You can’t visit Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula without seeing the Mayan Ruins of Tulum. Here are some useful tips to beat the crowds at this famous archaeological site.
Ah, Tulum. This ancient walled city perched on the edge of a cliff in Quintana Roo overlooking the Caribbean ocean in Mexico is quite a sight to see in person.
Because I based myself in Mexico for 2 years, I’ve seen these ruins at least 5 different times.
Tulum’s original Maya name, Zamá translates as “place of the dawning sun.” This is because it has a perfect view of the rising sun!
The city was a major trading and religious center between the 11th and 16th centuries and is one of the coolest Mayan archaeological sites in Mexico — similar to other popular ruins like Chichen Itza and Coba.
It’s located about 128 km south of Cancun, or 62 km south of Playa del Carmen along the popular Mayan Riviera.
History Of The Tulum Ruins
Tulum was built to be a seaport fortress, with steep ocean cliffs providing protection from the East, and a large limestone wall enclosing the rest of the city on three sides.
The population of Tulum was once 1,600 people, and acted as an important trading center for the Mayan world.
Goods like turquoise, jade, cotton, food, copper bells, axes, and cacao beans were traded here.
Pristine Mayan Archaeological Site
The old stone structures that make up this archaeological site are surrounded by leaning palm trees, delicate cactus flowers, steep rocky cliffs, and a population of large sun-tanning iguanas.
So while the ruins of Tulum can be flooded with tourists during the middle of the day, it’s sometimes possible to find a quiet corner and enjoy Mexico’s natural beauty & fascinating history.
At one time you could climb the pyramids, but that’s no longer the case.
Tulum is quite different from other Mayan sites in that the ruins are situated on 12-meter (39 ft) cliffs overlooking the ocean. It’s very picturesque.
Important Structures In Tulum
El Castillo (the Castle) is Tulum’s main pyramid, and was used as an ancient lighthouse. Two small windows at the top allowed sailors to navigate the bay at dusk.
If merchant boat captains could see daylight through both windows as they sailed in, they wouldn’t crash into the reef hiding just below the water.
The Temple of the Frescoes, located in front of El Castillo, is the best preserved building at the site. Peer inside to see an actual mural with colored paint still intact!
The House of the Columns is a large, complex building with 4 rooms and a series of large columns for holding up the roof.
Each Mayan city was ruled by a halach uinic who served as high-priest. The House of the Halach Uinic in Tulum is also well preserved.
Swimming At Tulum’s Secret Beach
Below the main structure is a secluded beach that you can actually swim at while you’re visiting the site. Make sure to bring your swimsuit!
Swimming under the old ruined fortress, perched on the cliff above you, is a pretty cool experience. The beach can get crowded fast though — again I recommend being there as early as possible (or later before it closes).
The beach opens around 10am, as long as the surf isn’t too strong. When walking down the wooden staircase, keep an eye out for the many iguanas who call these cliffs home.
When To Visit The Ruins Of Tulum
Visiting Mayan ruins in Mexico during the day can be a bit hectic. Especially at Tulum. It’s a very popular attraction in the Yucatan.
During the day, there are hundreds of other tourists milling about.
If you arrive early enough, around 8am, you’ll get a much more “magical” experience. At least for the first hour or two of exploring. Another good time to visit is the hour before they close (normally 5pm).
Set aside at least one hour to visit the ruins, maybe 2 hours if you want to go swimming. It’s not that big compared to some other Maya archaeological sites.
Getting To Tulum
There are technically three “Tulum’s”, so descriptions can get confusing sometimes. There is Tulum Beach, Tulum Town, and the Tulum Ruins. The ruins are about 3km from the city center of Tulum Town.
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It’s easy to follow the 307 Highway straight to the ruins from Cancun (1 hr 45 min) or Playa del Carmen (45 min). Parking costs about 100 pesos ($5 USD).
There are regular ADO buses from Playa del Carmen to Tulum that cost about 80 pesos ($4 USD) one way. Some stop directly at the ruins, others stop at the bus station in Tulum town.
The cheapest way to visit Tulum is to take a colectivo (group taxi) from the colectivo stand located on Calle 2 Norte between Avenida 15 and 20 in Playa del Carmen. It takes about 45 minutes to reach the ruins and costs approximately 60 pesos ($3 USD per person).
Taking a taxi directly from Playa del Carmen to Tulum is going to cost about 600 pesos ($30 USD) one way. If you have a small group of 3-4 people to share, it’s not that bad.
Group Tours Around Tulum
If you’re the type of person who prefers joining a tour, there are group tours that visit Tulum, some of which begin in Cancun.
Where To Stay In Tulum
Tulum is split up into two different areas — the city center, and the beach. The entrance to Tulum Archaeological Site is closest to the city center. However all the beautiful resorts are a 5-10 minute drive away on the beach.
If you’re wondering where to stay in Mexico near the Tulum Ruins, here are my recommendations:
Best Accommodation In Tulum
Tulum Ruins Travel Tips
- Arrive at the ruins 15 minutes before they open at 8am to beat the horde of tourist buses that show up around 10am. Late afternoon can be good too.
- Tulum’s ruins are open Monday through Sunday from 8am to 5pm. Entrance is free on Sundays for Mexican citizens and residents (so it’s PACKED).
- Ignore the ticket/information booths near the parking lot. Simply walk down the road about half a mile until you reach the real entrance, and buy your tickets there.
- Remember to bring your bathing suit if you want to swim or sunbathe on the beach at the base of the cliffs. The beach opens around 10am.
- It costs an extra $4 if you want to shoot video at the site, but if you tell them you’re only taking photos you should be fine.
- The ruins don’t have a ton of shade areas, so a hat, sunglasses, and sunscreen are recommended. It gets HOT!
- Bring plenty of water to stay hydrated! I’m a big fan of this eco-friendly filtered water bottle.
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