Treasures of Tulum

After visiting this Mayan site rich in history, check out the nearby theme park Xel-Há.


The Mayans were an amazing and somewhat mysterious people who, judging by the monuments they left behind, spent a heck of a lot of time building big stone structures.

Most of their temples were built in the jungles—Chichén Itzá (recently chosen as one of the seven new wonders of the world) is undoubtedly the most famous. But Tulum, Mexico, located on the Yucatán Peninsula, is believed to have been a center of commerce for the Mayans and a resort destination for Mayan royalty.

Today, Tulum, the only Mayan city built on the shores of the Caribbean Sea, is growing more popular, thanks to the development of nearby Playa del Carmen and the increasing number of cruise ships that offer excursions to this ancient site.

To Guide or Not to Guide?

It costs about US$4 to access Tulum (free on Sundays, $3 extra if you want to bring along the video camera), and you certainly can spend a couple of hours wandering around the expansive archaeological site on your own. But I recommend hiring a guide well-versed in Mayan history, culture and story-telling, especially if you have easily bored kids in tow (about $5).

Looking at the structures is well worth the four bucks, but understanding why those structures were built and what the great Mayan cultures believed is priceless. For example, our guide from Lomas Travel explained how Mayans decorated their teeth with gems and flattened their foreheads to achieve their standards of beauty.

The Great Walled City

The site has 60 structures, many of them in remarkably good shape considering they have been standing for 900 years. The entire city is built on a cliff above the water and is protected by large stone walls on three sides—in Mayan, Tulum means “walled city.”

Its choice spot on the shore of the Caribbean made it the center of commerce for the Mayans. Goods arrived by boat and were processed through Tulum before being sent onto central Mexico.

Getting There

Tulum is about an hour south of Playa del Carmen, the heart of the Riviera Maya. You can easily get there on your own by rental car. It’s a straight shot south on Highway 307.

But in my family, vacation means never having to say you drove, so we rent cars only when there simply is no other option for travel. And when it comes to getting from Playa del Carmen to Tulum, options abound—from public buses to private cabs to group tours.

Where to Stay

You can find a hotel in Playa del Carmen, or opt to stay in the neighborhood of the ancient Mayans. Tulum remains a mostly sleepy little town—little different than I imagine Playa del Carmen was a decade ago. But as the area grows in tourist popularity, the number of options for overnight accommodations is growing as well. While most of the hotels are small, boutique-y, bed and breakfast type places, there also are a growing number of “resort and spa” accommodations opening.

Xel-Há Tour Tips

Most tour companies running bus excursions from Playa del Carmen to Tulum include a stop at Xel-Há (shell-ha), a natural aquarium filled with lagoons, wells, ancient caves and a theme park. It makes for a terrific daylong adventure.

Look for a tour that starts the day at Tulum—you want to arrive early to beat the midday heat as well as the busloads of cruisers who chose the Tulum excursion from their port in Cozumel.

After a couple of hours wandering the ruins at Tulum in the hot sun (wear a hat and slather on the sunscreen) and blowing dust, the family can climb back into the air-conditioned bus and head for a dip among the fishes at Xel-Há.

Xel-Há park authorities will ask you to shower off your sunscreen and replace it with the biodegradable stuff the park sells. Plan ahead and buy it in town or elsewhere at a much lower price. On a return trip, we bought ours at a roadside stand for less than half of what they were charging at Xel-Há and had the added benefit of watching Mayan pole dancers perform while we waited in line.

If the four hours allotted during most tours isn’t enough time for snorkeling in the clear waters, lazing in the hammocks or dining at the restaurants, plan an escape to Xel-Há on your own. Adult all-inclusive entry (includes towels, snorkeling gear, a locker, access to the hammocks, food and drinks at any of the restaurants, taxes and gratuities) is US$75.

If you want to swim with the dolphins, try snuba (think scuba diving without the tanks or the lengthy lessons) or sea trekking (for non-swimmers, this puts you in a deep-sea-type diving helmet so you can walk on the bottom). Expect to spend an additional US$31 to $125 per person.

Or, if you want to get wet for free, bring your suit to Tulum and walk down to the beach for a dip in the Caribbean before returning to your hotel. Just be sure to bring your own towels and plan to suffer in salty silence until you return to your hotel since the only place onsite for changing is the restroom (50 U.S. cents). The beach has neither changing rooms nor showers.

Destinations: Playa del Carmen, Tulum, Mexico, Riviera Maya

Themes: Beach Vacations, Ecotourism, Family Travel, Outdoor Adventures

Activities: Sightseeing

User Comments

A Guide is a must! I agree with Cindy that hiring a guide is a must when visiting Mayan ruins. They can bring those old structures to life by explaining what their role was and pointing to interesting artifacts. Mayans were great astrologer mathematicians. Much thought and planning was put in the architecture of sites such as Tulum where for example buildings are aligned so that the center column of the Temple of the Frescoes is illumined by the rising sun during the equinox. One of the marvels you will surely miss without a guide!

A Dream! This destination is at the top of my list. So many of my family members have visited Tulum as long ago as 1985. This article just reminds me of how badly I want to go.

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