Tulum Ruins Guide: How to Visit This Coastal Mayan Wonder

Last updated Jan 14, 2021 | Mexico | 0 comments

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For a few years now, Tulum has been on everyone’s Mexico bucket list thanks to its paradisiac beaches and boho-chic vibes. But the stunning Tulum ruins, perched cliffside overlooking the turquoise Caribbean coastline inside the Tulum National Park, is what sets this place apart from other seaside cities and pueblos along the scenic Riviera Maya. It is also the third most visited Mayan archaeological site after Chichen Itza and Teotihuacan outside of Mexico City.

What’s amazing about visiting the Tulum ruins is that you can nearly imagine standing at the edge of the bluffs and looking out and seeing the Spanish ships arriving on the horizon. I’ve been to the Tulum ruins site twice now and each visit is always as memorable and unique as the last!

The Tulum ruins are extremely well-preserved as well, which makes them so popular to visit. There are lots of buildings to see, including the famous El Castillo (castle), watchtowers, residential homes, ancient temples, and restored murals. Not to mention, there’s a slaughter of iguanas basking in the sun on the ruins’ hot stones that make for great photo subjects!

Planning to visit the Tulum Ruins? Here’s everything you need to know before you go!

Tulum Ruins Entry Fee & Visiting Hours

El Castillo mayan ruins inside tulum national parkEl Castillo

Cost: How much does it cost to go to the Tulum ruins? The entry fee to Tulum ruins costs $80 MXN ($4 USD) per person. On Sundays, Mexican nationals can enter the ruins for free with the presentation of an INE.

Hours: As for the Tulum ruins visitor’s hours, those have recently changed. The Tulum ruins are now open between 9 AM and 3 PM, with the last entry closing around 2:15 PM.

Parking: Last time I saw/heard, parking costs $100-180 MXN for the day. You should also know that it’s a 5-7 minute walk from the parking lot to the visitor’s center (i.e. ticket booth and official entrance to the Tulum ruins). There will be people trying to get you to book a tour as well as “persuade you” on the parking price (depending on which “side” of the road you park on). Instead of going by car, I’d recommend renting a bike and avoiding the hassle.

Tip: I would recommend going to the Tulum ruins earlier in the morning, rather than later to beat the crowds that arrive around 11 AM or noon. There are also bathrooms at the entrance and it’s wise to go before you start since it takes around 2-3 hours walking around to fully visit the Tulum ruins site.

Note on Tulum ruins COVID closures: We just spent 3+ months in Tulum as digital nomads and, while the ruins were closed temporarily, they are now open to the public with social distancing measures and health safety measures in place. However, the accessible beaches within the Tulum archaeological zone remain closed until further notice.

Getting to the Ruins Inside Tulum National Park

tulum mayan ruins building with stones and iguanasCan you spot the iguana?

Colectivo: You can take a colectivo (shared minivan) from Tulum pueblo to the Tulum ruins for about $70-90 MXN pesos per person. You will see them picking up passengers on Avenida Tulum all the time. “Tulum Ruins” may be displayed on the windshield to indicate it’s on their service route. If not, just ask! Taking a taxi to the Tulum ruins is another option but expect to pay much more for a one-way ride.

By bike: Biking to the Tulum ruins is the most fun and eco-friendly way to get to the ruins from Tulum Town or the Hotel Zone. Bike rentals are only $100-200 MXN (or $5-10 USD) per day. It’s the best way to navigate between the beach, cenotes in Tulum, ruins, hotel zone, and pueblo. That way, you avoid traffic, parking, and you can beat the crowd by going to the Tulum ruins by bike earlier in the morning.

Rental car: Based in Cancun or Playa del Carmen? Then renting a car for as little as $15/day and exploring Tulum that way is another option. There is ample parking (additional cost) inside Tulum National Park to visit the ruins or beach, but I’d still advise you to go early and beat the rush hour as traffic can get backed up on that road.

Tulum Ruins: Quick History

sign of temple of the wind god inside tulum ruins

The archaeological site of Tulum, which once thrived under the name of Zamá (meaning sunrise or dawn), is known as being one of the best-preserved Mayan cities in the Yucatan Peninsula. That’s because the city was actually one of the last that was built by the Maya!

Zamá was also one of the most well-defended Mayan cities, with a thick stone wall perimeter and two watchtowers on the northwest and southwest part of the Tulum ruins grounds.

The Tulum ruins you see today are the only Mayan archaeological site known to have such a unique location designed to watch over the coast which was of extreme importance during the height of the Mayan civilization in the 13th century. During this period, the Tulum ruins served as a thriving port for the inland Mayan city of Coba (another Mayan ruins site you should visit on a day trip from Tulum).

The ancient Mayan city was also known for its wealth of astronomical knowledge and tools and would often be visited by the Zapotecas or the Aztec nobles. In addition, jade, obsidian, copper, salt, and textiles were commonly traded goods since Tulum had access to both sea and land trading routes.

Can you imagine being among the first Spanish expeditions and actually seeing the bustling city of Zamá from the ship deck? The first mention of Tulum (or Zamá) was in 1518 by European explorers, but the first real in-depth description and drawings of Tulum ruins were published in an 1843 book titled Incidents of Travel in Yucatan by John Lloyd Stephens.

Like all the other Mayan ruins sites across Mexico and Mesoamerica, the Tulum ruins history is fascinating! That’s why I would recommend you brush up on its history more in-depth before you go or hire a guide to accompany you on your visit.

Do You Need to Book a Tulum Ruins Tour?

el castillo mayan building inside tulum ruins

Many people visit the Tulum ruins as part of an inclusive tour. Tours are great if you have little time and don’t want to manage your own transportation while having access to a knowledgeable guide.

The best Tulum ruins tours will usually combine a visit to the archaeological site and a visit/swim in 1-2 cenotes, with extra time to visit the town. If you’re visiting Tulum from Cancun or Playa del Carmen and want to be intentional with your time, then a tour is often the best because it saves you from having to organize your day and transportation by yourself.

That said, can you visit the Tulum ruins on your own? Absolutely. That’s at least what we have done on multiple occasions.

With the signage present around the Tulum ruins site, you are able to get a basic understanding of what you’re looking at. I enjoy visiting places on my own to create my own experience of it, but admittedly, I do miss out on some cool stories.

So while you can visit the Tulum ruins on your own, just remember you won’t benefit from the live storytelling and historical explanations as you would if you were to hire a guide.

What to Bring & Wear to Tulum Ruins

There are several items you should pack when planning a trip to the Tulum ruins.

The complex inside the Tulum ruins site is not well-shaded, so you need to bring reef-friendly sunscreen, a hat, and sunglasses to protect yourself from the sun. In pre-covid times, you could also walk down some steps and visit the beach directly in front of El Castillo, so once it’s open again and if you plan to swim or lounge beachside for a bit, remember to pack your bathing suit.

Other than the above, you should also consider wearing or bringing:

Things to See Inside the Tulum Ruins Site

El Castillo (The Castle)

el castillo mayan temple tulum ruins

backside of el castillo temple in tulum ruinsEl Castillo had strategic small windows facing the Caribbean sea to watch for intruders and incoming trading canoes.

El Castillo is the largest structure inside Tulum ruins and is exemplary of Mayan architecture. It is simply striking to see it standing in the central precinct, after hundreds of centuries, while being so well-preserved. It is said that there are snake (serpent) motifs carved into the inside roof of the building and that the backside wall (pointing towards the sea) has a symbolic shrine that matches a break in the Mesoamerican barrier reef which acted as a beacon for incoming trading canoes from other Mayan cities.

Temple of the Descending God

Temple of the Descending God (left of El Castillo) inside Tulum Ruins

The Temple of the Descending God can be seen just in front of El Castillo, to its left (if you’re facing it). This temple is dedicated to the main god that was honored by the Tulum-residing Mayas. You can actually see the Descending God (or Diving God) carved into the rock just above the temple’s entrance. The god is facing downwards (as if descending) with its palms together stretched overhead and its feet pointing toward the sky. Old depictions of the temple’s facades show it adorned in colorful and contrasting red and blue paint.

Temple of the Frescoes

Temple of the Frescoes inside Tulum Ruins

Believe it or not, the temples of the Mayas used to be decorated in color. If the public were still permitted to enter the Temple of the Frescoes, you’d see painted murals and stuccos of the Diving God in addition to other figurines of the Venus deity. The Temple of the Frescoes has two floors and was primarily used to track the movements and position of the sun, again showcasing the importance of astronomy in ancient Mayan culture.

Temple of the Wind God 

Though it’s not mentioned on many maps, the Temple of the Wind God (Kulkulkan in Maya) is one of the most memorable temples out of all the Tulum ruins because of its unique position perched atop a rocky cliff overlooking the vivid blue Caribbean. For that reason, this temple becomes the subject or backdrop in many vacationers’ photos of the Tulum ruins.

Historically, the Temple of the Wind God was used for religious and ceremonial purposes, but this article in The Yucatan Times indicates it was also built to warn the Mayans of incoming hurricanes since its construction was full of minuscule holes that whistled when strong winds would blow in from the sea.

Instagram Photo Tip: You often see the Temple of the Wind God as the background in many Instagram photos. You find that spot if you follow the path lining the cliff edge behind El Castillo. At the end of that path is where you’ll see the Instagrammable shot.

Handy Map of the Tulum Ruins

drone image of tulum ruinsDrone view of Tulum ruins (credit to Dronepicr under CC Licence BY 3.0).

tulum ruins map

Simplified map of the Tulum Ruins (By Hobe via Wikimedia)

The drone above photo really gives you an idea of how the Tulum ruins site is set up and how you can visit it via the designated walking paths. P.S. I remember from my last visit to the Tulum ruins seeing a sign displaying a “No Drone” regulation. (I am unsure as to whether or not this is still in effect, so if you know, please tell me in the comments!)

The second simple map above helps put the names to the temples you see.

You can see El Castillo jutting out from the ground, standing tall in the ancient city of Zamá. The square strip of land in front of is where you’ll find the Temple of the Frescoes. On the back-left of El Castillo sits a tinier structure near the shore, that’s the Temple of the Wind God.

Further left of that is the Casa Cenote, a temple housing an underground cenote that once served as the city’s main water source. It was also probably used for religious sacrifices!

Tips for Visiting the Archaeological Site of Tulum Responsibly

iguana on mayan temple inside tulum ruins site

LNT: Leave No Trace, stay on marked trails, and pack out all trash that you back in. There are several trash receptacles located around the Tulum ruins site but they always end up overflowing and spilling out into the ground. Instead, keep your trash with you and dispose of it properly when you get back to town or your hotel.

Respect the wildlife: There are coatis, iguanas, native birds, and turtles living on the Tulum ruins grounds. Several turtle nesting locations are actually located just beside the walking paths, on sandy inlets. If you see a turtle, refrain from approaching it and give it plenty of distance. By overstepping the barrier, you could possibly trample on and hurt the nests and eggs.

No vandalizing: The Tulum ruins are an ancient archaeological wonder and interfering with them can cause irreversible damage. Refrain from engraving your name, scratching at, or sitting/standing an even touching the buildings and stones. Take pictures (no flash) and leave with nothing but memories!

I hope this visitor’s guide to the Tulum ruins helps you plan your trip! If you have any questions, feel free to drop them in the comments below. Thanks for reading and happy visiting!

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Hi, I’m Bri! I’ve been slow traveling around the world in search of new adventures since 2013. I have lived in 8 countries on 4 continents including Nepal, Mexico, Colombia, and parts of Europe! I created this blog to inspire others to live a life of adventure, seek out meaningful experiences, and to travel slowly and mindfully. Join me on this journey and let’s tick off our bucket lists! Read my story here.

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