Tulum is not limited to its beautiful water and stunningly gorgeous beaches that almost hold you in their spell. There is much to do in and around this happy little village in the middle of the Mayan Riviera.
The location of Tulum makes it a great place to stay and explore other parts of the Yucatan , or just enjoy all of the charm and style that is in and around Tulum itself.
From Tulum, you are close to four Mayan ruin sites worth exploring. You can really increase the thrill of your adventure by studying Mayan history and astronomy before you visit. But even if you aren't up on your knowledge of Mayan culture, you will certainly get an education on the rich past and present of this civilization as you visit these fascinating sites.
From anywhere in Tulum you are a short drive to the Tulum Ruins, accessed from Federal Highway 307. The ruins are fronted by a fun craft market at the entrance, complete with souvenir shopping, restaurants and the Mayan Pole Flyers who perform their show regularly. The actual ruin site is approximately 1km east of the entrance and there are tractor-pulled trains to take you (for a fee), if you don’t feel like making the short walk.
It is not a large archaeological site, so you can move through it fairly quickly on your own or you can get a guided tour that will last a couple of hours.
There is a breathtaking beach at the base of the Tulum ruins; although there are no change-rooms or bathrooms once you are inside the ruins.
Coba has an interesting history and there are definitely signs existing today that the Mayan who inhabited Coba were firm believers in the "Popol Vuh" way of life (based on Meso-American mythology). The stepped temples, courtyards, steles and ball courts are still there, available for you to explore and climb on.
The turn-off to the ruin site is at the north end of Tulum Pueblo. Coba Ruins are roughly a 45-minute drive westward into the jungle (the straight and flat three-lane road is in perfect condition).
Coba boasts the tallest pyramid in the Yucatan and the site still permits visitors to climb it! Walk to the pyramid and explore, then take a rickshaw taxi or rent a bicycle to get back to the entrance. It's a very spread-out site, so wear good walking shoes and comfortable clothes. Insect repellent is also a good idea for the jungle areas.
Close to the Coba ruins are three different cenotes (freshwater sinkholes), which are really refreshing after walking around the ruins for a few hours! They are located about a 10-minute drive beyond the site. To get to them, you drive around the lake to the left side, through the little town. Guides in the area will gladly show you the way, and the cenotes are all marked with signs. The main one, which is a really impressive flooded underground cavern, offers change rooms and showers at the entrance.
If your tour doesn't include entry to the cenotes, keep in mind that it's cheaper to buy your tickets from the staff at the cenote entrance booth than at the Coba ruins.
If you are checking Mayan ruins off your list, then you should definitely visit Muyil, on the Sian Ka'an lagoon. Muyil is approximately 25 kms south of Tulum. The ruin site is on the left side of the road driving south; you can’t miss it.
This site is much less crowded than Tulum and Coba but it is no less significant. Here you will find Mayan temples laid out and designed astronomically. Also known as Chunyaxché, Muyil is one of the earliest and longest inhabited Mayan settlements in the region.
The site is not large and you can explore it in a couple of hours. The pyramid is the highest on the coast, at 57 feet in height. Set near the lagoon and surrounded by lush jungle and mangroves makes this site almost magical in character. There are also interesting remnants of an old Mayan road (called "sacbe").
At the sacbe intersection, there's a booth where you can pay about $4.00 USD to take the special “jungle walk” around the mangroves. Halfway through you'll encounter a high observational tower, which you may climb if you wish. From that point you walk to the marshes where there is another tower. From here you can see how the marshes spread out towards the Caribbean Sea coast. The ancient Mayans dredged and formed canals connecting with Coba and the sea, which secured Muyil's role as a center of trade.
If you visit the Sian Ka’an reserve, you can take a kayak/snorkel tour through the mangroves and allow you to snorkel through the Mayan canal.
Xel-Ha is most commonly known for its beautiful Eco Park. However, Xel-Ha was in fact a Mayan settlement that still has visible, intact ruins.
There are some minor ruins inside the modern park, but what you really want to see is on the other side of Highway 307 (just south of the park's entrance gate).
This is a small but interesting archaeological site, worth seeing especially if you're visiting the park for the day. In some areas, you'll see the ground still littered with bits of conch shells, which were crushed into powder, burnt and mixed into a mortar-like paste for construction. There is also a sacbe [Mayan road] leading to a cenote with sweat-lodges.
Xel-Ha is not far from Tulum, about a 10-minute drive north on highway 307.
Also a smaller site but one you can climb on and fully explore is Ek Balam. It is 128 km from Tulum and 56km northeast of Chichen Itza.
TIP: This is a good site to bundle with an excursion day that includes Chichen Itza or Valladolid (a quaint colonial city 25 kms south), or some of the cenotes in the area (like Ik'kil or Dzitnup).
One of the new Seven Wonders of the World, Chichen Itza is the most popular Mayan ruin site in the Yucatan. It is also the furthest away from Tulum. It's an absolutely spectacular site, with scores of fully-excavated buildings, observatories, courtyards, etc.
You can drive to the ruins either up Highway 307 to Playa del Carmen, then inland [recommended, it's a brand-new highway], or you can drive from Tulum through the jungle, via Coba. If you rent a car and drive through the jungle, you risk getting lost, especially coming back in the dark.
ADO buses run regularly between Tulum and Chichen Itza, or you can book a tour from your hotel or vacation rental. Taxis can also be hired, but be prepared for an adventurous trip, as drivers usually exceed the speed limit and can be a little reckless at times!
TIP: Chichen Itza is located in a neighboring state and is a full-day excursion from Tulum. Visit the stunning Ik'kil cenote after your tour of the ruins for an excellent and memorable day in the Yucatan!
Xcaret is like an Mayan-themed Eco park. It is a paradise for children, with exotic animals and fun activities. You can spend the whole day there, plus there is an evening show in the amphitheater.
Some of the attractions include a reenactment of the traditional Maya ball court game, horseback riding, a butterfly pavilion, a small zoo, traditional Mexican dance and music, and much more. The swimming here is excellent; where you can enjoy the beautifully temperate Caribbean Sea, swim through an underground river, or raft through the mangroves under the jungle canopy.
All of that is available, and we can't go without mentioning the foods you will get to enjoy--so many tasty traditional flavors of Mexico.
Are you into swimming and snorkeling? Xel-Ha is a great place to go. It is a freshwater bay that meets the ocean. Many sea creatures make their home in the bay and its tributaries. Snorkeling around the bay will simply blow your mind, even if you are not an avid diver or snorkeler. There is also "hammock island" for you to enjoy an afternoon siesta. Float through the mangroves on tubes or jump off the cliffs into the crystal-clear water. There are also a few ziplines.
Xel-Ha is an all-inclusive park so one fee covers the day. It is well worth the price of admission and a great place for the whole family. There are many well-trained lifeguards on duty.
Just south of Tulum is the beautiful Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve. The reserve has an abundant amount of flora and fauna and several distinct natural ecosystems. Its name, when translated, means "Place Where the Sky is Born".
The reserve contains unexcavated Maya ruins, freshwater canals, cenotes, mangroves, lagoons and inlets.
The fishing village of Boca Paila is within the reserve. The town of Punta Allen is the end of the Maya Riviera found at the southern tip of the reserve.
The common question most people ask is “which cenote is the best to visit?” There are hundreds of cenotes to explore along the Yucatan Peninsula, and each one is unique.
Some cenotes are more well-known and developed and can be crowded, depending on when you visit them. Others are a bit smaller or harder to reach, but you can enjoy them as almost your own private natural swimming pool--simply amazing!
The Grand Cenote (about a 5 min drive west of Tulum), is a fantastic place to start. But if you get the chance to visit more cenotes, you will find your favorite.
There are quite a number of cenotes located right off of Highway 307, both north and south of Tulum. There are also cenotes as you head west on the route you would take to the Coba ruins.
An excellent place to snorkel is Akumal (several sea turtle species nest here), or the nearby Yal Ku Lagoon. Xel-Ha Eco Park also has snorkeling but is a lot larger and much more expensive, especially if snorkeling is all you really want to do.
You can rent snorkel gear at Yal Ku and at Akumal beach.
There are lots of shopping opportunities in the town Tulum itself for Mayan and Mexican artisan items. The main boulevard is lined with shops, as are side streets.
There is a Mayan craft market at the entrance to the Tulum ruins, which has lots of stores and booths selling moderately priced items of all varieties.
The road to Coba has the odd artisan shop (often with cheaper prices on the same merchandise you would find in town). If you buy a few items off these locals, you can usually bargain for some great deals. There are also a couple small Mayan towns along the way and a small town at Coba ruins where you will find stores selling Mayan and Mexican crafts and souvenirs.
Playa del Carmen has the best shopping along the coast, although prices are higher than stores out in the countryside. (Going to Playa del Carmen is a half-day trip from Tulum). There you will find the popular and well known “5th Avenue”, which over the years has grown into a chic shopping mecca.
To get to Playa del Carmen from Tulum, you can take the bus or vans marked "colectivo". The bus drops you off right at the beginning of 5th Avenue, and the colectivo drops you about 3 blocks away, on 2nd street between 15th and 20th avenues.