The Ruins of Tulum

By | Category: Travel destinations

the Caribbean near Tulum © Mindaugas Danys

As I arrived in Cozumel on Carnival Cruises’ ship, Carnival Magic, there was so much I wanted to do but I ony had 8 hours to do it in. I did what many would do and relied on an excursion with a local company, Caribbean Sun Fun, which was organised by the cruise company. I managed to cram all this in so any visitor should be able to do the same.


The Yucatán Peninsula was the centre of the magnificent Mayan Culture that reached its peak long before the Conquistadors from Spain arrived on Mexico’s shores. Its jungles may be hot and humid, but it boasts some of the most outstanding white sand beaches in the world and also unique ruins.

I am standing in the glaring heat of the mid-day sun in the Mexican jungle; in a large grassy clearing dotted all about with hissing iguanas and sweating tourists.

El Castillo

I am also facing towards the sunrise and an enormous stone pyramid known as El Castillo. Though not anywhere near the size of the pyramids at Chichen Itza, or the even more momentous Egyptian pyramids, its design and sheer magnitude could rival the tombs built for the great Pharaohs. I close my eyes and picture the scene that would have been repeated here ad infinitum. It is dawn and light is streaming over the top of this temple. At the top of this structure, up an enormous staircase, is the altar dedicated to one of the Mayan’s many bloodthirsty deities, the Descending God. And what would now take place is a barbarous act, a human sacrifice. This unfortunate soul would have been one of the prisoners of war that had been dragged here from the battlefields. The priest would have cut into the victim’s sternum and removed the still beating heart. Held high up above the priest’s head, as close as possible to the sky, the Mayans believed the energy of the living organ was transferred directly to a divine spirit.


Bizarrely, the priests that performed the sacrifices in Tulum would have looked like aliens to their gathered subjects. If the story of a great cosmic bombardment (an asteroid supposedly hit this part of Mexico 65 million years ago) was part of the Mayan people’s earliest collective memory, perhaps they believed these priests came from outer space?

swimming next to El Castillo

Even more bizarrely, just behind this enormous pyramid is a sheer descent to an utterly gorgeous white sand beach where turquoise surf crashes onto the shore below. These days, tourists can descend down a secure wooden staircase about 12 metres to have a swim in the warm water of the Caribbean Sea. The Tulum ruins are now a National Park and just a two hour coach or car journey from the Playa del Carmen and Cancun.


When the Mayan cleric elite were babies, their parents would have squeezed their tiny infant heads into wooden vices so that their skulls slowly became elongated and misshapen. It seems that they were tall and we know they wore incredibly elaborate ceremonial gear accessorised with gold. Even their teeth were chiselled and intentionally discoloured to complete the picture; they needed to look totally different from the peasants and fishermen that were of a lower ‘caste’ in order to be glorified. Perhaps they were the celebrities of their day? And these priests performed the incredible ritual sacrifices that were the offerings to their gods – the heart being the very essence of a human being – given in supplication and worship. Mayans believed it was the only way to ensure that there would be continuing rainfall, crops, fishing; all the things necessary for survival.

This ruins here are a Mayan Pre-Columbian walled coastal city surrounded by lush jungle; spread over 644 hectares (1,590 acres), the ruins stretch 6 km (3.5 mi) along the coast. The site, built in the 11th century, was only re-discovered in the 19th century. The jungle, iguanas and monkeys had reclaimed this land after the complete collapse of the Mayan civilisation in the 16th century. Amazingly, it survived another 70 years after the Spanish invasion of Mexico which brought Old World disease to this part of the world and decimated its native population.

Temple of the Frescoes

The Temple of the Frescoes is among the other ruins that is still intact. This beautiful structure is engraved all around with images of Mayan deities, including the Descending God. This temple was used to track the ever important movement of the sun. Visitors are no longer allowed inside but the interior has original Mayan frescoes, painted in blue and green then outlined in black, depicting gods and religious motifs.


Outside of the 5 metre high walls that still encircle the lost city (Tulum translates as ‘wall’) are make-shift shops that sell every sort of handmade or manufactured object you could possibly find in the region. Mayan statues, guitars, sombreros, all manner of religious icons and kitsch, purses, handbags, clothes, tapestry, football shirts and much, much more. It is interesting to look but be careful when buying from these vendors – their prices are astronomically high. No price is listed and you may be fooled into thinking you are getting a good deal because you will have to barter. You’ve been warned!

I soon discover that all of Tulum’s beaches are gorgeous; while the hotels, bars and eateries are charming and welcoming. We only had a small amount of time to take in the town beyond the ruins but it seemed to have a laid back, hippy type of vibe that reminded me of California in the 1960’s. “Peace and love, man”, could be the mantra here as the entire place seems to be full of ‘new-agers’, surfers, off grid yogis and fashionistas.

The Tulum ruins are a jewel in the crown of the Yucatán Peninsula, a historic relic that is well worth the time it takes to get here to see it. You may even decide to come to Tulum for a longer stay; to soak up the sun and the easy going vibe of this lovely coastal oasis.

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