Tulum: The Complete Guide

Just a few years ago, Tulum wasn’t even on the radar of many travelers. South of Cancún on Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula, Tulum is far enough away from the Cancún craziness to be a haven for relaxation with fewer crowds and locally run hotels and restaurants. 

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After spending a week in this beach meets jungle locale, I get why people are obsessed with this place.

The main draw is Tulum’s pristine beach, one of the best in Mexico. Combine the beach with the laid back local attitude and you’ve got a pretty great vacation spot.

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When planning our trip, we tried to strike a balance between time for relaxation and time for exploration. Each day went a little something like this:

  • Monday: Morning yoga & run/walk on the beach, explore the jungle road, relax on the beach
  • Tuesday: Morning yoga & run/walk on the beach, visit Tulum ruins, lounge at Grand Cenote, explore Tulum town
  • Wednesday: Morning yoga & run/walk on the beach, half-day trip to Coba, relax on the beach
  • Thursday: Morning yoga & run/walk on the beach, relax on the beach, visit the spa at Coqui Coqui
  • Friday: Morning yoga & run/walk on the beach, relax on the beach

If relaxing on a beach and sipping margaritas in the jungle doesn’t have you quite convinced Tulum should be on your to-travel list, keep reading.

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10 Reasons to Plan a Trip to Tulum

Crystal Blue Waters & White Sand Beaches

Whenever I head somewhere with a gorgeous beach, I like to spend time on the beach every day. Swimming in the Caribbean after a morning run on the beach was my favorite part of staying in a seaside hotel.

One of the great things about Tulum Beach is the abundance of restaurants and bars you’ll encounter if you walk along the shoreline. We loved going for a mid-day walk and popping in places for a cold drink or quick bite. At night, some of the restaurants, like Ziggy’s, have live music- good tunes and an ocean breeze? My kind of place.

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The Town

Many people, ourselves included, stay on the side of Tulum Beach that borders the ocean. Even if you stay seaside, I’d recommend spending a few hours one day exploring the pueblo to experience Tulum as the locals do.

In town, there are great shops with souvenirs much cheaper than on the jungle road, and a bunch of local eateries serving delicious authentic Mexican food.

Driving into Tulum, you quickly see it’s built on a crossroads. The northeast road comes from Cancun; northwest, the road leads to Valladolid; southeast, you hit the beach, and southwest leads you to Belize. The town proper is all on the southwest road, and it only takes a few minutes to drive from the town to the start of the jungle road.

When I visited, we spent a few hours one afternoon wandering the town- stopping at a few shops, enjoying refreshing paletas and hanging out at a mojito bar to watch soccer with some locals.

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Cenotes 

Cenotes are sinkholes filled with water, usually caused by the collapse of cave ceilings. These natural wonders, where Mayans once communicated with gods, are all over the Yucatan.

Two of the most popular ones in Tulum are Gran Cenote and Cenote Dos Ojos, both of which have scuba diving and snorkeling options.

Early one afternoon after visiting the Tulum Ruins, we took a short taxi ride to Gran Cenote (roughly an ~$8 USD fare from the ruins). Make sure you have cash if you plan to visit any of the cenotes- Gran Cenote is 150 pesos per person.

When you enter Gran Cenote, you’re asked to shower to wash off any sunscreen or bug repellent- only biodegradable sunscreen is allowed in cenotes to help preserve the wildlife ecosystem. After you take a quick shower, you can head down the stairs to the cenote.

Grand Cenote is a half open and half closed cave, allowing bright sunlight to stream through and reflect off the clear water. The afternoon we visited was hot and sunny, so swimming in the cenote was a perfect way to cool off.

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Gran Cenote is broken into a few different sections- the first section you’ll see is deeper, but there’s a second set of stairs that leads you into another part of the cenote, where the water is more shallow. You can swim under a cave, filled with bats, from one side of the cenote to the other.

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Before going, I’d read complaints that Gran Cenote becomes too crowded to truly enjoy it, but we didn’t experience that. At any given time, there were around 10-15 other people in the cenote with us. And since it’s sectioned into a few different areas, being there with other travelers didn’t feel crowded.

Once we were ready to leave, we simply walked out to the parking lot and got in one of the waiting taxis- usually, there are 1-2 waiting throughout the afternoon for people who are ready to head back to town or the jungle road.

On our trip to Coba (more on that below), we visited another centote, Tamcach-ha. Unlike Gran Cenote, Tamcach-ha is enclosed- it’s like swimming in an underwater cave.

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Two platforms have been built for those who would like to jump into the cave from 30 ft or 15 ft. If you’re like me and have an irrational fear of heights, there’s a platform at water level you can use to enter the cenote. After spending the morning biking and hiking the Coba ruins, this was the perfect way to relax. Like Gran Cenote, the water is crystal clear, and because it’s enclosed, you can swim while admiring the rock formations overhead.

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Yoga

Tulum is the perfect place for yoga retreats and peaceful getaways. We didn’t stay at a hotel that offered yoga classes, but Yoga Shala was a five minute walk away on the jungle road, making it easy to head there in the mornings for vinyasa flow and meditation.

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Yoga Shala at the Petit Hotel Tulum offers a variety of yoga classes- Ashtanga, Kundalini, Vinyasa and Hatha. If you’re not staying on the property, you can pay per class or buy a weekly pass.

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The enclosed yoga tent at Yoga Shala.

Yaan Wellness, near the southern end of the jungle road, also offers treetop yoga and meditation classes. We didn’t have a chance to check these out, but it’s on my list to do the next time I’m in Tulum.

Walking the jungle road, we saw a lot of signs advertising yoga classes, so chances are you’ll have an option to flow nearby wherever you end up staying.

Mayan Ruins

If you go to the Yucatan, you can’t leave without seeing Mayan ruins. Tulum is unique to other ruin locations in that they’re on the beach.

Tulum used to be a seaport, trading mainly in turquoise and jade. As well as being the only Mayan city built on a coast, Tulum was one of the few protected by a wall.

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The Tulum Ruins sit on a cliffside structure overlooking the ocean. If you’re staying on the jungle road, they’re a short taxi ride away. There are always taxis waiting at the ruins to take visitors back to town or to their hotel on the jungle road, so you don’t need to worry about transportation if you want to visit. One thing to note: You must have exact cash to enter the ruins, credit cards are not accepted and no change is given.

We planned on going to the Tulum Ruins as soon as they opened at 8 am, which is recommended if you want to avoid the crowds (a lot of tour buses from Cancún and Riviera Maya stop at the ruins throughout late morning / the afternoon).

Instead, on that morning, we opted to take a long yoga class and drink fruit smoothies on the beach. It was a relaxing morning, but by the time we made it to the ruins, there were hundreds of people everywhere. We had planned on visiting Coba the next day, so we opted for a shorter visit at the Tulum ruins (~an hour) and spent the rest of the afternoon lounging in Gran Cenote and exploring town.

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If you want to see the scale of Mayan civilization, take a day trip to Coba (~45-60 minutes from Tulum). The Mayan ruins of Coba are in one word, spectacular.

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At the recommendation of a fellow traveler, we took an ATC tour to Coba, which also included a stop at the Tamcach-ha cenote and a late lunch at El Rincon Chiapaneco, one of the best restaurants in Tulum town. 

I’d highly recommend using ATC for your tour if you’re not renting a car and want to see more of the area surrounding Tulum-the tours are a great value and their guides are fantastic. ATC also offers tour options that visit different cenotes, let you snorkel with wildlife or explore the jungle.

For many years, Coba was an ignored piece of Mayan history because of its location. Archeologists first learned about the site in the mid 1800′s, but dense jungle, the Caste War and lack of funds made the site a difficult area to access. Even today, Coba is largely unexcavated- making it a true wonder in the Yucatan. 

We spent the first part of our visit to Coba listening to a Mayan tour guide share stories of what life used to be like for Coba’s inhabitants. Then, we biked the settlement’s original white roads to the Nohoch-Mul pyramid. If you choose to, you can climb all 120 steep steps to the top of the pyramid, where you’re able to revel in sweeping jungle views.

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As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not good with heights, but was okay climbing up and down slowly. Because the steps are so steep, there are a lot of people taking extra caution so you won’t be alone if you want to climb the pyramid but need to go at a slower pace.

After we biked back to the front of the settlement, our ATC guide bought us “Mayan Redbull” aka fresh squeezed fruit juice with raw honey and bee pollen (so good!).

If you have the chance to visit Coba, I’d really recommend doing so. There are rumors the site may close in coming years due to a lack of funding needed to keep it open (Coba isn’t nearly as popular or well known as the Chichen Itza ruins closer to Cancún). It’s hard to believe greater care isn’t being taken to help preserve this special part of history.

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Foodie Heaven

If you want authentic Mexican food, you can definitely find it in Tulum. Whether you’re in town or on the jungle road, there are dozens of places to enjoy good eats. 

A few of my favorites from our trip: 

  • Posada Margarita: An Instagram dream on the beach side of the road with the best Italian food in Tulum. We came here one night to watch the sun set over the waves, enjoying tasty pasta and fresh fish cooked in lemon and olive oil

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  • Hartwood: People line up at 3 pm for reservations for a reason- dinner at Hartwood is a must. Like many of the other Tulum eateries, they cook everything over a wood-fire oven. We ordered a few things to try off the menu & a couple carafes of habanero pineapple margaritas. Nothing disappointed. So, so good
    • Tip: The story behind Hartwood is really interesting and makes you appreciate the effort of having dinner there even more. The friend that I traveled with bought me a copy of Hartwood as a trip-planning thank you gift and I’m loving it!

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  • Casa Violeta: The perfect place for lunch on the beach. We stopped here one afternoon while wandering the coast for fish tacos and basil margaritas

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  • Casa Banana: Fun place for dinner, serving up Argentine dishes and great cocktails
  • Casa Jaguar: This was one of my favorite meals in Tulum, second only to Hartwood. Fresh seafood and vegetables cooked over an open fire and refreshing fruit cocktails, so delicious. The vibe here is cool- a jungle setting with bars and tables nestled in the trees. The scene is better later in the evening, but we came early our second time visiting to snag the table on top of the bar. Dinner atop the jungle? Doesn’t get much better than that

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  • El TabanoThe chalkboard menu is a bit overwhelming, but the wait staff are happy to tell you their favorite things to order. Loved the avocado soup, stuffed jalapeños, and coconut rice with shrimp
  • Don Cafeto: Cafe in town with great breakfast
  • Flor de Michocan: If you’re in town and need a snack, stop here for one of the paletas (popsicles). I tried the chile mango and my friend tried the strawberry kiwi, both got thumbs up reviews
  • El Rincon Chiapaneco: They say locals always know best, and this restaurant in town was packed with locals when we visited. 1) Order the green juice (it’s Mexican kale and pineapple juice), 2) Start with potato empanadas, 3) Order either the cheese enchiladas in verde sauce or anything with their mole sauce. Out. Of. This. World.

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  • Antojitos la Chipaneca: A local place in town, known for its pastor tacos. I didn’t eat here, but my friend swears the tacos were amazing. They cut the meat off a giant slab right in front of you and there’s a salsa bar in case you want to add a bit of flavor to your tacos. Also, the horchata is incredible

Great Cocktails (& Sometimes Dancing in the Jungle)

There’s no shortage of great drinks in Tulum. From bars on the jungle road mixing up craft cocktails to local watering holes in town, you can enjoy a drink whenever you’re in the mood for one.

Of the places we visited, these places had the best drinks: 

  • Gitano: Mezcal is one of my favorite spirits and Gitano is a Mezcal bar. Enough said. If you’re here, the spicy drinks are a must-try, and if you want a sweet cocktail for dessert, try the Stardust (mezcal, dark rum, pineapple, papaya, coconut cream). In addition to having great drinks, this place is the cutest- it’s on the jungle side of the road and decked out in bohemian decor. On Thursdays, they turn the disco ball on and the music up to get the party going

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  • Casa Jaguar: I’ve already raved about the food, but the hibiscus & cinnamon margarita was also perfection
  • Hartwood: We loved the drinks here so much, we ordered carafes of them 🙂
  • Ziggy’s: We came here a few times since it was next to our hotel and we enjoyed the casual vibe. At night, this place gets rocking with live music

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  • Mateos: Head here to watch the sun set on the upper deck level with a cold beer or margarita

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  • Batey: If you’re in town, stop here for a mojito. They make the best ones in Tulum with pure sugar cane juice and fresh fruit combinations. We came here one afternoon to sip a few mojitos and watch soccer with some locals & had the best time

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Luxurious Spas 

There are several ways to experience Tulum- the more rustic, off-the-grid kind of way or complete and total luxury. We stayed at a boutique hotel with air conditioning and wifi throughout the property, which felt like huge luxuries in Tulum, but spas like Coqui Coqui and Yaan Wellness are the place to be if you’re looking for endless relaxation.

We booked an afternoon of spa services at Coqui Coqui and loved every minute (email them for the spa menu and booking availability). In a nutshell, the spa and perfumeria are so dreamy.

Lunch is also great at Coqui Coqui- definitely try the ceviche. I loved the experience of being at Coqui Coqui for one afternoon so much, I bought the Coco Coco perfume to take home with me. Now, every time I spray it, I’m reminded of that tranquil afternoon.

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Adventure Travel

Paddle boarding, kite surfing, kayaking, snorkeling, sailing, scuba diving- you name it and Tulum probably has it. While cenotes, runs on the beach and hiking Mayan ruins were enough adventure for me, my friend loved how easy it was to go scuba diving or kite surfing whenever he wanted. 

We didn’t visit Xel-Ha, one of the world’s largest natural aquariums, but I’ve heard good things about the all-inclusive park. Xel-Ha describes itself as “a place of unparalleled beauty; you can swim and snorkel among hundreds of multicolored fish that have made the river and the lagoon their home.” The park has caves, zip-lining, snorkeling, swimming, snorkeling, hiking, dolphin swims, multiple restaurants and more. If you’re visiting Tulum with a family or young children, Xel-Ha may be a perfect day trip where there’s something for everyone. 

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Get Off the Grid & Relax

There’s a lot to see and do in Tulum, but it’s also the perfect place to slow down. When planning our trip, we chose 1-2 activities for each day and used the rest of the day to just chill out.

As our yoga instructor said one morning at Yoga Shala, “Sometimes it’s okay if the only thing you did today was breathe.”

Have a hard time sitting still? Walk up and down the jungle road. Check out the different hotels and restaurants on the beach. Just leave time unplanned purposefully to relax and enjoy the beauty of Tulum. 

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Extra Know Before You Go Info

  • Language: Spanish is the predominant language throughout the country, but most of the locals speak at least conversational English. If you know basic Spanish (greetings, numbers, food, etc.), speak it when you can- the locals we encountered really appreciated the effort  
  • Currency: Pesos. Currently, the exchange rate is set at ~17 pesos to $1 USD
  • Getting there: You’ll need to fly into Cancún and then drive 90 minutes south. Since we didn’t rent a car, we took a BestDay shuttle for $90 USD round-trip. Both times, we were the only people in the shuttle- win! If you’re driving into Tulum, it’s a straight shot on one road, so you can’t miss it
    • Note: We chose BestDay because it was the shuttle company recommended by our hotel, and because my flight landed in Tulum at 5 am. There are other shuttle companies, charging $45-60 for the roundtrip journey from Cancún to Tulum, but their operating hours are limited, and BestDay has more positive reviews than some of its competitors. You can also take a bus from the airport to Tulum town and then a taxi or collectivo to your hotel, but if you’re only in Tulum for a few days, I’d recommend taking a direct shuttle to save time
  • Being off the electrical grid: Wifi is scarce in Tulum. A lot of the hotels have it, but connections are sometimes shaky. One day at our hotel, the power went out for a few hours. Some people complained, but ultimately, it’s important to remember this: A LOT of people work REALLY hard to ensure you’re comfortable during your visit to Tulum. Although Tulum is becoming more of a tourism destination, it’s worth remembering you’re still staying in the jungle, which means you may be slightly inconvenienced at times
  • Getting around: We didn’t rent a car because we planned on walking as much as possible. Taxis run up and down the jungle road regularly so getting to and from somewhere is easy if you don’t want to walk. Safety wise, we never felt unsafe walking the jungle road at night. Take a flashlight so you can see the road in front of you, and so drivers see you walking on the side as they approach
    • If you want to explore the jungle road or get to town without hopping in a taxi, rent a bike from any of the hotels or restaurants with them out front. We decided not to rent bikes, choosing to walk as much as possible and take taxis when truly needed, but biking is a great way to explore the beach or town
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A section of the jungle road in Tulum. Some parts are more populated than others, but we always felt safe walking it.

  • When to visit: The busy season for Tulum runs from November-April. In the off-season, things are cheaper, but some places are closed, it’s very humid, and it tends to rain more often. We visited in mid-April and had gorgeous weather every day, mid-80’s with nothing but blue skies and sunshine. Albeit we were in Tulum from a Monday-Friday, we were surprised by how few people seemed to be visiting at the same time. The only time we encountered a wait was for a table at Hartwood, but even that was easy to score on the day we went to make a reservation at 3 pm
  • Money exchange: Upmarket restaurants & hotels take Visa and Mastercard, but a lot of places, including well-known restaurant Hartwood, are cash only. We exchanged USD for pesos before leaving the US since ATMs are few and far between in Tulum
  • Food safety: It should go without saying that you’re visiting Mexico, so be careful when drinking water or enjoying a drink with ice in it. We drank bottled water for the duration of our trip and had no problem with cocktails that had ice in them from the restaurants and bars we visited. As long as you stick to well-known spots, you should be fine
  • Packing essentials:
    • Sunscreen and bug spray (lots of both- we reapplied bug spray several times throughout the evening on the nights we were in the jungle but still came back with dozens of mosquito bites)
    • Anti-itch meds for aforementioned mosquito bites 
    • Advil and Tums
    • If you’re visiting from the US, you won’t need to bring a power converter, Mexican power outlets are the same as the US (A/B)
  • Where to stay: There are a lot of places that fit all budget ranges on the jungle road. From luxury options like Coqui Coqui to mid-tier options like Be Tulum and Papaya Playa, to places that won’t break the bank like Yoga Shala, there’s no shortage of places to stay. If you’re going with a group of people, check Airbnb for home rental listings. And, if you’re pinching pennies and don’t mind not being in the center of the action, there are a few hostels in Tulum town on the bus route, which make it easy to get to/from the beach
    • We stayed at Hotel Cabañas Los Lirios because we scored an awesome deal on Hipmunk (60% off per night). For us, Los Lirios was the perfect place to stay- it’s in the middle of the jungle road, so it’s a short walk north or south. Our room was huge, and we loved having a porch with hammock, as well as an ocean view with direct beach access. We didn’t love the food though and chose to eat out for every meal, except breakfast some days since it was included in our stay. One of the best parts of staying at Los Lirios was the staff attentiveness. In addition to being super friendly and receptive to whatever needs we had, they also took great care in keeping the property clean and raking the beach each morning- something you really don’t appreciate until you check out other beachside properties

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