Perched in a lush green jungle atop the limestone cliffs of the Caribbean, the Tulum ruins are a spectacular must-see site when visiting Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.
This is the only Mayan city built along the Riviera Maya coastline on the Yucatan Peninsula. It’s also among a few other post-classic Mexican settlements that were protected by a wall.
Want to knock these ruins off your bucket list? Here are some essential tips on how to enjoy their rich history and gorgeous views without missing out on anything.
Where are the Tulum Ruins?
The Tulum Mexico Ruins are located in Riviera Maya in the state of Quintana Roo. They are about 100 miles (62.2 kilometers) south of Playa del Carmen (30-40 mins drive) and 80 miles from Cancun. I’ve driven a rental car twice from Cancun to Tulum ruins and it took me roughly 1 hour 10 mins.
Tulum is a bustling tourist destination, so don’t be surprised if you meet people from all over the world here.
History of the Tulum Ruins
Archaeologists believe that the Tulum Mexico Mayan ruins were first inhabited around A.D 564, reaching its most popular point around 1200 and 1521 AD when civilization was at its peak.
It’s interesting to note that Tulum isn’t the original name for this city. It was named so by two European explorers; John Lloyd Stephens and Frederic Catherwood, way back in 1848.
In native Yucatec language, the word Tulum means a “wall” or a “fence.” Either way, it’s easy to see where the explorers derived the name of this city from. The original wall was 400m long, 170m wide, and 3 to 5 meters high.
The Mayans called it Zama
During its existence, researchers suggest that this city was called Zama (pronounced zam-MAH), another Yucatan word that translates to “city of the dawning sun.” There is no solid evidence for this name, however, it makes a lot of sense since this city faced the rising sun and was, therefore, among the first places to receive sunlight in the vast Maya kingdom.
So, who built Tulum?
It’s commonly assumed that as Tulum is a major city in the Maya kingdom, it was constructed by the Mayans, and after visiting myself, I can see why. However, if you have a keen eye for detail, you’ll soon realize that the buildings in Zama don’t only display Mayan characteristics, they also display a mix of different architectural designs too. Researchers suggest that there were a number of different inhabitants over this town’s 7 centuries of existence who either brought with them new designs or built onto the existing ones, thereby transforming Tulum into what it is today.
What ruined Tulum?
Archaeologists suggest that the Spaniards wiped out the Mayan population by introducing Old World diseases. However, even after the conquest, it was not until 70 years later that the settlements were completely abandoned.
Tulum was one of the last cities that the Maya built and inhabited. This could explain why they have been able to retain their charm several centuries down the line. They are also among the best-preserved ruins in Mexico.
Important Historical Spots to See in Tulum
El Castillo (the Castle) is a must! Not only is it the tallest building at the ruins but the most prominent one too. Plus, the location near the sea offers incredible views of the coast. However, for the Mayans, El Castillo is believed to have been used as a lighthouse to guide merchant boat captains as they sailed through the bay at dusk. It’s thought that if the captains could see daylight through the two windows of this building, they wouldn’t hit the reef beneath the water.
Temple of the Descending God
This intricately designed structure is one of the most beautiful buildings in Tulum, located in the eastern part of the city on the left-hand side of the El Castillo. It is believed to have been built to honor a strange Venus deity known as the Mayan bee deity Ah Macehcabob or Xuk Ek. The temple has a sculpture of a figure falling from the sky with his legs up and hands pointed downwards.
Temple of the Frescoes
Directly in front of El Castillo, the Temple of the Frescoes is one of the best-preserved and the most spectacular buildings at the Tulum Ruins. This is a two-story structure that the Mayans used to track the movements of the sun. What you’ll find so interesting here are the remains of stucco paintings still in their original colors. You’ll find stones of black, green, yellow, and red in the backroom of the first floor.
Templo de la Serie Inicial (Temple of the Initial Series)
This building is located south of the El Castillo and although not much is known about it, the Templo de la Serie Inicial remains an imposing structure among archaeologists. This is where John Lloyd Stevens discovered the Tulum Stella 1– a popular limestone pillar that dates back to 564 AD and can now be found in London’s British Museum.
The Kukulcan group
This is a group of small buildings located north of El Castillo. The most outstanding structure in this group is the Templo del Dios del Viento, a temple with a circular base, traditionally dedicated to Quetzalcoatl or Ehecatl- the god of the winds.
The House of the Columns
The 6 columns of this L-shaped building make it very easy for you to understand where it derived its name. It’s also called El Palacio (the Palace) as it’s believed to have housed the Mayan leaders. Although the weather has taken a significant toll on this building, its ruins are still very impressive and imposing today.
Swimming at Tulum’s Secret Beach
The Mayans knew exactly where to build Tulum. Actually, this was the only ancient city that was built along the coast. Its secluded beach is what makes it so special in my opinion, and the reason why you should visit this place at least once in your lifetime.
For most tourists, relaxing on the stunningly clean, white sandy beach right below the El Castillo creates the perfect climax after milling around the ruins, so double-check to ensure that you’ve packed your swimwear! A view of the fortress from the water also sparks the imagination of how Zama city looked close to 1000 years ago.
You can access Tulum ruins beach via a wooden staircase. The beach is open from 10 AM, and it’s relatively empty until 11 AM. I’d recommend going there as early as possible as it gets overcrowded.
Best Time to Visit Mayan Ruins near Tulum
The opening hours for Tulum Ruins are 8 AM to 5:00 PM every day from Monday through Sunday. Keep in mind, though, that this is one of the most popular attractions in the Yucatan Peninsula. On its busiest days, this site receives close to 2,000 visitors daily, which makes the visits super hectic.
Do yourself a favor and be among the first people to enter in the morning if you don’t want to elbow your way through the masses. Alternatively, you can wait and visit the site in the evening when the crowds have subsided. Note that the latest you can go through the gates is 4:30 PM.
How much does it cost to enter Tulum Ruins?
Tulum ruins admission is 60 pesos (~ 3-4 USD). If you wish, you can hire a guide to take you around the ruins for around 600 pesos (~ 30 USD).
I think visiting Tulum ruins without a tour guide is also possible since each site has an English and Spanish sign to help you understand what you are seeing. In fact, compared to other Mexican sites, I would say Tulum ruins has among the best board signage systems, which is great for visitors traveling on a budget.
If you plan to drive yourself to the site, you’ll need to leave your car at the shopping center’s parking lot which is walking distance from the main entrance. The car parking fee will be another 120 pesos (~ 6 USD).
From the parking lot, you can choose to walk to the ruins entrance, which will take you 10-15 minutes. For those who’d like to preserve that energy for swimming, there is a folkloric train to take you from the highway to the gates for another 20 pesos (~ 1 USD).
Of course, there’s no way you are going to leave your camera on this trip. That will be an extra 30 pesos (~ 1.6 USD)!
How to Get to Tulum Ruins
From Selina Tulum to the Ruins
The trick to avoiding the wave of tourists that overcrowd Tulum ruins is by getting at the entrance as early as 8 AM. In that case, I would recommend spending the night at Selina Los Lirios, which is only 7.2 kilometers away (around a 20-minute drive). Selina offers beachfront accommodation with pretty much all the amenities you’d ask for, from free self-parking to free Wi-Fi, food, and drinks.
There are endless options to get to the ruins from Tulum;
Check a tour– in my opinion, this is a hassle-free option, especially if you want to tour several of the Mayan ruins near Tulum. The cost will depend on the sites and activities included in the package but expect to part with at least 850 pesos (~ 45 USD). The best part about a tour is that you’ll be picked right where you are at the hotel zone to the site and back.
Take a taxi– a taxi ride from anywhere around Tulum town to the ruins will cost you about 70 pesos (~ 4 USD). These taxis are also readily available to take you from the ruins to Tulum town.
Take a collectivo– this is by far the cheapest means and therefore, the best if you want to save on your trip. Collectivos drive by at any time and will pick you anywhere along the main highway. They charge around 20 pesos (~ 1 USD) from Tulum town to Tulum ruins intersection. From the intersection, the entrance to the ruins is about 800 meters. You can either walk or take a tram for another 20 pesos (~ 1 USD).
Rent a bike– if you wish to add a little bit of excitement to your trip, why not rent a bike? This is a common way of getting around the Mayan Ruins of Tulum Cozumel Mexico, plus, there are lots of bike rental shops in Tulum town and along the main highway. Prices are around the same everywhere, 90-150 pesos (~ 5-8 USD) per day.
From Playa del Carmen to Tulum Ruins
Take a bus- if you are traveling to Tulum ruins from Playa del Carmen with a lot of luggage, say 2 or more bags, the ADO bus will be your best bet. These buses make the trip much more comfortable since they have air conditioning and entertainment options.
The ADO bus terminal is located on 5th Avenue and Benito Juarez. The buses depart every 30 minutes from 7:20 AM to 12:30 PM every day and charge about 70 pesos (~ 4 USD) each way. Note that the bus may or may not drop you at the intersection of the ruins. In case the latter happens, you want to be ready to take a collectivo or taxi from Tulum town to the ruins.
Again, you can buy a roundtrip ADO bus ticket, but I would not do it unless I’m sure to stick to its schedule.
Grab a collectivo– at 40 pesos (~ 2 USD) per person, collectivos from Playa del Carmen to Tulum ruins offer a cheaper option compared to ADO bus. What’s more, there’s a guarantee that you’ll be dropped on the intersection to the ruins. At Carmen, you’ll find a bunch of collectivos hanging around Calle 2 between 15th Avenue and 20th Avenue.
Take a tour– if you are anything like me and prefer the convenience of having all the logistics done for you, booking a tour from Playa del Carmen to Tulum ruins is a great option for you. A 10-hour round trip with Selina starts from 1200 pesos (~ 64 USD). This price covers your insurance cover, Tulum ruins entrance fee, a stopover at the Gran cenote, buffet lunch at a local restaurant, and an exploration of the Coba village ruins. Click here to view tour details and reservations.
Taxi– taxis from Playa del Carmen to Tulum charge around 650 pesos (~ 35 USD) and take 45-58 minutes. The cost is going to be significantly higher than taking a collectivo. However, since they charge by the ride (not per person), the price won’t be so bad if you are traveling as a group.
Taxis are almost everywhere at Playa del Carmen, and pretty much all of them know how to get you to Tulum ruins. You’ll also find these taxis ready to take you right from the ruins to Playa del Carmen. Importantly, be sure where you want to be dropped at Carmen on your return trip.
Traveling from Cancun to Tulum Ruins
Cancun International Airport will be your best option if you plan to travel to the Tulum ruins by plane. This airport is located 118 kilometers away via Playa del Carmel and Akumal. From Cancun, you can;
Take an airport taxi– this is the most convenient option as taxis are available 24/7. The journey to Tulum ruins from Cancun airport takes around an hour and a half and costs around 1700 pesos (~ 90 USD). Taxis offer the convenience of driving you to your hotel or directly to the ruins at Tulum.
Take a bus– you can grab an ADO bus right outside any of the 4 terminals of Cancun airport. Once you’ve collected your baggage and gone through the customs check, head over to the exit doors and turn right. You should see several car rentals and tour booths. The ADO bus booth should be right in front of you too. ADO buses at Cancun airport make multiple departures to Tulum and charge 262 pesos (~ 14 USD). At the time of writing this, they depart at 10:45 AM, 12:05 PM, 2:55 PM, 7:40 PM, and 9:35 PM. Verify the departures at ado.com.
Tulum Ruins vs. Chichen Itza
The ruins at Tulum and Chichen Itza are among the busiest tourist destinations in the Yucatan Peninsula and a must for anyone who is intrigued by mysteries. In my opinion, whether you choose to visit Chichen Itza or Tulum ruins will depend on the following two things:
First, where are you currently staying? If you are in Playa del Carmen, Tulum is less than an hour away while Chichen Itza is a 3 hours drive. From Valladolid, Chichen Itza is closer.
Second, if you want to dig deeper into the history of the Mayans, Tulum is the place to go. Sure, this site is much smaller than Chichen Itza, but the history behind each of its structures and its location goes way beyond that of the pyramids of Chichen Itza. On the other hand, if you’ve ever wanted to ‘Instagram’ one of the Seven Wonders of the World, you need to visit Chichen Itza.
What to wear to Tulum ruins
There’s no dress code for visiting Tulum, but what you wear can make or break your trip. Keep in mind that February, July, August, and November can get very hot. So, as a rule of thumb, wear light-colored and lightweight clothing.
You’ll also need comfortable sneakers and socks since there will be a lot of walking around the site. Most folks also swear by the Tulum ruins beach so how about taking your bathing suit?
What should you pack for Tulum?
Your perfect packing list for Tulum will depend on how long you’ll be staying there and your personal lifestyle. All in all, here are my recommendations of what to pack for Tulum ruins and beach:
• A good amount of 10-20 pesos for tips, change, and fare.
• Bug spray- necessary if going around vegetation.
• Lots of sunscreen (preferably natural)
• Portable bio-friendly detergent for washing clothes. It eliminates the need for over-packing.
• A flashlight with red light, especially if you’ll be walking along the beach at night.
• SPF 45 chapstick for cracked lips.
• Hand sanitizer.
• Printouts of all your vital information, including hotel confirmation, tours, and car rental.
• Spray-in hair detangler if swimming in salty water wreaks havoc on your hair.
5 Important Tips for Visiting Tulum Ruins (Do’s & Don’ts)
Unlike a few years back when Tulum ruins used to be practically empty (relatively), you have to fight your way through the crowds today, especially around noon. Your best chance these days is to arrive right before the gates are opened. Note that even before 8 AM, you’ll very likely find a queue of tourists, but you’ll still have an hour or so to capture Insta-worthy photos before the tour buses troop in.
Buy tickets at the entrance only
Do not buy tickets from the information booths along the road that leads to the gates as they aren’t authentic. Purchase your tickets at the gate only.
Carry gallons of water
Given its location along the Caribbean coastline, the odds are it will be hot and humid during your visit. Also, you are very likely to stay exposed throughout your visit, as there are no shades around the ruins. So, bring loads of drinking water to stay hydrated.
Bring pesos (lots of it!)
You’ll want pesos for almost everything, from taxi fares to meals. Ensure you get enough of these either at the bank or ATM before heading to the ruins and beaches. Although some taxi drivers and locals will take or even exchange dollars, be ready to get ripped off big time.
Respect the wildlife and local flora
While visiting the Tulum ruins and its beaches, you’ll likely spot different exotic wild animals and plants. As tempting as they may be, avoid touching the animals or plucking the flowers.
Other Mexican/Mayan Ruins near Tulum
The Yucatan Peninsula is home to a host of ancient Mayan cities waiting for you to discover them. Besides Tulum ruins, here is a list of other ruins near Tulum worth adding to your bucket list;
• Chichen Itza
• Xel Ha
• Muyil Ruins
• Ek Balam
Can you climb the ruins in Tulum?
Some time ago, visitors were allowed to climb the structures in Tulum as much as they wanted. However, as these ruins continue to attract thousands of visitors every day, pretty much all of them have been roped off.
How far are the ruins from Tulum center?
The ruins are approximately 4.1 kilometers (2.5 miles) from Tulum town center.
How long does it take to see Tulum ruins?
It takes 30-45 minutes to go through the Tulum ruins. If you want to spice up your visit by diving, swimming, and snorkeling in the azure waters of the Caribbean, I recommend setting aside at least 2 hours.
Can you swim at Tulum Ruins?
Yes, you can. Actually, the admission fees at Tulum are usually inclusive of swimming or just relaxing at the beach.
What is the distance from Puerto Morelos to Tulum ruins?
Puerto Morelos to Tulum ruins is approximately 95 kilometers (59 miles) via Cancun and Akumal on highway 307. A direct drive between the 2 towns takes around 1 hour 15 minutes.
How long does it take to move from Grand Bahia Principe Coba to Tulum ruins?
Grand Bahia Principe Coba is around 24 kilometers (14.9 miles) north of Tulum or 20-24 minutes drive.
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