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Detailed Guide to Tulum Mexico (by a Former Expat)

Detailed Guide to Tulum Mexico (by a Former Expat)

Tulum is a small town in the state of Quintana Roo in the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico. Approximately 2 hours south of Cancun Airport. It can be a destination for luxury travelers, couples, solo travelers and even sometimes families (although many hotels are adult-only). It has much to offer for offbeat adventures and healthy enthusiasts as well.

Tulum is mostly known for its beaches and yoga retreats. It’s where idyllic white-sand beaches meet chic hotels and high-end resorts in addition to cute restaurants. There are also plenty of things to do in the area, such as visiting my favorite cenotes.

As I’ve been living nearby in Playa del Carmen for a few years, I got to know the area and Tulum quite well. This is my ultimate Tulum Mexico Guide. Here’s everything you need to know, but if you have any more questions post the comment and I’ll try to answer as soon as possible.

COVID UPDATE January 2022:

Tulum & the entire Riviera Maya are busy and are expected to get even busier because Americans have not many places to go and many people were postponing their trips to 2022 so lots of places are already booked for the winter.

Keep it in mind when planning your trip that prices are expected to rise and places are simply packed – see my notes on renting a car!

There are no restrictions on entering Mexico – no health forms, no vaccination proof or testing required anymore!

Hotels, resorts and restaurants confirmed that they’ll NOT require proof of vaccination, but remember to check as these things change weekly. Masks are required officially inside AND outside in public spaces – sometimes the police are checking and telling people to put the mask on.

The state of Quintana Roo (Tulum, Playa del Carmen, Cancun, Cozumel) are currently in code yellow (semaforo amarillo) which means certain things might be closed and some shops or supermarkets only allow one person per family inside and no kids under 12 at all.

tulum

The Complete Tulum Mexico Travel Guide


It’s no secret that Tulum has changed a lot since it got popular. Unfortunately, similar to Bali, not for better but for worse which saddens me as I loved this area when I lived there. All the cute photos from Tulum you see on Instagram don’t always show you the reality of what the place has become.

The majority of hotels in the area are promoting themselves as ‘eco-chic’. Many restaurants there now serve agave straws and cutlery made from avo seed. At my beloved cenotes there are signs everywhere warning tourists to either not use sunscreen at all or use a biodegradable one as otherwise, the marine life is at risk.

Naturally, as soon as Tulum got popular the place became expensive as balls. I remember paying for a hotel $100-200 per night. Now during high season, you’d often have to spend $2000-7500 per night.

A few months ago I remember getting outraged by the price of lunch including “healthy” açaí bowls and not even authentic tacos for a price of $150 = 2800 Pesos, and for reference, I want to say that I earned about 8000-10,000 Pesos per MONTH while working a decent job in Mexico.

One could say you need to spend more to live sustainably (organic food – I’m looking at you). Ironically, none of the hotels in Tulum operate sustainably and it’s not even about evicting wildlife and locals to build more developments.

The beach has no adequate sewer system, and waste has been leaching into the water supply beneath Tulum and out to the ocean, killing the coral reef. Tulum’s old landfill, a few miles outside of town, is full, and last summer it burned in the heat for three months straight.

If you want to find out more about what’s been happening to Tulum check out this article. That said if you want to be sustainable check everything and don’t just fall for the often false marketing buzzword of eco-friendly.

That said, can you enjoy Tulum? Sure, if you have the budget and know the realities.


How to Get to Tulum?

There are no direct flights to Tulum, as there’s no airport there. You can choose to fly to either Cancun (2 hours by car) or Cozumel (40 minutes by ferry & 1 hour by car). Check on Skyscanner which one is cheaper to fly to.

If you’re flying into Cozumel, you can simply take a taxi to the ferry terminal and take a ferry to Playa del Carmen. It will leave you directly next to the ADO bus station, from where you can take a bus to Tulum. There’s also a taxi stand if you prefer. There’s no need for pre-booking anything in advance.

Tulum beach
Beach in Tulum. Yes, it still looks gorgeous!

If you’re flying into Cancun (which is the closest airport, even though it’s 90-120 minutes away), then you have a lot of options. 

I don’t recommend renting a car at the airport, as it’s way more expensive than if you rent one once you arrive in Tulum. The best way to get to Tulum is by the ADO bus. These buses are safe, clean and nice – don’t think it’s like a Greyhound!

Read more on how to get to Tulum from Cancun Airport. 


Safety in Tulum

Tulum is extremely safe, but it isn’t as safe to leave your belongings unattended. You can drive a rental car without any issues, you can walk around at night.

Despite what you probably heard about Mexico being dangerous, you’re probably safer in Tulum or anywhere in Riviera Maya, than you would be in New York City.

While scams happen occasionally, they can happen pretty much anywhere else in the world too. I would recommend following general safety precautions that you would take anywhere and have some common sense.

tulum iguana
Friendly iguana, also very safe!

When To Go to Tulum

There’s one rule if you’re coming to Riviera Maya: don’t trust the weather forecast! They’ll only give you a day estimate, but the truth is: it might rain during the day and get sunny later on. And vice versa. Always check the amount and percentage of rain and the hours of sunshine. 

No matter when you go bring a sweater unless you’re traveling during the summer months (June-August). You’ll be sunbathing during the day, but it gets chilly during the night. I’m usually cold 😉

For budget travelers, I recommend traveling to Tulum in the shoulder season. It’s cheaper and you’ll experience fewer crowds, but there might be a lot of seaweed on the beach and in the water.

Seaweed all across the Caribbean is unavoidable sometimes. However, if you stay at a beach-front hotel it will be cleaned every morning vs this is how the public beach looks like.

Budget: Is Tulum Expensive?

I don’t want to lie to you: Tulum isn’t cheap even for tourists. Because of many rich visitors, the place has become way overpriced so expect US and UK prices. Monthly rent is even more expensive than in the USA – it’s almost comparable with NYC ridiculous rents.

While U.S. Dollars are accepted at many restaurants and shops, I don’t recommend using it. You’ll overpay way more than if you paid in Mexican Pesos. Banks are plentiful in Tulum and the majority of them offer 24-hour ATMs as well.

For dinner, I’d usually prepare at least $35 if you’re eating in a hotel zone, or even $55 if you want a cocktail or wine with your meal.

If you decide to downtown (far from the beach) and try some street food or small local restaurants, you can get a meal for $5-7.

sea tulum
Lunch at the beach in Tulum

Where to Stay in Tulum

There are plenty of amazing hotel options, but I highly suggest choosing one along the hotel zone with beachfront cabanas. And by that, I don’t mean booking a resort, but direct access to the beach in Tulum is important.

While there’s a public beach, it’s pretty small and gets easily crowded. You’ll be better off with a beachfront hotel.


My Hotel Recommendations

I had a chance to stay at a few different places in Tulum. Here are my recommendations depending on your budget, expectations, and location preference. I stayed at all of these properties, so can tell you everything about them.

There are many fantastic AirBnBs in Tulum that can still cost less than hotels, but you can get the same amenities, more privacy and still go to beach clubs if you wish.

Best Beach Hotel

Nomade is a great beach hotel that doesn’t feel crowded like some of its neighboring properties. It has a great beach with cabanas, hammocks, and tents. You can decide if you want to stay in a suite, glamp, or get a room in the jungle.

Nomade   –   Check Prices On: Booking.com

If Nomade is fully booked, out of your budget, or you want to bring some kids with you I recommend La Zebra. Most rooms have adorable private pools. They have a fantastic beach club and unlike 90% of spots in Tulum it’s kid friendly. They even have a mini playground on the beach.

La Zebra   –   Check Prices On: Booking.com

Best Tree House in Tulum

Azulik is one of a kind. It’s a beachfront treehouse, with swings and a private pool on every balcony. If you want to feel like staying at Family Robinson’s house that’s the best place to go. Read My Full Review.

Last year the hotel expanded and it’s much bigger and fancier than when I visited it. Their prices for the newly opened restaurant and bar are slightly ridiculous, but many people still enjoy it, hence why I still recommend it. 

Azulik   –   Check Prices On: Booking.com

azulik tulum

Getting Around Tulum

Downtown Tulum is small and compact, but if you’re staying at the beachfront resort I’d not recommend you to walk back and forth. You can easily get a bike. 

Taxis

Taxis are everywhere in Tulum, and they’re all easily recognizable white cars. They will charge you around 120 pesos from downtown to the beach, ruins and nearby cenotes, for a one-way journey (per car, not per person).

This is the reality of the beach road in Tulum – chaos and traffic nonstop. Taxis pictured on the left side here.

Renting a Car in Tulum

Don’t be afraid of renting a car in Mexico. The roads are wide and easy to navigate, especially with modern technology like Google Maps. Just watch out for wild drivers.

By renting a car you can avoid being on a giant tourist bus, and go to places in the area that aren’t easily accessible. You also don’t need an international driver’s license.

A car is also a great option for a road trip around the Yucatan, so I suggest you should at least consider it. Trust me, you won’t regret it.

Be careful at gas stations as there’s no self-service. While it’s convenient, if you pay in cash, say the amount you are handing over! Some attendants will try to convince you it was a smaller denomination than it really was. It’s a common scam.

Read More About Renting a Car in Mexico

DSC03661

Colectivos

If you’re planning on getting between Tulum, Playa del Carmen and Cancun, you can join the locals and hop on hop off colectivo – public taxi vans.

They can get a bit cramped sometimes, but they’re super cheap and reliable. They can drop you off anywhere along their set routes when you say ‘bajo aqui’.

However, I wouldn’t take my luggage on them as there’s simply no space for it. 

Bicycles

There are numerous local shops in town on Avenida Tulum (the main street in town) where you can rent bicycles. In Tulum, everyone rides bikes all the time, as it’s a very eco place.

bicycles tulum

Best Yoga Classes in Tulum

Many travelers come to Tulum purely for yoga. Tulum is an oasis with many eco-travelers, so yoga is a must-do activity. Luckily, yoga classes are available without any extra charge at every hotel.

If you’re staying somewhere that doesn’t offer any yoga, you can visit any beachfront hotel and pay $25 to attend the class.


Best Restaurants in Tulum

Las Quekas

Although it’s technically a chain with various branches around Mexico, it doesn’t feel like it. It feels like more like a homemade hole in the wall place.

It serves sopes and quesadillas filled with typical Mexican ingredients like huitlacoche, rajas, chorizo or flor de calabaza.

Aguachiles

It’s the best place for some traditional tostadas with raw seafood, or some cooked dishes including fish tacos or grilled seafood. I particularly recommend the octopus!

Ceviche... yum!

El Camello Junior

If you’re into seafood, this place has you covered. It’s not a pretty looking restaurant, rather a hole in the wall place, but worth a visit. Fresh seafood with a local atmosphere.

Mateos

It’s a great place for lunch and dinner. The place is close to major hotels and near the beach. It has a terrace from which you can see the entire area.

Fish tacos and guacamole are highlights there. There’s a happy hour from 5-7 pm with cocktails for 90-120 pesos.

fish tacos

Mina

If you’re a meat person, that’s the best place to go in Tulum. Last time I went there I ordered some ribs and I received a portion for at least two people. Best ribs ever!

Posada Margherita

This is a great little Italian place in Tulum on the beach strip. This beachfront gem is worth the visit, especially if you’re a celiac. They can offer gluten-free pasta or focaccia. 

All the pasta is fresh to order, so you won’t be disappointed. The owners also the great pride in the look of the place and it really shows.

Matcha Mama

Tasty acai bowls and smoothies – perfect for breakfast. Swing seats and cool vibes but prepare to pay for this experience because this spot isn’t exactly the cheapest.

There’s always a line as it’s also a famous Instagram spot, so if you don’t care for the decor you might head to their branch in downtown Tulum instead of the beach.

Alux Cave

Not in Tulum, but worth a mention and a trip to nearby Playa del Carmen. It’s an unusual restaurant in a cave that serves picturesque dishes. They even have very traditional Mexican escamoles (ant eggs) and chapulines (fried grasshopper). After you eat you can explore the entire space which is huge and full of secret tables.

Alux Restaurant

Things to Do in Tulum

Relax on the Beach

You probably came to Tulum for the beach. Enjoy it! The white sand beaches are gorgeous and perfect for relaxation, but full of seaweed so you won’t be able to go into the water most likely.

You can also experience some traditional Mayan spa called Temazcal, which are often located close to the beach.


Visit Sian Ka’an Reserve

Sian Ka’an is a Biosphere Reserve and UNESCO World Heritage Site that is located south of the town of Tulum. It’s a very unique and natural area along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico.

You can spot some crocodiles, birds, monkeys, coatis and other species. The reserve also contains approximately 23 known archeological sites and Mayan Ruins, including those of Muyil.

Stroll Around Town to Find Some Murals

The town’s streets are filled with lots of colorful and interesting murals. Street art located in random places, so I can’t give you specific directions on where to go.

This, combined with colorful houses, make for perfect photos! You can also buy some crafts from local vendors.

See Tulum Ruins

This guide couldn’t exist without Tulum’s most famous attraction – its ruins. Considered one of the most spectacular in the Mayan world due to their location – 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 everywhere. The beach opens at 9 am, so if you want to spend some time there you can save a spot earlier.

The regular entrance fee is around 60 pesos (USD are not accepted), but there’s also a secret option of enjoying the ruins after hours. You can purchase your special tickets after 3 PM.

tulum ruins

Swim in Cenotes

There are many cenotes in the area for you to enjoy. Some are underground, others have some ziplines, some offer incredible diving and snorkeling adventures. You can visit my guide to cenotes here.

carwash cenote
Cenote Carwash

For more activities and organized tours check Viator here.


What to Bring to Tulum

Mexican weather can be quite unpredictable. You should expect both very sunny and very rainy days or experience both occurrences on the same day. So definitely bring an umbrella or rain poncho, just in case!

Insect repellent – It’s a must! Tulum is very jungle-like and mosquitos are everywhere.

Biodegradable sunscreen – If you’re planning on visiting some cenotes or swimming with turtles in Akumal, do nature a favor and use biodegradable sunscreen. The regular one is harming fish, turtles, and plants.


Day Trips from Tulum

There are many great things to do in Riviera Maya. Many places can be seen on a day trip from Tulum. There are plenty of Mayan ruins to see, various cenotes to swim, or reef to dive.

Check out my post about Playa del Carmen, as the trips in the Riviera Maya area are the same.

Chichen Itza
Chichen Itza

DON’T FORGET ABOUT TRAVEL INSURANCE

Don’t forget to arrange health insurance before heading to Mexico. The easiest and the most reliable insurance is Safety Wing (it also covers the virus!).

Get it before your trip to skip unnecessary troubles that might ruin your holidays!


Suggested more extensive guides for Mexico:

Lonely Planet Yucatan Guide
The Rough Guide to Mexico
Mexican Spanish Phrasebook


Did I miss something? Do you want to ask me anything about Tulum?

Katherine Aertker

Monday 25th of October 2021

Hi Anna, Thanks for all the awesome info! My husband and I will be going to Tulum for the month of February. We will be working remotely so strong internet is a must, and we are considering renting a condo in the Aldea Zama area. We found some cool places that seem to back up to the nature area, but I have read that there is a lot of construction noise there. We are coming to explore the idea of spending 8 months a year there:), so we are looking for a nice, yet quiet, spot to call home base. Would you have any specific recommendations? Because the area is so new, there are very few reviews. Many thanks!

Anna Karsten

Tuesday 26th of October 2021

When it comes to Tulum and Playa del Carmen construction noise is always a possibility because there's always something building somewhere. It's been that way for years and Aldea Zama is especially always building something new. You do need a good scooter or vehicle in that area to get around. I'm not sure what kind of work you do, but if it involves being online during certain hours I'd advice against Tulum, because the internet is really not great in the area and it's far from quiet - Tulum is a bit like Disneyworld when it comes to the number of people these days and traffic-wise it's a real nightmare way worse than LA has even been especially in the winter months like December to April it's pretty crazy. If you need to be on jumping on calls and don't want to work from a cafe because it's noisier there then I wouldn't count on stable reliable internet.

Akumal or Puerto Morelos are much quieter and might be a good option for you, or even Playacar actually for a long-term stay, but February is pretty short notice for lots of good apartments (we booked ours for the upcoming winter half a year ago and it was all gone right after unless you pay triple) because it's so busy, so you might want to go there first on see what you can find through local contacts and most importantly which area do you like the most.

Miguel Herrera

Thursday 28th of January 2021

Great pictures! I went to Bacalar 2 years ago and it was majestic but I kept wanting to visit Tulum. People say is one of Mexico┬┤s hidden gems. Thanks for the guide, I hope I get to know it in the middle of the year or so.

Ps. I think aguachile became one of my favorites foods there. Nothing like enjoying it with a cold beer and de ocean in front of you.

Cheers!

Harry Miler

Thursday 28th of January 2021

Hi Ana, thank you for creating this guide to Tulum. In two weeks I will visit Tulum with my girlfriend and with the advice I have read I will surprise my girlfriend to enjoy the trip. Thank you!

Chantelle Menes

Tuesday 9th of June 2020

hello we are considering buying property in Tulum. What residential areas do you suggest? We were looking at Aldea Zama and are visiting in early July (hopefully). Any other tips for communities to consider?

Anna Karsten

Tuesday 9th of June 2020

Would you live there full-time or just use it as a holiday home?

Christina Chavez

Monday 3rd of February 2020

Hi Anna, Are costs still high? That's not what I'm seeing online when I compare costs to US costs... so I'm a bit confused. It seems like it's 30%-50% less there than in the US (I'm in Bend, Oregon). My husband and I are considering a trip next February 2021. Would love your perspective on how things are in Tulum these days. Thanks!

Anna Karsten

Monday 3rd of February 2020

It really depends on what do you consider high I guess. If you compare prices to US prices then yes, it's more or less similar. However, this isn't normal for Mexico especially considering that prices for the same exact hotels went from $150 to $1500 over the course of 3-4 years. Remember that most people in Mexico make less than $500 per month and prices anywhere in Mexico are significantly cheaper. For the same tacos in a local part of town you'll pay 50 Pesos, but at the hotel zone in Tulum 500 Pesos.

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