It took a thousand years but Tulum finally got a Starbucks. A 5-minute walk from the ruins entry gate, the bustling souvenir marketplace offers an iced café latte refuge from unrelenting engagement in hand-to-hand commerce with aggressive vendors. Smile in good humor while you sneer at the price and hold out for half.
Here are some tips for making the best use of your time during what will, without doubt, become an unforgettable visit to the Mayan temple complex.
When you’re in Key West, you are required to pose at the Southernmost Point. In the Maya Riviera, second only to the shot of you holding any tropical drink, Tulum is the Instagram Capital of the Caribbean Yucatan.
To make a very long story short, here’s a brief recap.
It’s the only ceremonial center the Mayans built on the mainland coast, and one of the very few cities they built with a wall around it. The part of the wall parallel to the sea is 1,300 feet long.
The word Tulum is Mayan for wall. Early archeologists who explored the ruins in the 1840s spelled it Tuloom.
It was likely constructed after the peak of Mayan culture had passed and was walled to protect from conflicts that arose in that period. Some scholars say it was a trading seaport offloading supplies from large dugout canoes for the inland pyramid city of Coba.
Some believe Tulum’s tallest structure, El Castillo (above), was a lighthouse where fires in small vertical windows lined up at sea with a safe passageway through the treacherous reef. In any event the complex was a provincial outpost and a coastal fortress where the population probably numbered no more than 600 to 900 residents.
In your imagination, picture how the sun-bleached stone used to be covered in stucco and the stone carvings brightly painted. I am told this cornice of the Temple of Frescoes is the headdress of the rain god facing left with eyes and nose below the ledge. Maybe if you squint.
Buses arrive in waves, and so the early bird gets Tulum to him and herself. The trip from Cancun is roughly an hour and 45 minutes each way with 2+ hours exploring archeology, so most tours are gone from the ruins by mid-afternoon. Some regular visitors say the best light for photos is at 9am. Some with an alternative viewpoint say 3 to 5pm has the best light for photos. The ruins open at 8am and close at 5pm.
If you are taking an organized tour through your resort, just relax and enjoy. It will all be done for you. We took the Tulum Express half-day out of Now Sapphire Riviera Cancun north of Puerto Morelos. But here are things you should know.
There’s an up-charge at the gate to use a tablet, GoPro or video camera for photography. Standard cameras pass without an extra charge. Many digital still cameras also take video so there’s that opportunity for stealthily sticking it to the man. Tripods should be left on the bus or at the resort. Park officials consider those who use them to be professionals and that requires special permissions. I witnessed unlicensed GoPros in use by scofflaws. There is no security pat-down.
Tour guides enter the ruins through a tunnel gate in the north wall and advise visitors to exit through a gate in the south wall to minimize gate gridlock.
There is no shelter in the ruins. A poncho is useful in case of passing showers. Carry a bottle of water.
If you DIY, pass through the tourist shops and vendor stands and follow a road to the park entrance. There is a small wooden building where a ticket-seller will collect your 70 pesos (about $3.75 US). If you want to save yourself a hike from the souvenir market area, a tractor-pulled tram to the ruins entrance and back costs 20-25 pesos (just over a dollar) each way. I say 20-25 because the price seems to fluctuate periodically. As it does for everything (but never a lot).
Acquiring a guide is an additional charge. If you don’t join a tour you can sidle up to a group with a guide and eavesdrop. If you opt to leave your organized group to explore the ruins on your own, ask your guide the time and place to meet up for departure.
Despite the cavalcade of tour buses that arrive at Tulum daily, the site is so vast that one can find a space to contemplate the ambience, history and mystery of the ancient city without feeling crowded. The busiest season for Tulum is from December 15 through the first week in January. A Playa del Carmen tour site says the average number of tourists at Tulum every day is 3,287. Our guide told us the crowds are the greatest starting at 10am. That is why many visitors hit the beach around that time and wait for the hullabaloo to die down before 3pm.
If the Caribbean is not rough, there is a beach for swimming below the bluff, and the water is clear and turquoise blue. But there is no place to change into swimsuits. The only public bathroom is at the front gate and is large enough for changing. Some recommend wearing swim trunks under clothes and peeling them off on the beach and switching to dry clothes on the way out. Others with a lower bar for modesty just change behind large rocks adjacent to the beach.
The most striking view of the coastal tower atop the bluff overlooking the Caribbean is from the seaside path about a hundred yards south of El Castillo. The best photo op is from an overlook just south of the wooden staircase down to the beach.
Another must-see vantage point for photos is on the seaside path where it dead-ends just north of El Castillo. Above is the view toward the Temple of the God of Winds, guarding the walled city’s sea entrance bay.
That’s where Jeff Bridges caught up with steamy Rachel Ward in Against All Odds (Columbia Pictures, 1984—5.6 out of 10 on Rotten Tomatoes).
Later in the movie they had sex in the sweat house near the ancient Mayan ball court at Chichen Itza, but that’s another trip.