The Tulum ruins are a walled Maya city perched on a rocky cliff overlooking the Caribbean in the Yucatán Peninsula, Mexico. The site is of modest scale and was built during the post Classic period when the Mayan culture was in decline and therefore lacks the elegance of some other famous Mayan ruins. The tropical beach backdrop however makes this a unique site which should not be missed.

Tulum means wall or trench in Yucatan Maya and refers to the walls surrounding the city. The ancient name may have been Zama, meaning City of Dawn because it faces the sunrise.

El Castillo looks over the Caribbean at Tulum Mexico. Photo credit: Dennis

El Castillo looks over the Caribbean at Tulum Mexico. Photo credit: Dennis


Tulum came to prominence in the 13th century, at a time when all the large Mayan cities in the Yucatan had already collapsed. As a seaside port Tulum maintained trading routes all the way down to Belize. Salt and textiles were among some of the goods brought to Tulum by sea, copper artifacts were brought from the Mexican highlands by land and ceramics and gold objects from all over the Yucatán.

When Spanish conquistador Juan de Grijalva sailed past in 1518 he was astonished by the sight of a walled city, its buildings painted red, blue and yellow and a fire flaming on top of a seaside watchtower. The city managed to survive about 75 years after the Spanish began occupying Mexico and was one of the last of the ancient Mayan cities to be abandoned. Old World diseases appear to have been the cause of its demise.

Map of Tulum

The map shows the location of Tulum. The buttons on the left can be used to zoom in or out. Click and drag the map to move around.


Tulum was protected on one side by steep sea cliffs and on the landward side by a 26 feet (8 m) thick wall that averaged about 3 to 5 meters (16 ft) in height. The west side measures approximately 1250 feet (380 m) and 560 feet (170 m) along its other sides. There are five narrow gateways in the wall with two each on the north and south sides and one on the west. The vast majority of the city’s residents lived outside the walls, leaving the interior for the residences of the ruling class and ceremonial structures. A small cenote near the northern side of the wall provided the city with fresh water.

The most imposing building in Tulum is the 25 feet (7.5 m) tall El Castillo (the castle) set above the cliff. It was once covered in with stucco and painted. A small shrine appears to have been used as a beacon for incoming canoes. On the beach below, where the canoes came ashore, tourists combine a visit to the Mayan ruins with a dip in the Caribbean.

The Temple of the Frescoes, directly in front of the Castillo, was used as an observatory for tracking the movements of the sun. Its decoration was among the most elaborate at Tulum and include relief masks and colored murals on a inner wall. Entrance to the temple is no longer permitted.


Visit Tulum

It is important to know that there are really three different areas all referred to as Tulum, located near each other, but not close enough to walk to and from.

The town center, sometimes referred to as Tulum Pueblo, lies across the highway south of the Coba junction. The bus terminal is toward the southern end of town. During the daylight hours there are frequent buses to Cancun, Merida, Playa del Carmen and Valladolid.

Tulum Playa or Zona Hotelera extends for more than 6 miles (10km) of great white sandy beaches along the Caribbean coastline. The zona embraces many of the fancier, ecological, boutique and spa hotels, and it has a decent selection of restaurants and night spots. There are also a number of affordable beach front cabana-type lodging locations.

Tulum Ruinas is the archaeological site where the Tulum Mayan ruins stand. It is connected by a long road from highway 307. The road is flanked by several restaurants, a commercial area geared to one-day visitors, a huge parking lot, a small bus station that operates part-time and a handful of middle range hotels.

The entrance fee is M$45.

To visit Tulum on an organized tour (entrance fee included) see our recommend Tulum Tours.