You’ve probably heard of the Mayan ruins of Tulum. Perhaps you’ve seen travel photos of Tulum’s iconic Temple of the Wind (shown above)?
Beautifully laid out, Tulum may be the most accessible of the ancient Mayan cities you can explore in Mexico’s Riviera Maya.
The Mayan founders of Tulum sure knew how to pick their real estate!
Poised atop a 40-foot rugged limestone cliff, Tulum overlooks the turquoise Caribbean – it’s the only Mayan city ever built by the sea. The views are staggering. And steep stairs lead a long way down to one of the prettiest beaches you’ll ever see, with the whitest sand, where, yes, you can swim.
The Mayan ruins of Tulum are easy to visit now
The present archaeological site is a far cry from the crumbling Mayan ruins of Tulum we 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 guide (recommended, to fully appreciate this fascinating cultural marvel) – but the site is open to the blazing sun apart from these shady patches. 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 here to the ruins! (Or, like us, you can just walk the 1,000-odd feet).
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-earred Lonely Planet :-).
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…
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Most gawk-worthy building?
The Castillo (or castle) is the building that really gets you gawking. It’s Tulum’s largest structure and the one closest to the sea.
The Templo de los Frescos (Temple of the Paintings) is also noteworthy.
We couldn’t enter the inner temple to see the colored decorative murals inside (visitors are no longer allowed in).
But on the outside walls, 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.
Okay, so much for the overall picture.
Now, how about a few nuggets (some pretty offbeat!) about the Mayan ruins of Tulum, and the people who lived there?
Here’s what we learned from our Mayan guide:
7 cool facts about the Mayan ruins of Tulum and the Maya way of life
1. Tulum means “walled city.” (Its original name was “Zama,” which means sunrise.)
2. The Mayans started building the city around 580 A.D. Tulum reached the height of its glory between 1200 to 1500 A.D.
3. Only royalty and the higher classes (about 300 people) lived within the city walls, in limestone houses. Some 20,000 ordinary folk lived in thatched huts outside the walls.
4. The lower-class workers bound and flattened the tops of their babies’ heads for the first six months of life, so as adults, they could better carry baskets on their heads. No kidding! Our guide showed us photographs of ancient skulls with completely flat tops. Ouch…
5. The temple buildings look sand- and grey-colored today, but would have been painted bright blue and red back when Tulum was a thriving city.
6. Jade was the most important stone for the Maya people – it represented eternal life. Black obsidian, which symbolized energy, was also treasured. The ancient royal Mayans drilled holes in their front teeth into which they inserted round pearls of jade and black obsidian as decoration and a status symbol. (We could hardly believe the photos – wonder what our dentist would have thought of this practice?)
7. Tulum was built opposite a channel cutting through the Palancar Reef (the second largest coral reef in the world). The Mayans paddled canoes through the channel when transporting corn and other trade goods in and out of the city.
Practical tips for visiting the Mayan ruins of Tulum
- Beware the sun! It’s hot and humid year-round, 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).
- No facilities: 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.
- Time needed: 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. (Maybe cool off after with a refreshing dip in a cenote?)
- Opening hours: 8:00 am to 5:00 pm
- Cost: The entrance fee is 65 pesos (about the cost of a cappuccino, or $3.50 USD).
- More information: See the Riviera Maya Tourist Board website.
Have you visited the Mayan Tulum ruins? Are you glad you did?
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We’re Janice and George Mucalov, professional award-winning travel writers, sharing tales of luxury travel with a twist of adventure.