Tulum Guide, Maya Riviera,  Mexico

Tulum El Castillo, Maya Riviera, Mexico

Tulum’s El Castillo, part of an ancient Maya city-state and narrow but beautiful Mayan Beach, seen from the Caribbean Sea. Photo by Jim.

Visiting Tulum beaches and Maya site, Maya Riviera, Mexico

What was Tulum?

An iguana admiring a building in Tulum, Maya Riviera, Mexico

A small, oddly-shaped traveler pondering the ruins. Photo by Jim.

This small but important port city on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula was probably the last and best-protected of all Maya settlements with steep cliffs onto the Caribbean Sea on one side and walls up to 16 ft high (5 meters) and 26 ft thick (8 m) on the three other sides, watch towers on corner points and five narrow gateways in the wall.
Tulum’s population at the peak of its power between the 13th and 15th centuries is thought to have been about 1, 500 inhabitants.
The port’s main purpose was as a trading post on behalf of other Maya settlements such as Coba, 27 miles (44 kms) inland, especially for obsidian stone which was used to make weapons and domestic cutting tools, but it was also a center for worship of the Diving/Descending god.
Tulum continued to function for around 70 years after the Spanish conquistadors arrived in Mexico but was eventually defeated not by advanced weaponry, horsemen or Spanish tactics but diseases introduced by European settlers, with smallpox featuring as Top Gun.

How to see Tulum at its best

Tulum is a compact, easy-to-reach Maya site in pretty good shape and parked uniquely on a spectacular piece of Caribbean coastline, liberally spread with sunbathing iguanas.
However, it’s also not as interesting structurally as several other Maya sites which offer massive pyramids (that you can climb in some cases), intricate bas reliefs, scary sculptures and more variety of buildings.
Tulum is also heavily touristed in a small area as it is so easy to reach from the Maya Riviera’s beach resorts such as Cancun, Playa del Carmen and Cozumel island. In fact this is the third most-visited archaeological site in Mexico after Teotihuacan and Chichen Itza.

For the best possible Tulum experience you need to observe two suggestions: Firstly rent your own wheels or go with a very small tour group that aims to arrive very early (or quite late) in order to avoid the sheeple that graze the site after about 9. 30 am and flock off about 4. 30pm. Secondly you need either a very good guide book to explain all the little oddities and quirky historical interest of the place or hire a guide when you arrive there. One or two hours would be enough for most visitors, though hanging out on the superb adjacent beaches could easily be a full day’s work.

Tulum’s Main Maya Sights

The three most important structures in Tulum are El Castillo, the Temple of the Frescoes and the Temple of the Descending God.

El Castillo, Tulum, Maya Riviera, Mexico

El Castillo. Photo by Dennis Jarvis.

• El Castillo is Tulum’s grandest and tallest building at25 ft tall (7. 5 m). Rebuilt and upgraded several times the lintels in the upper rooms have serpent motifs carved into them while a shrine in one area may have been a point of reference for incoming canoes as it’s aligned with a break in the barrier reef offshore that leads to the only beach access to Tulum’s fortress.

Temple of the Frescoes, Tulum, Maya Riviera, Mexico

Temple of the Frescoes. Photo by Dennis Jarvis.

• The Temple of the Frescoes was an observatory of sorts and contains statues of the Maya ‘diving god’ on the facade in addition to the one on the front of the Temple of the Diving God.

Templo del Dios Descendente, Temple of the Diving God, Tulum, Maya Riviera, Mexico

Templo del Dios Descendente, Temple of the Diving God. Photo by Wolfgang Sauber.

• The Temple of the Diving God is so-called because below that thatch there is a quite dilapidated relief of a person/god upside-down, apparently diving underwater using what looks like the breaststroke.

Tulum beach and Maya temple, Maya Riviera, Mexico

Looking along the entire 500m length of the Tulum’s ancient Maya site past El Castillo to the Templo Dios del Viento (God of Winds Temple). Photo by Dennis Jarvis.

The distant Templo Dios del Viento guards Tulum’s sea entrance where a small, characterful beach was the Maya’s primary dock/landing point for transport canoes/boats. This beach is now closed to tourism and reserved for sea turtle nests.

Best time to visit Tulum

The best season is December – March when high temperatures will hit around 86F (30C), lows around 65F (18C) and rainfall is limited.
The worst time to go there are the months of June, September and October which have average highs of 90F (32C) along with heavy rainfall, high humidity, mosquitoes in maddening numbers, seas are rough, beaches become seaweed dumps and clouds are common.

Other Attractions in the area

Sac Actun cenote near Tulum, Maya Riviera, Mexico

Gran Cenote, one of three connected cenotes at Sac Actun, near Tulum. Photo by Ken Thomas.

2. 5 miles (4kms) from the Maya ruins is Tulum town (pueblo) and a hotel district.

• Various cenotes (natural cave pools of freshwater) with exotic names (Temple of Doom and Carwash for starters) can be found scattered around the Tulum area. These are worth a half day trip for a wander around and a swim in an atmospheric natural pool, tho’ sometimes they’re a bit murky for snorkeling. Great for cooling off tho’.
There are a few of cenotes that offer clear waters and more than a cool dip. Highly recommended is LabnaHa Eco park that is embedded in the jungle, has three stalactite-dangling cenotes filled with crystal clear water and operates various activities other than swimming such as ziplines, kayaking and snorkel tours, but only permits small guided groups in order to control environmental damage. Numbers are limited so book ahead. Labnaha is 6 miles (10kms) north of Tulum.
Other recommended cenotes with clear waters, greenery, maybe with fish and stalactites are Sac Actun and Dos Ojos (scuba too). Photo below.

47 miles (75 kms) south of Tulum is the unspoilt and watery wilderness (Biosphere Reserve) of Sian Ka’an.

Playa Paraiso beach, Tulum, Maya Riviera, Mexico

Playa Paraiso’s powder-white sand and full services just south of the Tulum ruins. Photo by Jim.

The beaches outside the Mayan Ruins stretching south is outstanding, narrow at first under the ruins then widening out to Playa Paraiso as you head south. It’s pay to enter but well worth it and considered by some to be Mexico’s best beach strip. This is in the Tulum Nastional Park so there are no mega-resorts here but you can still rent the essentials: chair, parasol, towels. There is an excellent bar, restaurant and the usual toilets/showers/changing rooms.

Getting to Tulum

Air. Cancun is the best airport option. It’s 77 miles/130kms north straight up Route 307 (1hr 35 mins).

Car. A good option for ducking a diving into beaches, towns, cenotes and so on en route to Tulum.

Buses are good a cheap and plenty will be available.

Approximate drive time to Tulum from:

Cancun 1hr 35 mins

Playa del Carmen 50 mins (64 kms)

Cozumel as Playa del Carmen plus 30 mins ferry time

Chichen Itza 2 hours (152 kms)

Coba 1hr (44 kms)