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Tulum is a beautiful coastal town in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. Over the last few years, it has become an increasingly popular vacation destination. It has beautiful beaches and incredible restaurants. It also offers easy access to some of the most impressive Mayan ruins in Mexico. A visit to the Mayan ruins is a great way to explore Mexico’s history and culture. The deserted sites offer a glimpse into one of the most sophisticated and mysterious ancient civilizations. Continue reading to discover the 3 best Mayan ruins near Tulum.
Who Were the Mayans?
The Mayans were one of the most powerful ancient civilizations in Mesoamerica before the Spanish conquest of the 16th century. The Mayans dominated the Yucatan Peninsula, modern-day Guatemala, Belize, and western parts of Honduras and El Salvador. The impressive cities were carefully planned and many were built on a grid system. They built many of their temples in a pyramid shape and detailed the exteriors in elaborate carvings.
The Mayans were also extremely advanced in mathematics and astronomy. They built structures dedicated to tracking the sun’s movements and developed a 365-day calendar. Most Mayan cities were abandoned by 900 AD but they left many clues to uncovering their history. Excavations of Mayan sites have revealed temples, ball courts, palaces, and artwork. There are over 200 Mayan sites throughout Mexico with many of them being open to the public. The 3 favorite ruins near Tulum are Tulum Archaeological Zone, Chichen Itza, and the ruins of Coba.
Where is Tulum
Tulum is a small town located on the Caribbean coastline in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo. It’s located 131 km (81) miles south of Cancun and 61 km (38 mi) south of Playa Del Carmen. The closest airports areCancun International Airpot (CUN) andManuel Crescencio Rejon International Airport (MID).
Tulum can be broken into two zones: Tulum Coastal and Tulum Pueblo. The coastal zone is the more desirable area for tourists with access to beautiful beaches and the Tulum beach strip. Tulum Pueblo is the main town. It’s about 5 km (3 mi) from the beach but lodging and food in the area are more affordable.
The Best Mayan Ruins Near Tulum:
1. Coastal Ruins of Tulum
Tulum Archaeological Zone is the mostpicturesque of the ruins on this list. The site sits on the cliffside 12 m (39 ft) above the coast of the Yucatán Peninsula. It was once an enclosed Mayan city that served as a major port for the nearby city of Coba. Being easily accessible from both land and water made it the perfect trade hub.
The Mayans also used the site as a lookout due to its placement above the ocean. The site was built like a fort and its 4.9 m (16 ft) walls served as protection against invasion. The entrance fee to Tulum Archaeological Zone is 40 MXN ($2 USD) and the site is open from 8 AM to 5 PM.
How to Get to Tulum
The closest airport to Tulum is Cancun International Airport (CUN) and the best way of reaching the Tulum ruins is by rental car. The drive from Cancun takes about 1 hour and 45 min. The drive is fairly easy and is mostly a straight shot down Highway 307. A taxi or shuttle can also be taken from the airport. A taxi costs around 1,313 MXN ($65 USD) and a shuttle can be booked for 909 MXN ($45 USD).
The cheapest mode of transportation is the bus. The bus can be taken to Playa del Carmen and then another bus or colectivo (shared taxi) can be taken from Playa del Carmen to Tulum. A day trip with a guided tour from Cancun is also an option.
Things to See at TulumArchaeological Site
El Castillo is one of the three main buildings at theTulum Archaeological Site and sits closest to the beautiful turquoise waters. It’s also the largest of the structures with the pyramid standing at 7.5 m (25 ft) tall. You’ll find incredible views along a dirt pathway that wraps through the site.
Temple of the Frescoes
Temple of the Frescoes is a small two-story building named for the frescos inside it. The paintings date to the 11th-12th centuries. Unfortunately, visitors can not go inside but the exterior is free to explore. The exterior walls have detailed designs and faces carved into the stone. It’s believed that the structure was used as an observatory to track the movements of the sun.
Things to Do Near Tulum Ruins
Picnic at Playa Paraiso
Tulum is great because it has so many things to do other than the ruins. I recommend bringing lunch and having a picnic at Playa Paraiso or Paradise Beach. It’s just a short walk from the ruins and is one of the nicer public beaches. Even though it’s a public beach, it’s far less crowded than the beaches in Cancun and surrounding areas.
Bike the Tulum Beach Strip
A short drive south of the ruins is the Tulum beach strip. Bikes are available to rent at a few different shops and hotels. I suggest exploring all the great roadside spots. There are excellent restaurants, bars, and shops. Some of my favorite places for food and drinks are Gitano, The Real Coconut, and Matcha Mama.
2. Chichen Itza Archaeological Park
Chichen Itza is one of the Seven Wonders of the World and one of the most visited archaeological sites in Mexico. The site was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988. The Mayan settlement thrived from A.D. 750 to 1200 and its history is incredible. It was one of the larger Mayan cities and possibly the most diverse as can be seen through its different styles of architecture.
I suggest hiring a guide at the gate. A guide will provide you with historical information and make sure you don’t miss anything. If you don’t have the time or money for a guided tour, I recommend familiarizing yourself with its history beforehand. I suggest arriving upon opening at 9 am, especially if visiting during the summer months. The heat can be intense and there is little shade. Don’t forget comfortable shoes, a hat, and sunscreen. Admission to the site is 533 MXN ($26 USD).
How to Get to Chichén Itzá
Chichen Itza is located in the eastern portion of the Yucatan state near the village of Pisté and can easily be reached from Tulum. The site is 150 km (93 mi) from Tulum and the drive takes about 2 hours. Chichen Itza can also be visited en route from Merida to Tulum. When visiting Tulum, most people choose to fly into Cancun; however, if Chichen Itza is on your itinerary then Merida is a great option and is often a less expensive flight. Chichen Itza is 138 km (86 mi) from Manuel Crescencio Rejon International Airport (MID) in Merida and the drive takes about 1 hr and 45 min.
Chichen Itza can also be visited from Cancun. It’s 201 km (126 mi) from Cancun International Airport (CUN) and the drive takes about 2 hrs and 30 min. A popular way of visiting Chichen Itza from Cancun is with a guided tour.
No matter where you are coming from, I recommend renting a car. You’ll be able to make stops at your leisure and arrive early before the large crowds. The roads are fairly easy to navigate and the site is located off the main highway. Bring a small about of cash to pay any tolls along the way. Renting a car is by far the easiest but hiring a taxi or taking the bus are options as well. However, a taxi can be expensive and the bus ride long.
Things to See atChichén Itzá
El Castillo is the most recognizable of Chichen Itza’s many structures. The huge step pyramid dominates the center of the archaeological site. It stands at 24 m (79 ft) high and 55 m (181 ft) wide. The structure was built sometime between the 8th and 12th centuries AD and may have been a giant Mayan calendar. It has 365 steps, one for each day of the year, and many details within the structure represent parts of a calendar.
The Great Ball Court
The Great Ball Court at Chichen Itza is one of the largest in the Americas. It measures 168 m (551 ft) by 70 m (230 ft) with walls that are 8 m (26 ft) high. The open-air court has perfect acoustics. A whisper from one end of the court can easily be heard from the opposite end. The ball court hosted violent games that would often end with a human sacrifice.
A cenote is a natural sinkhole filled with water. They are common throughout Mexico and many are even swimmable. A few can be found throughout the Mayan city of Chichen Itza; however, none of them permit swimming. Most were used by Mayans for potable water but the Sacred Cenote was used for religious purposes.
Archaeologists have removed thousands of objects from the bottom of the cenote, including items made from gold, jadeite, flint, shell, wood, and rubber as well as human skeletons. Mayans may have believed certain cenotes led to the underworld and used them as sacrificial sites.
Things to Do NearChichén Itzá
Relax at Ik Kil Cenote
Ik Kil is one of Mexico’s most photographed and beautiful cenotes. It’s located just ten minutes down the highway from Chichen Itza. It’s a cenote that you can swim in and is the perfect way to cool off after a long day of sightseeing. The cenote is open daily from 8 am to 5 pm. I suggest arriving early in the morning or the last hour before closing to avoid crowds. Admission is 70 MXN ($5 USD).
3. Mayan Ruins of Coba
Coba was an active Mayan city from roughly 100 AD to 1550 AD. Coba dominated the region and at the height of its civilization had roughly 50,000 inhabitants. A large pyramid was built in the city’s center and residential settlements were formed around it. The settlements were connected by stone pathways leading to the pyramid.
The built-up portion of the site covers80 sq km (31 sq mi) of land. Much of the site has yet to be excavated, which just goes to show how large the settlement actually was. Admission to Coba is 70 MXN ($4 USD) per person in addition to a small parking charge. The site is open daily from 8 am to 5 pm.
How to Get to Coba
The Coba archaeological site is located in the eastern portion of the state of Quintana Roo. It’s 43 km (27 mi) northwest of Tulum and 106 km (66 mi) east of Chichen Itza. Coba is best visited on a day trip from Tulum. The drive from Tulum is just 45 min. Tours are regularly offered from both Cancun and Tulum.
Again, I suggest renting a car and doing a self-guided tour. Cars can be rented directly in Tulum if you didn’t pick one up at the airport upon arrival. Bus and taxi are also great options if traveling from Tulum. Buses leave daily and take about one hour to reach Coba. A taxi colectivo (shared taxi) is very affordable but it can be difficult to find one returning to Tulum.
Must-Dos at the Coba Ruins
Bike Through the Jungle
The best way to explore Coba is by bicycle. A bike ride through the jungle is the perfect way to spend a morning. Morning is ideal if you wish to avoid hot and humid afternoons. There is a flat, dirt pathway that connects the four main building groups with each group having a place for bike parking. Bicycles are available for rent near the front entrance.
Climb the Giant Pyramid
Nohoch Mul is the large pyramid found in the center of Coba. The pyramid stands at 42 m (137 ft) tall and is the tallest pyramid in the Yucatán Peninsula. It is one of the last remaining two pyramids that are open to climbing. There are 120 steep steps leading to the top. It’s not the easiest climb but the views from the top are incredible. You can see the jungle canopy for miles.
Due to COVID-19, the pyramid may be closed since it’s impossible to social distance on the climb. Please check in advance. Your hotel should have the most up-to-date information.
Things to Do Near Coba
Along the main highway from Tulum to Coba there are some excellent shopping opportunities. You’ll find several small towns selling crafts, pottery, blankets, hammocks, and beautiful dream catchers. All the items are far less expensive than in the shops found in Tulum. There are some fantastic taco stands too.
Swim at Cenote Oxman
Cenote Oxman is my favorite cenote in the area. It’s gorgeous and even has a rope swing, making it extra fun. It’s located right outside the town of Valladolid. It’s about 50 min west of Coba but is the perfect stop if you are continuing on to Chichen Itza.
The cenote is located on a beautiful property called Hacienda San Lorenzo Oxman. The property was once an agave plantation but today it’s a place for guests to grab some food and swim in the cenote or pool. The Hacienda offers packages that include lunch, a cocktail, and swimming access.
Where to Stay at the Ruins Near Tulum
Casa Malca is located on a beautiful private beach in Tulum near the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve. It’s a bit of a splurge, but it has a pretty cool claim to fame. It was once the hideaway of drug lord Pablo Escobar before being converted into a hotel. Today, the hotel is owned by art collector, Lio Malca and showcases part of his personal collection. The property has 3 restaurants, a pool, and a spa.
Papaya Playa Project is a beachfront boutique hotel in Tulum. It offers both jungle and ocean rooms. A handful of rooms even have their own rooftop pool. It’s also a great place to stay if you wish to see baby sea turtles. During nesting season, the beach is used by sea turtles to lay their eggs. Upon hatching the young turtles make their way down to the water in the middle of the night.
Hotel Chichen Itza is a great choice if you wish to spend some time around Chichen Itza. It’s affordable and located in Piste, just under 1.6 km (1 mi) from the ruins. The property has a restaurant and a large pool on site. It also includes a full breakfast.
Have you visited the Mayan Riviera? What are your favorite ruins near Tulum?If you’ve enjoyed this post, please leave a comment or share using the social media buttons below. Looking for more fun activities in Mexico? Continue to my post, “A Guide to the Best Snorkeling in Cozumel.”
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I have always wanted to go to Mexico and see the Mayan ruins! And girl, you opened my eyes to a few more to add to the list! I’m especially keen to see that watering hole! It looks gorgeous.