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Discover the secrets of Tulum ruins, the postcard of the Mexican Caribbean

Tulum Mayan Ruins (more accurately called Mayan Archaeological sites) is the iconic site of the Mexican Caribbean Coast and a place that anyone traveling to Mexico wants to visit (even those who are not really into the Mayan history).


Perched on a cliff over a Caribbean white sand beach, it makes a one-of-a-kind place to visit, if not, for the picture-perfect views you will get.  That is the classic Mexican Caribbean postcard that you may have seen everywhere.

It’s not a surprise that it’s the most visited archeological site within the Mexican state of Quintana Roo, one of the most precious among the millions of Mexican treasures.

The Tulum Ruins are a unique place, not only for their location but also for their well-kept buildings and the painted murals, some of the best-preserved in the Mayan world. 

Let’s find out more about this little treasure.

tulum ruins

SOME HISTORY OF THE TULUM MAYAN SETTLEMENT

The buildings that have been brought to light and restored within the Tulum Mayan ruins belong to the last period of the Mayan civilization from 1250 AD to 1550 AD also called Middle and late Post Classical. 

There is evidence of previous stages, such as the year 564 carved in a stela and other elements of style from other times. 

The apogee of Tulum as a city dates back from 1250 to 1550. Its strategic location was vital for its economic development thanks to commerce.

  • CHRONOLOGY: 564 AD – 1550 AD
  • APOGEE: Postclassic stage 1250 AD – 1550 AD
phases of the history of the Maya Civilization

Tulum was one of the main Mayan cities of the 13th and 14th centuries, and it was one of the few that was still populated during the arrival of the Spanish conquerors. In fact, the majority of the Mayan cities have been abandoned before the arrival of the Spaniards, who found civilization in total decline. 

When the buildings were pulled out they were very well conserved. The most important structures are the Castle and the Temple of the Painting (or fresco). In this building, they found some murals that are among the most remarkable of the Mayan Civilization.

See how beautiful they are in the picture below.

tulum-murals-edificio-16
INAH-CINAH Quintana Roo/F. Dávalos
Temple of the Painting: the murals were found in this structure

Did you know?

  • Tulum is part of a huge settlement that includes Tancah as well, 3 km north of Tulum and better known for its beautiful beach. You can visit Tancah ( also spelled Tankah) from the Carretera Federal (Federal Highway) driving towards Playa del Carmen
  • Tulum Mayan ruins are the most visited place in Quintana Roo.

The Mayan architectural style of Tulum Ruins

During the Mayan civilization many different architectural styles were developed and each of them with a proper characteristic, such as el Puuc, Rio Bec, Peten, Horiental coast, Chenes, Usumancita. 

Tulum is the most important example of the Architectonic style of the Oriental Coast

It’s considered the oldest architectural style of the Yucatan Peninsula, whose apogee starts from 1200 A.D. 

It was developed in a relatively small city that was located along the Caribbean Mexican Coast.


Meaning of Tulum

We don’t really know the origins of this settlement. Some wrote that it was originally called Zamá, but there is no common agreement on this. What we know for sure is that the name 

“Tulum“  is not its original name. It translates in Spanish as “ wall, or palisade, referring to the wall built around the city to protect it.

TULUM EXPLORATION HISTORY

The first mention of the place was during a Spanish expedition in 1518 when the chronicles include a dialogue on the coast as big as Sevilla, where they were probably referring to Tulum.

The conquest and the colonization caused the deterioration of Tulum as mentioned in some written documents of those times where they were specifically talking about how that old Mayan city was in perpetual decline. 

The famous John Stephens, together with his adventure buddy  Frederick Catherwood, paid Tulum a visit in the mid-XIX century. These two explorers left a magnificent legacy of their travels across the Mayan lands, journeying from Mexico through Honduras, fascinated by the Mayan Civilization. 

Stephens wrote many books while Catherwood contributed with his illustrations. On the spectacular murals in Tulum, they said “ they are green and moldy for the exuberant vegetation suffocating the building”.

tulum ruins

A few years after their visit, a social revolution, known as Guerra de Castas (1847 – 1901) broke out in Yucatan.

Tulum remained in a region that was protected by the Mayan group called Cruzo’ob. They were believers of the Talking Crosses, considered a sacred symbol for being an intermediary between them and God. 

These Sacred crosses are being kept in different sanctuaries. 

In 1871 the Tulum Mayan site was one of that Sanctuary of the Sacred crosses led by the priestess María Uicab, a member of the Cruzo’ob.

The following explorers that came to Tulum are all archeologists, including William H. Holmes (1895), George P. Howe (1911) o Sylvanus G. Morley. The archeologist Miguel Ángel Fernández arrived in 1937 as a member of INAH (National Institute of Anthropology and History).  Starting from the 70s the INAH is responsible for the conservation of the Mayan city (actually all of them).

tulum arqueological site
Miguel Ángel Fernández in the Paintings Building, Tulum 1937

Here is an interesting fact about Tulum that not many know

The building known as  El Castillo served as a lighthouse for the ships arriving at night. The back windows which were lit with fire were aligned with a small canal made across the coral reef and that was the only point where the ships could enter and get to the city. This way they had the sea access under control preventing the city from incursions from the sea. 

The canal is not natural, as it was made by the Mayans.

HOW TO GET TO TULUM

The entrance of the Tulum Mayan Ruins is on the Federal Highway 370, the popular road that connects Cancun with Chetumal and runs along all the Mexican Caribbean Coast, including the Riviera Maya, in the state of Quintana Roo. 

The archeological site is located only 4 km from Tulum downtown and it’s well connected with the major cities along the coast. 


STATE: Quintana Roo, Mexico

how to get tulum

How to get Tulum by car

Tulum Ruins are located 128 km (95 miles) south of Cancun (1 hr 45 min by car) at 62 km (32 miles) south of Playa del Carmen  (50 minutes by car) and  4 km (2.4 miles) from Tulum town. 

Renting a car on the Riviera Maya is something you would want to do if you want to be free to move around and discover all the amazing sites in the region. It’s a relatively safe place to drive, the roads are good and the sites are well marked. Therefore traveling by car is a very good option.

However, remember, if you decide to get a car rental, make sure you include full insurance with 0 deductible so you will drive with no stress.  

When it comes to renting a car in Mexico we recommend Discover Cars because on their website you can compare different companies and their prices and you can choose between their car insurance or the ones offered by the car rental directly, or both.


How to get Tulum by local bus

You have two bus options. Big coach bus or minivans.

  • Big coach bus The big bus ADO or AV  leaving either from Cancun or Playa del Carmen. The AV will make a stop right in front of the archeological site while the ADO runs special trips to the Tulum Mayan Ruins. (you can check on the ADO website for both).
  • Mini Van (colectivos): From Cancún the minivans leave from a parking lot right beside the ADO terminal. You will need to get to Playa del Carmen and from there get another van to Tulum. At the moment they leave from under the bridge of the Carretera federal at the crossroads with the Av. Benito Juarez, but please double check because they have changed the location for the pandemic and this one is temporary.

Once on the minivan to Tulum let the driver know that you are getting off at the archaeological site

If you are in Tulum already, you can get on a minivan from Tulum main road and let the driver know as well.


How to get Tulum by bicycle

If you are staying in Tulum you can definitely get to the ruins by bike which is the best option because you can get right to the entrance of the archaeological site. 

There is a cycling lane from downtown to the archeological site so there is no danger. 

However, you can also get from the beach road, which is even nicer. 


How to get Tulum by taxi

Every taxi driver should carry the official price list, therefore it should be easy to get a taxi to the archeological site. Just make sure you know the cost in advance. But pay him after. There are taxis at the Tulum Ruins when you get out, in case you didn’t ask your driver to pick you up.

TULUM MAP

The itinerary you should follow of the Tulum Ruins is the following. 

After looking at the structure on the northeast side, take the road to the Casa del Cenote. keep walking towards the Templo del Dios del Viento, and continue through the  Casa del Halach Uinic and Casa de las Columnas, then you would go towards El Castillo and walk along the rear side where you will enjoy spectacular views of the Caribbean sea. 

The  Conjunto de Palacios also gives you amazing views and you will finally get to the Templo de los Frescos which marks the end of your Tulum Ruins itinerary. 

PRACTICAL INFORMATION ABOUT TULUM RUINS

Facilities

Here you will find all sorts of facilities all available in the parking area but also at the entrance of the site where you will find the ticket office. 

  • bathrooms (parking lot and entrance) 
  • shops
  • facilities for wheelchair access
  • certified guide service

Tulum opening hours

Open every day from 9 am to 4.30 pm  Last access at 3.30 pm


Tulum entrance fee

85 MXN (4 USD) per person

On Sundays, the entrance is free for Mexican and foreigners with permanent residence. 

Access to the Mayan ruins is open every day for kids up to 12 ys old, students, teachers, and seniors (must show ID).


Tips for visiting Tulum

  • Use comfortable light clothing and shoes 
  • Sunshades, hat. Some guide use umbrellas to repair from the sun, a great idea especially when  it’s really hot 
  • Bring a bottle of water and keep in mind that you cannot walk in with food or alcoholic drinks 
  • Big backpacks are not permitted
  • You can hire a certified guide at the entrance
  • Do not forget the swimsuit if you want to swim in the spectacular beach under the temples. 

How much time you need to visit Tulum

You should consider between an hour and an hour and thirty minutes to see everything unless you love taking pictures like us. In that case, you can take it all day. Also if you plan to swim and hang out on the beach consider also that time. You can stay all day, if you want, with the same ticket.

INSIDER TIPS in the Templo de las Pinturas we can’t contemplate the murals, unfortunately ( sorry if we gave you the illusion) but we can observe some hands painted on the facade. We love details 😊

WHAT WE DIDN’T LIKE ABOUT TULUM RUINS

The number of people visiting the Tulum Ruins is really too much and it takes away the magic of the place. We recommend you visit as early as possible to avoid the big crowds. 

Also, along the road from the parking lot to the entrance, you will see vendors offering to take a picture of yourself posing with a “wild” animal. Please say NO to this unethical practice.  This way we will help stop the trade of wild animals.


WHAT WE LOVE THE MOST ABOUT TULUM RUINS

It’s indeed a magnificent location and the views on the Caribbean sea are spectacular.


THE HIGHLIGHTS OF TULUM RUINS

The most remarkable thing about Tulum is the hidden murals inside the Temple of the Paintings. They are one of the most important mural representations of the Mayan civilization.
We wish in the ruins of Tulum there was more complete information about these mural paintings.

WHAT YOU CAN VISIT NEARBY TULUM

  • Mystica museum – right at the parking lot you will find a brand new museum called Mystica – it’s a photography tribute to the Mayan world and the natural beauty of this region, through video sounds and stunning images. 
  • Caleta Tankah 13.5 km/ 8 miles
  • Cenote Cristal y Escondido 13.5 km/ 8 miles
  • Cenote Corazón 14 km/ 8.6 miles
  • Grand Cenote 22 km/ 13.6 miles