The Tulum Ruins greatest attraction is its location. Built on a bluff facing the rising sun. this ruin site is the only Maya settlement that overlooks the Caribbean. The views continue to be described as spectacular as millions of people visit this Maya ruin in the Riviera Maya.
In the Yucatec language, Tulum means “Wall”, referring to the large wall that surrounds the settlement. Research suggests it was formerly called Zama, the Maya word for “dawn” an appropriate name given its eastern location. It seems “Tulum” is the name given to site by explorers Stephens and Catherwood in 1841. Stephen and Catherwood visited Tulum just before the beginning of the Caste War in 1847, long after the city was abandon and fell to ruins. Their visit to Tulum is outlined in their famous book “Incidents of Travel in Yucatan”. It is important to note that Juan José Gálvez is actually credited with Tulum’s rediscovery in 1840.
The earliest date found in the site is A.D. 564 , the inscription on a stelae. This places Tulum within the Classic period, though we know that its heyday was much later, 1200 – 1521 A.D., during the Late Post-classic period. Tulum was the primary location for the Maya’s extensive trade network with both maritime and land routes converging here. Artifacts found in or near the site testify confirm contact with Central Mexico and Central America. Archeologists found copper rattles and rings from the Mexican highlands; flint and ceramics from the Yucatán and jade from Guatemala. The first Europeans to see Tulum were probably Juan de Grijalva and his men as they sailed along the Eastern coast of Yucatán in 1518. The Spaniards later returned to conquer the Peninsula unwittingly bringing Old World diseases that destroyed the native population. And so Tulum, like so many cities before it, was abandoned.
When visitors arrive at Tulum’s ancient pre-hispanic site they see the buildings that, in its time, were the city’s main center (ceremonial and political). This city center thought to conduct ceremonial and political activities was protected by the Mayan world’s best known wall. Around this wall were a number of thatched wooden houses but little evidence exists today of these residential homes.
The Castillo, sometimes referred to as the lighthouse, is the tallest building within the Tulum settlement and the most famous. It stands forefront on the bluff, commanding a view of the ocean and coast for miles. The structure underwent several building stages with the lintels of its upper rooms carved with the plumed serpent motif. The rooms themselves are vaulted in classic Mayan style.
On the façade of the Temple of the Descending God is a figure sculpted with its head pointing down, the descending god. Tulum appears to be the center of this God’s cult with more descending god carvings found on other buildings. The interior walls show traces of the original pigments/paints applied by the Maya.
The Temple of the Initial Series façade bears several stucco figures. The stelae that holds the earliest date found in this site, was located in the interior of this building. The Temple of the Frescos is filled with murals that are significantly affected by time and the elements. The Temple shows traces of several building styles.
The House of the Columns is more complex than most structures at the site. It’s a palace-like structure with four rooms whose principal entrance faces South. Six columns support the roof of the main room and top sanctuary.
Located to the North of El Castillo, the Kukulcán Group, is identified by the minor structures grouped in this area. The most outstanding structure in this group is the Templo del Dios del Viento (Temple of the God of the Wind), named after its round base. Traditionally the God of the Wind, Ehécatl from Central Mexico was related to Kukulcán.
With the exception of the eastern area overlooking the sea, Tulum is completely surrounded by a low wall. Two watchtowers are located on the west facing wall that also hold religious altars. A tiny cove lies at the foot of the Castillo where trading canoes would slip ashore.
Now used as a place to swim, snorkel and rest, the beach located at the base of the Tulum Ruins was an important part of the Tulum settlement. This area is where Mayan ships, dedicated to trade around the Yucatan Peninsula, docked.
Being Quintana Roo’s most known and advertised site, Tulum is a not to be missed archeological site. The access fee is $35~40 pesos (video cameras an extra $30 pesos) and is open from 8am to 5 pm, everyday. Park the your car at the shopping center’s parking lot (an extra $30 peso fee) when arriving through the main ruins entrance.
The 1 km journey between the parking lot and the site’s entrance can walkied or if you are looking to avoid the tropical heat, a small family-run tram will run you to the entrance. Cost for the tram is only $10 pesos.
Note: most tour buses arrive at 11 am so consider planning your tour either before or after this time to enjoy the Tulum ruins without the crowds.
The ancient Maya ruin of Tulum is a 2 hour drive from Cancun (130 km). There is easy access via Federal Highway 307 from Cancun to Tulum. Local bus lines offer regular service between Riviera Maya cities and town to the highway entrance of the Tulum site. There is a registered guides association offering services at the ruins site, a service well worth the fee if you want to learn more about the significance and history of this Mayan ruin.