Tulum Ruins, the Awe-inspiring Mayan City by the Sea

Most associate Tulum with a party destination. However, it is also a spiritual place where a lot of yoga, wellness or shamanist retreats are done. Those who are looking to connect with the past should visit one of the most beautiful Mayan cities located right at the entrance of the town. Tulum Ruins are one of the most popular tourist attractions in the Riviera Maya.

I went to Tulum Ruins twice: once in 2013 and once in February, 2021. Quintana Roo was the place to escape from the world madness. This area meant freedom during the Covid lockdowns, so it was full of “European refugees”. There were less people the second time I went, but by no means it was as empty as other places I visited during the pandemic. The only downside was that they closed the lovely beach (Playa Bugambiglia) that is right under the ruins, which we bathed-in the first time around.

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How to Visit Tulum Ruins

Tulum Ruins are located on the eastern side of the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. You can visit them even if you are not staying in a hotel in Tulum. Many people take a day tour or drive from Playa del Carmen (45 minutes to an hour) or Cancun (an hour and a half). This road connects some of the most touristic areas of Quintana Roo. You can also go from Playa del Carmen to Tulum Ruins in the colectivo public bus or the ADO bus.

Ruins are open daily from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Arrive early or later in the afternoon if you want to try to avoid crowds (and the sun!) since this popular attraction receives about 2,000 people per day. Entrance fee is very inexpensive. It is free to visit Tulum Ruins on Sunday if you are Mexican or a foreign resident. There are guides on site that can be hired if you want to learn more about the history and are not on a tour to Tulum Ruins.

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January through April is the highest season since it is the drier time of the year and the weather is not as hot. Rainy season is from May through October. However, you can still expect sunshine, but there is more humidity and heat. It is also hurricane season so pay attention to that. Rates for hotels in Tulum and tours are cheaper. November and December may be the best time to visit since it is more quiet, the weather is nice (a bit chilly) and the humidity is lower.

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Tulum Ruins are 2.5 miles (4 kilometers) from Tulum town (Tulum is divided in two areas: town and beach). You can take a taxi or a public bus to reach the ruins. Taxi from the Tulum hotel zones can be quite expensive, so make sure to ask the price before getting in. There is paid parking on site if you rented a car or you can park on the main road for free and walk. Some tourists prefer to ride a bicycle to see Tulum Ruins, but this is not recommended in the summer months.

Make sure you bring appropriate clothes to walk around Tulum Ruins. There are few shaded areas, so you will be exposed to the sun and the elements.

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Loose clothing, preferably in light shades, is your best option. A rain jacket or umbrella is a good idea if visiting during the rainy months. Wear sneakers or comfortable shoes to walk. Hat and sunglasses will help you, as well as biodegradable sunscreen. Take your swimsuit and a towel if the beach is open, as it is worth taking a dip to cool off! Cameras are allowed (you may have to pay for professional equipment or GoPro), but not drones.

Nothing is sold within the Tulum Ruins, unlike Chichen Itza where sellers harass you. So make sure to take water and perhaps some snacks. There are no bathrooms in the ruins, just in the entrance by ticket booth. Restaurants by the Tulum Ruins are insanely overpriced. We wanted to have a drink after our visit, but decided against it when we were told prices.

History of Tulum Ruins

The Mayan city of Tulum was originally called “Zama” (now there is a luxurious residential area called Aldea Zama) which means city of Dawn. This name came from the location of the city which is where the sun rises.

Later the city’s name was changed to “Tulum” in reference to the long wall that was constructed by the Mayans to protect the city from invaders. Mayans thought envious traders and pirates wanted to steal this location. This wall was something very unusual for the Mayans, as they rarely did other walled cities. It was made of limestone and was seven meters thick and about three to five meters in height. The wall covered all three sides of the city and was 784 meters long.

Tulum was built to be a fort. There are many theories about why they built this wall. One theory suggests that only priests and nobility lived within the walls, while peasants lived outside. There are five doorways to enter the city through the wall.

Although there are archeological claims that the area of Tulum was inhabited as early as the 6th century, the ruins we now see were one of the last great cities constructed and inhabited by the Mayans. What we know know as the Ruins of Tulum was founded in the 13th century. It was a very important trading post that connected the city both by sea and by land.

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By the 13th century the bigger Mayan cities, like Chichen Itza, had already been abandoned and people had moved to smaller cities like Tulum. Mayapan also rose to prominence during this era. People from all over Central Mexico and Central America came to Tulum to trade. Obsidian, jade and turquoise were traded here. Tulum served as a port to the larger city of Coba. Its cliff location and reefs allowed ships to approach to a narrow entrance without coming aground.

Tulum was the last great city constructed and inhabited by the Mayan people. It had a relatively small population, between 1,000 to 2,000 people. However, the construction on site was remarkable for so little people.

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This city was still inhabited by the time of the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores in 1518. They considered the city to be as large as Sevilla. Mayans abandoned the city about 70 years after the Spanish occupation, at the end of the 16th century. Spanish brought disease which eliminated most of the population.

This is one of the best preserved Mayan ruins. It was “rediscovered” in the 19th century and repairs started in the 20th century. Thankfully, many of the building remained intact.

What to See in Tulum Ruins

This impressive site is located right on the Caribbean Sea with a height to 12 meters (39 feet) which provides incredible seaside views. Tulum Ruins were an important site to worship the Mayan Diving or Descending God, which was depicted upside down.

El Castillo Ruins

This ruin is probably the most iconic building in Tulum Ruins. El Castillo has a height of 25 feet and was it was originally built as a shrine for incoming trade boats. This would be the first thing they saw to let them know they had arrived safely at Tulum.

The shrine was expanded over time and the entire El Castillo was built next to it, which consists of a temple placed on top of a pyramid. Bright colors, including reds and blues, once covered the facade of this temple and the columns were decorated with serpents.

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Temple of Diving God

This temple is located in the center of Tulum Ruins. Its name comes from the stucco figure of the Mayan Diving God that was found on one of its walls. Some think that this figure and the Mayan God of bees, Ah Muzen Cab, are the same. This small white pyramid has a staircase that leads to the top where the carving is located.

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Temple of Frescoes

Archeological research thinks that this temple was used by the Mayans to track solar movements. On the outer part of the temple there are niches with figures of the Mayan Diving God. The Temple of Frescoes has a lower gallery and an upper gallery on another floor. Inside the structure are beautiful frescos, that show the world of the dead and the living, which give it its current name.

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