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A trio of bohemian beach life, value for money, and ancient Mayan history
Gorgeous white-sand beaches, friendly and easy-going locals, good food, relaxation, and spirituality are some of Tulum´s timeless and simple pleasures. Once a sleepy hippie outpost, Tulum has become a popular destination for those searching for a relaxing and close-to-nature vacation.
There are actually three places collectively referred to as Tulum: The trendy yet casual beachside and hotel zone, the authentic and cheap pueblo where locals mix with travelers, and the world-famous archeological ruins.
The beach and hotel zone
The lure of this Tulum is hard to describe. The lush jungle meets powdered-sugar beaches, separated only by a narrow road smattered with small hotels, restaurants, bars, and boutiques, but with a distinctly unplanned, bohemian ambiance. This is not a cookie-cutter centrally planned hotel zone, but rather a magical place where the local businesses have grown organically, with a distinctly Caribbean feel. Here it would not be unusual to see an unbathed Rastafarian backpacker eating fish tacos next to a well-healed Hollywood executive in custom-tailored chinos.
You won’t find any high rise resorts in Tulum; hotels remain shorter than the tallest palm tree — the theme here is rustic and in tune with the natural world. Sea breezes replace the drone of air conditioners, candles replace neon, and fresh seafood (‘fresh’ meaning your fish or seafood was living hours before you’re eating it) replaces the corporate chain restaurant. There are a mix of boutique hotels ranging in price from the heart-attack-inducing (around 400 USD a night) to the modestly-priced (80 USD), cabañas with or without air conditioning, and even camping areas (30 USD to pitch your tent for the night). Due to the limited electrical infrastructure, this part of Tulum is partially off the power grid, and electricity to the area cuts off around 10:00 p.m., but the blossoming ‘eco-chic’ hotels and cabañas either have solar power, wind power, or generators which will kick in when the zone is temporarily dropped from the grid. Hotels with restaurants are very likely to have some alternative source of power since they have to preserve food.
Some hotels though, only have candles or torches after the power is off, providing a nice atmosphere and sticking to their eco-friendly and sustainable tourism philosophy. There are no TV or telephones in most places for the same reason but who wants to watch TV when you can relax in a lounge chair on your private terrace overlooking the Caribbean and gaze at the stars?
The fact that Tulum is laid-back and relaxing does not mean it lacks activities. Conditions are near perfect from November to May for kite surfing, with air temperature from 20°C to 28°C, and water temperature 20°C to 28°C. Winds blow 15-20 knots in January and February and 12-18 knots the rest of the season. Depending on the beach and the forecast of the day, you can get flat water, light surf (1m to 1.5 m waves), or wave sailing.
It’s a great spot for learning how to deal with the waves, perfect for jumping and executing tricks. If you’re a beginner or have never tried kiting, don’t worry because there are several kite surfing schools where you can hone your skills. Open water diving is less popular than in other places along the Riviera Maya, but this area is well known for cave diving; nearby divers can explore some of the longest cave systems of the world, for example, “Ox Be Ha” which has 134 km (83 miles) of explored and mapped passages. (See our section on Rivers and Cenotes for more information).
If you’re coming to Tulum to get back to the basics, relax and meditate, you won´t be disappointed, as there are many yoga centers and hotels offering classes. Tulum is home to many people who wanted a change; they wanted to be closer to nature and the simpler pleasures in life. That feeling obviously reflects on the daily life of locals as well as the activities available for visitors. Yoga, holistic medicine, organic food, and communing with nature is the “all-inclusive” package offered here.
In years past, the beach hotel zone of Tulum was known as a budget traveler’s paradise. But word spread fast. While budget accommodations still exist, with the discovery of Tulum by the New York and Los Angeles fashion and entertainment crowd, prices for food and lodging have risen substantially. If you are on a tight budget but don’t want to rough it camping then the town of Tulum might be your best choice, offering cheaper, yet comfortable places to stay and eat.
In the town you can find a variety of hotels, hostels, bed, and breakfasts, all with reasonable prices; for example, an air-conditioned room with cable TV and internet access for around 50 USD. However, in our opinion, none of the places in town or down the highway have the charm of those by the sea, so if your desire is to relax and enjoy the beach to the fullest, then paying a little more to stay on the beach in the hotel zone is worth it.
Tulum town has about anything you might need for your travels, from groceries and gas to banks and pharmacies, internet cafes, and even language schools if you want to brush up on your Spanish. There are plenty of restaurants to choose from, shops to browse, and tour operators to contact for information or organizing a day trip. As they say in the real estate world, it’s all about location, location, location.
Tulum, the town is often referred to as ‘El Pueblo’ in order to distinguish it from the beach or the ruins, and many travelers use it as a base for their travels around the Riviera Maya because of its central location on the highway and the value for money it offers.
El Pueblo is only a $6 USD taxi ride away from the beach, but a cheap and fun transportation option is to rent a bicycle; some hotels include bikes or a taxi shuttle to the beach in their services (either free or for inexpensive prices). We would not recommend walking between the town, the beach, and the ruins, it’s a long, often hot, and dusty trek, but if you’re a runner, mornings are fine for a jog, and the path is wide and safe from traffic.
The archaeological site
For archeology enthusiasts, you definitely won’t want to miss the ancient Mayan ruins of Tulum, whether you prefer to explore alone or go on an organized tour. Anyone visiting the Riviera Maya should visit Tulum, if for no other reason than to take in the spectacular setting of the ruins on a high bluff overlooking the Caribbean Sea. Tulum is the only major Mayan site located right on the ocean. Its grayish-tan (once colored) buildings dominate a palm-fringed beach lapped by the sea’s brilliant blue pastel waters.
Tip: We definitely recommend getting there early or late in the day if you want to avoid the crowds and the heat!
Archaeologists think that the original Mayan city may have been called Zama which translates to ‘City of Dawn’. The Yucatan Mayan word Tulum means ‘wall’ or ‘trench’ and the high walls of the site undoubtedly protected it from invasions. Believed to be an important trading route by both land and sea in pre-Hispanic times, it was first rediscovered by a Spanish expedition led by Juan de Grijalva in 1518. It was one of the last cities to be built and also to be abandoned since many of the other cities were already abandoned by the time the Spanish arrived.
Tulum is famous for its Temple of the Descending God, and in addition to trading, is also believed to have been an important worship center for the Mayans. If you´d like to read more about the interesting Mayan culture, click here.
Explanations of the structures and history are thorough and displayed in both Spanish and English. Infrastructure and maintenance at the site are excellent, and if you’re really into archaeology you can always hire an expert to take you through the site to explain its history and importance to the Mayan people.
A little extra info
If you are staying in Tulum, the site itself is easily accessible by bicycle, car (parking $6 USD), or taxi. If you are coming from Playa del Carmen you have several options: An organized tour, a car rental, a collective, or a bus. If you decide to take the Colectivo (around 3 USD) you´ll have to get off at the intersection of HW 307 and the road to the ruins. There are signs all over, but if you are unsure just tell the driver you are going “a las Ruinas”. Then just walk east until you see the entrance (about 800 meters). Taking the Colectivo is not the fastest or most comfortable way to go, but it is the most inexpensive and adventurous! Once you are there, you’ll find a central commercial area with restaurants and shops, which is a little less than a kilometer’s walk to the admissions area. If you are tired, you can take the ‘train’ ride for $20 pesos and save you energy for visiting the site.
Another inexpensive and convenient option is to take a bus that goes directly from Playa del Carmen ADO bus station to the archeological site, it´s only 6 USD or so and you won´t have to walk as much. Check our transportation section for more tips on how to move around. Admission to the site itself is about $5 USD as of this writing.
Be sure to bring a camera, bottled water, sunscreen, loose comfortable clothing, good shoes, and swimming apparel if you want to take a dip in the ocean (yes, you can do this at the site ― the beach is quite nice, and in a spectacular setting). If you´d like to learn more about the different beaches of Tulum, please read our travel article about the beaches of Tulum.
Are you planning a trip to Tulum without staying overnight? consider booking a tour, where you can visit the beach, explore the ruins, as well as enjoy other activities, all in one day.
Not every activity is a ‘must-do’ in the Riviera Maya, but visiting Tulum certainly is. Tulum is very a unique place, a place where you can experience the thrills of water sports, nature, ecology, beachside relaxation, fresh seafood, and visit the only Mayan city by the sea — all on the same day, or paced out to your liking. What else can you ask for?
- Moderately Priced
Best For Whom
- Mature Travellers
- For Her
- For Him
- All Ages
- Leisure Travellers
- All Levels of Players
- Low Handicaps
Best For What
- A Bit of Romance
- Fine Dining
- A View To Die For
- Quick Bites
- The Local Experience
- Lively Atmosphere
- Girls' Night Out
- Boys' Night Out
- Celeb Spotting
- Outdoor Area
- Happy Hour
- Luxury Hotels