To visitors, Tulum can mean several things. First, it’s one of the most picturesque of all the ancient Maya sites, poised on fifteen-metre-high cliffs above the impossibly turquoise Caribbean. Tulum also refers to a stretch of broad, white beach that’s the finest in the Riviera Maya, dotted with lodging options that range from bare-bones to ultra-swank; many of them, as well as many ultra-casual beach bars, still show their backpacker-friendly roots in style, if no longer in price. Finally, it’s a booming town (often called Tulum Pueblo to distinguish it from the beach) that has evolved from roadside waystation to real population centre, where visitors can arrange tours into the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, among other things.
Tulum town offers all the basic tourist services and an increasing number of good dinner restaurants and bars, but it’s devoid of typical attractions. The place is generally empty of visitors by day because they’ve all decamped to the beach, the longest, most impeccable stretch of sand outside Cancún. The most popular spot is El Paraiso Beach Club, about 2km north from the junction with the road to town, with a fully stocked bar and friendly vibe; there’s also a kiteboarding school here, Extreme Control (t984/745-4555, wwww.extremecontrol.net). For solitude, head immediately north along the sand to Playa Maya, a public beach that’s generally empty. It’s followed by El Mariachi Beach Club, which is more of a locals’ hangout where you can get super-fresh ceviche. You can also pop into the sea anywhere else, as long as you don’t use the lounge chairs maintained by hotels.
On a sunny day, with the turquoise sea glittering behind the weather-beaten grey stones, your first glimpse of the Tulum ruins can be quite breathtaking, despite the small scale of its buildings, all clustered in a compact mass. When the Spaniards first set eyes on the place in 1518, they considered it as large and beautiful as Seville. They were, perhaps, misled by their dreams of El Dorado and the brightly painted facades of the buildings, for architecturally Tulum is no match for the great Maya cities. Most built after 1200, the structures seem a bit haphazard because walls flare outward and doorways taper in – not the effect of time, but an intentional design, and one echoed in other post-Classic sites along the coast like El Rey in Cancún and San Gervasio on Cozumel.
Tickets are sold at the site entrance, about 1km from the main highway and parking area, where there’s also a warren of souvenir shops; a shuttle (M$20) runs between the parking area and the ruins. You can also approach from the south, parking at the dead-end of the beach road and walking in. The site itself takes only an hour or so to see, though you may want to allow time to swim at the tiny, perfect beach that punctuates the cliffs. Arrive in the early morning or late afternoon to avoid the worst crowds.
You walk in through a breach in the wall that surrounded the city on three sides; the fourth faced the sea. Passing through the wall on the north side, you are in front of the Casa del Noroeste, one of the many small-scale buildings which typify the site, with their slanty walls and narrow windows. Closer to the sea sits the Casa del Cenote, a square structure straddling what was once a water-filled cave, the source of life for the settlement. On the bluff above and to the right are the Templos Miniaturas, several small-scale temples, complete with tiny lintels and mouldings, which were probably used as shrines. Skirt the small beach to reach the Templo del Díos Descendente. The small, upside-down winged figure depicted above the temple’s narrow entrance appears all over the city, but in only a handful of places elsewhere in the Maya world. It may represent the setting sun, or the bee god, as honey was one of the Maya’s most important exports. Immediately adjacent, the Castillo, on the highest part of the site, commands fine views in every direction – but to protect the worn stones, visitors may now only look up at the building from the base of the hill. The pyramid may have served not just as a temple, but also as a lighthouse. Even without a light, it would have been an important landmark for mariners.
Away from the sea, a cluster of buildings is arranged on a city-like grid, with the chief structures set on stone platforms along parallel streets. Of these, the Templo de las Pinturas (Temple of the Paintings) is intriguing: the intricate carvings on its exterior slowly reveal themselves as you look closely. The corners form glowering masks trimmed with feather headdresses, and the “descending god” can be spotted in one niche. Unfortunately, you can no longer view the interior murals (actually on the exterior of an older, smaller temple, which has been preserved by the surrounding gallery), but one remarkable scene, created at a later date than the others, shows the rain god Chac seated on a four-legged animal – likely inspired by the conquistadors on horseback.
The best view is from the cliff edges to the south of the Castillo. A small trail leads along the edge, delivering a great perspective on the sea and the ruins, then loops down through the greenery.
Exploring the cenotes
Exploring the cenotes
The area north and west of Tulum has one of the largest concentrations of cenotes on the peninsula, including Ox Bel Ha, which at almost 170km, is the longest water-filled cave system in the world. Many of these freshwater sinkholes are accessible from Hwy-307 or off the road to Cobá. Some, like Hidden Worlds, have been developed as adventure centres, and the guides and marked trails at these places can help put first-time visitors at ease in dark water and tight spaces. But it’s also worth visiting one of the less developed alternatives, such as Grand Cenote, 4km up the road to Cobá from Tulum (8am–6pm; M$100), where the only service is snorkel-gear rental, so you can float above stalagmites and other rock formations – all the fun of cave exploration, with none of the scrabbling around. Zacil-Há, 4km further (M$30), is a local hangout and a great beginner pool, as you can see the sandy bottom.
Divers must have open-water certification for cavern diving (in which you explore within the reach of daylight), but cave diving (in which you venture into closed passageways and halls) requires rigorous training.
Local development may threaten cenotes in the long run, but clumsy visitors can do more damage in the short term: wear only biodegradable sunscreen; do not touch the surprisingly delicate stalactites; never break off anything as a souvenir; mind your flippers, as it’s easy to kick up silt or knock into the rocks; and be very careful climbing in and out of the water – use the paths and ladders provided.