Tulum, Mexico | The Reality of a World Famous Tourist Attraction

by Stephanie Walsh on November 19, 2012 · 23 comments

in Mexico, North America, Travel Thoughts, Travels

Tulum, Mexico

Search for “Tulum, Mexico” in Google Images and I challenge you to find a photo of the ancient Mayan ruins crowded with people. The reality is that, when you visit the site, or any other world famous tourist attraction, it is almost impossible to look anywhere (unless out on the ocean horizon!) WITHOUT seeing hoards of people…everywhere!

Ancient Tulum ruins, Mexico

The ancient city in Tulum, Mexico


Judging from photos circulating in mass media, you can be forgiven for assuming that all of these beautiful travel destinations in the world that are sold to us are unvisited dreamlands, just waiting for us to discover them all for ourselves. The reality when you get there is that you’re just another number passing through the turnstiles. I know that in the majority of famous places I have visited, there have been millions of visitors there before me. And that’s fine with me. I am no hipster, desperate to discover the newest trends and places, just so I can say; “Well, I was there waaay before anyone even heard of it”. No.

Crowds in Tulum Mexico

Crowds in Tulum Mexico...and this was low-season!

So unless we intend to get up before dawn and somehow manage to break into a world famous attraction, like a certain other travel blogger did, we’re not going to be alone, even if we’re the first people at the gate when it opens.

Tulum, Mexico

Crowds in Tulum, Mexico. I almost got knocked over by a middle aged woman just after I took this picture. She pushed past me to take a picture of an information sign on her phone...without looking at her phone or the sign. Yeah, I'm sure she'll read that!

Expectations Vs. Reality

I often wonder if people get disappointed, when they finally visit a place they have read and researched so much about. When it comes to photos, especially, why do we feel the need to portray these places as deserted and ‘pure’? Of course, I know that a photo of a crowded tourist attraction isn’t going to sell as well as the image with no crowds, but isn’t that very dishonest to the reality of traveling to these destinations? Do we end up being slightly disappointed every time we visit somewhere like this, even though we should have known deep down what to expect.

Tulum Mexico

We queued for ages to take this photo and someone still managed to slip into the background. Oh well.

Despite my experience of traveling to a few different famous attractions, I am guilty of often feeling a little let down by the difference between my expectations of a place and the reality of what I am actually seeing when I get there. I am also guilty of being one of those people who waits for several minutes for people to get out of my way, just to ensure I take the ‘perfect photo’…the one where there are no other people in the frame. While I use Tulum in Mexico as an example, the same can be said for many places I have visited, such as the Taj Mahal in India, the White House in Washington DC and other famous Mexican sites such Chichen Itza. Believe me, I’m still very impressed by these places and I am fortunate to have had the opportunity to visit them, but I can’t help feeling a little let down by the reality; they are too over-crowded and usually you are greatly restricted in where you can walk.

Crowds in Tulum

Well...you can get free tours by blending in!

Tulum Mexico

Tulum, Mexico

Who Is To Blame For Misrepresenting Reality?

Unfortunately, we’re all guilty of this one. Everyday, we present ourselves and our lives to the world the way we want them to be, not just when it comes to our travel photos. I’m guilty of only choosing photos for this blog, which represent how I want a place to come across.

But, more important than asking who is to blame, is to ask ourselves why we do this; are we trying to create a false memory of a place? Are we trying to forget how disappointing, crowded or bland a place was and instead, convince ourselves that it was as great as we imagined and expected it to be? We try to create the picture perfect photo to show to friends at home, subsequently misrepresenting the reality of what it was like to be there.

Tulum Mexico

There's a guy cleaning the beach below...I strategically placed him behind a plant for this photo.

Tulum Mexico

There he is...doesn't quite have the same effect.

So, feeling rebellious and honest, I have shown these few photos that I think represent what it’s really like to visit the ancient Mayan ruins in Tulum, Mexico. The same can be said for various other world famous attractions.

Is Tulum still worth it? Absolutely! No crowds can take away from the stunning beauty of this place, even with all those people. So maybe I just need to accept that there will be lots of people everywhere I go and I can’t have these places all to myself. Looking at it this way, we can hopefully avoid disappointment and we may even get more than we were expecting.


Have you ever felt disappointed when you visited a famous attraction?

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{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Pal November 19, 2012 at 4:54 pm

Oh, the eternal gap between expectations and reality… :) Nice post, Stephanie, and I fully sympathise with your thinking, just days ago I went through the same conversation with myself (and my girlfriend) at Machu Picchu.

I think we want the perfect pictures to match our strive for perfection, without any irritating clutter in it. It’s kind of a sport, isn’t it? (And taking pictures of other tourists sometimes make more entertaining pictures than you think.)

Still, despite the crowds, I think you convinced me to go to Tulum, I’ve never heard of it until now, but now I feel the urge to tick it off the list. Can’t wait to meet the sign-loving ladies…

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2 Stephanie Walsh November 23, 2012 at 9:43 am

Ha, I have always wanted to visit Machu Picchu but I always think I would need to spend so long trying not to get photos crowded with other travelers! It’s like an addiction and it sometimes really annoys me when a random person steps into my photos to ruin them! I need to relax about it…and yes, maybe focus ON the tourists themselves!

Glad I convinced you to go to Tulum. It’s gorgeous…even with all the pushy senior citizens! :P

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3 Andrés Felipe Díaz November 19, 2012 at 8:15 pm

From now on I think its better if we show the absolute reality of every place.

There should be a “Travel Blogger Manifesto” that starts with.

1) I shall always take pictures that represent the reality of a place above other things…

Also, we should really start taking pictures of the tourists….there are really hilarious things that we may capture that make it just amazing.
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4 Stephanie Walsh November 23, 2012 at 10:35 am

Haha totally, we should do that! :)

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5 Agness November 22, 2012 at 4:38 am

I agree, people often get disappointed, when they finally visit a place they have read and researched so much about and it is not what they have expected. Photos often look more beautiful than the place is. I guess everyone has the feeling at some point sometimes.
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6 Stephanie Walsh November 23, 2012 at 10:37 am

Definitely Agness. Sometimes I forget whether I’ve been to a place or not in reality…because I’ve read and seen so much about the place (especially on travel blogs I read) that I sometimes question whether it was real life or a blog post! haha

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7 Matthew Karsten November 23, 2012 at 4:00 pm

Nice job hiding the beach sweeper! :)
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8 Stephanie Walsh November 24, 2012 at 1:57 pm

Ha, thanks Matt! I try! :P

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9 Rachel November 27, 2012 at 2:41 am

I couldn’t agree more. I’m also guilty of having these expectations and feeling disappointed when my expectations aren’t met.. well, we’re humans and it’s hard to control our emotions especially when you waited so long to get into that place, you saved money for that supposedly wonderful experience.. but it’s up to you on how you’re going to enjoy it.

As for me, I kinda like taking photos of places with people in it. The people or the tourists make the scene more realistic.. although it’s also nice to have a good shot focusing on that subject alone.. it’s just sometimes hard to achieve it.. people are inevitable.

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10 Stephanie Walsh December 3, 2012 at 1:27 pm

So true Rachel. It’s about how you choose to react to it. I will try not to let it bother me anymore…I can’t have everywhere to myself! I love taking pictures with people in them too…but not when they are unintentionally there! I think it’s about having a good balance of both and realistic expectations so that you don’t put yourself up for disappointment! Thanks for commenting!

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11 Ruth (Tanama Tales) December 6, 2012 at 2:34 pm

Ahh Tulum. When I visited, I didn’t have high expectations. Therefore, it was ok to feel a little bit disappointed by the size of the place (I found the ruins ok, the location is everything in this case). We couldn’t hire a guide because the prices were exhorbitant. I took a lot of pictures and enjoyed the beach. We went around 3:00 p.m. so the place was almost alone. The only thing is that we didn’t get pretty pictures like yours because of the light.
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12 Stephanie Walsh December 7, 2012 at 10:24 am

Hey Ruth, thanks for commenting! Completely agree that it’s all about the location here. We had already been to Chichen Itza and Teotihuacán, so we had seen some of the best ancient ruins in Mexico. We didn’t go down to the beach but it looked beautiful for a swim. Don’t worry about the pictures…not having them will make your memory stronger! :)

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13 Rebecca Read December 30, 2012 at 10:54 am

Hi Stephanie, love your Colombia posts – we are off there for 3 weeks next month so it’s great to get some inspiration! We were in Tulum in January 2011 and it’s true that by the time we left the ruins mid-morning, the site really was packed. However, we learned that the trick to visiting all the Mexican archaeological sites (especially those close to Cancun) is to turn up really early. We hired bicycles in Tulum and cycled down to the ruins before most people were awake (easy when you’re still waking up on UK time!) and so got in to the site as soon as the gates opened. There were very few people around and our pictures really do look like the guide book ones! Being up early is also the best way to see the most wildlife but I must admit that it would be much harder to do if we weren’t naturally awake before daybreak due to the time difference…. Best of luck on your next adventure!

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14 Stephanie Walsh January 21, 2013 at 12:20 pm

Thanks Rebecca! Hope you’re enjoying Colombia…sorry for taking so long to respond!
Yes definitely. Getting up at the crack of dawn will help…especially coz most people are travelling from Cancun or Playa del Carmen, when visiting Tulum. We also had that plan, but sometimes you just need a nice lie-in! :)

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15 Curious Nomad March 1, 2013 at 11:47 am

I went to Tulum the week of al fin del mundo and it was a zoo. When trying to take photos, I had to position the shot to remove others like what you did. Some guidebooks or forums online have mentioned getting to Tulum before the hoards of tour buses arrive. I believe the best times are right when it opens or late afternoon. Supposedly, there were no human sacrifices at this Mayan ruin. Tulum are still worth it.
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16 Stephanie Walsh April 12, 2013 at 11:04 am

Yeah I think it’s still worth it too. I used to imagine what it was like for the Mayans looking out over the sea and suddenly seeing the huge white sails of strange ships approaching! They must have freaked out! haha
I would definitely try to go early in the morning or late evening too…you also avoid the intense sun that way too!

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17 Serena Star Leonard May 1, 2013 at 4:14 pm

You know it’s funny, it was at the Tulum Ruinas that I thought exactly the same thing!! Mind you the first time I was there, was many years ago and it was empty and there were no fences inside and places you couldn’t go.

So this time was crowded by comparison!

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18 Stephanie Walsh July 15, 2013 at 9:40 pm

You were lucky to get a chance to see it when it was less crowded but I think going early can also help…seeing as the crowds can’t be helped nowadays!

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19 Penny Sadler July 2, 2013 at 7:34 pm

I was lucky to go to Tuluum in the late 80′s and early 90′s and there was almost no one there. It was wonderful. I wrote a post about the movie that inspired me to go there. Anyway, yes! I was a bit disappointed when I first saw Piazza San Marco in Venice,,, so many people!!! But, I got over it and avoided it during the peak daytime hours, went other places and then went to San Marco later in the evening, many people had left and it was wonderful. I recovered. :)
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20 Stephanie Walsh July 15, 2013 at 8:59 pm

Ha, sounds like you’ve discovered the perfect formula to avoid the crowds. It really makes a world of difference…from enjoying a place or not. What movie inspired you to go visit Tulum?

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21 Jorge Rodriguez July 19, 2013 at 4:21 pm

Have you tried Bacalar? That wont dissapoint you ever!

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22 Stephanie Walsh July 19, 2013 at 8:23 pm

Hi Jorge, thanks for commenting. I have to admit I’d never heard of Bacalar until you mentioned it. I googled it and it looks stunning! I would love to visit there one day! Thanks for the tip!

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23 Kelly Rogers March 17, 2014 at 1:54 am

I think the problem lies not in over expectation of a place. The problem lies in comparing the experiences of others with your experience. Comparing their vacation and yours is unhealthy.

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