of Tulum from Cancún, which will pick you up at your hotel, take you and your group to the site for a guided tour, and return you back to your hotel. Total time for this tour is four hours.
Some tours also offer stops at other sites along the way. For those wishing to go it alone, maps and booklets are available from the visitor center.
Tips and Tactics: How to Make the Most of Your Visit to Tulum
- Getting to Tulum: Tulum is approximately 130 kilometers from Cancún, 65 kilometers from Playa del Carmen, and is accessible via Highway 307.
- Visitor Center: Be sure to collect a map and other useful material from the visitor center when purchasing your admission ticket.
- Food and Drink: A restaurant is located in the visitor center.
- Climbing: For safety reasons and to protect this historic site, it's no longer possible to climb the ruins.
- Walking: Be prepared for plenty of walking. It's a one-kilometer walk to the site proper (although an inexpensive shuttle bus is available); once inside, there's even more walking to do. Wear comfortable walking shoes, along with a wide hat, and plenty of sunscreen.
- Arrive Early: To avoid the crowds-and the hottest part of the day- try to arrive at opening time, 8am (even earlier for a chance to watch the sun rise). Alternatively, most bus tours leave by mid afternoon, so later in the day is also a good time.
- Overnight: A number of hotels are close by for those wishing to break their trip up over a couple of days.
While there's plenty to keep you occupied during a visit to Tulum, especially if you're just there for the day, it's worth taking time to explore the local area. A highlight is Tulum Pueblo, the small community that serves the Tulum Ruins, which offers shopping, restaurants, and entertainment. If it's the beach you're after, visit Tulum Playa for its fine stretches of white sand and eco-hotels, restaurants, and spas.
A little further afield (some 25 kilometers) is Chunyaxché, another archaeological site with pyramids, temples, and palaces dating from the Late Classic and Post-Classic periods, and a quiet lagoon for swimming.
If time allows, be sure to visit one of the many cenotes in the Tulum area. These natural freshwater swimming holes were important to the Mayans as a source of drinking water, as well as burial or sacrifice sites. One of the best are Aktun Chen, which also includes ziplining experiences and other activities, and Ik Kil, a well-known cenote. Some organized tours, such as popular 3-in-1 combo tours, will include a swim in a cenote with a visit to the ruins of Tulum.
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