Exploring Tulum With Your Family

In its heyday, Tulum served as a port of call for mariners and traders, and its walls defined the ancient town's defense against invaders from sea and land.
03/08/2013 07:18 am ET Updated May 08, 2013

Tulum is one of those magical places that offer it all for a family vacation. Children of all ages only need to look up at the ancient Mayan ruins -- some from as early as A.D. 250 -- dotting the cliffs above them to grasp the aura of ancient mystery that surrounds this area. The name Tulum, derived from the Mayan word for wall, and the ruins, looming above, have gained notoriety as one of the Mayan civilization's rare, walled cities. In its heyday, Tulum served as a port of call for mariners and traders, and its walls defined the ancient town's defense against invaders from sea and land. Kids will love to explore this ancient walled city and its Castillo, or castle, the largest of the surviving structures. Other fascinating structures include the Temple of the Descending, the Temple of the Frescoes, with its walls of murals and the Temples of the Gods of Winds and Stars.


As with all beaches in Mexico, the white sands of Tulum are "public". Beach access, however, is controlled through private land, or available to guests of oceanfront resorts or through the popular and prolific Beach Clubs. More than a dozen Clubs extend from north Tulum south to the renowned Boca Paila fishing and beach resort at the Sian Ka'an Biosphere lagoon. You will find inexpensive cabanas, lounge chairs, hammocks, and umbrellas for rent along the wide expanses of cool, white limestone sand fringed with palms. Club amenities vary: kite boarding, snorkeling, kayaking, bicycling and massage, but all clubs will offer bar and restaurant services.


Chichen Itza. the most popular Mayan site in the Yucatan, is also the furthest from Tulum. Allow a full day for this site alone, whose name means "located at the mouth of the well of the" Itza", or "enchanted waters". Flourishing from 700-1000AD, this pre-Columbian community dominated the Northern Lowlands. Highlights of the magnificent structures include the Great Ball Court, largest in Mesoamerica, El Caracol Observatory, El Castillo, Temples of the Warriors and the Skulls.


Coba ruins has an interesting history, and among the temples, ballcourts and steles still present, are definite clues that the Mayan inhabitants honored their Popol Vuh agricultural traditions. The Popol Vuh is the creation story of the Maya. The Creator, Heart-of-Sky, made several attempts to create humans from clay and wood before the final, "True People" were formed from maize. At the heart of Maya life, the cultivation of maize enabled the early Maya to evolve from hunter-gatherers to their highly advanced civilization--the only pre-Columbian people to have a written language, as well as a calendar.


Muyil ruins are much less visited than Tulum and Coba but the site is no less significant. Here you will find Mayan temples, laid out astronomically and even a small Temple of the Mat. Muyil also has the highest structure in the region.


Spend the day immersed in the Eco-Maya theme park of Xcaret. Some of the attractions include a reenactment of a traditional Maya ballcourt game, butterfly pavilion, traditional Mexican dance and music, small zoo and much more. Bring swimsuits--the swimming here is excellent and the water theme park rivals Disney World.


A fresh water bay that meets the ocean, Xel-Ha's ecology offers fantastic snorkeling, diving and watersports. The mix of fresh and saltwater aquatic animals which make their home in the bay and its tributaries will amaze even the avid diver or snorkeler. It is well worth the price of admission and with many lifeguards, a great place for a family outing.

Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve

South of Tulum exists an area so uniquely beautiful that the ancient Mayans considered it sacred, naming it Sian Ka'an, or "birthplace of the sky". A paradise of natural, freshwater lagoons which meet the ocean, the reserve contains unexcavated Maya ruins, cenotes, mangroves and a network of canals the ancients once used for coastal trade. Today Sian Ka'an is a UNESCO World Heritage Site with over 1.3 million acres of protected land and 75 miles of coastline. In 1986 the President of Mexico decreed the Sian Ka'an Biosphere a national reserve to protect the 23 known archeological sites, 103 known mammal species, and 336 known bird species that inhabit this natural sanctuary.
Tours, hiking, kayaking, snorkeling and world-class permit fishing at the Boca Paila camp are protected activities within the Reserve.

Hidden Worlds Cenote Park

Hidden Worlds, about 15 minutes north of Tulum, is a great place to take the family for a full day of action-packed adventure. Here you can experience jungle zip-lines, rappelling, cavern snorkel adventures, Skycycle Canopy ride, and a cenote--zipline splashdown.... all the while surrounded by the lush, Mayan jungle.

Tulum, Mexico, is everything wonderful about the Mexican Caribbean. Although well-discovered by tourists, the sugar white beaches are still sweetly quiet, the ocean is as clear as glass, and it's the flip-flop kind of winter vacation your sun-starved family will adore.

Scenes from Tulum, Mexico