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A Great Intro to Mayan Grandeur

The Mayan ruins of Tulum, only an hour from Playa del Carmen, undoubtedly has one of the most breathtaking settings of any city past or present. The only significant large scale Mayan ruin on the coast, it is perched on a cliff overlooking the Caribbean Sea.

The History of Tulum

The city of Tulum was at its height during the 13th-15th century, and is thus one of the later Mayan outposts. It flourished during the 14th century and was still inhabited when the Spanish arrived in the early 16th century. Tulum was an important trading post for the Post classic Mayans. There is a beach where merchants could come ashore with their canoes. The highest building, El Castillo, was also a lighthouse to make navigation easier. When two torches aligned, it showed the way through the reef. During the Post classic period, the Maya started to use large seagoing canoes. The canoes were 40-50 feet long and hewn from mahogany or other tropical hardwoods. These canoes revolutionized trading in the Mundo Maya. Prior to the advent of this practice, they could only move what could be carried on a person's shoulders. The Maya didn't use wagons or beasts of burden, simply because their were no suitable big mammals in the area. Their trading voyages ranged from trips to the Gulf of Mexico, the coast of the Yucatán peninsula, and extending all the way to what is today Honduras. There is even evidence that they went as far as Costa Rica and Panama.

In 1518, an expedition lead by Juan de Grijalva sailed past Tulum. The captain and crew were amazed by the sight of this walled city, with its buildings painted red, blue and white and with a fire on top of the main temple. Some 75 years after the conquest, Tulum was abandoned, but was still visited over the years by Mayan pilgrims. During the War of the Castes, Indian refugees took shelter here from time to time. Because of its location, Western scientists of the late 19th century became aware of Tulum, and excavations started in the early 20th century.

A Unique Fortress

Apart from its setting, Tulum is also unique for the wall that surrounds the town on three sides. The wall averages seven meters in thickness and is three to five meters high. It incorporates an interior walkway, from which spears and rocks might be thrown. With the ocean on the forth side, Tulum could easily defend itself. This fortress has evoked theories that the inhabitants of Tulum were threatened by other people, for there is much evidence that this was a turbulent time in Mayan history. Power shifted between city-states and it is logical to assume that there was a certain amount of warfare. The architecture of Tulum has a significant Toltec influence, but whether this came about through invasion or friendly interchange is impossible to determine. One theory is that the wall was put up by the ruling class to further distance or maybe even protect themselves from the common people. This theory supports the idea that the Mayan civilization was brought down by peasant revolution.

The Buildings of Tulum

There are about 60 well preserved buildings on the site of Tulum. The most significant of these have plaques with information in English, Spanish and Mayan, so you don't really need a guide book.

The Temple of the Frescoes

One of our favorite buildings in Tulum is the Temple of the Frescoes. As the name implies, there are frescoes with typical Mayan motifs in the interior. Some of the original colors are relatively well preserved. Outside this building there are some statues, also with traces of paint. Carvings cover this interesting little temple. One image you'll see on this building, and throughout Tulum, is the diving god. With his wings and his bird's tail, he's thought to be a symbol of Kukulkan, the feathered serpent god that played a big importance to many Mesoamerican cultures. He is also believed to be the symbol of the Venus morning star, which played an important role here at Tulum. Being the first city of the Mayan World to see the rising sun every day, Tulum is considered the Mayan 'City of the Dawn.' The Temple of the Frescoes is built in three levels, symbolizing the three realms of the Mayan universe - the dark underworld of the dead, the middle level of the living and finally heaven, where the gods lived.

El Castillo

The most outstanding building of Tulum is the Castle, El Castillo, perched on Tulum's highest cliff. This temple-topped pyramid also served as a watchtower and a lighthouse. Like many important structures in the Mayan world, the current building is the result of different stages of additional construction. It began as a palace-like base, the staircase added at a later date and eventually it was crowned by the temple on top. The doorway to the temple has columns in the shape of rattlesnakes, with the tails supporting the roof and their heads adjoining the floor. Due to the rapidly increasing number of tourists to Tulum, El Castillo is now roped-off, and not possible to climb. However, on the other side of the little beach, there's another building on a smaller cliff, which you are allowed to climb. From there you will have a fantastic view over El Castillo and the site in general.


Tulum is located about 50 minutes south of Playa del Carmen. The ruins are north of the town. The highway bends away from the coast here, so the town is actually a few minutes drive from the sea. Tulum's Zona Hotelera, or hotel zone, is reached by turning left at the traffic light before town. Heading to the right are many cenotes, and eventually the ruins of Cobá. The hotel zone leans towards the beach cabaña style, offering everything from simple accommodation options to newer, more costly 'designer' style palapas. The town of Tulum has several restaurants and convenience stores for supplies.

You'll come across the Zona Arqueologica before actually arriving in the town of Tulum. It's well marked and easy to find. There's a gas station at the turn, and a few hotels. Parking, which is cheap, is located immediately inside the main entrance. You'll first come across a tourist complex, where you can still find some authentic pre-columbian artifacts for sale (just kidding) and more-of-the-same style typical souvenirs. There are restrooms here. The actual ruins are about 800 meters from this area, so it's not a long walk. If you'd rather conserve your strength for the ruins, there's a tram that leaves every five minutes. Tickets, about two bucks, are sold at the little stall right where the trams turn around. This is also the place to watch the voladores. It's well worth seeing. Five costumed men recreate a ceremonial ritual first started by the Totonac indians from Veracruz. The flyers begin by climbing the tall pole, then each of four of the men slip a foot into a loop at the end of a rope that is wound around the top of the pole. The fifth team member performs a special dance to each of the four cardinal directions, dancing upon the top of the pole while playing a flute! At the right moment, the four flyers release themselves from the small cap on the pole and fall to earth, circling around the pole in expanding circles as the rope unwinds, eventually touching ground. Don't try this at home. Most people feel impressed enough to provide a donation afterwards. We think this is a good idea.

The entrance to the ruin complex is through a built-up perforation in the wall. Entrance fee is 38 pesos. Kids under 13 get in for free. There's an additional charge of 30 pesos if you want to use a video camera. The ruins are open 8am-5pm every day. There are plenty of guides offering their services for a fee.

Getting There

It's dead easy to get to Tulum. It's right down the highway, about 60 kilometers or 50 minutes south of Playa del Carmen. Choose one of the following options:

Local Bus - leaving from the bus terminal on 5th Avenue and Juarez all the time. It's a 3 dollar trip, one way, to Tulum. Bus packages, including entrance fee, are around 14 dollars per person.

Tour bus package prices vary widely, depending upon what is included. It seems anyone with 2 or more wheels is willing to show you Tulum, so make sure your expectations line up with the tour offerings. Playa.Info offers a very popular tour to Tulum that includes stops at two cenotes, a great lunch on an exclusive Tulum beach, drinks, beer, snacks and plenty of laughs. We start early to avoid the mid-day Tulum crowds and get you home around 5pm.