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Exploring the Mayan ruins of Tulum: Useful tips + cool facts

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?

Easy to visit and relatively compact in scope, Tulum is one of the best ancient Mayan cities you can explore in Mexico’s Riviera Maya.

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.

The Mayan ruins of Tulum are one of the best archaeological sites in Mexico.
The Mayan ruins in Tulum are one of the best archaeological sites in Mexico

Mayan ruins of Tulum: Introduction

Mayan ruins of Tulum
They may be small, but Tulum’s Mayan ruins are quite exquisite! (Credit: Riviera Maya Tourism)

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.

The ruins of Tulum are perhaps the most beautiful Mayan ruins in Mexico
Because of the sea views, the ruins of Tulum are perhaps the most beautiful Mayan ruins in Mexico

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.

The swimming beach at the Tulum ruins, Mexico
Who doesn’t want to go for a swim at this beach below the ruins?

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.

Some 250 years later, explorers Frederick Catherwood and John Lloyd Stephens discovered the ruins of the ancient city in 1841. They gave it the name of “Tulum.”

Exploring the Tulum ruins today

Entrance gate into Tulum ruins, Mexico
Walking through the entrance gate into the walled city of Tulum

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!

Iguana at Tulum ruins
We saw many iguanas sunning atop temple walls and on the grass

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 :-).

Visiting the Tulum ruins is one of the top things to do in Tulum.
Visiting the Tulum ruins is a highlight of a visit to the Riviera Maya

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:

El Castillo is the main temple in Tulum.
El Castillo is the main temple in Tulum

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 Temple of Frescoes is one of the important structures to see at the Tulum ruins, Mexico.
The Temple of the Frescoes is not the most imposing building, but it’s considered the most important

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).

To preserve the paintings inside the Temple of the Frescoes in Tulum, you can't enter the temple.
To preserve the paintings inside the Temple of the Frescoes, you can’t enter the temple, but you can still snap good photos outside!

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.

See the red handprints on the temple walls? These are original Mayan drawings

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):

So cool! The Temple of the Wind whistles when storm winds blow, warning of approaching hurricanes.
So cool! The Temple of the Wind whistles when storm winds blow, warning of approaching hurricanes

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.

3 Interesting facts about Tulum and the ancient Maya way of life

History buff or not, you’ll dig these three cool nuggets of information we learned from our Mayan guide on our latest Tulum ruins tour:

1) 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…

2) 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.

3) 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?)

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).

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.

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

Tulum ruins, Mexico:

Opening hours: 8:00 am to 5:00 pm

Tulum ruins entrance fee: The entry fee is 65 pesos (about the cost of a cappuccino, or $3.50 USD).

More information: See the Riviera Maya Tourist Board website.

Experience more of Mexico!

Read our posts on:

Colonial Mexico | From Taxco to Queretaro, these are the 11 most beautiful colonial cities in Mexico.

Zihuatanejo | Want a great beach vacay? See the best beaches in Zihuatanejo and Ixtapa.

Mexico City | Spending three days in Mexico City? You’ll want to see this helpful itinerary covering the best museums, attractions and restaurants in the fabulous capital.

Cabo San Lucas | Check out our ultimate Los Cabos travel guide. It’s packed with info on where to play, stay and eat.

San Miguel de Allende | From riding a vintage trolley through fairytale streets to visiting a unique mask museum, there are many wonderful things to do in San Miguel de Allende.


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Visiting the Mayan Ruins of Tulum

Photo credits: 3, 5 to 7, 9 to 11 © Janice and George Mucalov, SandInMySuitcase


About the authors:

Janice and George Mucalov

Luxury travel journalists and SATW, NATJA and TMAC “Best Travel Blog” award winners, Janice and George are the publishers of Sand In My Suitcase. Between them, they’ve traveled to all 7 continents.

Find destination guides, global food-and-wine stories, luxury hotel reviews, articles on cultural explorations and soft adventure trips, cruise reviews and information, insanely useful travel tips and more!

Dominic

Monday 25th of February 2019

Love those ruins. So much history.

Janice and George

Monday 25th of February 2019

They add another cultural dimension to visiting the Riviera Maya, don't they?

Marilyn J Holgate

Monday 12th of February 2018

Thanks for such a wonderful picture and history post. My friend and I visited Tulum in 2011 and I took several pictures there. When I saw your picture showing the red hand prints I decided to see if any of the pictures I took of the Temple of the Frescoes showed that. I got so excited when I saw that my picture also showed them, but not as clearly as yours - I was farther away and hadn't noticed them or I would have zoomed in on them. Thanks again.

Janice and George

Tuesday 13th of February 2018

How fun that you found the red hand prints in your photos too! We had a guide who pointed out the hand prints -- otherwise we likely wouldn't have seen them either. It's easy to miss the details when you're so blown away by looking here, looking there, and taking in the overall picture!

Andy

Wednesday 24th of February 2016

I find it strange to return to sites and experience the inevitability of change, for better or worse. Interesting facts there too guys, I bet they looked quite the sight rowing through the channel carrying corn with flat heads and sparkling teeth!

Janice and George

Thursday 25th of February 2016

Funny! Quite the image there :-).

Hung Thai

Sunday 14th of February 2016

Looks great and the price of admission is, like you said, a cup of coffee. That's ridiculously cheap for what you can enjoy. Hoping to visit this place one day. Thanks for the excellent tips.

Janice and George

Sunday 14th of February 2016

It's a beautiful site - you won't regret visiting!

Frank

Friday 29th of January 2016

The setting looks almost as stunning as the ruins themselves. How things change and become touristy - I can relate when you describe how it used to be. One of the most beautiful memories I have is of visiting the Great Zimbabwe ruins many, many years ago...we had the whole place to ourselves (along with a bunch of monkeys). So rare to have an Indiana Jones experience like that today. Still looks wonderful though and I'd love to see Tulum (as well as Chichen Itza) Frank (bbqboy)