Tulum – History and Beauty

About an hour and a half drive from the booming tourist metropolis that is Cancun, Mexico, lies Tulum, a relaxed, eco-friendly, resort-free town named after its famous Mayan ruins. While many Collegiate families have had the privilege of kicking back at one of Cancun’s beautiful resorts, fewer have made the journey down the Yucatan peninsula to see the wonders of Tulum.

A mural in Tulum pueblo.

A mural in Tulum pueblo.

Tulum is divided into three parts: Tulum pueblo, Tulum zona hotelera, and the Tulum archeological site. In order to get to the Mayan ruins and the beach front area of Tulum–Tulum zona hotelera–my family first had to navigate the frustrating traffic of Tulum pueblo. Alongside many other cars on the two-lane road, we inched our way through the small town, each speed bump making our rental car jolt, and each stop light allowing locals to walk up to the car windows selling various goods. The tortuous, dry heat, dust from the streets, and loud car horns would normally make me miserable, but I was too distracted by the beauty of the quaint little town to notice. Small open-front restaurants, dusty parked motorcycles, fresh fruit stands, and clothing stores selling brightly colored garments lined the streets. People milled about: women with children carrying full grocery bags, young men sporting “man buns” clutching yoga mats, surfers carrying their boards in one arm and swinging the other by their side. Everyone seemed to be relaxed and happy.

Tulum ruin overlooking the Caribbean.

Next we visited the ruins of Tulum. Called “Zama,” meaning “dawn,” by the Mayans, the Tulum ruins sit on cliffs overlooking the Caribbean Ocean, facing east towards the rising sun. The earliest evidence of life on the site was dated back to 564 CE; however, the peak of civilization occurred later, spanning the 13th to 16th centuries. An estimated 1,000 to 1,600 Mayans lived in Tulum at a time. The site is now open to tourists from 8 a.m.-5 p.m. every day (except holidays), but the best time to go is early, within an hour or two of its opening, to avoid the crowds and heat.


The first time my family went, we bypassed the tour guides and struck out on our own to discover the ancient city. While the site was just as beautiful, it was harder to appreciate each building as we were clueless as to the significance behind each ruin. The second time we toured the ruins, we payed a little extra for an official tour guide to show us around. The guide took my family of four for an hour-long tour, explaining the differences between buildings, the designs on the temples, the secrets to crossing the barrier reef, and much more. The ruins are invigorating. Stepping into the city after stumbling through a break in the eight meter thick wall felt like stepping back in time. Each building is made of a greying stone, and a few still have colorful parts originally dyed by Mayan paints. The standing structures are not the homes of the average person, but rather places for Mayan elites and Mayan gods: palatial homes for rulers, castles, and many prayer temples for the gods. The ruins are even more alluring due to the the blue water they overlook. Built on cliffs 12 meters above of the ocean, the ruins have a jaw-dropping view of the clear water. The temples nearest the ocean are the largest and most sacred and add to the beauty of the views. There is nothing like looking in one direction out towards the bright blue Caribbean, and then turning around to see the fascinating ruins of an ancient civilization.

A beach club in Tulum.

The final part of Tulum is the zona hotelera. This part of Tulum is arguably the most beautiful. The single street that this section is built off of is shaded by a dense forest of palm trees and shrubs. The white sand beach is decorated by a smattering of cute restaurants and small hotels. The water is crystal clear, and the surf is calm but not completely flat. A few people roam the beach, attempting to sell bracelets or fruit to sunbathers. Kite-surfers take advantage of the sea wind, while a few intense yogis set up their mats on the beach, and light music plays from the beach-front businesses. At night there are very few lights on the beach; many of the restaurants

The street that runs down Tulum zona hotelera.

resort to creative looking lights or candles to light their restaurants. The candles make the small town even more romantic and attractive, but they are more for utility than aesthetics: in most hotels and restaurants the electricity turns off after dark. The town, in attempts to be eco-friendly, discourages spray sunscreen use and disallows the flushing of any paper products down toilets. The food is all farm-to-table (or, in the case of Tulum’s famous fish tacos, sea-to-table), the high-end boutiques and the beach-sellers alike sell locally made clothing and jewelry, and many of the locals use bikes as opposed to cars. Their efforts don’t go unnoticed: the trees are greener, the water bluer, and food tastier.

All photos by Ellie Angle.



An ice cream shop in Tulum zona hotelera.

Tulum’s beach.

About the author

Ellie Angle is a junior at Collegiate.