Tulum is a Maya site in Mexico’s Quintana Roo region dating back to between the 13th and 16th centuries. Famous for its beautiful clifftop location above the Caribbean sea, it remains one of Mexico’s most visited sites.
History of Tulum
One of the last cities built by the Maya, Tulum faces east, looking over the Caribbean sea: it makes for a spectacular sunrise spot. Believed to have been at its peak between the 13th and 15th centuries, Tulum was quite a thriving walled city in its heyday, although its permanent population remained relatively small. Access to both land and sea trade routes ensured prosperity – large quantities of obsidian and jade found stand as testament to this fact – and the city was also walled, which helped prevent attacks and invasions. Tulum literally means fence/wall/trench in Yucatan Maya, so the site was aptly named.
The arrival of the Spanish did not immediately effect Tulum: the city continued on until the late 16th century. However diseases brought by the Spanish ravaged the native population and the city was abandoned by the early 17th century, and left to ruin.
Frederick Catherwood and John Lloyd Stephens wrote about Tulum in their 1843 book Incidents of Travel in Yucatan. Excavation work began properly in the early 19th century, and underwater excavations continue to this day.
Tulum gets busy – it’s popular with tourists, and you’ll often find day trippers here from bigger hubs along the Riviera Maya, as well as cruise ship passengers on outings. If you’re staying in town, go early or late to avoid the worst of the crowds. It’s hot in the Yucatan (although you might get a nice breeze), and there’s little shade on site, so pack suncream, water and a hat!
You can swim at the beach next to the ruins, and all along the coastline so it’s worth bringing swimwear and potentially a towel if you fancy a dip.
The site itself is remarkably well preserved given its location, and is relatively compact.
1. Temple of the Frescoes
One of Tulum’s more impressive buildings, the Temple of the Frescoes was used as an observatory primarily. There are murals inside, and the facade is decorated with images of the so-called Maya ‘diving god’, whom its believed the whole city of Tulum was dedicated to.
2. El Castillo
Standing at 7.5m tall, the Castillo was a multipurpose building, constructed in layers. There would have been a small shrine, perhaps used as a kind of lighthouse or homing beacon for canoes, and it stands on a break in the reef. Look out for the serpent motifs carved into the lintels.
Getting to Tulum
The ruins of Tulum are a short distance from the town itself: many people hire bikes (it’s an easy cycle over to them), otherwise there’s an assortment of colectivos, taxis, buses and motorcycles who will get you out there cheaply. The town of Tulum itself is about 2 hours south of Cancun, and is well served by public transport.
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