You’ve probably heard of the Mayan ruins of Tulum.
Perhaps you’ve even seen travel photos of Tulum’s iconic Temple of the Wind?
Mexico is like our second home because we travel there so often, and we’ve explored Tulum several times. Here’s our guide to these impressive ruins, along with some history about the site and useful tips for visiting them.
Mayan ruins of Tulum: Introduction
Tulum means “walled city.” (Its original name was “Zama,” which means sunrise.)
And the Mayan founders of Tulum sure knew how to pick their real estate for their prized city!
Poised atop a 39-foot rugged limestone cliff, Tulum overlooks the turquoise Caribbean Sea – it’s the only Mayan city ever built by the sea.
Located in the Yucatan Peninsula, about 81 miles south of Cancun (40 miles south of Playa del Carmen), Tulum is hauntingly beautiful.
Yes, Chichen Itza (one of the other top Mayan sites in Mexico) is grander.
But the Mayan ruins at Tulum have their own heart-tugging appeal.
For one, the ocean views are staggering.
And steep stairs lead a long way down to one of the most beautiful beaches you’ll ever see, with the whitest sand, where, yes, you can swim.
So there’s a reason Tulum is one of the three most popular archaeological sites in Mexico to visit (after Chichen Itza and Teotihuacan)!
Really, exploring Tulum and learning about the history of the Mayan people who lived here is one of the best things to do in Mexico.
With that intro out of the way, let’s learn about and tour these ancient ruins in detail.
Tulum ruins history
The Mayans started building the city around 580 A.D., during the Classic Period. (The Classic Period or “golden age” of the Maya civilization was between 250 A.D. to 900 A.D.)
Tulum was constructed as a city fortress, with limestone walls (up to 16 feet high and 26 feet thick) on three sides and the fourth side open to the Caribbean Sea.
On one private tour of Tulum, our guide explained that only royalty and the higher classes (about 300 people) lived within the city walls, in limestone houses.
The ordinary folk (some 20,000 Mayans) lived in thatched huts outside the walls.
Tulum was also a trading port for the Mayan world. Cacao beans, corn, copper, turquoise, jade, salt, gold and textiles were all traded here.
As Tulum was built opposite a channel cutting through the Palancar Reef (the second largest coral reef in the world), the Mayans could trade by sea – paddling their canoes through the channel when transporting trade goods in and out of the city.
Tulum reached the height of its glory between 1200 to 1500 A.D.
But after the Spanish arrived, the diseases they brought with them decimated the local population, and the Mayan city of Tulum was completely abandoned by the end of the 16th century.
Exploring the Tulum ruins today
The present archaeological site is a far cry from the crumbling Tulum ruins we first traipsed about years ago.
It’s been extensively restored since.
Now gravel paths, lined by coral rocks, wind through manicured lawns. The monuments and buildings, many restored, are roped off.
No more climbing up or trying to peek inside – preservation comes first!
Here and there, a few trees also provide some shade, where you and fellow pink-skinned visitors may huddle around your tour guide (recommended, to fully appreciate this fascinating cultural marvel).
But apart from these shady patches, the site is open to the blazing sun.
No wonder the iguanas love it!
There’s a parking lot with shopping stalls too at the entrance.
You can even take a little open-air train from the parking lot to the ruins! (Or, like us, you can just walk the relatively short distance).
All of this means that the Mayan ruins of Tulum are much easier to navigate today.
And with English signboards, you can even understand what you’re seeing without having to refer to your dog-eared Moon travel guide on Tulum :-).
We admit, though, that we missed the haunting wildness of the lonely ruins we experienced years ago (a little, anyway). Then, we felt like true explorers who had just stumbled upon mysterious ancient structures in a jungle clearing.
But of course, with better accessibility comes a much better understanding of the ancient Mayan culture…
Main Tulum pyramids and important structures
Pyramid el Castillo:
The Castillo (or castle) is the building that really gets you gawking.
Tulum’s main pyramid, it’s the largest structure (25 feet high) and the one closest to the sea. When Catherwood and Stephens arrived by sea, El Castillo is probably the building they first saw.
Temple of the Frescoes:
The Templo de los Frescos (Temple of the Frescoes or Paintings) is also noteworthy.
You can’t enter the inner temple to see the colored decorative murals inside (visitors are no longer allowed in).
But on the outside walls on our most recent visit, we could make out stucco reliefs of the “Descending God” (the main god honored at Tulum), shown as an upside-down figure.
And looking closely, we also saw distinct red-colored handprints, original Mayan drawings, on the upper level.
Temple of the Descending God:
The Temple of the Descending God is a small one-room building, with a relief of the falling upside-down male god above the door. It’s found to the left of El Castillo, as you face the sea.
No one really knows what the Descending God or Diving God represents.
One theory is that he’s the god of rain, descending head-first from the heavens, bringing welcome rain for agricultural fields.
Another theory is that he’s the Maya god of bees, called Ah Muu Zen Caab. Yes, bees!
Stingless bees were considered a link to the spirit world, and Maya priests harvested honey in religious ceremonies. Bees also played an important role in Tulum’s trade; honey, candles, wax seals and other bee by-products were all coveted trade items.
Temple of the Wind (Temple of the God of the Wind):
Because of its prime perch above the turquoise sea, the Temple of the Wind is one of the most photographed buildings in Tulum.
It’s part of the Kukulkan Group (found a little north of El Castillo), which are considered minor structures.
Standing alone on the edge of the cliff, this particular Tulum temple has a round base (offering less resistance to the wind).
And get this. A specially designed hole at the top of the temple makes a loud whistle when high winds blow. It’s said it was an early hurricane and storm warning, and the Mayas would seek shelter inland when they heard the whistle sound.
Recommended reading: Cool off after your Tulum visit with a refreshing dip in one of the Riviera Maya’s cenotes!
Tips for visiting the Tulum ruins
Getting to the Mayan ruins:
From the parking lot at the archaeological site entrance, you have to walk about a third of a mile (no more than a 10-minute walk) to reach the ticket booth.
Or you can hop on the tram that shuttles back and forth all day (20 pesos).
Beware the sun!
It’s hot and humid year-round at this ancient Mayan city, and the sun is intense.
Bring water, and wear sun screen, a wide-brimmed hat and comfy walking shoes or sandals (flip-flops not recommended).
There are no biffies or change rooms at the ruins. So if you plan to swim at the beach, you’ll probably want to wear your bathing suit under your clothes.
Two hours for your visit (sans swim) is plenty to take in the site. You’ll be looking to retreat from the heat after two hours anyway.
Guided Tulum tour:
We recommend going on a guided tour of Tulum. You’ll get so much more from the experience, as your guide can bring the place to life for you.
Here’s a highly-rated all-day tour (12 hours) combining Tulum, Coba (another impressive Mayan archaeological site) and a swim in a cenote. It includes trip transportation from Cancun, Playa del Carmen or elsewhere in the Riviera Maya.
Or see this shorter 5-hour tour of Tulum, with free time at the beach, followed by a cooling swim in a cenote.
Cost and hours
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Photo credits: 3, 5 to 7, 9 to 11 © Janice and George Mucalov, SandInMySuitcase