Working as a travel agent I’ve sold many different destinations. Some are straight forward and appeal to any type of traveller, and others are trickier to find a fit. Then there are unique places that will appeal to everyone, as long as you put them in the right spot. Fiji is one of these destinations, as well as Phuket, Bali, and Tulum.
Tulum is a beach paradise on the east coast of Mexico. Known for its high-end hotels and eclectic food choices, it’s also great for day trips to see other parts of Mexico. It’s two hours drive from Cancun, which makes it accessible with some prior planning. Tulum has different sides to it, meaning you can create the type of holiday that suits you. You can stick to the town for a more authentic Mexican experience, or head to the beach for party, relaxation or a bit of everything. I put this travel guide together to make your life easier with planning, something I do every day for my clients. So have a look and decide where to stay, eat, and play in beautiful Tulum, Mexico.
How to get to Tulum
You can’t fly into Tulum, and the only airport listed is an airbase. The good news is that the extreme popularity has made it quite simple to get from Cancun International Airport. It’s a big airport with many international flights from the USA and Europe.
There are many different car hire companies based at the Cancun airport. You will need a valid drivers license, and an International Drivers permit is recommended, but not necessary. Once you have the car it’s a straight drive down a large highway. Everything is signposted clearly and the drive can take less than two hours. You can also stop at some pretty beaches along the way. Here’s a Cancun to Tulum road trip that you could do. It’s a very tourist-friendly area, so it’s generally safe and easy. Mex-Rent-A-Car was a good option for us, and they have many offices in Mexico.
Shuttle Bus or Taxi
There are many different companies offering transfer services from Cancun International Airport. Whatever you do, do not EVER, book the taxi or transfer when you arrive. Unfortunately, you will be ripped off and be forced to pay up to 300 USD at least! A great website for taxis from the airport is the Cancun Airport’s website. It’s really easy to book beforehand, it’s legitimate, and you will get a good deal. If you’re after a shuttle service and not a taxi then a recommended company is Cancun Airport Transportation. It’s rated well and will get you to your destination quickly.
If you don’t want to take a shuttle you can take the bus. The best company is ADO. They have a website where you can buy your tickets, and their buses are airconditioned with comfortable seats. It’s the cheapest option to get to Tulum, but be warned that sometimes it’s not the most direct. The website is in Mexican Pesos, which I first assumed was USD and almost decided it was crazy expensive.
Areas of Tulum and Where to Stay
Tulum’s one of those destinations where everything is spread out in different areas. This also means you get different experiences so it’s good to know what you’re getting yourself in to and where you’re staying.
The actual town of Tulum is not on the beach. It’s about an 11-minute drive, a 15-minute bike ride, or a one hour walk to the start of the beach area. Tulum town is where you’ll find the more authentic Mexican experiences and the cheaper hotels and restaurants. There are lots of markets to go shopping and the locals can still afford to live here. If you’re after the Tulum you’ve seen in the pretty photos then this is not where you want to stay. But if you want a lovely resort or hotel, for much less, and the chance to go where the locals go then this is for you.
3 Star: Casa Almendro
4 Star: The Highline Tulum
5 Star: Orchid House Tulum
Tulum Hotel Zone
This is the beginning of the Tulum Beach, and the beginning of Tulum as we know it on Instagram. There are some massive hotels here like Azulik Tulum and Papaya Playa Project. In peak season this is going to be your quickest beach destination and there’s plenty of restaurants and bars close by.
3 Star: Punta Piedra Beach Posada
4 Star: Esencial Tulum
5 Star: Azulik
Tulum Hotel Zone: Boca Paila
Boca Paila is much further down the beach road from Tulum. This is where you’ll find Be Tulum and Zorba Tulum Beach Homes. There are many restaurants and bars, and a lovely long beach. In peak season it would be hard to stay here with a car. You’ve got to understand that Tulum has exploded in popularity and the infrastructure and utilities are not keeping up with the demand. It’s still only a one-lane road beside the beach and in peak season I’ve been told a drive that took us 15 minutes in low season can take two hours because of the traffic and pedestrians.
3 Star: Pal Mar Glamtainer Tulum
4 Star: Zorba Tulum Beach Homes
5 Star: Be Tulum
Tulum Hotel Zone: Tulum Ruins
The Tulum Ruins Hotel Zone is to the left when you reach the beach. This area has beachside accommodation, but can be cheaper, because the beach is rockier and smaller. A lot of families stay here as it’s quieter with fewer restaurants and bars. On the other end of the spectrum, you have boutique adults-only hotels, as it is more secluded.
3 Star: Diamante K
4 Star: Kai Tulum Hotel
Where to Eat in Tulum
Tulum is amazing for food, just like everywhere else in Mexico. But this is where you’ll find some of the finest fine dining in Mexico, and probably the most vegetarian/vegan options. There are restaurants run by Michelin starred chefs where the focus is always organic and sustainable or sheds on the side of the road with plastic chairs and tortillas dripping in salsa. The experiences can be quite different whether you eat in Tulum Town or Tulum Beach, and so is the budget. Here are my favourites and the ones I consider unmissable.
Hartwood is one of the best restaurants in Tulum. Owned by a Michelin starred chef this place knows how to do good food. Everything is cooked over their fires and the kitchen is like something you'd find in a hut with no electricity (oh yeah they use candles as well). The menu changes on the season and the available produce. You have to book in advance as it's so popular, or risk waiting for hours to get in. It is on the pricy side of Mexico, but so worth it. The mains range from 400 - 600 Pesos. Book in for a special occasion, or just if you want an amazing food experience.
Charly's Vegan Tacos
Everyone goes here when in Tulum, but there's a reason why it's become an institution. It's a food truck park with large wooden benches and tables. The food is all vegan and so tasty. Their homemade soft drinks with fresh fruit are divine. Definitely a place you have to visit, even if you love meat, you'll still love these tacos.
By accident we found this trendy food truck park in the back streets of Tulum, and I'm so glad we did. It's lit up with fairylights and has a mix of cuisines to make anyone happy. There's Italian (apparently the pizza was incredible), Mexican of course, burgers, vegan options, and vegan gelato. There's a bar at the back for drinks and the vibe is chilled and fun. As it's in Tulum Town everything is cheap, but made well.
Go here for the best taco experience in Tulum! It's not fancy, and is basically a shed on the side of the road with an awning and plastic chairs, but the flavours are rich, and it's safe on the stomach. You choose your taco and then add the salsas when it arrives. What you also need to try here are the Quesadillas. They oozed cheese and sauce, with the perfectly cooked meat bursting in flavour.
What To Do In Tulum
Tulum’s great for sunbathing on the beach and doing nothing by the pool. However, it’s also got many amazing experiences that are more active and authentic. I did a lot of research through Instagram and blogs, but the Lonely Planet was also a lot of help, especially while we were there.
The Gran Cenote (or Grand Cenote in English), is the most well-known cenote on the Yucatan Peninsular. It’s very popular, but there’s also a reason for this. It is some of the bluest and clearest water I have ever swum in. If you can bring or hire a mask I highly recommend you do this as the experience under the water is so much more than above. Caverns stretch away beneath you and turtles slowly swimming around stalactites.
We turned up at the opening time, 8 am, and there was already a line of people waiting to get in. This was nothing compared to what we saw later on. You have to shower before you get in, as they don’t want to contaminate the water. This also involves getting your hair wet, so don’t do anything fancy with it.
Mexican Cooking Class with Rivera Kitchen Tulum
Mexico is all about the food. They do seriously amazing dishes, whether it’s tacos, quesadillas or mole. One of my goals was to learn how to make this so I could finally remake it at home. My group of friends searched the internet and found Rivera Kitchen Tulum. After reading the reviews on trip advisor I knew we had to book it.
It was amazing, one of the best experiences we had in Tulum. Lily, who runs the class is warm, welcoming, and funny. She rescues stray dogs and cats, so there’s always an animal underfoot when you’re not in the kitchen (hygiene first). There were seven of us, and we got to do a private class, which made it even more special. We made five different dishes, all with Mexican or Mayan origins. Everything was explained clearly, her English is excellent, and any breaks in the cooking were filled with learning, or other activities, like Mezcal tasting.
The end product was so tasty! My favourite part was making the tortillas, and I can’t wait to make them at home.
The Tulum Ruins are a Mayan archeological site just outside of Tulum town. They are very close and easy to get to. You can see a Mayan Palace and temple and other minor buildings. When you arrive you have different ticket options to choose from. You can get entry only, entry with a guide, entry and access to a viewing tower, or entry and a boat ride with temple views. We took the entry only as we didn’t have a lot of time. The walk to the archeological site is about fifteen minutes from the ticket office and filled with people desperately trying to sell you something. If you don’t want to pay don’t accept anything from them and don’t stop for photos otherwise they’ll demand money.
Bring hats, water, and sunscreen as there is not a lot of shade at the ruins. It was my hottest experience in Tulum, and this was at 9:30 am. There’s a little bit of information at each ruin, but if you want to know the history, pay for a guide (make sure it’s a legitimate guide hired by the ruins, they usually wear a blue shirt). The ruins also have a pretty beach (when not covered in seaweed), so you can cool off here. You can spot iguanas reclining on the stones, and Coatis with their babies.
Car Wash Cenote
This cenote is named because the local taxi drivers apparently washed their cars here once upon a time. It’s cheaper than the Gran Cenote and less crowded. The water is not as clear and snorkelling isn’t that interesting. But it makes up for this with a great relaxed, local vibe, and cool water to swim in like a swimming pool. You can jump from a hut into the water for some “extreme sports”. They also teach cave diving in this Cenote as at the far end it has an opening to an extensive network of caves. Just like the other Cenotes, you must wash your hair and body before entering the water.
This Cenote is not as photogenic, or as beautiful as the others, but there are a lot less people here, and it’s great for swimming and relaxing.
Day Trip To Cobá
If you want a large, extensive Mayan complex, but don’t want to drive as far as Chichen Itza then you need to visit Cobá on the Yucatan Peninsular. It’s only a 45-minute drive from Tulum, and the road is large and easy if you have an heir car. There’s also tours you can take or buses.
Having read that it gets really hot and busy we decided to get up early and arrive for opening time at 8-am. This was the best decision ever! It was cool within the shady jungle, and we were some of the only people at the ruins. It was amazing to stand secluded amongst the greenery and hear nothing except the jungle around us. We hired bikes to get around the complex as it’s extensive. The paths are large and flat, and even though the bikes are dilapidated it’s pretty easy to get around on them.
At the moment you can still climb the largest temple, but make sure you have water and good footwear. It’s very steep and worn down with age. The views up the top are worth the sweat though, as you can see over the jungle for miles.
Safety / Currency / Tipping
Tulum is super safe. You can easily walk around here at night and the usual care will keep your valuables safe. As a woman, I didn’t have any problems, except for one security guard who considered himself the Mexican Casanova (“Hola Grupa” said in a creepy voice).
It’s important to be aware that unfortunately there are several scams employed to make as much money from tourists as possible. Always negotiate the price before getting in a taxi, and if you can, ask your hotel for the expected cost, which can save you a lot of money (we had some drivers asking for double what was recommended to us).
If you are driving a car I recommend that you do not go to the service station on the road heading out of town to the beach. Our accommodation said they’d heard of a number of scams there, such as not changing the pump to zero, so you pay for the last person’s fuel as well as your own, or accepting a 500 peso note and quickly changing it to a 50 and demanding you pay more. We asked our hotel for the best service station and were recommended the first PEMEX on the way out of town towards Cancun. We had no problems here.
The currencies used in Tulum are USD and the Mexican Peso. From experience, we found the Peso was the better option to have. It was usually a little bit cheaper to pay with because every hotel had an inflated conversion fee from Pesos to USD. There are several ATMs along the road, but they only let you withdraw USD, which then means you have to pay the higher rate. The ATMs in Tulum town give Pesos so it’s better to stop here to get your money out.
You can withdraw Pesos from the currency exchange shops, but when I tried this he was going to charge me a 30% commission fee so I thought better of it. However, if you just want to exchange your money the commission is not usually that bad.
Tipping is expected and basically mandatory in Mexico. Most people don’t earn enough money without the tips, so you’re helping them out by doing so. Some hotels and restaurants will suggest the tip, which is helpful. Also, some of the higher-end restaurants will include the tip, so just check if it’s already there. Tipping a taxi driver is not necessary unless they drive you from Cancun to Tulum and then that’s a good idea. The recommended is 10% or higher when tipping at a restaurant.