When we stay on the Riviera Maya on Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula, we avoid going into Cancún at all costs, especially during the Spring Break season. As an alternative we tend to head into the small town of Playa del Carmen, some 45 miles (70km) south.
Exploring the only coastal Mayan ruins in Mexico and the new age paradise of Tulum
We wanted to leave behind the commercial hubbub of northern reaches of Cancún and its party vibe for the more relaxed towns of the southern Riviera Maya. During previous visits to the area, a lot of people had talked fondly of Tulum, and so we decided to head down and check it out.
Our plans were to stop initially at the Mayan ruins north of the town and then head into the town of Tulum itself.
The Mayan Ruins
We had, on earlier trips to the Yucatan peninsula, travelled to the very impressive ruins at Chichen Itza but thought we would stick closer to home and see some different ruins this time around. The ruins are located a few miles north of the town of Tulum. Things can get busy, especially during the high season, so it is worth getting there early to try and beat the worst of the crowds. Parking is also limited, so if you make your way there under your own steam rather than by local transport or a tour bus getting there early is a must. The entrance to the ruins is like a little mini-city of vendors selling all sorts of souvenirs.
Once you work your way through the tourist village it is a little walk (or if you prefer you can take the shuttle bus) to the entrance to the ruins.
Each Mayan city had a specific purpose, and Tulum was no exception. It was a seaport, trading mainly in turquoise and jade. As well as being the only Mayan city built on a coast, Tulum was one of the few protected by a wall.
Made of limestone, the 784-metre wall encloses the site on three sides, is seven metres thick, and varies between three and five metres in height. No doubt this fortification helped preserve the seaport.
Like the questions which surround the decline of the Mayan world, there are several theories as to why a wall surrounds Tulum. One has a Mayan population of 600 on the inside, protected from invaders. Another suggests only priests and nobility were housed within the walls, while peasants were kept on the outside.
After entering the ruins through one of five doorways in the wall, visitors are greeted by a field of gently rolling hills. Black and grey stone outcroppings, which were once buildings, dot the sun-baked landscape.
Here visitors realize that what is left of Tulum can spark the imagination. Given that the seaport was once a link with the outside world, can there be any clues as to what happened to the civilization here? It’s a question historians and archaeologists still grapple with, so don’t be discouraged if an answer isn’t obvious.
Most prominent among the remaining structures is the Castillo, or castle, which is perched on the edge of a 12-metre limestone cliff, overlooking the Caribbean coast. Negotiating its steep steps is best done sideways, a fact which will assert itself on the way down.
Before descending, though, be certain to catch a glimpse of the Caribbean behind the Castillo. The view is as refreshing as the cool breeze coming from the sea.
In front of the Castillo is the Temple of the Frescoes, one of the better-preserved buildings. Peer inside the temple to see a mural painted in three sections. The first level represents the Mayan world of the dead, the middle is that of the living, and the final, highest piece, is of the creator and rain gods.
Interesting to note in the middle of the living section is a god astride a four-legged animal believed to be a horse. If in fact, this is a horse, it would mean Mayans still occupied Tulum in 1518 when they would have seen the animals for the first time with the arrival of the Spanish.
Chiselled above the doorway of the temple is a figure with what appears to be a bird’s wings and a tail. This diving god is believed to represent a Mayan deity who protected the people and is particularly well-preserved on various buildings around the site.
Piecing together what Tulum was like a millennium ago is exciting, but it can also be a humid venture. That’s why it’s a good idea to take something cold to drink, a hat and a bathing suit.
Just north of the Castillo is a pathway that leads down to a sandy beach and the multi-hued Caribbean. For visual drama, a walk along the beach provides ample opportunity for photographs. The walk is an adventure into, around and under nooks and crannies carved out of the cliffs. Each additional turn brings a new, secluded stretch of the Caribbean, perfect for both swimming and reflecting on the ruins.
Tulum remains popular because of its elegant setting on sheer limestone cliffs above the turquoise splendour of the crashing Caribbean, the only Mayan city built on the coast.
Tulum – the town
We had high expectations of Tulum. It has a reputation as a new age, yoga town and so I expected a lot of cute and interesting shops and places to eat. Sadly, I didn’t find much evidence of cuteness around the town. Most of the shops we found were on the main street through the town and were mainly gift shops. Tulum has a very different feel to the town of Playa Del Carmen, a little further north – which is very commercialized and more of a party town. This place is less developed and has a more laid back feel to it. I expect there some hidden gems to discover around the town but we didn’t have time to wander the streets and find them. The town centre itself is a little way inland so it is a bit of trek to find a beach. One of the few things I did enjoy was the murals that decorate the walls of buildings around the town. Overall, we were disappointed with Tulum.
In Summary …
- The ruins are not as impressive as others in Mexico but the coastal setting makes them unique
- Tulum is a great place to visit if you like yoga and good health style activities
- Options for upscale accommodation and lower-cost B&Bs and hostels
Planning your visit the Archaelogical Zone
Getting to and around Tulum
Tulum doesn’t have an airport, so you’ll have to fly into either Cancun Airport or Cozumel. If you’re flying into Cozumel, you will need to take a ferry and a taxi to get to Tulum, so grab a taxi to the ferry terminal and take a ferry to Playa del Carmen. From there, walk over to the ADO bus station to grab the next bus to Tulum! If you are flying into Cancun, I recommend grabbing an ADO bus (find the ticket booth right outsides customs upon arrival) to Playa Del Carmen and then on to Tulum.
Tulum is a relatively small town, but it is divided into three main areas. Most things are a little far to walk between, so consider renting a bicycle or hailing a local taxi!
Best time to visit the Riviera Maya
Travel to the Riviera Maya requires careful planning. The rainy season begins in May and continues into November; on average, the region receives almost five feet of rainfall each year. Fortunately, the really severe tropical storms and hurricanes tend to hit the other side of the Yucatán Peninsula. The dry season begins in late November and ends in February, making this season the best time to visit the Riviera Maya. Avoid Riviera Maya travel from March through May, however – the heat and humidity are oppressive.
Places to eat – for vegans
Calle Sol Esquina Orion | Orion Esquina Sol, Tulum 77760, Mexico
+52 984 113 7250
I had thought that with its New Age reputation that Tulum would be bristling with vegan restaurants, but when we checked out our trusted vegan guide, Happy Cow, we were a little surprised to see how few options there were. So, it didn’t take us too long to decide on a cafe called Succulenta.
Located in a quiet backstreet, Succelenta is a bijou, “hole-in-the-wall” (to be fair it is quite a big hole) cafe that focuses primarily on vegan tamales. We are by no means experts when it comes to tamales so weren’t quite sure how many we could eat. They had three options on the day. So, we decided to try all three. To wash down or tamales we decided to try out their green juice. Be warned, if you don’t want tamales then this is not the place for you as this about all they serve.
It was a nice day so we decided to sit outside in their garden at the back of the shop, which was shady if a little ramshackle. We don’t mind the rustic look, but being a large person I was a bit concerned with the bench seating, which was essentially a rather sketchy looking plank laid across two plastic buckets.
It was not too long before the food arrived. We had to spend a few seconds working out how to get into our tamales (we are novices with this particularly Mexican delicacy), but we soon tucking into our food. The food was hot and filling. We had hoped that there would be a range of flavours from the three different types of tamale, but sadly they all tasted very similar. So, whilst we were no longer hungry we remained disappointed with the variety of tamales options.
2. LA HOJA VERDE
Av. Tulum Manzana 2 Lote 1 Local 2 (at Calle Beta), Tulum, Mexico. Tel: 984563260
We had finished up our tamales at Succulenta and walked around the corner and immediately stumbled across a very quaint looking vegan/vegetarian restaurant called La Hoja Verde. To say we were disappointed in not discovering this place sooner would be an understatement. The problem is that we had selected “Vegan” in the Happy Cow app and not “Vegan” and “Vegetarian”. You live and learn.
Anyway, we were totally stuffed on the tamales we had eaten only ten minutes before, and couldn’t force any more food down, even if we had wanted to. But, the food everyone was eating looked so good! So, sadly we had to move on.
After about 30 minutes wandering around Tulum, we were feeling a bit down as the town had not lived up to our expectations. We needed to drown our sorrows and headed back to La Hoya Verde to try out their beer selection. Being dark beer drinkers our expectations of beer served in Mexican restaurants is not set at a high bar. The waiter recommended one of their bottled beers, so we thought we’d give it a try. We were not disappointed as they served us a delicious Mexican strong dark beer. This also gave us another opportunity to see what food was being served on other tables – it looked totally amazing. We didn’t have time to hang around to wait for our hunger to return, but if we should ever find ourselves back in Tulum we know where to come!
Where to stay?
1. HOTEL BARDO
Located in Tulum, 3.7 mi from Tulum Archaeological Site, Hotel Bardo provides accommodations with a restaurant, free private parking, an outdoor swimming pool and a bar. With a garden, the 5-star hotel has air-conditioned rooms with free WiFi, each with a private bathroom.
Hotel Bardo offers a terrace. The area is popular for fishing, and car hire is available at the accommodations.
2. GRAND BALAM PLAZA
Located 1.7 mi from Paraíso Beach, Grand Balam Plaza offers accommodations with a garden, a terrace and a shared kitchen. There is also a spa bath and a hot tub.
Each unit is fitted with air conditioning, a private bathroom and a kitchen including a fridge, oven, stovetop and a toaster. The aparthotel offers a continental or buffet breakfast.
The Tulum Archaeological Site is 2.4 miles away.
3. CHE TULUM HOSTEL & BAR
Looking for something livelier and a bit more basic, look no further than the Che Tulum Hostel & Bar. There are shared dorm rooms and private rooms. The hostel also offers free Wi-Fi.
If you like to party they have Che Nights, with karaoke, beer pong and other activities.