It’s hard to say exactly how I ended up in Tulum, a small beach town roughly two hours south of Cancún on Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula.
I’d just wrapped up a pretty amazing week touring Mexico City and wanted to spend a while longer south of the border. My first inclination was to travel next to Oaxaca, the original destination that had been tragically cut from the itinerary, but for reasons unbeknownst to me, my heart led me in a very opposite direction.
I would be celebrating my 29th birthday while in Mexico, and perhaps the allure of passing the day lounging on white sand beaches was just too great. And as a smaller and less-developed alternative to its well-known neighbors like Cancún and Playa del Carmen, I knew solitude would be well within reach at a time when I needed it in a bad way.
Whatever the reason, the decision couldn’t have been a better one. I met incredible people, I had a few life-changing experiences (a phrase I don’t use lightly) and enjoyed some of the best cuisines I’ve had in recent memory. Tulum, in spite of the challenges I faced at times, managed to win me over in the end.
Here are a few of my best recommendations to make the most of your visit to this charming Caribbean town.
WHERE TO STAY
There are so many amazing accommodation options in Tulum, both in the town itself and situated along the beach. I stayed in a wide range of places fitting all budgets; here are my top picks:
Diamante K – For luxury bungalows and your own private beach, this is an excellent choice. Also located just a few minutes from the Tulum Ruins.
Ku Tulum – For a beautiful and private apartment-style space in the heart of Tulum Town. Right around the corner from the best restaurants, coffee shops, and bars.
Azulik – Adults-only eco-resort crafted from gorgeous bamboo, perched above the beach and featuring breathtaking views.
Zazil Kin – Budget-friendly bungalows just steps from a popular beach, with a lively on-site bar and restaurant.
WHAT TO DO
Watch the sunrise – The sunrise in Tulum happens anywhere between 6:10 and 7:30 depending on the time of year you visit, making it a perfectly reasonable hour to wake up and start your day. No matter the weather and no matter the beach you choose, you’re bound to have a magical view.
Visit the Tulum Ruins – This is an obvious choice as it is one of the things Tulum is most known for. The former port city of the Mayan empire is in relatively good condition and situated on tall cliffs overlooking the sea. Go early in the morning (the gates open at 8 am) to avoid the midday heat and watch your step for giant iguanas. If you’re willing to pay a little extra, you might even be able to score early entry when no one else is inside. Arrive around sunrise and be ready to bargain with the security guards. The regular entrance fee is around 60 pesos (USD not accepted); guided tours are also available.
Rent bicycles and explore the beachfront – The beaches in Tulum extend for miles and there are endless spots to explore. Most hostels and hotels will offer bike rentals or you can grab one from a shop in town; there is a bike lane along the stretch of highway leading to the beach to help ease your fears if you’re not comfortable biking alongside traffic.
Take a tour of Tulum Town’s street art – It’s EVERYWHERE and it’s beautiful! You could easily spend a whole morning meandering the streets just to take it all in.
Visit the ruins of Coba – Another impressive archeological site located roughly 45 minutes from Tulum by car. Buses depart from the main terminal every morning, or you can easily hire a taxi.
Swim in a cenote – Cenotes are limestone sinkholes that leave groundwater pools exposed and are often connected by underwater “river” systems. These natural swimming holes are characteristic of the region and have become popular destinations for locals and travelers alike.
There are many to choose from, but the ones you’ll find closest to Tulum include Gran Cenote (a 5-minute cab ride from town), Cenote Zazil-ha (8km from Tulum), and Cenote Dos Ojos (22km north of Tulum). Each cenote is different, but you should expect to bring cash for an entry fee and other items like a locker or snorkel rental or even snacks if there is a restaurant on-site. If you’re a dive enthusiast, diving in a cenote would be an unforgettable experience!
Listen to live music in Tulum Town – A relatively new bar on the scene in Tulum Town called Batey hosts a live band in their back garden area most nights. Grab a drink and enjoy the show!
Watch the sunset at Mateo’s – Because Tulum faces east, the only way to watch the sunset is to put yourself high above the jungle that stretches to the west. Mateo’s Mexican Grill, located at the south end of Tulum Beach Road, has its very own “sunset lounge” built high above the tree tops for the city’s best evening view.
Dance at a beach club – If you’re in the mood for a real party, head to one of Tulum’s beach clubs. The Papaya Playa Project is a popular one that hosts parties day and night; EDM is their drug of choice. Gitano, on the jungle side of Tulum Beach Road, hosts both live bands and DJs.
WHERE TO EAT
DelCielo – Cute cafe in Tulum Town with incredible local dishes, tartines, baked goods, and coffee. Good WiFi, electrical outlets, and air conditioning are major bonuses!
Taqueria Honorio – Where the locals go for tacos in Tulum. Each small taco (they offer a few pork variations, like cochinita pibil) costs just 15 pesos. It’s worth noting, however, that this place is not at all eco-friendly–they place disposable plastic bags over plates in lieu of washing them.
La Malquerida – Located in the heart of Tulum Town. This place served me one of the best meals of my whole stay–an epic plate of chile relleno.
Villa Pescadores – I stumbled upon this beachfront resort one afternoon and enjoyed a bowl of guac and grilled corn on the cob known in Mexico as elote. The latter was one of the most amazing things I ate while in Mexico, without a doubt!
Charly’s Vegan Tacos – Seriously delicious and inventive combinations at this food truck stationed along Tulum Beach Road. You’ll love them even if you’re not vegan, I promise!
WHERE TO CAFFEINATE
WHERE TO DRINK
Batey – Drink and dance in the streets of Tulum Town at this mojito and guarapo bar.
Mateo’s Mexican Grill – Near the south end of Tulum National Park on Tulum Beach Road. Come here for happy hour drinks at sunset.
Papaya Playa Project – For anyone looking for a real beach party!
Gitano – A painfully hip mezcalería south of Tulum National Park featuring contemporary Mexican cuisine, live bands and DJs under the stars.
- BEWARE THE SAND FLIES! They are vicious, and the bites will itch for WEEKS. Arm yourself with repellant and re-apply frequently!
- Same goes for sun exposure–beware the strength of the Mayan sun, and buy biodegradable sunscreen if possible (especially if you plan to visit the cenotes).
- Taxis between Tulum Town and the beach (anywhere on the beach, generally, unless it’s really far) should cost 60 pesos each way. If you don’t ask, they will assume you know the standard price and hopefully won’t try to charge you more.
- Count your change carefully! On more than one occasion I was given incorrect change by taxi drivers or in shops, perhaps because they assumed I wouldn’t notice or that I didn’t understand Spanish well.
- Haggle for better prices in the tourist shops, especially if you are buying several items.
- If you’re staying somewhere near the beach (in the zona hotelera, or hotel zone), try to withdraw cash from Tulum Town before heading to your hotel. Many hotels will have an independent ATM on-site, but it will charge you a literal arm for your transaction (or, you know, some ridiculous amount of money, sometimes $15!!). In town, you can find banks including Scotiabank and HSBC that have much more reasonable fees. If you’re already on the beach and in need of cash, your best option is to head to the supermarket Super Chedraui on the highway leading to town.
- US dollars are accepted at many hotels and restaurants, but you might not be getting the best exchange rate when using them and especially when making small purchases, it’s always better to pay in pesos. I only used my US dollars as a last resort.
Have you traveled to Tulum? What would you add to this travel guide? What were your favorite things to do?