We spent three glorious days in the paradise that is Tulum, Mexico, and I am scheming ways to get us back there. Three days was definitely not enough, and as cheesy as it sounds, I feel like I left a little piece of myself there. It was just totally my kind of vibe and I need to go back for at least a month!
That being said, Tulum is no longer the sleepy backpackers’ secret of the Mayan Riveria. Its powder-soft sand and pristine blue waters attract everyone from Hollywood starlets and boho-chic fashionistas to corporate yoga retreat-ers and hedge-funded hipsters. Prices have appreciated accordingly.
But if you hurry, you can still do Tulum on a budget and have a great time.
There’s just some things you should know…
There are really two Tulums, three if you count the ruins. Tulum Pueblo (the town) is about 4 km from the Tulum Playa (the beach and hotel zone) and is the more budget-friendly of the two. A meal at the beach can cost double what you’d pay for similar quality back in town. Beachside hotels also come at quite a premium.
We used Spirit miles to fly from Oakland to Cancun International during the last week of January, which we found to be a lovely time to go. From Cancun we rented a car for $35 USD a day ($10 + insurance). This worked out perfectly because Mark’s parents were with us, but next time we will likely take the bus from the airport at a cost of around $5-7 USD per person and rent a bike or scooter in town.
Rent an Apartment in Tulum Pueblo
We chose to stay in an Airbnb in Tulum Pueblo. We got really lucky with a big Mayan-style house with a thatched roof and loft sleeping area for $38 USD per night. There was even a hammock and a little patio out front so we could relax with a glass of wine or early morning coffee. So lovely!
Our first night there we just wandered through the neighborhood, which we found pleasantly vibrant and alive. There were dogs running wild in the streets, some just laying in the middle of the road. Kids played soccer well into the night under whatever streetlights they found still lit. Young couples pressed up against the sides of buildings whispering together and kissing. Men rode bikes with their wives on back and their children up front on the handlebars. Little juice and smoothie windows, tortillarias, and food carts dotted every street corner. Locals, expats, and visitors enjoyed the night together.
We went to bed that night to a symphony of clucking chickens, crowing roosters, barking dogs, loud music, horns honking, people yelling, but somehow I got the best sleep ever. (A beachside hotel would be the quieter option, but you’d be trading it for local flavor.)
Camp in Playa Tulum
Next time, we’ll stay a few nights in town, but also camp a night or two at Cenote Encantado in the hotel zone near the beach for $10-15 USD per night, depending on the time of year. It’s way less expensive than one of the pricey boutique hotels or resorts, but it still puts you in the same general area so you can walk to the same bars and restaurants and enjoy the same beaches.
Wander Tulum Pueblo Until You Find a Restaurant That Speaks to You
The main drag in Tulum Pueblo is rife with food and drink options, and the side streets have even more to choose from. We picked a random restaurant on the Cancun-Chetumal highway (don’t worry, it’s not too busy a road) called Restaurant El Capitan where we ate the tastiest and most tender octopus I’ve ever had and drank the freshest mojitos.
For a drink in town, we recommend Todos Santos for its young, hip scene — the kind so many bars in L.A. aim for but fail to recreate. The music here is trendy and the vibe relaxed. Mike, the manager, espouses the healing properties of artisanal mezcal, offering personal demonstrations if you sit at the bar long enough. DJ sets start after midnight, but before that hanging at Todos Santos feels like hanging at the living-room party of the coolest kids in town.
Grab a Bite from a Food Cart or Taqueria
Three delicious al pastor tacos and a liter of Coca-Cola at a nearby taqueria set us back about $4 USD. God, I love Mexico.
Get Fruit from the Fruit Market
Let’s not forget about the fruit markets! Pineapple, bananas, mangoes, papaya, watermelon are all grown in Mexico and are tastier than most you’ll find in the States.
Eat and Drink Local Specialties
Be sure to try some of the local dishes of the Yucatan Peninsula as well as traditional Mayan cuisine. We loved the different kinds of ceviches and mezcals, as well as the Sopa de Lima, Tikin Xic grilled fish, and pibil that we ate.
Breakfast on the Beach
We loved getting to Playa Tulum around 9am to get some breakfast and claim a spot on the beach. We ate yogurt with granola, fruit, and coffee both mornings we were there. Amansala (Eco-Chic Resort + Retreat) was our favorite because the continental breakfast was only $9 USD and included yogurt, oatmeal, granola, roasted flax seeds, toasted coconut, banana pancakes, Mexican-style scrambled eggs, coffee, and tea. We pretty much ate our fill among all the yoga babes and then retreated to the beach for the rest of the morning. Heaven, I tell you.
Eat at the Hartwood – Screw the budget!
On our last night in town we were determined to eat at the Hartwood, located on the jungle side of the beach road. Not the most budget-conscious choice, but we were celebrating two years of marriage after all and needed to splurge. We heard so many good things about the food we needed to taste it for ourselves. We got there at 4:30pm to stand in line to make a reservation for a seating, as instructed by so many people on the blogosphere. They start taking reservations at 5pm, with the first seating at 5:30. We got the 6:30 seating (score!), so we wandered across the road in search of a drink to kill some time. Our bartender Fernando told us, “If you come to Tulum and don’t eat at the Hartwood…don’t come to Tulum.” So we knew we made an excellent choice. The entire menu is organic, the fish are spear-caught, and they use only a wood-burning grill and oven for cooking. As far as the food goes, I doubt there is a bad thing on the menu. Some of highlights were the Tomate Milpa Salad, the Costillas al Agave (pork ribs), and (by far the best) the Caribbean Ceviche. Order two of those, you won’t be sorry! Oh, and we saw BJ Novak from “The Office” get turned away for a table. Worth mentioning, I think.
DO / SEE:
Walk Down Tulum Beach Road
The road that runs through the center of Playa Tulum separates the beach from the jungle. It’s rocky in some spots, dirt in others, and overhead is a canopy of palm and other trees making you feel like you’re walking in some sort of enchanted tropical forest. I promise, it’s magical. Just walk along the road and scope out the restaurants and shops.
Go to the Beach
Ah, the beach. The perfect beach. The turquoise, crystal clear water, the flour-like white sand. You really can’t go wrong when it comes to beaches anywhere in Tulum, but there are a few spots that are better than others, in my opinion. I can’t say the exact locations, but if you walk far enough along the water you’re bound to find a spot you like best. What I love is that the public beach north of the hotel zone is just as beautiful (if not more in some spots) as the “private” beaches.
So, the trick we learned is this: Just walk down the beach, snag a lounge chair in front of a hotel or restaurant, and order a drink. Then you’re cool to stay there as long as you like, guilt free!
Visit the Tulum Ruins
The ruins of the Pre-Columbian Mayan walled city are about a five-minute drive north of the beach and offer the most spectacular views of the Caribbean. There’s also a nice place to swim, so make sure to bring your swimsuit. Admission is cheap —somewhere around $5 USD.
Snorkel in a Cenote
Everything I’ve heard and read about these underwater caves sounds incredible. We were planning on visiting Gran Cenote since it seemed to be the closest to our apartment, but we never made it. Too little time is my excuse. Also, tearing yourself away from the beach to do anything is always next to impossible. Do us a favor and make it your top priority.
Wear as Little as Possible
Bikini tops seemed more or less optional, bottoms tended to be minimal. I never thought I could feel overdressed in a bathing suit, but my high-waisted ASOS swimsuit was definitely one of the most conservative on the beach. My advice would be to pack light. A few sundresses, a beach cover-up, an itty bitty bathing suit, a pair of sandals, hat, sunglasses, you know the drill. Dudes, if you can rock a speedo like my guy can, you won’t be alone out there. But there were plenty of regular swim trunks too — don’t worry.
Tulum, I need to get back to you. I feel it in my soul now. The people, the town, the beaches, the air, the roosters, the food, the life! It truly is a magical place and I want you all to see it for yourselves. Now go!