Ultimate Tulum Travel Guide

Mar 18

Overview

Tulum is a small, chic beach town located in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo on the Yucatán Peninsula, nestled right above Belize. It is absolutely incredible, as you get a far more relaxed vibe than the touristy Cancun to the north, while still getting the rich history and insane nature that the peninsula has to offer. You are quite literally immersed in the jungle and most of the hotels are eco-resorts, resting right on the infamous white sand that Tulum Beach is most known for. Beyond all of that, the road that stretches along the beach is lined with palm trees, stores made from shipping containers, poke stands, and handmade bikini shops. Nothing about Tulum sucks.

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One of my favorite things about Tulum, is that despite its popularity and growth in recent years, it has stayed authentic and true to itself (for the most part). Nothing about Tulum comes off as disingenuous, touristy, or gimmicky when you are there. It has not been Americanized at all whatsoever. If you have ever had that impression of it from afar, it is likely because the fashion or travel blogger you follow presented it as such. The reason all of the pictures you have seen of Tulum have a similar aesthetic, is because building supplies are pulled directly from the jungle across the street. There truly is a cohesive, beachy theme all through Tulum Beach that is absolutely genuine, making it magically unique in it’s own way.

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Tulum is a bohemian hotspot for vegans, yogis, photographers, foodies, fashion bloggers, and nature lovers. There truly is a little something for every type of traveler. There are not many places where both the do nothing-all-day cocktail drinking traveler and the get-up-early adventure seeking traveler can co-exist in perfect harmony. I have used to Tulum for a girls’ trips, a romantic photography getaway, and I am currently in the works of planning a work retreat there. My travel style does not align with that of my girlfriends, yet we had an absolute BLAST every single day we were there. Beaches, pools, artisan eateries, jungles, ruins, hikes, bespoke cafes, cenotes, fresh seafood, bikes, and more. Tulum is one of those rare places that actually has it all.

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Despite its tourism uprising, specifically with Americans, speaking a little Spanish does go a long way here. During my first trip to Tulum, I noticed not as many locals spoke English compared to many of other places I have been to in Mexico. I learned this is largely due to it’s remote location paired with the fact that the tourism boom in Tulum is relatively new in recent years, only recently exposing the locals to swarms of English speakers. It is always polite to brush up on your basics for a number of reasons, but you will absolutely find it beneficial to yourself to know some basic Spanish.

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Before we get into the nitty gritty, I need to do my part here and speak up about what has happened to Tulum in that last decade due to its growth. While I absolutely love this town, it is hard for me to fully stand behind it knowing the devastating impact it’s growth has had on the environment. Just a few years ago, it was still a sleepy beach town. Now it full of luxury beach villas and yoga resorts, nearly unable to handle the large amount of people wanting to visit. While the resorts strive to deliver the eco-experience for both the guest and the environment, growth has happened a little quicker than the area could handle and it is starting to show. Expanding the area is also slowly destroying it. Starting in 2017 (with the rise of travel blogging on Instagram) tourism started to actually damage the area, especially since Tulum isn’t close enough to a power grid and it relies on diesel generators to power the area. Additionally, there is not proper waste management infrastructure in place. Please be mindful of this when you visit.

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Getting There

You will fly into Cancun. There are nonstop flights from pretty much every major airport in the country, all totaling roughly 3-4 hours of flight time. Due to its close proximity to the states, Tulum truly is the perfect long weekend getaway that requires minimal planning and commitment if you are in the USA. Flights are cheap, frequent, and quick in comparison to most international flights. Once you arrive, things stay laid back and easy. The drive to Tulum is an easy 90 minutes on a main road with no turns at all.

Both times I have gone, I have rented a car. The first time, from Hertz, where we didn’t have a great experience due to the wait time. The second time from Budget, where we had a great experience that involved extending our trip.

Navigating

Tulum is basically broken into three parts: North Playa, South Playa, and Town. While Tulum Town can make you feel like you are in the heart of Mexico, it is not anywhere near all the things that you go to Tulum for. The only perk is cheaper accommodations, better access to public transportation to get out of town, and more Airbnb options. If you seek the authentic Mexican experience and you don’t care about the beach, research the towns more inland on the Yucatán Peninsula and avoid the tourism of Tulum all together.

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All of the picturesque shots you see of Tulum plastered across Instagram are taken somewhere in Tulum Beach, which is made up of one long road, stretching north to south. Tulum has to be one of the easiest places in the world to navigate, as there are no other roads. Every hotel, villa, restaurant, bar, shop, etc is on this road. It is the only way in and it is the only way out. Now I want you to think about that for a second. Traffic can get a little ugly on this road, especially when a literal tour bus makes its way down the road (which they do). That being said, avoid driving on this road unless you need to get out of Tulum Beach. Otherwise head out on foot or bicycle!

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Both of the hotels I have stayed in Tulum had bicycles for the guests to borrow for free. If your hotel does not have onsite bikes, there are cheap rental stands every couple hundred feet or so. Since bicycle is the preferred method of transportation in Tulum Beach, there is bike parking every single place you stop to eat, shoot, or hang. Your bike will come with a lock, so you won’t need to worry about it should you venture off.

North Beach is closer to the ruins and easy to get in and out of, as you don’t need to drive all the way through town when you want to go somewhere in a car. But it is more crowded and feels a bit more touristy than South Beach. Additionally, you are not near the famous white sand Tulum Beach, but rather a series of small, private beaches. The south end of town gives you access to stroll the beach for miles. The farther south you stay, the less crowded it gets, however it means it’s going to take you a little bit longer to get out of town when you head out to explore. Be sure to account for this if you stay toward the south end of town.

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I have stayed at the far north of town and the far south. Staying south was far more enjoyable, as there is a lot more to do outside of the hotel, more places to eat, and the vibes feels a lot more relaxed. My only complaint is that it required waking up a little earlier, as it tacked on an extra 15-20 minutes of driving time our adventures.

Just beyond Tulum lies the Sian Ka’an Biosphere, which is UNESCO site that boasts 1.3 million acres of sparsely developed areas. There are countless secluded spots in this huge reserve, beaches with crystal blue water particularly. The entrance to this protected area is at the southern tip of Tulum’s south beach.

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Accommodations

Tulum has every option imaginable when it comes to accommodations. I think it goes without saying that most people come to Tulum to stay in a luxury or boutique beach hotel. The beach resorts are incredible, all of which deliver some type of eco-experience. Your individual travel style, budget, and the type of trip you are going on will largely dictate what accommodations you choose. If a beach eco-resort is not for you for whatever reason, there are other types of hotels, villas, Airbnb rentals, and even beach hostels. It absolutely possible to visit to Tulum on a budget.

I have personally stayed at Azulik and Be Tulum, both were incredible, but completely different experiences. I am going to share my experience with each, then finish the section off with a list of hotels that have stellar reputations.

Azulik

Azulik is probably one of the best known hotels on the North American continent. I had seen several couples I know visit this adults only, clothing optional resort… so naturally, I took three of my girlfriends there. Famously known as a treehouse hotel, Azulik delivers the ultimate romantic connection with nature, as there is noelectricity. There is no air conditioning. When the sun goes down, the entire property is lit by candlelight. Each room has one outlet, so you can charge your phone. I cheated and brought a power strip. Don’t judge me, I had camera gear to charge.

The lack electricity, air conditioning, and light at Azulik wasn’t the difficult part for me in least bit. In fact, I actually quite enjoyed it.

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Due to my size, the lack of overhead running water was actually the only tough thing about Azulik for me initially. I am a long bitch, so washing my hair in a bathtub is what you would call *impossible*, especially when you are not given very much indoor tub to work with. That being said, the famous outdoor mosaic tubs are massive. So I bathed in the nude on our balcony, as that was really my only option. At first, I let myself feel weird about it. But once you are out there, staring at the ocean, salty breeze hitting your face, listening to the waves crash… you realize you have been bathing wrong your whole entire life.

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Since the entire goal at Azulik is to get you reconnected with nature and yourself, the staff isn’t waiting on you hand and foot outside of the restaurants. They give you space and wait for you to call upon them if you need something. So if you are looking for the pampered vacation, this is not going to be where you want to stay. If you are looking for complete and utter privacy, excluding the fact that someone will probably see you naked at some point, this is the right place for you. It was honestly really nice to just get to be.

Azulik is located very North in the more crowded area of Tulum Beach and is a photo hotspot. They do an excellent job at keeping non-guest out of the hotel itself where the rooms are, as well as the private beach, but the treetop hammocks, bridges, and nests are fair game for tourists, as they are in the restaurants. Be prepared for literal hoards of people looking to get Instagram pictures if you stay here.

Be Tulum

Be Tulum is one of the coolest places I have ever stayed for so many reasons. Before we get to the details, it’s important to point out that unlike Azulik, the 64 rooms are air conditioned, have refreshments, and overhead waterfall showers in some of the most beautiful bathrooms I have ever been in. Be Tulum also strives to connect its guests with nature via raw local materials everywhere one looks, but on a far more luxurious level. We normally don’t care much for luxury when we travel, but we had to admit, this level of service sure was nice.

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The resort is made up of an intricate system of lush green pathways, decorated with obscure, neon colored plants and hanging wicker lanterns. All of the rooms boast a unique theme, rooted in the elements. The property is peppered with private pools, roof terraces, gardens, and hammocks. They do an excellent job at making you want to stay at the hotel the entire time by giving you plenty of different places to hang out, from the vibey beach club to the private rooftop pools. The service and staff are also absolutely incredible.

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Be is located about as far south in Tulum as you can go, which had it perks. The beach wasn’t crowded, there seemed to be a lot more tattooed folks, the road had fewer cars (making bikes feel safer), and there was more to do outside of the hotel than Azulik.

While I would prefer to stay at Be again over Azulik for a couple of reasons, Be is far less of an *experience* if you will.

Below is a list of other resorts and villas that have incredible reputations. Additionally, the travel websites can help you find something in your budget. Lastly, Airbnb can have unexpected gems.

Nomade Tulum

Nest Tulum

The Beach Tulum

Zorba Villas

Eating in Tulum

Tulum has a unique cuisine and I am so here for it. When you think of Mexico, you think of bottomless margs and endless chips and salsa. Well, this is not that type of Mexico. Far from it, in fact. Something I failed to consider prior to visiting Tulum the first time, was just how deeply rooted the Mayan culture is in all areas, especially in the cuisine. Tulum offers a Mexican-Mayan fusion fare, unlike anything I have ever had in my life.

Due to it’s location on the ocean, the local cuisine is about 75% seafood. Ceviche, seafood tacos, sushi, grilled octopus, and poke are staples on all the local menus. The freshness is on another level, as everything you eat was likely caught hours earlier.

You may or may not know that I have Celiac Disease. I had no issue eating in Tulum and experienced no cross contamination to my knowledge. Wheat was not a part of the Mayan diet and they are not exactly growing it for food down there. Almost everywhere we ate made mention of what menu items were (or were not) gluten free.

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Below you will find a list of all the wonderful places I have eaten at in Tulum, along with a few well known favorites that I didn’t have time to get to. Click a name top learn more and decide if you want to give it a try! I have also added a food photo gallery.

Matcha Mama

Hashtag Poke

Ocumare

Mezzanine

Kin Toh

Tseen Ja

Be Tulum Beach Bar

Charlie’s Vegan Tacos

Adventuring in Tulum

As mentioned at the very beginning of this, Tulum has a little something for everyone and activities range from ultimate relaxation to ultimate adventure. I suggest a mixture of both, Below you will find my favorite activities to ensure you have the best time in Tulum. Click the links to find out more!

Take a dip in a cenote

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Explore ancient Mayan ruins

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Play on the famous Tulum Beach

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Ride bikes through town

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Work out at Tulum Jungle Gym

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Sail to snorkel at the world’s 2nd largest reef on a private catamaran

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Photos by Krissy & Ben Harclerode