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.