I have to admit I was a bit blasé about seeing Mayan ruins prior to arriving in Mexico. Looking at all the brochures, tour operators and advertised bus trips made me feel like we would be walking into a sterile tourist trap. I wasn’t sure it would even be a cultural experience. So I have to thank my lovely friends Naomi & Jas who had travelled this road before us, they had lots of helpful advice and their enthusiasm was contagious. They had visiting the ruins on their “must do list! The couple had booked a bus trip which they thoroughly enjoyed but suggested we might prefer to hire a car and drive to the Mayan ruins independently. Until this suggestion I didn’t even realise this was a possibility! I assumed all visits would be through tours.
Driving in Mexico seemed a little daunting, but a lot more like our style of travel. We found we would need to hire a car in Mexico as US hire vehicles are not permitted over the border, but the idea was a lot more appealing. Naomi explained that we would have more time to wander around and take photos of the ruins and wouldn’t be on such a tight schedule. It seemed like a good idea, but I didn’t want to wander aimlessly around the stones without knowing the history. Naomi assured me there would be independent tour guides at the entrance able to guide us.
When we arrived in Mexico we soon discovered you need a car! Regardless of how we would see the ruins, if we were going to get out and see anything of Mexico we needed our own transport. In the Cancun and Yukatan region there are large distances to be travelled between towns, resorts, beaches, shops and other areas of interest. All the authentic Mexican gems and delicious places to eat were found on the roadsides in the middle of no- where! Without a car we would have had a totally different experience of Mexico.
Thankfully Brett had spent the preceding three weeks getting used to driving on the wrong side of the road in America, so the mechanics of driving were feeling somewhat familiar. We had envisaged crazy Mexican drivers on poor quality roads, but this vision was completely incorrect. We found ourselves driving on wide open roads between towns, with barely another car in sight. The roads were well marked and all the tourist attractions had excellent signage for visitors. Driving and navigating in Mexico was a cinch.
When we arrived at the entrance to Mayan ruins Tulum, the line up was more than 100 metres long. So many people were queuing in the hot sun, and I had this sinking feeling we should have taken a bus trip, just so we could skip the queue.
We had always intended to find a guide so I walked up to one of the semi official looking locals holding tickets. As I approached him he asked if I needed I guide. When I agreed, and we had settled on a price our family was fast tracked to the front of the queue and ushered straight into the ancient Mayan ruins. Katching! I would have spent way more than the asking price of $58 just to jump the queue!
Our guides name was Julio and he suggested we stop and buy some bottled water before we start the tour. This was a very welcome suggestion, and I was pleased he didn’t mind the delay getting started.
Locky & Anais ran ahead and walked through the stone entrance first! I love that our children have seen so much of the world. They find visiting an historic site just as much fun as a playground, and they always have so many fascinating questions.
Even without the mystic of the Mayan Ruins the site is very beautiful. The historic stone wall surrounds the inner Mayan village. In some places the wall is up to 6 metres tall where as in others it’s only 2 metres.
The wall itself is an amazing structure. There are five entrances through to the ancient ruins and walking through the entrance is like walking through a tunnel. In some sections the wall is up 4.5 metres wide! It’s a good idea to mind your head if your tall as some sections were a little low for Brett!
Julio explained that Tulum means fence, or stone wall but the settlement may have also been known as Zama or “city of dawn”.
Tulum was declared a national park in 1995. It surprised me to learn that visitors were only recently restricted from actually climbing on the ruins! Julio told us 540 types of birds migrate through the Tulum national park, and at different times of year you can see toucans, flamingo, humming bird and many more species.
The area is a natural jungle and had previously been home to Jaguars and Cougars! I did wonder if there were any still about, but my question either got lost in translation or Julio decided not to answer! What we did see were hundreds of iguana! They were everywhere!
We were told the Mayan people chose to establish the ancient city on the eastern side of the peninsula for a few main reasons. Firstly the high peninsula allowed them a clear view over the ocean and any potential threats of invasion. The coast line was also protected by the second biggest reef in the world. The reef offered an abundance of food and protection from invasion as it was almost impassable.
The Mayan people had a sophisticated calendar which relied on the sun and astrology. Although the reef was almost impenetrable, by calculating tides and the moon position there was one safe passage way which allowed the residents to trade with neighbouring ancient cities. So Tulum operated as an important port city, and provided a valuable resources for the inland Mayan civilisations of Coba and Chitzen Itza.
The city of Tulum began around 900 AD. Limestone found in the surrounding area was used to build the paths through the village and structures. The walls around the inner village were only added in 1100AD as the threat of invasion increased. The inner sanctum of the Tulum walls housed three main buildings. These were the watchtower, the temple and The Great Palace. The ruling class also lived inside the Tulum compound and the stone foundations of their houses can also be seen. The villagers had their homes around the outside of the walls but freely accessed the site for ceremonies, markets and general daily life.
The beach pictured below is where boats would land and bring supplies. The large building on the cliff is the observatory and watchtower. As you can see by the image below the watchtower was built on the highest section of land. There are four windows that look out to sea. Lining up the windows from the ocean was one of the keys to making a safe passage through the reef.
We were told the buildings were painted blue to represent Venus. The ancient Mayans worshiped Venus as it was the brightest star (planet) in the sky. It was also the key to their success as a civilisation. Venus allowed the Mayans to farm. By tracking the position of Venus the Mayans knew when to plant crops and farm the fields. When Venus returned to the sky it was time to harvest.
Another surprise were these really shallow wells. I found it very strange that they were only about 30cms deep. I asked why they weren’t deeper as I expected they would have needed to be sunk low to located water. Julio explained that workers would cart water to the wells, and fill them for use. The water was not onsite and needed to be carried from further afield.
Near the wells were these square plots which are pictured below. These are the outline is of some Mayan houses which are located within the Tulum stone walls. Only the outer wall foundations remain. In the centre of the houses you would typically find an alter. Another bizarre and interesting practise is evidenced in this image also. It was common in Mayan cultural to construct cross shaped burial crypts underneath the family home. Most often these crypts were under the alter as it was believed that the deceased was descending to the underworld! In this picture you can see the stairs which lead down to the stone reinforced crypt. We were told the elders were buried in the house so the family had their ancestors to guide them to the next life. WOW!
Would you like to know a little more about the burials?? I was fascinated! I asked how they could live with the rotting decay smell. Julio explained a thick layer of lime formed the base of the grave which decreased the decomposition period. The body was also covered in more lime so it decayed more quickly and the smell was reduced. Bodies from the site were found buried in the fetal position and quite often were accompanied by a tool or possession or in the case of the more wealthy, gems such as jade. The burial items found in crypts and tombs assisted archaeologists in identifying the Tulum Mayans trading partners.
The sun was also critical to the Mayan civilisation and their calendar relied on the position of the sun relative to the light coming through the holes in the watchtower wall.
Quite a lot is know about the Mayan civilasation and how they interacted with the sun and planets because they were one of few races at the time that mastered the art of recording information and writing. The Mayans used bark and the sap from trees which was boiled to form paper. They recorded important pieces of information from the Mayan civilisation such as astronomy discoveries.
Julio also directed us to one of the many limestone rocks which had been used as a mortar to crush and grind corn. He explained the life expectancy of a Mayan depended on their class level. The upper class lived until approximately 50 to 80 years. The villagers living outside the walls had a reduced life expectancy. They lived until only 35-40 years. The main reason for this discrepancy was the lower class diet was less rich in animal proteins as the villagers needed to hunt and then trade the kill to the upper class for necessities. The lower class were also farmers and supplemented their diet more with grains and corn.
As you can seen by the indent of the mortar, limestone is quite a soft rock so over time lime would accumulate in the body causing kidney stones. This would be one of the common ailments of the lower class ancient Mayan.
We were also told that human sacrifices were made of prisoners on alters. The Gods required a sacrifice twice a year at Equinox. The sacrifices were made predominately of prisoners, but it’s also believed that it would be an honour to sacrifice yourself for this ritual. Elaborate onyx swords were used for the sacrifices and all the villages would enter the village to witness the ritual.
The main threat the Mayans faced were the Spaniards. When the Mayan village was eventually conquered by the Spaniards the city of Tulum it’s estimated 500 residents lived inside the walls and 8000 in the outer village. In 1547 the Mayans left and the Spaniards took over the site.
It wasn’t until 1842 Tulum was rediscovered. It was in poor condition, the site had been reclaimed by the jungle. In 1925 the restoration of Tulum commenced. The restoration to fifty years to complete.
Tips When Visiting Any Mayan Ruins
- Tip: Hire a car and explore the surrounding area in addition to the ruins. Note – Hire cars must be hired in Mexico. US rental vehicles are not permitted over the Mexican border. This fact made me a little concerned for the safety of the hired vehicle, but we managed to return ours without incident.
- Tip: Don’t wait in line, go see a guide and you will be fast tracked to front of the queue.
- Tip: Bring a hat and plenty of sunscreen! You will be walking through wide open spaces without shelter and it’s HOT!
- Tip: Buy water at the start of the tour! You would be surprised how interesting the tour is and how long you spend on the site. Water is not available after you enter the walls.
What does it Cost to Visit the Tulum Ruins?
Tulum Ruins Bus Tour $400 (family of 4)
As I said at the start of the story, you can get a bus tour which will pick you up from your hotel and do a full day tour to the ruins. The day tour usually includes some stops at tourist places along the way that you may want to purchase souvenirs.
Independent Travel (family of 4)
Parking at Tulum Car Park – 50 peso or $5
Mini truck to the Tulum ruins from car park $4 for all of us
Entry to Tulum Ruins National Park $6
45 minute guided tour $US58