Tulum Archaeological Zone
The Maya ruins of Tulum (8 a.m.–5 p.m. daily, US$4.25, parking US$2.50–4) is one of Mexico’s most scenic archaeological sites, built atop a 12-meter (40-foot) cliff rising abruptly from turquoise Caribbean waters. The structures don’t compare in grandeur to those of Cobá, Uxmal, or elsewhere but are interesting and significant nevertheless.
Tulum is the single most frequently visited Maya ruin in the Yucatán Peninsula, receiving thousands of visitors every day, most on package tours from nearby resorts. (In fact, it’s second only to Teotihuacán, near Mexico City, as the country’s most-visited archaeological site.)
For that reason, the first and most important piece of advice for independent travelers regarding Tulum is to arrive early. It used to be that the madness didn’t begin until 11 a.m., but it creeps earlier and earlier every year. Still, if you’re there right at 8 a.m., you’ll have the ruins mostly to yourself for an hour or so—which is about all you need for this small site—before the hordes descend.
Guides can be hired at the entrance for US$45–55, depending on the group size. Definitely bring your swimsuit and towel, even a good book or magazine—this is the only Maya ruin with a great little beach right inside the archaeological zone.
House of the Cenote
The path from the ticket booth follows Tulum’s wall around the northwest corner to two low corbel arch entryways. Using the second entrance (closest to the ocean), you’ll first see the Casa del Cenote. The two-room structure—with a third chamber added later—is less impressive than the gaping maw of its namesake cenote.
The water is not drinkable, thanks to saltwater intrusion, but that may not have been the case a half millennium ago; it’s unlikely Tulum could have grown to its size and prominence without a major water source, not only for its own residents but passing traders as well. Cenotes were also considered apertures to Xibalba, or the underworld, and an elaborate tomb discovered in the floor of the House of the Cenote suggests it may have had ceremonial function as well.
Temple of the Wind
Following the path, the next major structure is the Temple of the Wind, perched regally atop a rocky outcrop overlooking a picturesque sandy cove. If it looks familiar, that’s because it’s one of the temples that appears on innumerable postcards, magazine photos, and tourist brochures. (The view is even better from a vista point behind El Castillo, and of course from the ocean.) The name derives from the unique circular base upon which the structure is built: In Central Mexican cosmology, the circle is associated with the god of the wind, and its presence here (and at other ruins, like San Gervasio on Isla Cozumel) is evidence of the strong influence that Central Mexican migrants/invaders had on Post-Classic Maya societies.
Temple of the Descending God
One of Tulum’s more curious structures is the Temple of the Descending God, named for the upside-down winged figure above its doorway. Exactly who or what the figure represents is disputed among archaeologists—theories include Venus, the setting sun, the god of rain, even the god of bees (as honey was one of the coastal Maya’s most widely traded products).
Whatever the answer, it was clearly a deeply revered (or feared) deity, as the same image appears on several of Tulum’s buildings, including the upper temple of Tulum’s main pyramid. The Temple of the Descending God also is notable for its cartoonish off-kilter position, most likely the result of poor construction.
Tulum’s largest and most imposing structure is The Castle, a 12-meter-high (40-foot) pyramid constructed on a rocky bluff of roughly the same height. Like many Maya structures, El Castillo was built in multiple phases. The first iteration was a broad low platform, still visible today, topped by a long palace fronted by a phalanx of stout columns. The second phase consisted of simply filling in the center portion of the original palace to create a base for a new and loftier temple on top.
In the process, the builders created a vaulted passageway and inner chamber, in which a series of intriguing frescoes were housed; unfortunately, you’re not allowed to climb onto the platform to see them.
The upper temple—also off-limits—displays Central Mexican influence, including snakelike columns (similar to those found at Chichén Itzá) and grimacing Toltec masks on the corners. Above the center door is an image of the Descending God. Archaeologists believe a stone block at the top of the stairs may have been used for sacrifices.
Temple of the Frescoes
Though quite small, the Temple of the Frescoes is considered one of Tulum’s most archaeologically significant structures. The name owes to the fading but remarkably detailed paintings on the structure’s inner walls. In shades of blue, gray, and black, they depict various deities, including Chaac (the god of rain) and Ix-chel (the goddess of the moon and fertility), and a profusion of symbolic imagery, including corn and flowers.
On the temple’s two facades are carved figures with elaborate headdresses and yet another image of the Descending God. The large grim-faced masks on the temple’s corners are believed to represent Izamná, the Maya creator god.
Halach Uinic and the Great Palace
In front of El Castillo are the remains of two palatial structures: the House of the Halach Uinic and the Great Palace (also known as the House of the Columns). Halach Uinic is a Yucatec Maya term for king or ruler—literally, Real Man—and this structure seems to have been an elaborate shrine dedicated to Tulum’s enigmatic Descending God. The building is severely deteriorated, but what remains suggests its facade was highly ornamented, perhaps even painted blue and red. Next door is the Great Palace, which likely served as residential quarters for Tulum’s royal court.
Tulum’s massive parking lot and strip-mall-like visitors complex ought to clue you in to the number of tourists that pass through here every day. (Did we mention to get here early?) You’ll find a small museum and bookshop amid innumerable souvenir shops and fast-food restaurants. (If this is your first visit to a Maya ruin, don’t be turned off by all the hubbub. Tulum is far more commercialized than any other site, even Chichén Itzá; the majority have just a ticket booth and restrooms.)
The actual entrance and ticket booth are about one kilometer (0.6 mile) from the visitors center; it’s a flat mild walk, but there are also trolleys that ferry guests back and forth for US$1.75 per person round-trip (kids under 10 ride free).
Getting to the Tulum Ruins
The Tulum Archaeological Zone is a kilometer (0.6 mile) north of Tulum Pueblo on Highway 307. There are two entrances; the one farther south is newer and better, leading directly to the main parking lot (US$4). Arriving by bus or combi, be sure to ask the driver to let you off at las ruinas (the ruins) as opposed to the town. To return, flag down a bus or combi on the highway.
© Gary Chandler & Liza Prado from Moon Yucatán Peninsula, 9th edition