A Return to Adventure—With the Family

Maya Ruins at Tulum
By Dave Littleton
Page 5 of 5   |  
Tulum Ruins
WATERFRONT PROPERTY: Maya ruins at Tulum (Guillermo Aldana-Visit Mexico)

When it comes the ancient Mesoamerican world, Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula is its archaeologically-robust metropolis, including the Maya ruins of Chichen Itza, Xpujil, Cobá, Muyil, Kohunlich, and the coastal city of Tulum. Some, like Chichen Itza, are a massive, sprawling collection of ruins with pyramids to ascend and skull-infused sculptures to explore, while others, like Tulum, are modest treasures with their own unique geographic and archaeological identities.

Tulum sits fairly close to Playa del Carmen—a straight shot of less than two hours on a fairly modern highway. But, as I quickly discovered, the ancient city deserves praise for reasons other than mere proximity. Perched dramatically on a cliff overlooking white-sand beach and pale-blue Caribbean, Tulum enjoys arguably the most beautiful setting of any pre-Columbian ruins outside of Machu Picchu in Peru.

Construction of this walled city-fortress began around 1200 AD to serve as trading outpost, temple, and sacred home to high priests and priestesses of the ancient Maya religion, but the city was mysteriously abandoned near the end of the 16th century. The spirituality of the site, however, is still very much intact. Moving about the ruins on foot—climbing ancient stairways, ducking under remarkably-preserved stone archways, and strolling across green pastures within the fortress walls—I could envision the flow of daily life for the Maya clergy stationed there centuries ago.

The weather-worn but solid stone structures create a grand space that is also peaceful, intimate, and solemn. It's not surprising that people from many religious traditions find inspiration amid the ruins. I met a small group of Mormons making a pilgrimage of sorts that day. They told me that Tulum is a sacred site in their faith; some believe that Maya civilization was documented in the Book of Mormon.

Modern-day Tulum has been reclaimed by more than Mormons and other tourists—preservationists and the government agency in charge of the ruins take their role as protector of this archeological gem seriously. As a result, the ruins are surprisingly well-preserved in spite of their proximity to ocean storms, parking and other facilities accommodate sometimes large crowds, and I found the English-speaking guides to be well-trained, professional, and entertaining.

After a 90-minute guided tour, I wandered and rested amid the ruins for more than two hours, absorbing the architectural splendor and the eternally beautiful views of the sea. Driving north back to Playa del Carmen from Tulum, I passed a billboard that read, "Traveling to the Riviera Maya without seeing Tulum is like traveling to Paris without seeing the Eiffel Tower."

I couldn't have said it better myself.

Access and Resources
Tulum is a two-hour drive from Playa del Carmen. Admission is U.S. $3, and tours with English-speaking guides are available. Arrive early to beat the crowds.


Published: 22 May 2006 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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