Tulum is probably one of the most astonishing archeological sites in the Yucatan Peninsula, in between its sandy beaches and its jungle like forest you can find yourself in the midst of a sacred Mayan town. Tulum is said to have been inhabited between 1200-1521 AD, as a central port town for mayan commerce, due to an opening there was in the coral reef right in the center of where the town was built. From the main tower flames revealed the safe passage way to shore, and it was also how the Spanish found their way in and conquered the town.
The town was surely erected as a fortress, and the name Tulum actually means ‘wall’ in mayan (even though its inhabitants called it Zama, or dawn); given the fortifications on 3 sides and the sea on the fourth, it played a fundamental role during the period of conflicts they were living. Within the fortified town though, only few were lucky to live: the ruling class, this is why the ruins are mainly ceremonial buildings and palaces. The rest of the inhabitants of Tulum lived outside the walls, and unfortunately nothing is left of this part of the city.
So I recommend visiting the site of the ruins as early as possible, given the number of tourists that will fill the place and the heat that usually accompanies trips to Mexico. Arm yourself with hats, water, sunscreens and some sort of snack if you feel woozy. The route around the site is already drawn out for visitors, but probably the best way to visit it to go with a guide who can tell you the story behind what you’re seeing. One of the things that fascinated me the most about this excursion was learning about Mayan culture, their rituals and beliefs, their religion and how they lived.
To enter the site you have to make your way through a number of stores and people that invite you to buy some of the most horrendous souvenirs every, take the cart/bus to the main entrance to avoid walking under the sun, and once in walk through the forest and into a small breach in the wall of Tulum’s North Wall. The town now opens up in front of you with all of its constructions neatly lined up around the area.
The most notable buildings to visit are: Casa del Cenote (with a small pool at its base), the Templo del Dios del Viento, under which is a lovely strip of white sand, Estructura 25 (with its decorate columns and stuccos – note the Descending God or Diving God probably related to the mayan fondness for bees), El Palacio, Templo de la Estela and at the heart of the complex is El Castillo (a watchtower, and the site’s tallest building, that overlooks the sea).
But there is much more to Tulum! The coastline is splendid! Head to Playa Paraiso to find white, soft sand, hipster beach bars and restaurants, cute summery shops and local souvenirs (such as hammocks). It is quite a chilled area from what I saw of it.
For those who are looking for a more adventurous experience there are many activities which you can do in the area – such as visiting Cenote Angelita (only for expert divers), the Gran Cenote, Aktun-Ha and Zacil-Ha, and definitely head to Cobà to get a less touristic experience of a mayan site (you can actually walk up the pyramid)!