Well two and a half, but who’s counting?
As I sit here watching the leaves fall outside my window, I have yet another case of “I wish I was back in…” wherever I’ve been lately. I’ve decided that Tulum is a perfect combination of all the things I love about a good tropical destination all wrapped up into one, other than it is slightly on the pricey side. It has white sand, turquoise waters, thatched bungalow style accommodation, and palm trees for days. It has just enough to do and see that you may not get bored but also plenty of quiet beach space if you want to do literally nothing. A friend and I found a hella good deal so we popped down for a few days to see what all the hype is about.
Without further ado, here is my guide to the best of Tulum, Mexico.
Tulum is located on the Yucatan about two hours south of Cancun. Your transport will get you out of the hustle and take a highway due south where your paradise awaits. If you’ve ever dreamed of going to Thailand or Bali but want a flight only a few short hours away (at least from the US mainland) then this is your place. There are basically only two roads. One that runs along the ocean and another that is perpendicular to the beach road that heads away from the water towards Tulum Town. Along the beach road are sandy open air restaurants, boutique hotels (very few big resorts here!), cute shops, and bars lit with string lights. Tulum Town isn’t anything spectacular, but it does have some great street art and where you’ll find the best food. Throw in people riding bicycles everywhere (and lots of taxis too honestly) and you have the feel for Tulum.
You will fly into the Cancun airport. There are a few options to get down to Tulum depending on your time and budget. If you just want to get your arse on the sand as quickly as possible, book your transport in advance through a company or grab a taxi once you arrive. I’d rather have it booked in advance so you don’t have to deal with the throngs of people shouting at you and trying to find one. We used Olympus because I know they are good and reliable. It ran us about $140USD round trip for a private van with wifi (it is two hours away after all). He also stopped at a 7-11 by the airport so we could grab some…ah…provisions…for the trip. It’s not exactly budget transport, but it’s 100% worth the money if you just want to walk out of the airport, find your guy and go.
Pro tip: If you use this type of transport, when you get out of the airport doors hang a right. Walk towards all those buses/vans and it’s down that way.
Another, way less expensive, option is the ADO bus. The ADO bus is not a chicken bus but a very nice lux bus transport system. The only reason we didn’t want to take this option was because it’s slower and you have to change buses in Playa del Carmen. It will get you to Tulum Town and then you have to take a taxi to your hotel. If you are on a time crunch, this isn’t the best option. If you are on a budget crunch, it is. It’s about $7-8 for the ADO bus which is obviously laughably cheaper than the van transport, however it will all depend on what things you deem to be worth it or not worth it while travelling. (At the airport you will see the ADO booths in the same area as the taxis)
Bicycles – Bikes are a great way to get around. Most everything in Tulum is bikeable (is that a word?). It will take you about 30-40 minutes to get from the beach hotels area to Tulum Town and about 20 minutes to get to the Tulum Ruins from the main beach area also. If you are just hanging around the beach road, you can pop in and out of the shops, grab a drink or stop at a cenote while you are riding around. It’s fantastic.
Taxis – Taxis are an inexpensive way to get around the area. You can hail them anywhere or your hotel will do it for you. It’s about $5 to Tulum town. You can also get them to do round trips for you and they will wait while you do your touring around whatever location you are at. It was about $25 for a driver to take us to one of the cenotes, wait on us for about hour and 1/2 then take us back. (don’t forget to tip them some pesos!)
-Cenotes! (pronounced si-NO-tees)
These are freshwater sinkholes bluer and clearer than any water I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen a lot of it. They are a little chilly, but not overwhelmingly so (and this is coming from yours truly, hater of cold water). They are absolutely everywhere. Some are in caves, some are out in the open, some are covered in jungle. You can even stop at some here and there riding your bike along the beach road. They cost about $3-5 to enter and I don’t think you can say you’ve been to Tulum and not visit at least one. We visited Zacil-Ha. It’s not the biggest one, but still lovely.
Pro tip: Never go in the middle of the afternoon unless you want the thing filled to the brim with orange life-vested tour groups. Go right when it opens or about an hour before it closes. We went as it was closing, waited about 30 minutes then everyone cleared out and we had the whole thing to ourselves for like 45 minutes.
Other well-known (and bigger) ones include Dos Ojos and Gran, however they truly are everywhere. Just do a quick instagram search of each to decide which ones you’d like to visit.
-Cool Mayan Stuff
The Mayans were THE DUDES of the area like 1,000 years ago so they have ruins everywhere. Even if you don’t care at all about history or the Mayans it’s fascinating and 100% worth going to see some of the sites. They are $5-20ish to enter.
The closest are the Tulum Ruins right along the ocean. Some of the temples sit right on a cliffs edge overlooking that gorgeous water. If you’re looking for some overlook spots, this is it. But for the love of all things holy, get there when it opens (that goes for saying for just about any touristy spot). We pulled a total amateur traveler move and dawdled around the hotel and rode our bikes, arriving there about 10am. By then you’re too late. People totally everywhere. No matter, it’s a beautiful spot and seeing the relics that have been there for so long genuinely is captivating. There isn’t much signage around for information, so you could probably get a tour guide, but we just read about it on Wikipedia later. (#millennials?)
Chichen Itza is the big ‘ol cool one you see in so many photos. It’s a UNESCO site and one of the New Seven Wonders of the world. It’s a few hours away so you’ll need to take a taxi or get a tour. Here’s my take on this: a taxi will get you there right when it opens, a tour will not. I hate tours anyway, but I also want to avoid crowds. So this was another expensive thing that we decided was worth the money. It was around $120 for the day with our taxi driver. We left at 6am and he stopped at a store so we could get some coffee close to the ruins site. We got there right after it opened around 8:10 and there were already people piling in. Not many, though.
The hordes starting arriving about an hour after we did, and with the people came the vendor stalls. When we arrived it was peaceful and the pathways were empty, but an hour later, there were no less than 100+ stalls selling any kind of souvenir you could imagine. It made the area feel less authentic and hectic, but I can’t resist a good tacky souvenir so neon cactus salt and pepper shakers it was. So if you want to enjoy the area in some peace and quiet…get. there. early.
We spent a good few hours here as there are a lot more ruins than just the pyramid. Again there’s not much signage so if you want the information there you’ll need a guide. There’s also a cenote here, however you can’t swim in it. It’s not very pretty and just looks like a sinkhole, but it was a sort of Mayan sacrificial one, which is creepola.
When we were finished at Chichen Itza, the taxi driver took us to lunch at my favorite kind of spot: a roadside taco wagon with plastic tables and chairs. He said it’s some of his favorite tacos and he was not lying. We also bought his lunch and I think we spent something of $3 for 7 tacos and 2 horchatas. #ilovemexico
-Playa Paraiso Area
This is an excellent area of beach with wide, white sand and milky turquoise waters. Even in the middle of the afternoon you can find stretches with hardly anyone or you can plop in front of one of the beach clubs and have a waiter at your beck and call. Your choice. Just pick a sandy pathway somewhere in between the road that leads back into Tulum Town and the Tulum Ruins to the north and on the beach you’ll be.
Raw Love is basically an instagrammers paradise. It serves up vegan fare along with delicious (and insta worthy) smoothie bowls. It’s a great breakfast spot. Did I mention that there are hammocks and a rope swing!?
If you like matcha, and some people don’t, this is cute quick place to stop for a cold latte. It was pretty good, but I was mostly #hereforthephoto.
This hotel is situated on your way to the Tulum Ruins. My friend and I were on our bikes on our way back from them and noticed this place had 2-for-1 margaritas so of course we stopped. We were SO glad we did! Not only was the bar/restaurant super chic, but the views were to die. The margaritas were outstanding! We didn’t eat at the restaurant but it served Thai food. We even had a little lizard guy enjoying the view with us.
Antojitos la Chiapaneca
If you want the best (and cheapest!) tacos around, head here. It’s in Tulum Town and is famous for its excellent food. It’s a bright orange restaurant where it’s always filled to the brim with people, tourists and locals alike. We ordered at least 8 things off the menu plus two cokes and it came to about $6. It’s actually cheaper to get a taxi into town, eat here, and get a taxi back to the beach than to eat at the restaurants down at the hotels strip. You won’t be disappointed! (It’s only open in the evenings)
-Exchange to Pesos! There are a few ATMs around but just get what you need beforehand. Very few places take cards! Cash cash cash.
-If you are going in the fall/winter/spring, the nights are chilly. I was there in September and after the sun went down I needed a sweater. It’s hot in the day, however.
-Don’t wear sunscreen into the cenotes. It can damage the ecosystems.
-Tips are important. Always tip your taxi drivers especially, and some at restaurants also.
-If you are biking, be careful at night. The beach road stays pretty busy with trucks and taxis but I never felt unsafe, it was more annoying. Biking at night is a little different though because I was afraid that somebody wouldn’t see me.
-Tulum is an eco heaven. Be respectful of the environment.
-A lot, if not most, of the hotels along the beach have salt water taps and showers. It wasn’t as salty as the actual ocean, but it’s not freshwater either.
I hope this was helpful! If you need any tips on Tulum, I have plenty to talk about!