Every day, busloads of visitors come from Cancún and all over the Riviera Maya to pay their respects to the Maya ruins at Tulum. The site, just north of town, is modest in size, so you can easily combine a visit with other pursuits. Come early, since the heat and crowds tend to mount as the day progresses. Arrive at 8 a.m., pay the $4.50 entrance fee, and ask one of the state-appointed guides to show you around. You can ride the tram ($2) or just walk the trail to get there; it’s less than 10 minutes on foot.
A guide isn’t required, but your visit will be much richer if you hire one (the posted fee is around $45 for a group of four). The guides know which window slots in the ancient stone buildings were strategically placed to let the setting sun shine through on the spring and fall equinoxes. Did the Maya really practice human sacrifice? The jury still seems to be out on that, but the stone table in front of the largest building, the Castle, is said to have been used for that purpose. And when the sun starts to blaze, head for the wooden staircases on one side of the Castle; they lead down to the beach, where you can cool off with a dip if you’re so inclined.
Anyone who’s visited the Riviera Maya knows what a cenote is: an underground freshwater pool, or sinkhole, often open for swimming. If you want to combine a cenote swim with other activities, consider visiting Aktun Chen, a 450-acre nature park just north of Tulum. Its spacious enclosures hold a number of animals—spider monkeys, pacas (striped two-foot-long rodents, like guinea pigs), white-tailed deer, javelinas. Then there are the ziplines, now common along this coast (in fact, Aktun Chen has officially added “Indiana Joe’s” to its name in an effort to lure adventure seekers). The cenote here is especially visitor-friendly: Broad stone steps lead down to the pool, ceiling openings admit shafts of sunlight, and you can even walk around inside on a gravel path.
But Aktun Chen’s prime asset is its 5 million-year-old “dry cave.” A guide leads your group along a winding trail past countless, artfully illuminated limestone stalactites and stalagmites. After an hour or so, you reach a sight that takes your breath away: The ceiling opens up to a gigantic cavern with a 40-foot-deep pool at the bottom. The hundreds of stalactites reflected in the water look like ghostly, multi-towered castles. While you gaze around in awe, fruit bats flit overhead and cling to the walls in furry clusters.
Stay for a lunch of tacos or quesadillas in Aktun Chen’s open-air restaurant, Tukan. A friendly parrot lurks outside, looking to mooch any uneaten food, and a peacock may sweep in through the door for a visit.
SIAN KA'AN BIOSPHERE RESERVE
For an experience of thriving life alongside all these ruins, check out the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve. The views stretch for miles in this 1.3-million-acre nature preserve. There are two entrances from Tulum: You can either keep driving south on the beach road to reach the headquarters of Cesiak, one of two companies that operate tours of the area, or keep driving south on the main street in town, Avenida Tulum.
Sian Ka’an holds all the ecosystems of the Yucatan peninsula: savannah, mangrove, jungle, beach and coral reef. Some 330 bird species make their home here, along with jaguars, crocodiles and even manatees—though these aren’t commonly spotted. Book a boat tour to explore the wetlands by canal—some natural, some built by the Maya 1,000 years ago. You’ll motor up narrow waterways rimmed by grasses and mangroves, with nothing but nature to be seen on the horizon, and gorgeous sky and clouds overhead. (In the Mayan language, sian ka’an means “where the sky is born.”) You’ll probably stop at one of many stone mini ruins, out in the middle of nowhere—Sian Ka’an has been named a UNESCO World Heritage site for its archeological remains. A hot day might call for a swim, so it’s a good idea to have your bathing suit with you.
Cesiak (cesiak.org) and Community Tours (siankaantours.org) run a variety of guided trips in the reserve. Both groups also operate restaurants where you can refuel with delicious fruit platters and Mexican dishes. Cesiak’s lodge, right on the coast, offers panoramic views from a high rooftop deck; somehow the beach looks even more stunning from here.
NOTE: Information may have changed since publication. Please confirm key details before planning your trip.