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Tulum Quintana Roo

For details and more things to do, go to Tulum Travel Guide.

Tulum

When I first visited Tulum in the late 1980s, it was a small seaside village near the same-named archaeological site. My friend and I floated in the blue Caribbean, watching puff-ball clouds float overhead before rinsing off in an outdoor shower and sheltering in a palm thatch hut. We swam in our first cenote--- a limestone pool surrounded by jungle. The living was easy and we wanted to stay forever, or at least two weeks.

In the 21st century, Tulum has grown exponentially. It doesn’t even remotely resemble my erstwhile idyll. Restaurants facing the sea offer Wi-Fi and sophisticated menus in English; there are tourist maps and moped rentals and nighttime crooners. But unlike more urban Playa del Carmen and high-rise Cancun, this tourist town retains an earthy charm. No high-rises here.

That’s not to say Tulum is for budget travelers. High rollers from New York and Europe drive up prices for designer burgers and sushi (formerly known as “raw fish”). Accommodations a mile from the beach easily go for US$100 a night, and beachfront lodgings---be they ever so humble---cost several times that price. Beach-front villas up and down the coast share the cachet. In Xpu-Ha, wealthy patrons from around the world stay at Esencia, a 29-room luxury boutique where some of the ocean-view rooms go for US$1,000 a night.

Despite the relatively high price tag of area hotels and restaurants, Tulum has some moderately priced accommodations, and of course cheap eats can always be found in Mexico if you look. The vibe is a mixture of hippie and neo-natural-chic.

There are two distinct parts of touristic Tulum. The so-called “Pueblo” stretches on both sides of the Cancun Highway (called Avenida Tulum as it passes through town), giving an unflattering first impression. This truck-stop look improves once you get off the main highway, and is not at all representative of the pretty Zona Hotelera (hotel zone) facing Tulum’s long, gorgeous main beach. Here small, one- and two-story hotels and restaurants blend into the scenery, surrounded by huge tropical trees and stone fences with weathered wooden gates. The organic but chichi scene reminds me of parts of Hawaii, or Laguna Beach, California in the 1970s.

A well-maintained bike path edges the main road into town, and shops rent bicycles by the hour or by the day. Whether you turn north or south along the beach road, you’ll find kilometers of gorgeous beaches facing the blue-green Caribbean. Tall, lanky palms face wide swaths of soft beige sand. Local shops and tour operators lead diving expeditions, teach kite surfing, and rent snorkel gear and catamarans. Beyond Tulum, lovely beaches like Akumal offer different vibes and scenery.

Aficionados of cenotes will find Tulum an excellent base for exploration. North of Tulum, en route to Playa del Carmen and Cancun, three limestone sinkholes hide in the low jungle practically side by side: Cenote Azul, Cenote Jardín del Edén, and Cenote Cristalino. Each of these clear, swimmable ponds fed by underground aquifers has its own character and is worth spending an hour or a day. On the road to Cobá, only a few kilometers west of the entrance to Tulum, el Gran Cenote, Cenotes Calavera, and Cenote Aktun Ha (AKA Car Wash Cenote) offer more options for swimmers and divers. There are off-the-beaten-path sinkholes too: just ask the locals.

Tulum Archaeological Site: History by the Sea

Because of its proximity to Cancún and Playa del Carmen, Mexico’s top vacation destinations, the Tulum archaeological site receives many thousands of visitors each day. It’s best to arrive as soon as it opens, when the weather is cooler and the crowds smaller. When things get packed, you can cool off at the beach right in front of the site, so bring your swimsuit.

Although occupied during the Classic era, Tulum’s major period of construction and importance was the Late Post-Classic (1200--1521). Unusual for a pre-Hispanic Maya town, this city was walled on three sides and overlooked the sea, which formed the fourth line of defense against aggressors.

Of approximately 60 structures on site, the most important and impressive are el Castillo, the Temple of the Descending God (el Templo del Dios Descendente), and the Temple of the Frescos (el Templo de los Frescos), with scenes of Maya gods engaged in ceremonial activities. In their time, buildings were thickly plastered and embellished with modeled stucco motifs in niches over doorways and at the corners of buildings.

Tulum was a mercantile city, and its shallow offshore lagoon allowed traders to take off and land in relative safety. Honey was one of the city’s most important exports, and carved symbols that are today referred to the “Diving God” or the “Descending God” (mentioned above) actually honor the bee god, Ah Muzencabob. (Vendors up and down the beach and shops in town sell honey made by the local type of stingless bee, melipona.)

The archaeological site is open daily. Visitors can park in the lot in and walk in (about one kilometer, or a little over half a mile) or take a shuttle bus or ride a bike.

Sian Ka’an

As unthinkable as visiting Tulum without seeing the archaeological site would be to forgo a trip to Sian Ka’an, whose name in Mayan means “ Origin of the Sky” or “Where the Sky Begins.” The third-largest protected area in Mexico, la Reserva de la Biósfera Sian Ka’an lies at the south end of Tulum. The 1.3-million acre biosphere reserve--- since 1987 a UNESCO World Heritage Site---encompasses a huge variety of ecosystems: barrier reef and sandy beaches; brackish mangroves, freshwater lagoons, and dune environments; jungle and savannahs; marshes and swamps. Its complex hydrological system provides a habitat for a wide variety of plants and animals, including more than 300 species of birds.

Most people visit the preserve on full- or half-day tours. These typically include boating through reed-lined canals, exploring the Muyil archaeological site, floating down the river in a life-preserver, and a short swim at the beach. Visitors with more time can go fishing, bird-watching, or spend one or more nights in the area’s rustic accommodations.

Tulum has changed exponentially in the last couple of decades, but it is still one of the most beautiful and interesting places on the Mexican Caribbean, with a great variety of experiences available to kids and adults.

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