Explore Tulum's Ruins to See How the Maya Lived
The Tulum Archaeological Zone is one of Mexico's greatest treasures and its third most-visited site (after Teotihuacan and Chichen Itza). Mostly built during the 13th century in the post-classic period, this Maya city was a major port for trading and commerce.
Though the walled city was abandoned less than a century after the Spanish arrival, it is surprisingly well-preserved and deserves a spot on everyone's Mexico bucket list. But since we can't all hop on a plane at any whim, this virtual tour lets you enjoy the magnificent site from the comfort of your home ... for now.
Tulum, Mexico, is located in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo on the Yucatan peninsula about a two-hour's drive south of Cancun. To visit the Tulum ruins, start in the center of Tulum Town, from where you can take a taxi or a shuttle. It's also possible to walk to the Tulum archaeological site if you like the idea of a one-hour stroll. Keep in mind that the journey is very pretty, but the heat is intense.
Once you're at the ruins, you'll see a large stone wall that once protected the city, along with a watchtower. This feature is remarkable because the Maya rarely used fortifications, proving Tulum's importance due to its strategic position. (That said, other cities like Mayapan had more extensive walls.)
Continue on, and you'll pass through a stone archway to find the ticket booth, where tickets can be purchased and official guides are available to hire. While having a guide isn't necessary, you'll appreciate the site much more if you understand what life here was like.
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The jungle soon gives way to a large cleared space filled with ruins. As you enter, the first structure you'll see is the Northwest House, thought to have been the house of an important member of the community. How do we know? Because it has a stone platform, something reserved only for the upper classes.
You'll also see platforms with nothing on top near this house and throughout this site. These mark the homes of residents who were not as wealthy and who used materials that could not withstand time like stone does.
House of Columns
Continue on the path southward until you see the House of Columns. This large residential building once housed nobles. There is evidence of spaces that would have been used to receive visitors, many of whom came to Tulum to trade.
A row of columns marks the main entrance and the place where the main roof of the house used to be. One feature that stands out here is the thatched roof over a room that houses a statue of the Descending (or Diving) God, a deity closely linked to war and commerce.
House of Chultun
Keep walking south on the main road towards the House of Chultun, thought to be a residence. It has two staircases, columns and a shrine.
Its most fascinating feature is the chultun, a kind of cistern. The residents of the building would collect rainwater to be used during dry spells. It also probably served as an emergency water source when hurricanes came and caused damage around the area.
Temple of the Frescoes
This beautifully preserved building hides a mural whose colors are still perceptible. Reflecting the Maya worldview, the mural is divided into three levels: The lowest represents the underworld, the middle represents our world, and the highest represents the place of the gods. Sadly, you won't be able to enter the room anymore.
But pay attention to the temple doorway, where you'll find a carving of the Descending God.
In front of the Temple of the Frescoes, you'll find the most important building in Tulum: The Castle.
Perched on a cliff over the Caribbean Sea, this structure is a 25-foot pyramid. The large upper temple was reached by a series of steep steps (though visitors can't climb them) and has yet another sculpture of the Descending God. Two smaller temples stand on the lower level. Throughout the structure, you can see serpents and stucco masks.
The Castle is where the city's religious, political and social ceremonies would occur. Of course, many of these would have taken place in the temples, but there's also a platform in front of the structure that was used for dances. Besides being the spiritual and social center of the city, this structure served as a lighthouse. When canoes came from the sea, they could use its beacon to find their way to shore and avoid the surrounding reef.
On this part of the tour, you'll also get gorgeous views of the Caribbean.
Temple of the Descending God
It wasn't enough for the Maya people in Tulum to have numerous shrines and statues dedicated to the Descending God. This deity held such importance that they also built a dedicated temple to him.
The small temple is on a higher level, with short steps and a single entrance. You won't be able to peer inside, but you can admire it from the outside, where a sculpture of the god can be seen. As usual, he is upside down, has wings and holds an object with two hands.
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Temple of the Wind God
Keep following the path next to the coast to reach one of the most photographed structures in the Tulum Archaeological Zone: the Temple of the Wind God. (You'll pass by the beach, but resist temptation, and don't go in just yet!)
Though the temple is small, it is dedicated to K'uk'ulkan, or the feathered serpent god known as Quetzalcoatl to the Aztecs. This deity was considered the god of creation, rain and wind, making him extremely important to daily life. Modern Maya were known to use this site for religious purposes up until the early 20th century.
It's an excellent example of a style of shrine that does not allow access to the inside. People would have venerated the sculpture protected wherein from the outside.
Just west of the Temple of the Wind God is the Cenote House. Often ignored by tourists, this small structure hides a cenote (a natural sinkhole) that once served as another water source for the city.
You can't see the cenote, but there are plenty around the ruins that you can visit after your (real-life) tour, including the Gran Cenote.
It's time to reward yourself with a little dip in the Caribbean Sea. Head back on the main path along the coast until you see a beach access path. Take the stairs to a small cove in between the Temple of the Wind God and the Castle. The views are absolutely amazing.
Tulum was one of the few major Maya cities built on the coast, so it offers the unique chance to enjoy Maya ruins from the sea.
The combination of the stone structures perched on cliffs, the white sand and the baby blue water of the Caribbean lands this beach among the most beautiful in Mexico.
Leaving the Tulum Ruins
Once you're back from the beach, you can walk along the coastal path to enjoy the views a little longer.
As you make your way to the exit, take a look around this incredible archaeological treasure — and say goodbye to the wild iguanas that now inhabit it.