Maya Ruins at Tulum on a dark, overcast morning at sunrise
Tulum, the walled city built by the Maya on Mexico’s Caribbean Coast around 1200 A.D., has become so popular it now contains two barriers. The first is the old stone wall enclosing the city on three sides. According to archaeologists, these were constructed not for defensive purposes but to prevent the masses from entering the sacred confines where religious and magical ceremonies were held.
Tulum recently added another barrier, this one of rope, to keep the masses of tourists away from the buildings, including the most famous landmark off all, the Pyramid El Castillo. There are two reasons for closing what used to be total access to all the sites. First, the number of visitors has increased dramatically over the past 20 years, from 1,000 to 4,000+ people daily. Second and perhaps more important, too many tourists don’t know how to behave themselves. Instead of appreciating the Riviera Maya’s best known landmark, these egotists were more interested in writing graffiti on Tulum’s stone monuments, leaving such memorable trivia as the day they visited (who cares?) or the name of their eternal love at the time (ditto about caring). Now, even the popular swimming and sunbathing beach on the left of the Pyramid El Castillo is protected by a wooden fence. Fortunately, limited swimming is still possible to the pyramid’s right on a beach reached by a steep stairway.
The ropes make it more difficult to photograph Tulum than previously, but there are still plenty of good vantage points, though it takes a little more effort to find them. These photos were taken over two days, including a very cloudy morning and a sunny afternoon. I also was fortunate enough to have special access to go beyond the rope barriers, part of a group of travel photographers with the Society of American Travel Writers.
This illustration at Tulum shows how the city may have looked
Hated the lousy weather but the dim sunlight did something remarkable: it made it much easier to see the traces of red paint on some of the buildings, a feature the hot sun often glares out, such as the red hands on the exterior of the Templo de las Pinturas (Temple of the Paintings); similar to how bright sunlight on glaciers glares out the blue colors in the ice. This may seem a strange analogy but the hot summer Yucatan sun and sweltering humidity at Tulum made me frequently think of ice and other cold things.
Telephoto of fresco inside Templo Pinturas Tilted tower part of the pyramid complex
Note the rope barrier beside the pathway. Few tourists were present
just before closing time.
Red paint traces at one entrance. Numerous iguanas now inhabit Tulum.
This building is the portal for the winter The solstice portal is adjacent to a temple.
and summer solstices.
The thatch roof shades an interior and Swimming area to the right of Pyramid
sculpture over the Palace door. El Castillo.
Umbrellas useful, rain or shine. Trolley from parking area to the ruins.
A souvenir rug at the Tulum parking area. These are colorful hammocks, not bikinis.
With the last tourist gone, darkness again descends on a deserted Tulum.
Reaching Tulum is a simple thing for anyone staying on the Riviera Maya. It’s just off the main highway from Cancun, easily reached by tour bus or rental car. Not so easy for those on a cruise since most ships with day excursions to Tulum and the Riviera Maya typically dock at Cozumel island, a distance of about 12 miles from Playa del Carmen on the Yucatan mainland. The ferry trip from Cozumel to Playa del Carmen takes about 35 minutes. The first ferry departs Cozumel to Playa at 5 a.m. Then it leaves every hour from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.; the final trip of the day is at 10 p.m.
Two companies offer the ferry service, Mexico Waterjets and Ultramar. Note that ferry schedules on some days do not provide hourly ferry service. Typically, the 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. trips are cancelled from Playa to Cozumel. Cost each way is about US$12.
After reaching Playa del Carmen, your distance from Tulum is almost 40 miles (63 km), a travel time between 45 minutes and an hour depending on traffic. Because of the distances involved and the different modes of travel, a trip to Tulum is an outing best booked through your ship’s excursion desk. You don’t want to get caught in traffic and literally miss the boat.