Tulum Ruins

Last of the Ancient Mayan Strongholds

[history][attraction description][location & directions][where to stay]

Tulum Ruins Overlooking the Sea

photo:Wolfgang Manousek


To start your tour of the Yucatan with the Tulum ruins is really to begin at the end, for it was here at Tulum that the last fires of the ancient Mayan civilization finally went out after burning for more than 3,000 years.

The Tulum ruins, spectaularly perched on a coral cliff overlooking the azure waters of the Caribbean, is classified archeologically as a late Post Classic Mayan site. The area around Tulum was originally settled around 300 B.C. The structures that may be seen today date from the Post Classic era (900 to 1500 AD) and served as a ceremonial center, fortified city and trading port for Mayan merchants traveling up and down the Yucatan's Caribbean shoreline. But Tulum was also an important center of overland trade as well, and artifacts on the site can be traced from as far away as Central Mexico and present day Guatamala and Honduras.

William Catherwood's 1844 Illustration of Tulum


The earliest record of Tulum that we have from western sources is from the 1518 expedition of Juan de Grijalva. In the middle of the 19th century, American explorer and diplomat John Lloyd Stephens and English artist Frederick Catherwood published their classic Incidents of Travel in the Yucatan, which contained many detailed descriptions and illustrations of the site and brought Tulum to the attention of the Victorian intelligencia.

The site was extensively excavated beginning in the early 20th century and now is fully accessible.


Attraction Description

By far the most prominent feature of the Tulum site is "the castle" or El Castillo. Constructed on the edge of a steep cliff overlooking a crescent shaped beach, this pyramid originally housed a small shrine at the top where fires burned to provide a beacon for inbound trading canoes.

The Temple of the Frescoes is a two story colonnaded building decorated with stone carvings of the Mayan "Diving" or Descending God, whose image appears also in the Temple of the Diving God.

The entire site was surrounded by a massive fortified wall with several small gates guarded by structures that may have been watchtowers. These fortifications suggest that for a time in the history of the Tulum settlement, defence was a major concern. This supports the idea, now held by many historians, that the Maya, once thought to be peace-loving, actually lived in a state of almost constant warfare between city-states scattered across the peninsula.



Tulum is located on the Mayan Riviera 80 miles (130 km) south of Cancun on highway 307, the same road which passes through Playa del Carmen.

Playa is a little more than half way and most of the area attractions--Xcaret, Xel-Ha, resort hotels, golf courses, etc.--are between Playa and Tulum.


By Car   Pick up highway 307 from either end of the Hotel Zone and follow it south for 80 miles (130 km). The road is straight, in generally good condition and should be an easy trip most days. You may wish to break the trip in delightful Playa de Carmen which is about 50 miles along your way.

Tour Groups   Any self-respecting concierge will have a pocketful of tours readily available that will pick you up and return you to your hotel. One word of advice: if your goal is to see and really experience Tulum, avoid a tour package which includes side trips to Xcaret and/or Xel-Ha: it's a long day and you're apt to feel rushed. Save these for another day.

Bus   Buses leave regularly from the terminal in downtown Cancun. Bus travel is well organized and generally safe, especially during daylight hours. The trip will take about 2 hours and there will be stops along the way.

And as always when traveling by bus in Mexico, make sure to purchase first class or deluxe tickets. They will cost only a little more but ensure that you have a comfortable seat and air-conditioning.


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