The Tulum Ruins are the remains of a Mayan city, and a unique one, at that. This fortified city on the beach was a seaport trading in turquoise and jade, among other things.
What is it?
This ancient seaport was built in the late thirteenth century in the post-Classic period of Mayan civilization. It sits along a picturesque Mexican beach, whose thunder is often stolen by the resort town of Cancun just a short distance north. In addition to being gorgeously well-preserved, it's also unique in form and function from the other nearby Mayan cities.
Why would I go see that?
Even among Mexico's archaeological sites, Tulum is pretty unique. It's the only walled city that the civilization had—at least, as far as we know. And that wall is impressive. It runs for 2,420 feet along three sides of the city, ranging from 10 to 16 feet tall and 26 feet thick. Considering that it's made of limestone, and was built in an era when all we had for construction involved raw muscle, the wall is an incredible achievement. Of course, it only covers three sides of the city—the fourth is protected by a sheer cliffside facing the ocean. Together, these defenses helped the city last some 70 years into the Spanish occupation of Mexico—no small feat.
What all is there to see?
If the enormous wall isn't enough for you, there's also the Castillo, a castle built high atop the cliff. If you brave the walk along the staircase, you can get an unparalleled view of the Caribbean. There's also the Temple of the Frescoes, an observatory used for tracking sun movement that is adorned with figurines and murals on the wall. There's also a temple that seems dedicated to a "diving god" who protected the Mayan people and is depicted at various other sites across the city.
When should I go?
The ruins are open to the public from 8 to 5, but the best time to get some elbow room is in the early morning or late afternoon. Of course, you can always chill on the beach when the site gets too crowded. As far as what time of year, the weather is best between October and December, and that also tends to be the best time of year in terms of crowding and hotel costs.
What do I need to know?
Most resorts and hotels either have bus tours or information on where to sign up for a bus tour. Of course, you can also stay at Tulum itself. If you're driving, Tulum is just south of Cancun on Mexican Highway 307, less than two hours down the coast. Entry to the ruins is around 64 pesos, which is under $4, though parking can run you as much or more than that.
What should I bring?
Water, sunscreen, and bug spray are the big ones here; maybe spare coins for tipping. You could hire a private guide, but that doesn't seem to be as much of a big deal here as at Chichen Itza.