There is something different about Tulum. Many of the major cities in the Yucatan peninsula are a balanced mixture between tourism and normal life. But, Tulum has a very specific vibe about it.
The city has a very distinct “arty” and hippie-like feel to it. Running into locals and travelers with dread-locks and tie-die shirts is not uncommon. That is, of course, if you stay away from major hotel chains or beach resorts.
There are plenty of little restaurants and pubs to choose from. And a variety of interesting little stores all across town.
One thing that I love about Mexico in general, is its Oxxo stores scattered all around. They are open 24/7 and if you need a cup of coffee on the run, this is the place to go. On my first visit to Tulum, we got our morning coffee, sat on the steps waiting for a collectivo to take us to the archaeological site, and watched the taxi drivers having their morning catch-up sessions.
You can arrange for day tours to Tulum, or get there by yourself. It’s about a 40 minute bus ride from Playa del Carmen, or just under 2 hours from Cancun.
You can also take a collectivo, but they are not as visible as taxis or bus stations, so you’ll have to ask around a bit to find them. Collectivo’s are mini-busses crammed full of customers and they don’t have any space for luggage.
So, why choose a collectivo? They are super cheap and get there fast. If you’re only carrying a small backpack and have less travel time to get to the places you want to go, they are totally worthwhile.
You can also travel by taxi, but they tend to be much more expensive. Taxi drivers in Mexico are extremely competitive, so always take the taxi at the front of the line, or flag one down on quieter streets. And, remember to ask for the price before getting into the taxi. I typically don’t use taxis for long-distance travel.
I usually prefer traveling by ADO bus, as it’s reliable, runs on a tight schedule, is comfortable, and affordable.
Where to Stay when Visiting Tulum
The first time I visited Tulum, we didn’t book any accommodation in advance and just walked through the streets, knocking on every door until we found a place to stay. I wouldn’t recommend not booking a room. It is a very popular destination and the hotels, hostels and other accommodation have around 90% occupancy all year round.
The second time, I took my parents to Tulum and booked our stay at Cabanas “La Alborada” around 20km out of town. Not the best move I’ve ever made. There is no public transportation and calling a taxi to pick you up could be quite expensive.
So, where should you stay? If you’re traveling by bus, there are quite a few decent accommodation choices within walking distance from the station. If you book a place further out, you will need to take a taxi to get there or rent a car.
Check out some great deals on Tulum city accommodation here:
Tulum Archaeological Site
To get to the site, you can take a taxi, collectivo, or rent a bicycle. Your transportation will drop you at the entrance of the archaeological site, but from there, you will still need to walk quite a bit to get to the ticketing office.
If you choose, you can rent a guide at the ticketing office. They will show you around and explain the site’s history. If you want a more relaxed visit, do some research before visiting, or buy a guide book at the ticketing office.
Also, make sure that you use the bathroom before entering the site as there are no facilities inside.
What Makes Tulum Unique?
Tulum is a very different experience from other Mayan sites. What makes it unique, is that the site is built on a cliff next to the Caribbean sea.
It is also surrounded by a thick wall – a sight you won’t see at many other ruins on the peninsula. On the corners of the walls are, what is believed to be watchtowers.
As you enter the site, you walk along a part of this wall and have to pass through one of the wall’s doorways. Once you pass through the doorway, the archaeological site unfolds in front of you.
How Tulum Compares to Other Mayan Sites
This Mayan site doesn’t have your typical large pyramid in the center of the complex. Instead, you find pathways leading through semi-intact buildings.
The ruins have definitely seen better days and a lot of the buildings are degraded. In some places, only the foundations remain.
Some sources may argue that the ruins are in good condition, but I disagree. Compared to the other sites I have visited, I feel that Tulum is less well preserved.
But, that doesn’t mean that it’s not worth visiting. Tulum is situated in a spectacular landscape. The site is far out of the city, quiet, and well-managed. And, of course, it is quite a different experience due to its location. You can’t help but imagine what life must have been like in this coastal Mayan city.
What to See While You’re There
As I mentioned before, you can get a site map at the ticketing office. This will allow you to roam the ruins without a guide. But, it is pretty straight-forward, really. You enter through the wall on the one side. Explore the ruins and read the plaques placed in front of the buildings. To your left is the cliff overlooking the Caribbean sea, and if you walk straight ahead, you will eventually come to the exit.
Tulum is an open plane with large walkways. There are hundreds of visitors every day, but you never really feel crowded.
Sure, there are some spots that attract more attention, but if you’re not in a hurry, you will get to enjoy the view without much distraction. Many people tend to rush through the ruins, so they won’t hang around for too long.
Temple of the Frescoes
The Temple of the Frescoes has two floors. On the ground level, there are four columns leading to two inside rooms. Unfortunately, you can’t enter the rooms, but apparently, the inner walls are painted with murals. The second floor has only a single, small room decorated with red handprints.
The front facade of the building is decorated with three niches. The center niche holds a carving of the descending god and the side two, standing figures. The outside corners of the building are also decorated with really interesting detailed carvings of masks.
Temple of the Descending God
The Temple of the Descending god got its name from the carving of an upside-down figure on the front face of the building. You can, however, also find the same figure on the Temple of the frescoes and El Castillo.
It is clear that the figure of the Descending god must have held some significance for the Mayan culture. What the figure actually represented and why it was so important is however, still under debate.
Besides the chance to walk through these ancient ruins, there is one more thing that makes visiting Tulum completely worthwhile. You can actually access the beach from the site and enjoy a swim in the warm turquoise waters of the Caribbean sea.
The beach at Tulum is definitely a unique experience. On the one side, is only a clear blue ocean, and on the other, you can see the ruins peeking at you over the cliff.
Situated right on the cliff overlooking the beach and Caribbean sea, is El Castillo. Due to its prime location, this building is by far the most photographed structure of the Tulum site.
El Castillo is the only structure of the Tulum archaeological site that can be seen from the beach. The building served as a lighthouse or marker for fishermen and sailors – helping to guide their boats on a safe passage through the sea’s coral reef.
Interesting Facts About Tulum
The Tulum site was one of the last cities ever to be built by the Maya people. It survived for about 70 years after the Spanish invasion.
The name “Tulum” means “wall” or “trench”. An interesting fact considering that Tulum is surrounded on three sides by a wall and stands on a cliff bordering the Caribbean sea. Tulum’s location made it an important site for the fishing and trading industry, which also explains the thick walls and watchtowers around the city.
Tulum would have been one of the most important trading cities of the Maya people as it has access to both the ocean and land-based trading routes.
And finally… There are also rumors that Tulum may have been called “Zama” – meaning “City of the Dawn”. A plausible concept, seeing as it is on the east coast of the peninsula where the sun rises.
Important tips when visiting Tulum Archaeological Site
Tulum is very humid and hot, so I would highly recommend that you wear sunscreen and maybe even a hat. If you plan on swimming, you should wear your swimsuit before entering the site. The only available bathrooms are at the entrance, so there’s no chance to change once you enter through the gates. You will be walking a lot while exploring, so comfortable shoes are a must.
You should always carry your own water. It is very hot and buying drinks from vendors outside of the site, could be expensive. You will not find any restaurants on or close to the site, and what you find, is more expensive, so take along some snacks.
If you prefer the comfort and peace of mind of a guided tour, take a look at the deals below:
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Have you ever visited Tulum? What was your experience? I would love to hear your stories, so feel free to comment.