Thirteen kilometers (8 miles) south of Xel-Ha are the ruins of Tulum, a Maya fortress-city on a cliff above the sea. By a.d. 900, the end of the Classic period, Maya civilization had begun its decline, and the large cities to the south were abandoned. Tulum is one of the small city-states that rose to fill the void. It came to prominence in the 13th century as a seaport, controlling maritime commerce along this section of the coast, and remained inhabited well after the arrival of the Spanish. The primary god here was the diving god, depicted on several buildings as an upside-down figure above doorways. Seen at the Palace at Sayil and Cobá, this curious, almost comical figure is also known as the bee god.

The most imposing building in Tulum is a large stone structure above the cliff called the Castillo (castle). A temple as well as a fortress, it was once covered with stucco and paint. In front of the Castillo are several unrestored palace-like buildings partially covered with stucco. Tourists swim and sunbathe on the beach below, where the Maya once came ashore.

The Temple of the Frescoes, directly in front of the Castillo, contains interesting 13th-century wall paintings, though entrance is no longer permitted. Distinctly Maya, they represent Chaac, the rain god, and Ixchel, goddess of weaving, women, the moon, and medicine. The cornice of this temple has a relief of Chaac’s head; from a slight distance, you can make out the eyes, nose, mouth, and chin. Notice the remains of the red-painted stucco—at one time all of Tulum’s buildings were painted bright red.

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Much of what we know of Tulum at the time of the Spanish Conquest comes from the writings of Diego de Landa, third bishop of the Yucatán. He wrote that Tulum was a small city inhabited by about 600 people who lived in platform dwellings along a street and supervised the trade traffic from Honduras to the Yucatán. Though it was a walled city, most inhabitants probably lived outside the walls, leaving the interior for the ceremonial structures and residences of governors and priests. Tulum survived for about 70 years after the conquest before finally being abandoned.

Because of the great number of visitors this site receives, it is no longer possible to climb many of the ruins (and you should aim to beat the crowds, which arrive around 10am). In some cases, visitors are asked to remain behind roped-off areas. Licensed guides at the stand next to the path to the ruins charge 200 pesos for a 45-minute tour in English, French, or Spanish for up to four people. In some ways, they are performers who will tailor their presentation to the responses they get from you. There’s a beautiful small cove below the Castillo, where visitors cool off after trekking in the hot sun. There are no facilities at the beach, however; restrooms are located by the entrance to the ruins.  The main entrance compound and parking lots are located about a 5-minute walk from the archaeological site. An open-air tram shuttles visitors between the two. You’ll find artisans’ stands, a bookstore, a museum, a restaurant, several large bathrooms, and a ticket booth here, and there are often performances by Voladores de Papantla, elaborately costumed men who climb a 900-foot-high pole, attach themselves to the top with a binding, then twirl upside down to the ground.