A Guide To Visiting Tulum Ruins, Mexico

Tulum Ruins are among the most fascinating Mayan sites in Mexico. Facing the turquoise waters of the Caribbean Sea; inhabited by a large number of peaceful iguanas; and giving direct access to what’s thought to be one of the best beaches in Mexico, this site is literally a must-see whenever in Yucatan.

If you are looking for information on visiting Tulum Ruins, Mexico, I got you covered! I have been there three times (that’s how much I like it!) and used every mode of transportation to get there, and every manner of visiting that is available.

In this post, I will tell you everything you need before visiting the ruins of Tulum, with information on what to see on the site; how to get there from Tulum Pueblo and other places in Yucatan Peninsula, and more. Ready to find out more? Here we go!

Make sure to read my posts Where To Stay In Tulum and The Best Things To Do In Tulum.

Tulum Ruins
Tulum archeological site is beautifully set on the Riviera Maya

What You Must Know Before Visiting Tulum Ruins, Mexico

The history of the Tulum Ruins

The Tulum Ruins are all that is left of a Mayan walled city thought to have been called Zama (meaning “City of Dawn” in the Mayan language). Impressively built upon a cliff overlooking the Caribbean Sea, Zama served as a port for Coba, another ancient Mayan city in the Yucatan Peninsula.

The city saw its heyday between the 13th and 15th centuries, after which Zama impressively was able to survive around 70 years into the Spanish colonization of Mexico (starting from 1519). Sadly, diseases brought by Spanish settlers resulted in high fatality rates throughout the Mayan world, no less at Zama, where the city was eventually abandoned in the late 16th century.

Zama was a fortified city complete with walls and towers, allowing it to be defended against invasions. It was particularly important in that it had access to both land and sea trading routes, and it was especially known for its trade in obsidian.

There have been multiple murals and other inscriptions on early classic stelae (inscribed in 564 AD) found across the ruins. Some of the artifacts here lead anthropologists to believe that Tulum was once an important site for worshipping what is referred to as the Diving or Descending god, depicted upside down and making it look as though it is diving. Another interesting find on the site were the remains of a woman found in a sea cave below the city.

Juan Diaz, a 16th-century conquistador, was the first European to mention the city back in 1518. However, it wasn’t until 1843 that the first detailed description of the ruins were made in a book called “Incidents of Travel in Yucatan” by John Lloyd Stevens and Frederick Catherwood. Since then, work has been done to restore the buildings and open it to visitors.

While most Mayan cities seem to be located in the middle of jungles, the location of Tulum shows that the Mayan civilization had a strong trading network beyond just the land – it was thought to extend all over the rest of Central America too.

With its setting overlooking a popular beach , the ruins have become an icon of the city and a draw for visitors from far and wide. In fact, they’re the third most visited archaeological site in Mexico. Although it’s a relatively compact site when compared to other Mayan ruins, it is actually one of the best preserved of any coastal Mayan structures in Mexico.

things to do in Tulum
On one of my multiple visits of Tulum

Top sights in Tulum Ruins

While the site may be a relatively compact site when it comes to Mayan ruins, there is still significant architecture throughout that you should definitely make a point of stopping by. Here are the highlights:

Tulum’s wall

Though obviously protected on one side by a steep sea cliff, the other parts of the city had to be defended – this was done with a protective stone wall which can still be seen to this day. This massive wall is an amazing 5 meters (16.4 feet) thick and at its highest points is 5 meters tall. It runs for 784 meters (2,572 feet) around the city, following the contours of the land.

The sheer size of the wall must have been no mean feat to accomplish. That shows just how important the site at Tulum was for the Mayan civilization in the region. Watchtowers have also been found along the walls as well as five narrow gateways which show that there were multiple routes to reach the city. However, as with most walled ancient cities, it was the elite that lived safely within the defensive walls while the everyday people lived their lives outside.

Temple of the Frescoes
Tulum’s Temple of the Frescoes

Temple of the Frescoes

The Temple of the Frescoes is one of the most eye-catching buildings at the site. Made up of a lower gallery and a second-story upper gallery, this was actually not a temple back in its heyday, but was in fact an observatory. It was from here that people would track the movement of the sun. The facade of the building features a depiction of the Diving God.

Inside this structure are beautiful murals and frescoes (hence the name given to it today). The lower floor features murals that depict the world of the dead, then in the first gallery are frescoes showing the world of the living, and in the last and highest story are images of the creator deity.

Temple of the Descending God
The well kept Temple of the Descending God

Temple of the Descending God

Close to the impressive El Castillo (which I’ll mention next) is the Temple of the Descending God. Named for the depiction of the upside-down figure that has been dubbed the Descending or Diving God, this impressive structure is a small, white pyramid with a staircase leading to its top. That’s where you’ll see a carving of the Diving God over the door.

The figure has wings, a headdress, and holds an unspecified tool in its hands. Unfortunately, not much is actually known about the Diving God, but it is theorized that this figure and the Mayan god of bees, Ah Muzen Cab (who is also always depicted upside down), are one and the same.

El Castillo

El Castillo

One of the most famous buildings on the site is El Castillo. Situated at right near the cliff edge itself, this structure stands at 7.5 meters (24.6 feet) tall and consists of a temple placed atop a pyramid.

Interestingly, the shrine marks where there is a break in the barrier reef out to sea opposite the city. It is thought to have been built in order to protect the trade coming into the city from the sea which would have had to use the safe passage through the break in the reef.

The temple itself boasts columns that were once decorated with serpents. The facade in its heyday would have been covered in stucco and would have also been painted in bright blues, reds, and other colors, traces of which remain to this day.

Below El Castillo is a sea cave and a small beach, which is considered to have been the landing site for sea trade with ancient Zama.

from Cancun to Tulum
El Castillo, and the Secret Beach below

Tulum secret beach

One of the main perks of visiting Tulum archeological site is that once you are done exploring the site, you can directly access the beach located under El Castillo. There is a staircase that will lead you to the beach, where you’ll find incredibly powdery, fine sand and the most turquoise waters you can imagine (though they are often quite rough!).

The beach normally opens at 10:00 am – as long as the surf allows it.

Make sure to bring your swimsuit (in fact, it’s probably better to wear it before you go!) so that you can go once you are done visiting the site – when I visited Tulum for the first time, with my sister, we were actually not aware that there was a beach right under the ruins; but we were so keen on swimming there that we jumped in the water in our underwear!

Every now and then, strong currents bring a lot of seaweed to this part of the coast and the beach becomes unaccessible (that was the case the last time I visited). You may want to check before going whether this is the case!

Playa Paraiso
The site, beautifully set against the turquoise waters of the Caribbean

Practical information For Visiting Tulum Ruins

Once you know why it’s so interesting (and important) to visit the ruins at Tulum, it’s time to figure out how to plan your trip. I’ve got all the information you’ll need to make sure your visit to these spectacular ruins goes smoothly.

Do you need a guide to visit Tulum ruins?

Tulum archeological site can be visited independently or with a guide – it’s really up to you and how you like to travel. It’s perfectly possible to research and read up the ruins before you visit, or to have a guidebook with you, to get further knowledge of the ancient ruins.

Having said that, if you want to have a deeper understanding of this archaeological site, you are much better off hiring a guide. Guides can be hired near the ticket booth. They cost around 600 Mexican Pesos ($30 USD), but this will change depending on the size of your group (it’s negotiable, too).

The guides have official ID and are trained, allowing you to have a local insight into the history and surviving heritage of what was once a great city.

Tulum
A wonderful site to discover

Best guided tours of Tulum

If you want to visit Tulum and other sites and attractions in the area – ie one or two cenotes and the ruins at Coba – you may want to join a guided tour that will take care of transportation between the sites, entrance fees and even a guide.

For a guided tour of Tulum and Coba ruins, click here.

For a guided tour of Tulum, Coba and a cenote, click here.

For a guided tour of Tulum and the nearby cenotes, click here.

Mexico beaches
One of the most iconic spots in Tulum

How to get to Tulum Ruins

From Tulum Pueblo

The ruins are about 3 km (1.86 miles) from the center of Tulum. You have severa, ways of getting there.

By car

If you already have a car when you’re in Tulum, then probably one of the easiest ways to get to site is to simply drive yourself. However, if you don’t already have a rental car, then it is not worth going through the hassle of renting one just to visit the ruins – after all, it’s only a very short drive away. Then you have to think about parking, and – as it’s a busy, popular site – you’ll also have traffic and other cars to contend with.

By bike

Because the ruins are close to Tulum Pueblo, one of the most popular ways to get there is by bike. It’s around a 10-minute bike ride from Tulum town to the ruins, which is great in itself, but even better is the fact that it’s mostly connected up by a dedicated bike lane.

In Tulum Pueblo there are many bike rental shops – you’ll also find them dotted along the main highway. Prices per day are between 100 to 150 Mexican Pesos (between $5 and $7.50 USD), making cycling also a very affordable option.

By colectivo

Arguably the cheapest way is to travel to the site is by colectivo, making it ideal for those on a shoestring budget. Colectivos are always trundling along the main highway that splits the town from the coast, and they will pick you up along the main route at any time. The route (one-way) costs just 20 Mexican Pesos – that is just $1 USD!

Cancun
Cancun is a great starting point to visit Tulum archeological site

From Cancun

Cancun is 131 km (81.4 miles) from Tulum.

If you have a rental car, you’ll be able to drive from Cancun to Tulum Ruins in about one hour and 45 minutes. The route goes along the 307 Highway, connecting the two towns, straight to the doorstep of the ruins. Parking costs 100 Mexican Pesos (around $5 USD). Beware of the ongoing scams at the parking lot and refuse to pay anything more than that!

Alternatively, you can take one of the four ADO buses from Cancun that will take you right to the site. There are no direct colectivos from Cancun to Tulum. If this is how you want to travel, you’ll have to take a colectivo to Playa del Carmen, and then change for Tulum. This is fairly straightforward and quite cheap too.

I don’t recommend a taxi, as they will be expensive – it’s best to have your own car for these sorts of distances.

Finally, you can join a guided tour departing from Cancun that will also take you to Coba ruins. For more information, click here.

For more information, read my posts The Best Day Trips From Cancun and How To Get From Cancun To Tulum.

Quinta Avenida
You can get to Tulum easily from Playa del Carmen

From Playa del Carmen

Tulum Ruins is 64 kilometers (39.7 miles) from Playa del Carmen, so it only takes about 45 minutes to drive the distance. You have various alternatives to cover the distance from Playa del Carmen to the site.

You can catch the ADO bus from Playa del Carmen directly to the site. There are three departures and the ride costs 94 Mexican Pesos ($4.7 USD) one way. The ride takes little over one hour.

There’s also the colectivo. This costs around 60 Mexican Pesos ($3 USD) and takes 45 minutes or so to reach the ruins. You can pick this up from the colectivo stand at Calle 2 Norte in Playa del Carmen.

Alternatively, you can join a guided tour departing from Playa del Carmen. For more information, click here.

From Valladolid

Valladolid is about 108 km (67 miles) from Tulum archeological site.

To get from Valladolid to Tulum Ruins you could opt to rent your own car (from around $20 USD per day). Driving yourself takes around 1.5 hours along a straight, sealed road through the jungle that actually also goes by Coba Ruins.

You can also hop on the ADO bus from Valldolid to Tulum, but it does only take you to Tulum bus terminal and from there you’d have to catch a colectivo to the site. It takes around 90 minutes, and tickets start at 130 Mexican Pesos ($6.5 USD).

Useful information for your visit

Tulum ruins entrance fee and opening hours

Tulum ruins entrance fee is 80 Mexican Pesos ($4 USD).

The site is open daily from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm. Last access is at 3:30 pm.

Factor in around two hours for your visit.

Best time to visit Tulum archeological site

Many will tell you that the best time to visit Tulum and other archeological sites in Mexico is as soon as it opens, as it will be less crowded. Or, as a good alternative, before closing time (so you can plan to get there around 3:00 pm to give yourself enough time to explore and then get to the beach). However, I can assure you that the site never gets overwhelmingly crowded – or maybe it’s the fact that there’s a gorgeous beach below that makes you feel this way.

Facilities

Toilets are located right by the entrance, close to the ticket booth.

There are no changing facilities, either where the toilets are or at the beach below the site, so you are better off wearing your swimsuit before you actually enter the site!

Other useful things to know

The only real way to get around Tulum Ruins is on foot. Unlike other places, such as Coba, you can’t actually walk up the pyramids or enter any of the buildings – all structures on the site are actually kept behind barriers, so don’t expect to be able to start climbing all over them!

Another thing to note is that being set across the coast and cliffside, there are many staircases throughout the ruins. But when you’re done exploring, you can even cool off with a swim at the beach below.

What to wear and take when visiting Tulum Ruins

Finally, here’s what you should bring to the site / wear when you visit:

  • Water – you’ll need this (especially if you cycled here)
  • Swimsuit – there’s a beach here! You are better off wearing it before you actually go
  • Sunhat
  • Sunglasses
  • Sunscreen – all for obvious reasons!
  • Comfortable shoes – there’s not a lot walking, but there are stairs
  • Daypack – look after your belongings
  • Camera – it’s stunning, so you’ll want to snap pictures.

Further Readings

Make sure to read my other posts about Mexico:

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Discover everything you need to know before visiting Tulum ruins, Mexico - via @clautavani

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