Tulum is one of Riviera Maya’s most popular excursions

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 of 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 defining 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

The thick clouds dimming the sunlight also did something remarkable: they made it much easier to see the traces of red paint remaining on some of the buildings. Hot bright sunlight often glares out such remarkable features as the red hands on the exterior of the Templo de las Pinturas(Temple of the Paintings).

Tulum was abandoned in the 1500’s, making these red handprints
at least 500 years old. Most visitors never notice them.


While photographing the red hands with my best telephoto lens (600 mm), I’m reminded of how bright sunlight typically glares out the blue colors in Alaska’s huge ice glaciers.  Why am I thinking about glaciers here on the coast of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula?  Bright sunlight may be absent but the sweltering humidity at Tulum makes me frequently think of ice and other cold things.

Telephoto of fresco inside Templo Pinturas; Tilted tower is part of pyramid complex


Umbrellas useful rain or shine; Trolley from parking area to Tullum ruins

Stone portal on the right is the port for the Winter and Summer solstices. It is adjacent to a temple (structure on the left)

Note the rope barrier; Swimming area to the right of Pyramid El Castillo; The thatch roof shades an interior and sculpture over door


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.

Cruises offering 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 which the ferry covers in 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 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.


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