Backpacker vibes meet boutique luxury in Tulum, the Bali of Mexico
Apparently Tulum is a pretty hot destination right now – though admittedly we didn’t realise until people back home started messaging us excitedly about how great it looks all over the internet. Though we normally skim over the Insta-hotspots, we genuinely loved our visit; the place really has a special feel about it. This guide will give you all you need to know about things to do in Tulum (including the Tulum Ruins!), where to stay, how to get there from places like Playa del Carmen & Bacalar, how to get around and where to eat in Tulum and hotspots for nightlife in Tulum, Mexico.
When it comes to tourism, Tulum is certainly a town of two personalities. In the centre of the town itself, expect laid-back backpacker vibes and the smell of fresh coffee fill the air. The people here have mostly been drawn in by the promise of cenotes, Tulum ruins and lively bars. Heading out to the zona hotelera or ‘Hotel Zone’, huge stretches of beach and the surrounding jungle have been truly Bali-fied for the swanky holiday feel. It’s not necessarily a place to party, but to hang out in fairy-lighted bars sipping not-so-cheap margaritas in flowing bohemian dresses. Since they have such distinct atmospheres and offerings, we would recommend trying to visit both the downtown and hotel zone sides of Tulum, and if you can stay a few days in each, even better!
We were only meant to stay for 3 nights in the Tulum zona hotelera, but after missing the last bus to Chiquilá meant we couldn’t get to Isla Holbox, we swapped our island time for 2 nights in Tulum downtown, and we’re really glad our mini-disaster worked out that way. We got to see both worlds! Check all that we got up to in our 5 days in Tulum:
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A lot of the best things to do in Tulum are nowhere near the town centre, so although there are plenty of Tulum tours to choose from that will sort all connections out for you, the best way to explore the area independently is to get yourself some wheels. Most hostels and hotels in both Tulum downtown and the zona hotelera will offer bicycles. Our downtown hostel lent bikes for just a couple of pounds a day, and when we stayed at Posada Lamar we were offered them for free.
As we wanted to go a little further afield, we decided to rent a car in Tulum for 4 days. We booked through Priceline as usual to get the best costs, which came in at $8 USD a day. Unfortunately the Priceline prices quoted in Mexico don’t include the extra insurance costs, which you have to buy even if you have an international car insurance policy. Priceline does offer for you to book the insurance through them before the date of pick-up – in our case this would have been a well-discounted $11 a day, and we should have taken that deal. Because we didn’t buy it ahead of time, the additional insurance at the National Car Hire pick-up desk was $25 a day. Oosch! Luckily, National were happy to offer us a deal directly through them which came to just under $20 a day all-in. While this is more than we’d usually spend on car hire in Latin America, it was incredibly worth having a car for all we wanted to do, and we saved money on taxis. You can park for free almost anywhere in Tulum.
A taxi from the zona hotelera to Tulum downtown is 150-180 pesos, and a lot of the cenotes we wanted to visit were down a long main road where trucks pelt past and there’s very little shade. Didn’t fancy that on a bike!
Things to do in Tulum & beyond
Go back in time at the Tulum Ruins
These are the pièce de résistance of the area. Tulum was once used by the Mayans as a major trading port, and they built an impressive stone city up on the beach. Nowadays, you can’t touch the ruins, but you can spend some time seeing them up close and appreciating the beautiful nature surrounding them. You can even go on the beach that sits under the ruins’ cliffs, but you need to get there early and have the luck of the tide being out to be able to really enjoy it. We were not so lucky with the tide, so the steps to the beach were closed, boo! There’s another beach at the Tulum Ruins that you’ll see in the cover photo of this post, but that’s totally off-limits due to turtle nests.
Getting into the Tulum Ruins
When visiting the Tulum ruins, it’s imperative that you get there as early as you can. There are only a few small tour groups when the park opens at 8am, but by 9:30am the HUGE tours from Tulum, Playa del Carmen & Cancun resorts start turning up, and the beauty of the place is somewhat disturbed. We didn’t take a tour, and felt satisfied reading the many placards that are put up around the Tulum ruins, but after overhearing some of the info the tours were being given we can definitely see the value of hiring a guide. You can either go with an organised tour company or just hire an official park guide at the desk where you pay for your entry (not in the car park!). From what we sneakily eavesdropped, one of the best tour guides sounded like Tulum Bike Tours – the tour starts much earlier than the other companies do, the group size was small and the guide was really informative and engaging. If we had our time again!
The Tulum Ruins entry fee is 75 pesos (£3), and you’ll need to pay an extra 45 pesos for filming rights. The Tulum Ruins are an 11-minute drive out of downtown Tulum, which you can cycle or drive and park up for 100 pesos. When you drive up, there are two main car parks; the one on the right is the more official, but they’ll still try and sell you packages when you pay your parking fee. On the left is another car park that will let you park for 250 pesos per person, which also includes your Tulum Ruins entry ticket, but they rope you in with having to spend credits in their restaurant to validate it.
Tulum Ruins Essentials
To prep for visiting the Tulum Ruins, make sure you bring a load of water, as there’s very little shade available so things are about to get HAWT. Although the Tulum Ruins only take about 30-40 minutes to explore without a guide (and usually around 2 hours with a guide), there’s still a fair bit of walking involved in the trip to get from the car park to the entrance and back. We recommend buying yourself a Chilly’s bottle, as it will maintain the temperature of cold water for up to 24 hours. Lifesaver!
When in the Tulum Ruins, watch out for the coatis. These things look cute but they are DEVILS. They will steal everything you have if given the chance, edible or not, and they’re not scared of humans at all. Keep your stuff close and don’t feed them!
See a world wonder at Chichén Itzá
Not done with ruins yet after visiting the Tulum Ruins? Chichén Itzá is by far the most famous site of ruins in Mexico – and probably Central America – largely owing to the fact that it is an official wonder of the ancient world. Be warned though, this fame draws in literally thousands of socks-and-sandal-wearing tourists from all over the Yucatan Peninsula every day, and it can be reeeeal tacky in places, with vendors selling over-priced souvenirs at every turn. Entry to Chichén Itzá costs 480 pesos (a price that doubled in 2019), and you would really benefit from getting there as early as possible at 8am. When I (Lozzy) first visited Chichén Itzá at the tender age of 12, visitors were allowed to climb the ruins as they pleased. Nowadays, to protect the ruins (and probably save themselves from some nasty health & safety lawsuits) tourists are no longer allowed to touch the stones of the main temple. Awkward pre-teen family photo alert:
You can visit independently, but a guide to tell you what you’re actually looking at would make the experience much more interesting – preferably private if you can afford it. If you are set on going with a big tour, 100% avoid the ticket sellers who promise you Chichén Itzá discounts at the airport. My auntie got stung by this; not realising she was actually paying for a presentation on timeshares, and after the 2 hour talk she would be able to redeem her voucher for a discounted price for the Mayan ruins.
See more old stuff at Cobá
Really not done with ruins yet?! Cobá is less than an hour’s drive from Tulum, and is a lesser-visited (but still busy enough) ancient Mayan city. Entry costs 65 pesos (£2.60), and you’re best to go either early or late in the day. This is one of the few Mexican ruins open to the public that you can climb to the top of; it seems with the lack of footfall they’re not so bothered about the need for protection. It’s less well-excavated than other Mayan sites, so if you’ve been to Guatemala expect it to feel more like Tikal, with pyramids looming out of the forest. Cobá is famous for its stone walkways, which you can rent a bike within the site for 45 pesos (£1.80) to be able to cycle down.
This area is littered with Tulum cenotes! Though there’s some tough competition, we’d say cenote-hopping is the best thing to do in Tulum. And once you’ve got your mode of transport sorted, you can start exploring!
But first, what is a cenote?
A cenote is a natural pool with fresh water, that becomes exposed after the limestone ground collapses to reveal the underground cave system below. The often-turquoise water is incredibly refreshing to swim in, and some lead into tunnels so deep that you can scuba dive in them. The Mayans used to use Tulum cenotes as sacred sites for religious rituals, but nowadays they’re just Instagram hide-outs (yay modern society). Some are more exposed than others, so each has their own vibe.
How to find Tulum cenotes
If you want to explore them on your own, the best way to explore the Tulum cenotes is to cycle or drive along the road to Valladolid, and just stop at whichever of the tens of cenotes you find along that route. All are clearly signposted from the road, and they are usually managed by the family who owned the land on which the cenote was discovered. Therefore, each will have different entry fees and a different level of development inside the parks. They range from ‘hole in the ground with a ticket man’ to ‘full family entertainment park’. Can’t blame the locals for cashing in, though!
If it’s sunshine you’re after, some of the more exposed cenotes include Zacil-Ha (pictured below; 100 pesos entry + 10 extra to jump from the diving platform), and Car Wash (50 pesos entry for swimmers and 200 pesos entry for scuba divers). If you want eerie vibes, check out the full cave of Cenote Suytun (120 pesos entry), which has had a platform built out into it so that at around 2-3pm you can bask under the direct light beam coming through the small hole in the roof.
Can’t decide? There are a number of half-open, half-cave Tulum cenotes, such as Cenote Zací in the centre of Valladolid (pictured above; 30 pesos entry) and Cenote Casa Tortuga (350 pesos with gear and a guide).
The closest Tulum cenotes to the town are Gran Cenote, a caved pool with bats and turtles (entry 180 pesos), and Dos Ojos (entry 200 for swimmers or entry for scuba divers 380 pesos) – two cenotes, of which the second is the most impressive in its enormity. Get there early to beat the crowds!
There are also a couple of small cenotes around the zona hotelera of Tulum, though some are privately owned by hotels. When collaborating with Casa Ambar Hotel, they were kind enough to let us visit their sister hotel, Cormoran, which has private access to a cenote a few minutes’ walk through their property (pictured below). Non-guests can also access this cenote (which looks more like a lagoon in the mangroves and has some lovely decking to relax on) for 200 pesos.
Get sandy on Tulum’s beaches
Apart from the beach at Tulum Ruins, Tulum isn’t technically a beach town. However, the long strip of the Zona Hotelera is built along the beach that begins about 3.5 km from Tulum downtown, and it’s a real beaut. The beaches are free to use, so don’t let anyone try and charge you for access. We absolutely loved being beachfront when we stayed at Posada Lamar, on the northern end of Tulum beach, which was so very peaceful.
The only real problem with this beach is that because every inch of land along that area has been snapped up by luxury boutique hotels, it can be difficult as a non-guest to access the beach itself. However, Ahau is perfectly happy with public people walking through their complex to the beach (you’ll know exactly which hotel this is as its entrance is through the chest of the famous Ven a la Luz art installation, and if you asked politely many other hotels would let you pass.
Swim with whale sharks
During May to September, the Yucatan Peninsula becomes home to whale sharks, beautiful giants of the sea. Book yourself on a whale shark experience to be able to swim alongside them – just remember to keep a respectful distance! This particular tour takes you out to sea to swim with whale sharks from Tulum, then sails you to Isla Mujeres for lunch in paradise.
While the shopping in Tulum might (ok, definitely will) make your wallet wince in pain, you can take your spoils home in the knowledge that you’ve bought into slow fashion and ethical trade. Though we can’t promise that all the shops are ethically-focused, the number of boutiques that are is pretty impressive. The zona hotelera is where to find all the good stuff – beautiful, well-made, ethically-sourced one-off designs of clothing, accessories and art line the streets in teeny little shops. Some boutiques specialise in recyclable materials, turning the like of plastic bags and old fishing nets into fashionable clothing. One example is HOSxBANí, opposite Arca restaurant.
Seek out authenticity in Valladolid
I don’t think we’re really offending anyone here when we say that Tulum isn’t a ‘real’ experience of Mexico. The same goes for the tourist areas of Playa del Carmen, Cancun, and other popular tourist hangouts on the Yucatan Peninsula. These gentrified places are manufactured to pander to North American and European tastes on their holidays of a few days to a couple of weeks, and they serve their purpose very well. However, if you want a little taste of an authentic Mexico, you don’t have to go too far. 2 hours’ drive from Tulum, in Yucatan, is a small town called Valladolid. It’s colourful, it’s bustling and it’s one of Mexico’s pueblos mágicos (magical towns). Although some tour buses do turn up to visit Zací, the cenote in the middle of town, it doesn’t feel like a tourist-ridden town at all. There’s an old convent to wander round for 30 pesos, cute cafés to chill in and an insanely good taco bar called Loncheria El Amigo Casiano.
Marvel at the Sian Ka’an Biosphere
Just south of Tulum, Sian Ka’an is a turquoise-watered natural reserve. Its 5000 square metres of protected coral reefs allow hundreds of conservation projects to thrive, maintaining an incredible biosphere that can be enjoyed via day tours from Tulum. There’s the chance to snorkel (though be careful of wearing sun cream!), see turtles and dolphins in the wild.
Where to stay in Tulum
Where you stay in Tulum has a really big impact on the experience you have there. As previously mentioned, Tulum is split in two, with the fancy beach-front hotels and bohemian shops aimed at high-budgeted holidaymakers to be found in the long strip of the zona hotelera, and the more backpacker vibes to be had in the downtown of Tulum town itself. The zona hotelera is actually pretty far away from Tulum town, so you can’t walk between the two. Lots of people staying in the town never see the hotel zone, and vice versa, which is a shame, as both sides of Tulum are pretty damn cool. If you have the time (and budget) to spend time in both areas, we absolutely recommend that you do. If you’re only in Tulum for a short holiday, we would 100% recommend spending a little more cash on getting a hotel in the zona hotelera as a priority.
Where to stay in Tulum’s zona hotelera
Full disclosure – we worked a collaboration with a group of adults-only boutique hotels to provide them with social media material, etc. These were called Casa Ambar, Hotel Cormoran and Posada Lamar. The thing is, during our 3-night stay across these sister hotels, they BLEW US AWAY. If you’re looking for a more comfortable option and would like to be in the beachy holiday area, these are really fantastic options. All three are kitted out beautifully, but each has a different personality; here’s a little summary of each:
This is the furthest South of all 3, so it’s the most peaceful. Newly renovated, it reopened in November 2019. The hotel features boutique bungalows, each with their own quirks – one even has a bathroom with a hole in the roof to allow space for the tree that grows in the middle of the room! After a 5-minute walk down a path through the mangroves, you’ll come to a deck with a swing and netting on which to relax over the private-access cenote. This is shared with another hotel that backs onto the property, but don’t ever expect it to be full of people! More info on Hotel Cormoran here.
The beachfront option. The pool and a few of the rooms back right onto the sand, with an elevated pool featuring swings and beanbags. The room we were given at Posada Lamar was insane, with a large Jacuzzi bath overlooking the sea through floor-to-ceiling windows. Breakfast is served in your room, and the staff are really friendly (in fact, they’re mega friendly at all three; we felt very welcome everywhere). This is the place we stayed in the zona hotelera that was closest to the main nightlife in Tulum. More info on Posada Lamar here.
This is the most homely of the group. The communal area feels like a living room, and there’s a kitchen you can use which is also where breakfast is made for you every morning as you sit at a dining table and chat to the other guests. The hotel only has 8 rooms so it’s never a crowd! Some of the rooms open out onto balconies that look over the mangroves, which is a great place to catch some peace after the bustle of the zona hotelera. We felt Casa Ambar was the best located in terms of bars & restaurant options. More info on Casa Ambar here.
Where to stay in Tulum downtown
For the most part, Tulum downtown is just a built-up mid-sized town, and not really somewhere you seek out beautiful Mexican architecture and culture away from the tourist trail. There are definitely gems to be had if you explore, but we’d advise staying near the centre. So, if searching specifically for budget backpacker accommodation in Tulum downtown, you’ll want to be as close to the action on Calle Centauro Sur with the 307 main road (it’s not as major a road as it sounds!). Nightlife in Tulum’s downtown is great but not so ridiculous that it’ll keep you up all night if you find a place to stay near the centre.
Where to eat in Tulum
Where to eat in downtown Tulum
But despite all the stunning restaurants around us in downtown Tulum, the place we headed to time and time again for meals was El Yorch taco stall outside Oxxo on Calle Geminis Sur and the main road. The 3 for 60 pesos gringas are AMAZEBALLS, and the 5 for 45 pesos tacos al pastor are a great deal. The stall is regularly swarming with locals so you know this is good food.
Another mega tasty street stall – though a lot more pricy due to its location on the tourist strip of Calle Centauro Sur – is Beacon Madre, on the crossroads with Andromeda. The burritos here are to die for, and the ladies cooking them are really lovely.
Surprisingly for a cheap beer chain, the food at Chapultepec is really good; basically tapas with a set price of 21 pesos an item. The Atún Oriental taco is peng!
You can get fuller sit-down meals in the ever-busy Malquerida on Calle Centauro Sur.
For seafood, El Camello Jr. provides absolute bangers – we’ve never had so much ceviche in one sitting. The fish is really great too, and and the prices won’t make you wince!
Where to eat in Tulum’s zona hotelera
One of the very few cheap restaurants in Tulum’s zona hotelera is La Eufemia, which is a banging taco bar. Tacos cost as little as 25 pesos. If you go at night, take a fully charged phone as you’ll need it as a flashlight unless you fancy eating in the dark. It’s right on the beach; from the main road you’ll have to take the fairly long alleyway, but there are often people outside on the street to guide you.
For breakfast and brunch without a tight budget, head straight to Fresco’s for some fruity, yoghurty, pancakey goodness.
If you want an evening of fanciness, Rosa Negra has everything you need, and Arca is a real winner. There’s a burger place further up called Clan-Destino which comes very highly rated.
Best cafés in Tulum
Being the ‘Bali of Latin America’, you weren’t expecting Tulum not to be full of beautifully-decorated boutique cafés now, were you?! Drawing in design from every Boho-Luxe Pinterest board ever to exist, coffee shops in Tulum are some of the most beautiful we’ve ever seen.
In the zona hotelera, get your caffeine fix in Coati Café or MatchaMama. In downtown Tulum, sip a coffee in the fresh-feeling Prieto or the cutesy Café del Arte.
Oh, and açaí bowls are a thing here. Obviously.
Can you drink the water in Tulum, Mexico?
No, unfortunately you cannot drink the tap water in Tulum. Water is luckily one of the few things that are cheap in Tulum though, and the higher-end hotels will often provide water for free.
Nightlife in Tulum
Again, this town has two distinct personalities between downtown and the zona hotelera, and the nightlife in Tulum is no different. In the downtown area, most of the action happens around Calle Centauro Sur, though you’d be wise to start your night in Chapultepec on the main road, where every drink and every food plate is only 21 pesos (85p).
After that, head to Batey for good vibes and the occasional spot of live music, or hop to any other bar along that street that takes your fancy. The nightlife in Tulum’s downtown has a relaxed backpacker feel to it; not much super-crazy goes on, but there’s always a good buzz of an evening. You can usually find some happy hour deals to make the nightlife in Tulum a little easier on the bank account (talking of which, have you used a Revolut card to save on money abroad yet?).
Switching over now to the coastline, nightlife in Tulum’s zona hotelera gets a bit busier, but a lot pricier. There are uber-cool bars scattered all along the main (ok, only) road, as well as a few here and there on the beach. Opposite Casa Ambar is a tiny but charming craft beer bar on the main road, but a little pricey.
A gem for cheap beers in Tulum’s zona hotelera is La Eufemia, which as we mentioned in the ‘where to eat in Tulum’s zona hotelera’ section, is a fantastic taco bar, too.
For a more North American feel, get yourself to Mateo’s, which is the place to watch international sports in Tulum on the big screens and get chatting to people around the bar. They also do food, but we weren’t 100% convinced by the value for money. This is a busy busy place for nightlife in Tulum on a Saturday!
One of the most #tulumvibes of all the Tulum bars is Mur Mur, a small outdoors establishment with swings all around the bar and a young, hip crowd. Drinks and food are not for those on a tight budget, however.
For nightlife in Tulum on Saturdays, the mega parties happen at Papaya Playa Project, and you’re extra lucky if your Tulum travels coincide with a full moon, as they have a Thai-inspired beach party on those nights. There is an entrance fee and you can expect to spend a fair bit on drinks whilst there!
How to get to Tulum, Mexico
Thanks to the ADO public bus, it’s actually very easy to get to Tulum from other major towns in the Yucutan Peninsula. Buses from Playa del Carmen to Tulum leave a few times every hour, and cost 89 pesos for the 70 minute journey. From Cancun, there are 1 or 2 buses an hour, and the ride takes 2 and a half hours for either 181 or 266 pesos – the buses seem fairly randomly priced.
Heading north from Bacalar to Tulum, there are 9 bus departures a day. The bus journey is 2 hours 40 minutes and costs 278 pesos.
So that’s all we know about Tulum, Mexico! If you have any more tips for Tulum cenotes, Tulum ruins, where to eat in Tulum and more, let us know in the comments!
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