Tulum is having its moment in the spotlight right now. Whether it’s the glorious beach, the carefree vibe or the buzzy yoga crowd, every tanned young millennial visiting Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula is heading straight to the coastal town of Tulum.
It’s easy to see why. The oh-so-instagrammable white sand beaches are in my view the best in the area, particularly as so many hotels along the coastline from Cancun have to make do with man made beaches due to endless hurricanes over the years. The restaurant and bar scene has exploded of late, all shrouded in nature and palm trees and yes, there is an ocean front yoga studio.
But whilst the over 74% increase in tourism might be headed to these hotspots, it’s the 1000 year old Mayan ruins that make it truly special. In fact, the Tulum ruins are the third most-visited archaeological site in Mexico, after Teotihuacan and Chichen Itza. I hope this photo set will convince you why.
Perched high up on the rocky cliffs that overlook those beautiful beaches, the Mayan ruins of Tulum tell a story of an ancient past you can see or understand whilst doing your downward dog during an impressive beachfront sunrise. Once a bustling port town, the ruins that stand there now are extremely well restored and in many ways more interesting than what you’ll find at the more famous Chichen Itza.
Tulum was one of the last cities actually built by the Maya, being more densely populated between the 13th and 15th centuries and managing to survive far longer after Spanish occupation than any others. It is thought that the site may have been known by the name Zama which translates to City of Dawn – a nod to its sunrise facing position. We know that Tulum does mean fence or wall in the Yucatan Mayan language – and Tulum’s own wall gave it protection from invasions, which is possibly why it lasted so long.
It’s location close to both sea and land made it an important location for trade (particularly for obsidian, but for many other things too), and indeed Tulum was a bustling port town that could have been inhabited from as far back as the 1200s. In fact, based on findings in around Tulum, it’s clear that this small port town had contract across the whole of Mexico and Central America – things such as copper, flint, ceramics and incense burners tell that story.
Tulum saw many imports and and exports through its sea and land routes. Exports such as feathers and things made from copper which came from inland, as well as imports of salt and textiles. Things like obsidian came from as far away as Guatemala, nearly 430miles away – which shows its importance to the Central American trade system.
But for me its architecture is what makes it truly special, and whilst there is lots of things to still see on the site, Tulum is best known for three relatively well preserved structures – El Castillo, the Temple of the Frescoes, and the Temple of the Descending God.
If you’ve ever seen any pictures of Tulum before, you’ve probably seen one that includes El Castillo, the most famous part of the Tulum ruins. At 25ft tall and standing at the top of the cliff you can imagine it was easy to see from every angle, for those coming to trade at the port.
The site is pretty compact and easy visit, unlike others you may have seen in Mexico – and despite its importance, its estimated that only around 1,600 inhabitants ever lived here at one time. It was thought to be more of a religious and ceremonial spot as opposed to where people would live, which is not that hard to believe given the fact that two very important temples where built here (and with its walls on three sides it was more life a fortress than anything else).
In fact, the only inhabitants you’ll see now are the huge iguanas that stand guard at the ruins – perhaps they inhabit the Mayan spirit that was lost after the invasion of the Spanish?
If you are planning a visit, there is a small cost of around 65 pesos per person, and you can also pick up some extra guide books at the entrance (although the signage around the ruins is vey good). The site is open from 8 am to 5 pm everyday, and was easy to visit by taxi if you are not staying close to the area.
Please remember that like Chichen Itza, you cannot climb these ruins for their own protection, and you’ll be required to stand back behind the roped off areas – from the pictures you can see that you can still get pretty close! However, if you are looking to climb an ancient Mayan pyramid, you should head to Coba where this is still possible!
Whether you are staying in Tulum itself or further north in Cancun, its well worth making the trip to visit both these beautiful ruins and the incredible coastline that they sit on – just remember to get up early to beat the crowds and the heat. You can always chill out on the perfectly positioned beach after!
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