Table of Contents
Our Perspective on Tulum, Mexico
Despite two initial setbacks, we really enjoyed our trip to Tulum, Mexico. Although this city is rather touristy, you are still able to have an authentic experience if you know where to go. However, you can easily end up spending much more money than necessary if you are not careful. Since we had such a good time in Tulum, we want to make sure everyone else does as well. No matter what your budget is, you won’t have any trouble having a great time if you follow our tips and tricks.
Tips & Tricks for Tulum
We’ve created an extensive guide for Tulum, Mexico so that you can have exactly the type of vacation here that you would like. Instead of reading everything, we highly encourage you to use our table of contents to jump to the sections that interest you most. Here, we cover everything from accommodations, to transportation, what to eat and where as well as activities, day trips, general tips and even just some more information about the city. Please let us know if you think we’re missing anything or if you would like some more information about anything we’ve written. ¡Buen Viaje!
Where to Eat in Tulum
Tacos! We found the best tacos we’ve ever eaten in Tulum and we discovered them out of desperation. The first food we tried came from a restaurant and while it was delicious, it was more expensive than the taco stand we discovered. In fact, we found the taco stand after realizing that the next restaurant where we wanted to eat was closed. Starving and desperate for a meal, we just stopped at the first taco stand we came to.
- The taco stand Los Taconmadre is where we had dinner every night for the rest of our stay in Tulum (7 nights in a row!). The stand is located on the corner of Andromeda and Centauro Streets and is open every night from 6 pm to midnight and on the weekends. Each taco only costs 25 Pesos, which consists of a healthy portion of either the meat of your choice, a vegetarian blend of various vegetables or cactus with cheese. You can also add cheese to the others for 5 pesos more. Each taco comes with two tortillas and you are welcome to add as many potatoes, black beans with ham, salsa and lime as you want for no extra cost. The flavor is out of this world and the owner is super friendly. We ended up talking with her a lot (well, trying to with our embarrassing level of Spanish) and couldn’t bring ourselves to try any other restaurants or food stands for dinner because we didn’t want to be disappointed. By going there every night, we saw many of the same returning customers and learned that these really are the best tacos in Tulum. They also offer homemade water/juice mixes. We recommend trying the “Jamaica” which is hibiscus water. So good!
- Churros are next on our list because this was our dessert every night they were open. The stand is called Churros “La Lupita” and they are located on Satelite street. One portion of 4 traditional churros with cinnamon and sugar costs 25 pesos. They also offer churros with chocolate sauce as well as fried bananas. They aren’t open every night, but Tulum is small so it won’t hurt you to walk over and have a look.
- Restaurants: There are so many restaurants in Tulum that we wouldn’t even know where to begin in telling you which one is best. The problem with restaurants here is that they are very tourist oriented, meaning it is hard to find one that offers specialties or that puts all their effort into a select few dishes that they do really well. For example, many of the restaurants offer “authentic Mexican food” as well as pizza, burgers, pasta and anything else you can imagine. That wide selection makes it very hard to convince us that the Mexican food they offer is authentic. If you’re dead set on going to a restaurant, then the most authentic place that we heard about is called La Coqueta, located on Highway 109, right at the intersection that takes you to the beach. We didn’t discover this place until near the end of the trip and, therefore, never had a chance to try it out, but we’ve heard great things!
- Food Stands: We mentioned our favorite food stand above, but the streets are essentially lined with various options, which are usually tacos, tortas (sandwiches), hamburgers, hotdogs and we think we even saw tamales, but couldn’t confirm. Like we always say, the best food in Mexico comes from these local food stands. This is where the locals eat, so you know it must be good and affordable.
- Grocery Stores: Even if you’re not cooking any meals, it doesn’t hurt to walk into a grocery store and see what they have. Many of these have a bakery, a deli or even a small restaurant inside. The Chedraui grocery store is the largest in Tulum and has the best selection as well as competitive prices on everything. This is where we got our lunch most of the days we were there. They have a large bakery section with tons of pastries and donuts, as well as savory items like empanadas and everything is at an unbeatable price. We ate empanadas almost every day and were never disappointed. Each empanada only costs 21 Pesos (about 1 dollar) and they are quite filling, so you should be full after only 2 or 3, especially if you grab some chips and salsa to go with them.
- Salsa: Speaking of salsa, beware that Mexicans are used to much spicier food than you are, so even if a salsa is considered mild, there’s a chance it is still too hot for you. No matter where you are, proceed with caution when it comes to salsas and, if you can, try a tiny bit before smothering your food in it. We both love spicy food and each of us basically burned our mouths more than once because we underestimated the spiciness of various salsas.
Best Places to Stay in Tulum for Every Budget
When it comes to accommodation in Tulum, you will be able to find anything from camping to luxury hotels and everything in between. We’ve detailed these options for you, here:
- Luxury: If you’re looking for a more luxurious vacation, then you will most likely want one of the more expensive hotels in the hotel zone “Zona Hotelera”, which is located on the southern beaches. In general, this part of Tulum is built for tourists and priced accordingly. Lots of people say, “oh, it’s really cheap”, but what a New Yorker or Californian considers cheap is often much different than the rest of us who aren’t used to high prices. That being said, you will find plenty of luxury accommodations and all inclusive options here. The downside to this is that you’re experiencing a more expensive beach vacation and not getting to know the locals and their lifestyle. If you’ve been before or if you just need to get away from all the stress of work and your daily life, then this is still a great place to take this type of holiday.
- Camping: If you’ve got a really low budget and like sleeping in tents, then there are also many places in and around Tulum that offer you a tent as well as shared cooking facilities, restrooms and showers. Some of these camp grounds offer mattresses for “glamping”, while others simply provide sleeping bags.
- Hostels: If you generally don’t feel like spending much money and want more of what we like to call a “real Tulum experience”, then we highly recommend staying in a hostel within the main city of Tulum. This is where all of the locals live and it will give you the best chance to get to know them and get a feel for the lifestyle in Tulum. This is something you can’t experience in the hotel zone. The nice thing about hostels is that they almost always offer a shared cooking facility, so you can save some money by making your own meals and chat with your fellow hostel goers. Hostels don’t only offer dorms; in fact, most of them also offer private rooms with their own bathrooms, which is what we opted for.
- Hotels: As mentioned a couple of times already, most hotels are located in the hotel zone, although there are still some within the main city limits as well. A hotel is generally more private and may feel cleaner than a hostel. The only reason we put it that way is because many hostels are privately owned by people who may not have the same budget for maintaining the outer appearance. However, the hostel we stayed at was pristine and cleaned top to bottom every single day. If you’re planning on eating out for all of your meals, then you might as well go for the comforts of a hotel because in a hotel, you know exactly what you’re getting and you have more privacy and likely more silence than anywhere else.
Transportation in Tulum
There are a few different ways you can travel to, within and around Tulum. We have broken these down into two separate sections to make it easier for you to find exactly what you’re looking for.
4 Ways to Get to Tulum
Before figuring out what you’re going to do in Tulum, you first need to know how you’re getting there. Finding transportation to Tulum will never be difficult because you are constantly bombarded by taxi drivers, shuttle services and bus agencies trying to sell you their services. This happens no matter where you are in Mexico—at the airport, in the city or just walking around anywhere in the country for that matter. So here are your options for getting to Tulum:
- Bus: If you’re planning on spending most of your time in Tulum or the immediate surrounding area, then you may be best served by taking a bus there. The ADO bus line services all of Mexico and has proven to be the most affordable for us. The easiest way to buy tickets is to download the ADO app once you’re in Mexico (it doesn’t work outside of the country) and book everything online. The other option is to buy tickets at the counter.
- From the Cancun airport: In order to take an ADO bus to Tulum, you first need to get to the Cancun central bus station. ADO buses leave from Terminal 2 and take you directly to the central station. From there, you can take another ADO bus directly to Tulum.
- From the Merida airport: Just like in Cancun, you first need to take the bus to the central ADO station in Merida and from there, you can take another bus to Tulum.
- From Cancun or Merida: As mentioned above, the ADO buses always start longer journeys in their central station and do not make many (if any) stops along the way. Therefore, it’s always best to book your tickets from the central bus stations. Just use the ADO app or online booking portal to plan your trips. Remember, you cannot access the ADO website or app outside of Mexico. Don’t worry, though. The prices do not often change so you should pay the same whether you book a week in advance or a day in advance.
- Shuttle: If you’ve booked an accommodation with an airport shuttle, then you don’t need to read any further in this section. If not, there are a number of shuttle services who will be waiting to bombard you at the airport. These shuttles are a little more difficult to find in the cities, but a quick online search should yield multiple options. If you don’t book in advance, you can just buy your ride from one of the many shuttle services at the airport. They will have fixed prices, but it never hurts to try to negotiate. After all, if they were already booked, then they wouldn’t be at the airport trying to solicit their services. This means you may be able to get a better price.
- Taxis/Collectivos: One of the most popular means of transportation for locals and tourists, alike, is a taxi or collectivo. The taxi is exactly what it sounds like: a taxi. The collectivo is also a taxi, but it comes in the form of a van and the travel cost is shared by the collective group of passengers, which typically makes it much cheaper for the individual. You can get a taxi or collectivo from pretty much anywhere. Just stand on the side of the road and flag them down. They will stop if they have space for you. Of course, there are what feels like millions of these guys soliciting you at the airport. In this case, it’s probably best to find a group of people also going to Tulum or Playa Del Carmen and share a collectivo with them.Three things to know about collectivos:
- Collectivos do not drop you off at your desired address, but rather on the side of the road in the city you’ve chosen.
- Collectivos have a set area they service and may not take you all the way to where you need to go. This means they will take you as far as they can and then you’ll have to flag down another driver who services that section of the highway. Don’t worry, their routes are generally from city to city and these drivers are everywhere. You will see more of them than you will regular vehicles.
- Taxi and Collectivo prices are fixed and a tip is not customary. They do not run meters and it is not standard practice to tip the driver, despite what he tells you. Taxi drivers love tourists because most tourists don’t realize these facts and it makes us easy targets from whom they can dishonestly earn some extra cash. If you’re visiting in the off season, you may be able to negotiate a better price despite the fixed rates.
- Rent a Car: Be very careful when renting a car! If you’re planning on taking lots of days trips, and you definitely should, then a rental car is the best way to go. However, there are a couple of things you need to be aware of when renting a car in Mexico. We don’t want to scare you out of renting a car because there are lots of benefits in doing so, but we do want you to be well prepared for what to expect.
- The rental companies are really good at forcing you to buy stuff you don’t need and they are relentless in this pursuit. We won’t go into detail here, but this happened to us and got our trip off to a very bad start. Nevertheless, we’ve learned from this experience and explain more about it and how you can prevent it in another post on rental car scams.
- Gas stations in Mexico are notorious for trying to rip you off. This happens to locals as well, but tourists are ideal targets because they don’t understand how things work here. Instead of explaining this here, just read our post about the best way to avoid a gas station scam in Mexico.
5 Ways to Get Around Tulum
Once you’re in Tulum, you will quickly realize that it’s not feasible to go everywhere on foot. This is absolutely possible, but if you decide to do this, then please bring plenty of water and sunscreen, as you will be walking in the heat for a long time. If you did not rent a car and are only moving around the city itself, then we highly recommend just walking. Otherwise, you have a plethora of transportation options for getting to and from the beach, the ruins, nearby cenotes and even within the city.
- Walk: As mentioned in the opening paragraph of this section, walking is a perfectly doable way of getting from point A to point B in Tulum, but we do not recommend it. Instead, go for one of the following 4 transportation methods.
- Rent a Car: If you didn’t rent a car before coming to Tulum, then you will find no shortage of car rental companies in Tulum. As always when renting a car, watch out for hidden costs and unnecessary additional charges. It’s really good to have some knowledge of Spanish, just in case you need to dispute something.
- Rent a Bike: Although Tulum can be a bit spread out, renting a bike is a fun and practical way of moving about. It is cheaper than paying for a taxi everywhere you go, it forces a little exercise and it is much faster than just walking. You can almost always rent a bike from your hotel or hostel. Otherwise, there are plenty of bike rental places in town.
- Take a bicycle taxi: That’s right, there are guys riding around town on bicycles with shaded seats for up to 2 or 3 passengers. This is slower than a vehicle, but also much cheaper and they will take you pretty much wherever you want to go; even outside of the city.
- Take a taxi: Just like everywhere else, there are countless taxi drivers standing around or honking at you as they drive by (let’s face it, tourists are easy to spot), so it is very easy to find a taxi to take you wherever you need to go. Again, their prices are fixed, a tip is not standard and you may be able to negotiate a bit.
7 Top Things To Do in Tulum
If you’re planning a trip to Tulum, then you are likely already aware of the Tulum ruins, the white sand beaches and the cenotes. These are definitely the most popular ways to spend your time here and none of them will disappoint you. Here are our tips for the best ways to enjoy your activities in Tulum.
The Tulum Archaeological Site
Getting There: If you’re in a rental car, then do not follow the street signs leading you to the Tulum Ruins, as these will inevitably lead you to a paid parking lot from which you are transported in an open air bus to the ruins. Instead, drive toward the beach and take a left at the fork in the road. This puts you on the north beach access road where you will have opportunities to park for free. You won’t be able to drive all the way up to the ruins here because the street is eventually blocked to through traffic, but you can park for free on the side of the road nearest to the beach. From there, it’s only about a 600 meter walk to the archaeological site. The path is mostly shaded, but it’s still quite warm.
If you’re not in a rental car, then your options are either a very long walk from your accommodation, a bike ride or a taxi. The taxi will also take you to the same point mentioned above from where you will need to walk the rest of the way.
Entry Fee: The entrance to the Tulum archaeological site is only 75 Pesos per person, which comes to about $3.75 USD.
Best Time to Go: The best time to visit the Tulum archaeological site is first thing in the morning at 8am and there are two reasons for this. The first reason is because there is very little shade at the site and the sun gets very hot very fast. Even with an ample supply of water, you can put yourself at risk of heat stroke, so we highly recommend going at this much cooler time of day. The second reason to go early in the morning is to beat the crowds. The tourist buses start showing up around 9 or 10 and everyone else is crawling out of bed around that time too. By going early, you give yourself the best opportunity for some great photos without people walking into the shots.
Swimming at the Tulum Archaeological Site: There is one beach access point within the ruins themselves and you are allowed to swim there. We wore our bathing suits just in case, but didn’t end up getting in the water because there was quite a bit of invasive seaweed at that time. These conditions change on a daily basis, though, so be prepared and wear your bathing suit underneath your clothes!
The Tulum beaches are only separated from time to time by rocks and most of the access points are controlled by beach clubs or hotels. However, there are free access points that we are going to tell you about here.
El Paraiso Beach is probably the most famous beach in Tulum because there is a palm tree here that has grown almost parallel to the ground, giving you the opportunity for the perfect Instagram photo in paradise. The beach here is beautiful, but it can get a bit crowded at times, just because it’s THE place to go.
Poc-Na Beach is our personal favorite. It’s not quite as far north as El Paraiso Beach and the access point is a bit hidden in the trees. This beach isn’t currently listed on Google Maps, making it that much harder to find. Just drive, ride or walk north as if you were going to the ruins or El Paraiso. Keep your eyes right until you see a narrow walkway in the trees with an arch labeled Poc-Na. This beach is much less crowded and just as beautiful as the rest of the Tulum beaches.
Snorkeling in Tulum
Despite the fact that you can’t really snorkel in Tulum, we’ve included this section because we want to warn you about the nearby snorkeling opportunities, so that you don’t make the same mistake we did. If you’re like us, you also love snorkeling and this is one of the highlights of your trips whenever you have the opportunity. When you look into snorkeling near Tulum, everyone online will tell you that Akumal is the place to go. We are here to tell you, however, that Akumal is NOT the place to go.
The beach at Akumal is technically a public beach and is technically supposed to offer free access to the beach and to the coral reef just a few meters off of the coast. The reason everyone wants to snorkel here is because it’s pretty much the only place on the Riviera where snorkeling is possible and the sea turtles like to hang out here too. Some of the reef area is protected and swimming on your own is prohibited, but enough of the reef is technically open for public swimming to where you should be able to snorkel with various fish and maybe even turtles.
Here’s the problem: Private businesses, illegal businesses and even a few con artists have blocked off everything and the local government is doing nothing to stop it. You are now forced to pay for parking, which isn’t actually terrible because it keeps your car safer and only costs 50 Pesos for the entire day ($2.50 USD); you are bombarded by possibly hundreds of guys trying to sell you beach access or snorkeling tours from the time you pull in until the time you leave; every beach access point is gated off and you are forced to pay 100 Pesos or 5 USD per person to access the beach; once inside, the bombardment continues where dozens of these real, illegal and fake salesmen are continuing to try to sell you snorkeling “tours”; plus, there are guys walking around with “beach patrol” shirts and fake badges trying to tell you where you can and can’t swim and that you “might as well buy a snorkeling tour.” Seems legit. We didn’t even inquire about the price of the snorkeling tours, especially because we could see exactly what these “tours” entail: You rent snorkeling equipment a la carte—life jacket, flippers, mask, breathing tube—then you get in a dingy that takes you about 25 meters from the shore and they let you swim around a tiny little area of the reef for about 30 minutes before bringing you back in. The area of the reef that is open to the public is blocked off by all of these little boats and their cronies who are guarding it to keep you from going out there on your own. Honestly, though, even if you did get past these guys, you won’t see anything because the fish and turtles have already been scared off by all of the boats.
We were extremely disappointed in Akumal and discourage anyone from going there. Obviously it’s up to you, but we just wanted to first let you know what you’ll be getting yourself into. If you do decide to go there and just want to relax on the beach, then just get in and walk as far away from all of this nonsense as you can until you find a quiet spot (there are a couple places). If you’re looking for a nice day on the beach, however, you can just stay in Tulum and have the exact same thing free of cost and free of harassment.
4 Must Do Day Trips from Tulum
Tulum is a great starting point for a number of day trips or half-day trips to many interesting locations. The ideal way to do this is to use a rental car, as it gets a bit more difficult and expensive if using buses or taxis. Plus, the rental car gives you the flexibility that the others do not. For example, if you want to take a bus to Chichen Itza from Tulum, then you will have to book one night on location in Chichen Itza since you won’t have enough time to see the site and catch a return bus. So let’s talk about all of the 4 must do day trips you can take from Tulum:
- Chichen Itza: If you’re visiting the Yucatan Peninsula, then you can’t pass up the opportunity to go to Chichen Itza. Admittedly, we almost didn’t go because they’ve recently raised the entrance fee to an astronomical price. Entrance to Chichen Itza now costs 481 Pesos (~$25) per person. This is almost double what it used to cost. Combining the entry fee with the paid parking (80 Pesos), the time to get there (approx. 2 hours) and the gas you are using (also around 500 Pesos worth), it makes for an expensive trip overall. 1,542 Pesos ($80+) is what we ended up spending to see Chichen Itza. Considering we are on a tight budget, this was quite expensive for us. That being said, Chichen Itza was definitely worth the journey and the expense for us. This has always been one of our bucket list destinations and once you stand in front of El Castillo (the main pyramid), you immediately forget about the cost and just awe at the magnificent structure. Most of the ruins at the site are still in excellent condition, which just adds to the worthiness of a visit.
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- Coba: The archaeological site at Coba is much closer to Tulum, so you will only need about 1 hour to get there in your rental car. The cool thing about Coba is that you are still allowed to climb one of the pyramids there. Something else that makes Coba so interesting is the fact that the site is situated in the middle of the Mayan Jungle, which further adds to the fascination of how these people were able to build such an impressive civilization in the environment in which they lived. When you go to Coba, be prepared for lots of walking and humid temperatures. If you can‘t handle the walking, then you can also rent bikes or take bike taxis around the site. Bring lots of water with you!
- Cenotes: The Yucatan Peninsula is filled with cenotes, which are natural fresh water sinkholes and many of them have been opened up to the public for swimming. There are too many of these cenotes to count, so you’re best served just looking at the map and checking out the pictures and reviews from visitors to decide which one you’d like to go too. Some of these are basically just outdoor ponds, while many of them have underwater cave systems that you can partially swim in. You can even do cenote cave diving tours, but that was too scary for us. Instead, we went to the Grand Cenote just north of Tulum. You can get their via car, taxi, bike or even by walking.
- Bacalar: Google this place and you’ll immediately understand why we list it as a good day trip from Tulum. Granted, the drive is very long (around 3 hours), but the beautiful blue water might just be worth the long day. We didn’t actually take this trip because Denise wasn’t comfortable driving in Mexico and Ryne wasn’t up for 6 hours of driving plus a tiring afternoon in the sun. If we do decide to go back to this area, however, we will make a point to go there for at least one night.
General Tips & Tricks for Tulum
- Always pay in Pesos! We say it every time: pay with the local currency because this guarantees the best prices. Otherwise you’re at the mercy of the vendor’s preferred exchange rate.
- Pay in cash: If you prefer to use a credit card, then get ready for a 4% fee every time you pay with it. For some reason, all of the stores, restaurants, hotels, etc. charge a 4% commission when you pay with a credit card. Of course, this is in addition to whatever fees your bank or credit card servicer might charge you for the foreign transaction.
- Go in the off season: Since Tulum is becoming a popular tourist destination, it’s best to visit after summer has ended in the northern hemisphere. You may encounter rain, but you will be amongst much smaller groups of tourists and may benefit from reduced prices because of the low season.
- Eat as many tacos as you can! Seriously, they’re that good.
General Information About Tulum
Tulum, Mexico is one of the fastest growing tourist destinations in the Yucatan Peninsula. It is home to the Tulum archaeological site where all of those famous Instagram pictures are taken of the Mayan ruins next to the ocean. Although Tulum relies heavily on tourism as the main source of income, the city is still not overrun with tourists to the extent of Cancun or Playa Del Carmen. Something else to know about Tulum, when visiting as a tourist, is that there are essentially two Tulums, the beach and the city. We put it this way because the hotel zone on the beach basically has it’s own little economy and many tourists spend their entire Tulum vacation there. Of course, this area is much more expensive than the main city. If you haven’t already, read our accommodation tips above to find out about the best places to stay in Tulum.
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