If Tulum isn’t on your bucket list, it really should be. In fact, we reckon you should place it in your top three destinations to visit, right this minute.
Tulum can be defined as heaven for many people which explains its rapidly burgeoning popularity.
The incredible ocean had us two beach bums falling to our knees in Tulum’s white sand worshipping the powers that be for this Caribbean blessing.
Scenesters and couples on vacay can’t get enough of the never-ending strip of hotels and beach clubs hugging the coastline, a world away from the rough-and-ready backpackers to be found in any one of the town’s many great hostels.
For foodies, there’s explode-in-your-mouth taste sensations to be found on every corner.
To service the demands of the barefoot-chic gringo crowd who’ve made the town their home there are vegan cafes and yoga studios galore, while even the most energetic and active sightseer could never get bored – from the famous Tulum ruins to snorkling with turtles at Akumal Bay, to diving in underground cave systems, you’re hard pressed to run out of things to do.
And now, in case we haven’t already convinced you with that fawning introduction, here are 10 reasons this place truly mustn’t be missed.
#1. The Beach
Oh. Sweet. Lord. That beach. Will we ever get over it? The beach in Tulum is divided in two sections, and can be reached from the town via a three km bike ride. To the right is the hotel zone (which we’ll talk about later), to the left is the Tulum National Park, also referred to as the public or free beach, which stretches for a couple of kilometres all the way to the famous Tulum ruins. It’s all too easy to lose entire days lying on the powdery sand frolicking (yes, frolicking, goddammit) in the gentle waves.
#2. The Food
The food in Tulum both in the town and along the beach is of consistently high quality – whether you’re eating a 10 peso taco off a plastic-bagged plate or taking your coveted seat at the much-hyped Hartwood, there is literally hardly a bad meal to be had. Look out for our top picks, coming soon on our blog. Basically, bring your appetites to Tulum. It’s time to treat yo’self.
#3. Tulum Town
Tulum is split into two areas – the hotel zone along the beach and Tulum pueblo, three kilometres in town. Although many travel writers say Tulum Pueblo is unremarkable and only worth a visit for cheap eats, we reckon this is entirely incorrect. The township is full of endearing (if rundown) street art, fantastic restaurants, great budget accommodation, and most of all, you actually feel like you’re in Mexico. There’s also a number of affordable bars where you can party with locals.
For example, as I was literally writing this sentence, a small Mexican child threw a firework into the hostel reception and then bolted down the street. If you want to see something new every day with a little Yucatan flavour (and your budget is in the forefront of your mind), stay in Tulum Pueblo, at least for a couple of nights.
#4. The Beach Club scene (Hotel Zone)
We have found some of our favourite ever beach clubs along the hotel zone of Tulum. There are literally kilometres worth of places to pull up a pew and sink a brew. For a super luxe vibe (with a higher price tag), head to La Zebra, where you can spread out on massive beds under cover from the sun and gorge on margaritas and beef nachos. For a more relaxed afternoon, head to Coco Tulum, where you can’t help but be charmed by the decor and service.
However, if you’re wanting to mix with the locals, the bohemian Taqueria La Eufemia should be your first port of call. With beds thrown down on the sand plus a restaurant with seating, this is the most affordable place on the beach for fish tacos and an obligatory beverage. If you’re having a big day, the cocktails are also unbelievable. Order a Cocoloco and think of us, won’t you?
If you’re spending a quiet evening boozing in the hotel zone, start with happy hour cocktails at Mateos Mexican Grill’s sunset lounge. This rather American bar has a magical raised platform perfect for watching the sunset over the jungle. From here, head to Hemingway for some guacamole and another round of margaritas. Last but not least, make your way to Hotel Zulum. Featuring a slide for your wobbly exit and a pet pig to charm patrons, there can’t be many more romantic places in the world to admire a low-hanging moon with a Victoria in hand.
#5. Akumal Bay
Akumal Bay is arguably one of Tulum and Playa del Carmen’s biggest draws. It’s a beautiful shallow bay in the middle of the two towns, where turtles feed on sea grass there all year around. Whilst tourists can still swim here with the turtles for free, operators try to insist upon all visitors taking a tour and wearing life jackets for a hefty price, allegedly for the safety of the turtles. Whilst we were lucky enough to have had the time of our lives in Akumal Bay swimming, we heard of several instances where girls were quite literally yanked out of the water for not wearing (ie, paying for) life jackets.
#5. The Cenotes
Tulum is also a great base to see some of the Yucutan’s famous cenotes, which are basically crystal clear natural swimming pools, many linked by an underground cave system. The well-known Gran and Dos Ojos cenotes, although a little expensive, are spectacular and just a short ride up the road by bike and collectivo respectively. Learning to dive is also a very common way to pass the time in the Yucatan, and the best part is it’s more likely you’ll be learning in a cenote than an over-chlorinated swimming pool.
#6. Tulum’s Hidden Spots
Although many say the Tulum of yesteryear has long gone, with the place overrun by tourists, there are still plenty of places you can go where virtually no-one will follow. One of these is the amazing Laguna Kaan Luum, which you’ll find along the road to Muyil. If you get here around 9.00 am you’ll enjoy hours of solid alone time before; however, make sure you bring your own booze and food because there’s precious little to scavenge for miles around. Look out for a blog post on getting here soon!
#7. Chichen Itza
This wonder of the world is wildly popular and it’s easy to tick it off on a day trip from Tulum by bus, on a tour, or by car. By no means off the gringo trail (there was a queue of cars at opening time) it’s a necessary must-see in the region and features some truly interesting acoustic quirks.
#8 & #9. The Hostels and Travellers
There are an absolute truckload of hostels to stay in Tulum Pueblo and once you start snooping around on HostelWorld, you’ll quickly find one reigns supreme – Jose at Mama’s Home. We had the pleasure of staying at this hostel and it was truly exceptional. The communal area couldn’t be more welcoming and the rooms and bathrooms were spotless and comfortable (insider tip – the A/C is insanely powerful, so don’t be too shy to ask for a blanket if you need it). Jose and his team do such an unbelievable job making a gourmet breakfast every morning and coming up with fun things to do each night that you can’t help but feel you’re in a home away from home with your large, slightly drunk extended family.
NB: If you want to stay at Jose’s, recently named the best hostel in Mexico and North America for good reason, it’s imperative to book early, especially over Christmas and New Year’s Eve.
A special mention must also go to Quintana Roots, a bright and shiny new hostel close to the beach road. If you’re working on the road, or in need of a little chill time, this place has it all – great wi-fi, a ping-pong and foosball table, huge communal tables, everything you need at breakfast time to cook up a feast included, a family room with Netflix, a dive centre and very well priced private rooms.
NB: It doesn’t quite have the same vibe as Jose’s (perhaps because you cannot BYO alcohol) and the television constantly switched on can become somewhat maddening but it certainly is a very comfortable, clean and convenient place to stay. The team are currently building a rooftop bar and we have no doubt once this is up-and-running the final piece of the puzzle will fall into place for Quintana Roots.
We also felt we met a collection of the coolest travellers in Tulum, who we’ll be lifelong friends with – people keen to explore, with interesting viewpoints to share who weren’t necessarily obsessed with drinking themselves into oblivion every night.
#9. The Tulum Ruins
Before we visited Tulum ourselves, we somehow had gathered the impression the entire coastline was strewn with ancient Mayan ruins, holiday makers sprawled casually in the shadows they cast along the beach. This is not quite accurate – the Tulum ruins instead are a very popular and well-looked-after tourist attraction, which you must pay for the privilege to see. The Mayan city is certainly very scenic, but be prepared to enjoy it with hundreds, if not thousands of others. Our highlight here was the incredible sheltered cove the ancient city protected, which couldn’t be more picturesque or feel more exclusive, despite the swollen crowds.
Our tips for the ruins: pick a sunny day, pack bathers and supplies and make a day of it here. You’ll pay more for a seat here at sunset or sunrise, with a 200 peso fee to enter early in the morning from 6.30 am or in the afternoon after 4.30 am (approximately $14 AU). In contrast, during the day (approximately after 10.00 am) will set you back just 70 pesos. Last but not least, if you don’t like crowds, don’t go on a Sunday – entrance is free for Mexicans on the Sabbath and naturally they take full advantage.
If you’re thinking this is a love-letter to Tulum, you’re right – we love, love, love Tulum. We left it behind three months ago and we still miss it. The food is consistently excellent and cheap, the local people are charming and happy (at least to gringos) and the scenery is out of this world. With a truckload more to do in the area than what we’ve included above, there is never nothing to do… unless of course, that’s what’s on the agenda for the day!
One last thing…
To read the cities of Playa del Carmen and Cancun were rocked by recent shootings is incredibly sad and shocking for us, for at no point in Tulum or indeed, across the Yucatan Peninsula, did we as two female travellers feel even slightly in danger. We were so confident in our safety we even hired a car, something we had vowed not to do whilst in Mexico. Our recommendations on this blog are based on our personal experience, and we would encourage you to read your government’s travel advice regarding this area and Mexico as a whole before you commit to visiting.
As Australians, we grew up with the impression Mexico is an exotic but dangerous and desperate destination. Upon actually reaching its shores, we found it to be a stunning and hospitable country with beautiful people, many of whom rely on domestic and international tourists for their livelihood. The violence tarnishing its reputation for years as a holiday destination, although very real for its people, seemed a myth to us in our backpacker bubble. Our previous ignorance of the country is now shameful to admit, but as we snorkelled with turtles, ate in French-style patisseries and incredible restaurants and wandered world heritage colonial towns, we found ourselves often saying to each other, “Who would have thought we were in Mexico?”
It may be naive, but even in light of recent events in the region we implore you to give gorgeous Mexico, the Yucatan Peninsula and Tulum a chance. These days so much of the world has been marred by violence, and we can either strap on our backpacks and refuse to let the forces of evil create terror or we can wither away at home, too fearful of what might happen to see what else might be out there for us.
Put it this way, if you bought us two tickets to Cancun and a bus ticket to Tulum, we’d be at the airport tomorrow. Just look at the photo below. Can you blame us?