Welcome to Tulum, the picturesque town located on the eastern shores of the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. With its stunning white sandy beaches, jungles that hug the shores, ancient Mayan ruins, and spiritual cenotes throughout the region, Tulum is a must-visit destination for anyone seeking a memorable travel experience. Here you can see how the local people live, learn about their customs and traditions, and try some delicious regional cuisines. The Mayans are extraordinarily inviting and welcome all people with a good heart and soul into their world.
There are a few different sides of Tulum, all of which should be enjoyed equally. You have the downtown area, beach resorts (also known as Zona Hotelera), the natural beauty of the jungle, and historical sites like no other. Avenue Tulum, which is the main road that runs through the city center plays host to many boutique shops, traditional restaurants, trendy new clubs, and street food vendors. It is the nucleus that holds the city together. There are no real traffic rules when driving, but pedestrians at the proper crosswalks always seem to have the right of way. You will make friends with locals, other travelers, and stray dogs that seem to know the city better than anyone.
Tulum, through the influence of social media, has ballooned tremendously over the last 10 years. Talking to some of the locals, this has been a blessing but also a bit of a curse. Sure, tourism is a major source of income in this region, and having more people come willing to spend money and enjoy themselves helps stimulate the local economy. But that has also brought on: increased traffic, an increase in cab fares, an increase in food prices, and new developments that although looking to be as sustainable as possible, always creates an issue with the local ecosystem. Also, these are housings that locals cannot afford.
We started our journey from a crowded and bustling Cancun airport to our little private villa on AirBnb Kuun Tulum, a journey that took just under two hours and was in the middle of the jungle. Going down a small dirt “road” with no lights in the pitch black of night, was a bit of a hairy experience. Google didn’t have this road on their maps at the time, but it appeared we were heading in the correct direction based on what I remembered from booking the stay. Stepping out and not sure if it was the right spot, but we were immediately hit with that warm tropical night air and were eager to get settled in to start the adventure even though it was close to 9 pm.
Kuun Hotel is a new development being constructed in the jungle between the hecticness of downtown Tulum and the over-the-top and pricy beach resorts. Each villa is one story with a private plunge pool, perfect for cooling off in the heat of Mexico, and an open rooftop equipped with a BBQ, hammock, and jacuzzi. We found this spot on Airbnb and it had only been open a few months before our arrival.
Waking up and taking a dip in our private plunge pool is the best way to start the day. After a quick complimentary breakfast in their open-air restaurant, we decided to rent a scooter from the resort and took off exploring. The weather in mid-December was absolutely perfect. Sunny days, warm air, a slight breeze, and the smell of the jungle everywhere you go. Our mission today was general exploration and trying some local food. We walked in and out of some boutique stores where all the vendors were extremely nice and friendly. The pace here is slow and no one is looking to rush you. There was no pushy sales pitch, although one of the employees came out to greet me and nearly convinced me to buy half the store, she was a cute puggy little bichon that laid on my foot looking to get her belly rubbed. Which I obliged for about a good 5-10 minutes.
Getting around Tulum is extremely easy, with a scooter being able to get you anywhere you need to go. Taxi's are all over the place and easy to flag down but it's super easy to get around and park if you're comfortable on. One thing that is good is to have WhatsApp downloaded and you can get the number of a taxi driver. It's easy to text them on there and will typically pick you up in 5 minutes.
We started our snacking tour around the city at Casa Vegana’s rooftop restaurant. An all-vegan restaurant with its take on traditional meat dishes. Highly recommend getting the Birra tacos made with mushrooms as the sauce was savory and delicious. Something else that was interesting was the ceviche in vegan chicharrones. Not something you see on most menus. Our host recommended a couple of local beers called Ocho Reales, this was the perfect lunch to get us going.
After some time in a couple more boutique shops and wandering around the city it was time for dinner and we indulged in some street tacos on the main road Avenue Tulum. Carts are parked all over the main street of town, some standing alone, while other corners may have 5 different vendors huddled together. One we heard about online was called ‘Perro no come perro’. Tacos were $1 with unlimited salsa. We grabbed one of each (choices are plant-based versions of pastor, asada, chorizo, and barbacoa) and a torta then stood with some other locals enjoying the night. The Asada was a little dry and needed a hefty amount of salsa with a couple of squeezes of lime but the others were really good. Across the street on the corner of Geminis Sur and the main road, was the busiest cart we saw all week. I didn't catch the name but they were offering tacos for $.22 USD, and there was a line of 20-30 people at any hour of the night.
No visit to Tulum is complete without two adventures, one is a trip to the ancient Mayan temple of Chichen Itza and exploring the magical water caves known as cenotes.
Day 2 was dedicated to exploring the countryside of the peninsula and visiting a few of the cenotes located outside the area of Tulum. We rented a car from American Car Rental and got a free upgrade to a 2021 white Jeep, perfect for these country roads. We headed out to a town called Coba where we visited a couple of cenotes:
Choo-Ha: a beautiful cave with crystal blue waters and bats flying around. After taking a cold shower to wash any oils or sunscreen off your skin you walk down into the cave about 50 steps to this amazing pool of water. Here you can easily spend an hour or so just floating around admiring the peacefulness inside the cave and listening to the water drip from the limestone roof. [Entrance fee of $5 USD]
Multum Ha: this was a bit of a hidden gem in it is not visited frequently. A deep well with an 18m walk down the stairs to a pool with waters 20-30m deep. A calm and spiritual experience would also be great for snorkeling. [Entrance fee included with the fee to Choo-Ha]
We learned that the Mayans don’t typically swim in the cenotes and that they are considered sacred. That’s where they would get their water from, especially during the dry season when they don’t see rain for 5 months. Lots of ritualistic events surround these water sinkholes.
Before heading to another cenote, we decided to grab lunch at the nearby luxury boutique hotel Coqui Coqui Papolchac Coba. A tranquil setting on Laguna Coba inspired by ruined temples nearby, this is a rustically luxurious escape from the hecticness that Tulum can bring. Grab a seat on their outside patio overlooking the lake and start off with some Mayan hummus, which was grilled tomatoes topped with grounded pumpkin seeds, and some locally sourced veggie tacos, delicious. Then we walked around the hotel and got some local chocolates and walked through some of the shops on site. One thing that the Coqui Coqui brand is known for producing is perfume. Here they have an entire perfumeria shop which allowed us to smell their variety of scents. The one we got was named 'Agave' and the agave was grown locally and accompanied by a strong oak leathery finish. Now every time we put it on at home, it takes us back to the Yucatan peninsula.
We continued our day’s journey visiting the Zona Arquelological Coba Pyramid ruins. Here you will visit an ancient Mayan settlement with watch towers, a Mayan calendar, a huge pyramid (although you used to be able to climb up it and that wasn’t the case when we were there) various temples and an athletic court which the Mesoamericans played as the earliest known version of basketball. Sort of a basketball plus futbol combination where it is known that the losing team would be beheaded. From the entrance [60 pesos to park and 100 pesos to enter per person], you have 3 choices in how to visit these sites, walking (which will take a few hours as the trial will total 6km to do), renting your own bike, or requesting the service of a local peddler. This is what we chose for an additional small fee, as it allows you to sit, and they push you down the long path. These are all true native Mayans to the area and depending on who you get their English is OK and will point out some cool spots to check out. They'll try their best to explain what you are looking at and can take pictures of you in front of the ruins. Don’t forget to tip your driver!
After being out in the warm Mexican sun, it was time to start heading back to Tulum and stop off at a couple more cenotes. Our next one was called Zacil-Ha entrance fee 100 pesos per person] and it was a very kids-friendly place. Lots of places to sit and eat, with a restaurant and a kids’ zone. The water was clear as could be and there was a zip line to drop in for a small $1 fee. Only spent about 30 minutes here as it wasn’t the same type of vibe, we have experienced already so we decided to check out one that was widely recommended. Casa Calaveras cenote [entrance fee of 250 pesos per person] is also known as “skull cenote” but was overrated in my opinion. Located in the mangrove forest it was packed and you had to pay extra if you want to bring your go-pro in. About a 5m jump from the edge into the cenote created a bit of a queue to jump in, if you skip this one you won’t be missing much. With our cenote time coming to an end, most close around 5 pm, we headed back for a shower and then to drop off the jeep. Just a few shops down make sure to grab some food or a couple of drinks at Escama in the Art Walk Area. A beautifully designed open-aired restaurant, the bartender was extremely knowledgeable of the locally sourced ingredients and even offered a small mezcal tasting. Truly an awesome experience.
No first-time visit to the peninsula is complete without a trip to Chichen Itza, with it being one of the most famous and well-preserved ruins in all of Mexico, where Mayans from around the region would for various religious and ritual ceremonies. We booked a tour with Mexico Kan Tours through Tripadvisor and our tour began at 7 am from our hotel ready to embark on the 2.5-hour drive to the temple. We walked around the Kukalkun temple and Venus’s platform at the site. You will learn about the significance of the area and how the temple is orientated. Nothing was done out of coincidence. I won’t go into too much detail here as you can read a lot about it online, but it is something that you should have on your must-do list.
After our tour of Chichen Itza, lunch was arranged for us in Valladolid at the Hotel El Meson del Marques. Very traditional and in a lovely setting in the lobby, we had a 3-course meal preplanned based on any dietary requirements you have. After lunch we had an hour of exploring the cute little square of the town, then it was off to one more cenote. Quite arguably the best one we went to all the whole trip, Cenote X'ux Ha was 20m deep into the limestone crust of the featuring fresh water and a 5m platform to jump from. This cenote is on the land of a privately owned family which has only been opened to the public in the last 10 years. It's hard to describe this site with any other word than just, Wow!
Upon getting back to Tulum we had (for the 2nd time) the best vegan tacos in Tulum. At El Bajon these little tacos were extremely flavorful and filling with a buffet of salsas you could choose from. At 25 pesos per taco, there are more than I can list here. There is no shame in trying them all!
The next day it was time to head to one of the top 3 resorts we have ever stayed at in Habitas Tulum. We got there around 1230 after a 600-peso cab ride ($33 USD to go about 20 mins). With the overpriced cab ride aside, our jaw was on the floor at this resort. With its own private beach, the whole property is in the jungle that leads up to the ocean. Glamping huts are scattered around looking to blend in as much as possible along with 6 oceanfront villas that quite literally open up to the ocean. The staff was friendly and gave us a tour of the property before settling in. Events including yoga, sound meditation, music, and other art exhibits are complimentary to guests during the stay. We grabbed a cocktail by the pool and soaked in our new home for the next few days. With the world cup playing in Qatar, we reserved bikes from the resort and biked down to Mateos to watch the game. A place recommended to us several times, it is probably the best place to watch a sporting event in the Tulum beach area. Mexico was playing Saudi Arabia while a group of about 25 Argentinian fans watched their country’s game in the back section. Mexico missed advancing by 1 goal, but it was a fun atmosphere nonetheless.
Headed back to Habitas to relax by the pool and really soak in the sundown in Mexico. There are two "perfect" daybeds that you want to make sure you can grab at some point during your stay. One is at the end of the pool which makes you feel like you are laying on the beach and the other is on the North side of the pool which is off by itself a bit and tends to get the best sun throughout the day.
Later on, we headed out for dinner at Casa Jaguar, a sleek restaurant at the other end of the hotel zone in Tulum beachside which was recommended a few times by some friends that have visited Tulum before The menu looked good but nothing really for us, so we decided to go to MIA restaurant in Hotel Selina. Chic spot with tables in the sand and a lively vibe. The menu online was old and didn’t have some of the same dishes on the current menu that was handed to us, which we came in for. We were actually looking to leave but the restaurant manager came over and said he confirmed with the chef they could do it for us. Which was awesome of him to do and left us with not only a great meal but an amazing experience. We got the asparagus risotto, oyster mushroom tacos, gazpacho, and cauliflower steak. If any of these are on the menu, do yourself a favor and give them a try.
Waking up in Habitas was absolutely refreshing. Our hut was complete with a king-size bed and an outside shower. A short walk through the jungle trees leads us to the restaurant where breakfast was complimentary with our reservation. The vegan toast, even if you’re not a vegan, I would highly recommend trying it. The flavors hit parts of your tongue that I don’t remember ever being activated before. A crisp piece of toast, charred in a wood fire oven lends an earthy taste right off the bat. A combination of beet hummus, pickled veggies, and crème fresh dollop on top complement each other so well, I would fly back just for this breakfast on the beach. Spent the early afternoon basking in the sun and decided to do a beach cleanup. What didn’t look like at first to be a lot of trash, we ended up grabbing about 20 pounds of garbage. Ugh.
One of the best ways to explore the beach of Tulum and the Zona Hoteleria is by bike. There are many areas made famous by social media and where we heard you used to be able to go up and take pictures for Instagram of course, a lot of these you'll need to pay now. So be aware that most of these hotspots are on the more southern end of the Zona and it could be a long bike ride as you fight the wind. And bring some extra pesos if you feel compelled to pay for the opportunity to take your photos.
I heard about this local custom and decided to give it a try. It is one experience I will never forget. The ceremony is called Temazcal. There are a few spots that offer this and our hotel was able to set it up for us. This tradition is rooted in the Mayan culture, and it involves chanting while in a sweat lodge cave that you can only sit in. A spiritual leader known as a temazcalero takes you through four parts which are representing the four seasons with each part taking about 10-15 mins. You never come out, but the door is opened briefly to allow some smoke to clear. The feeling is hard to describe. You are pushed to your limits physically and mentally as your body is taken over by rhythmic chanting. When the ceremony is over, you come out of 'the womb' of earth and are to cleanse your body, natural water is the best as it is the closest to nature. We were able to go to the ocean and cleanse our souls there, being reborn by nature's elements. It was extremely hot, dark, and smoky in the manmade cave. So, for those that are Closter phobic, it can be a bit of a traumatizing experience.
The last full day in Tulum had left a bit of a sigh that everything was coming to an end. After waking up and walking through the jungle trees barefoot in the sand as we head to indulge in our morning ritual of two oat lattes with the amazing breakfast with a view; we wanted to make sure we got to experience as much as we could. Habitas staff helped arrange for a scooter to be dropped off making it easier to get around Zona Hotelera and Tulum Beach.
There were still a couple of cenotes that we had not explored yet which were recommended by our guide to Chichen Itza and were closer to the town of Tulum. Only a 14 min drive from Our Habitias Tulum was Cenote Cristal. For a $5 USD entry fee you'll enjoy a lake where the water was so clear I felt I could drink it while swimming around. After a quick rinse before getting in, you're located in such a tranquil spot you feel really immersed in the Yucatan jungle. There is even a 12' platform you could jump off into the water. Literally right across the road from Cristal Centoe was Cenote Escondido. This cenote was a lot longer and is geared for scuba divers to traverse the deep waters and many caves. Walk down the stairs into the cenote or jump off the 10' cliff into this deep cenote. Float down the stream and back admiring the birds that call this place home.
Head back to rinse off and get some dry clothes and head out one last night for some margaritas. Now we read a couple of blogs stating the best margaritas in Tulum were at Mezzanine Hotel Tulum which is situated north of Tulum Beach and closer to Tulum's National Park. And although our server was outstanding, and the appetizer was amazing (we ordered it twice) these were not the best margaritas in Tulum. Views were killer and you sit tree level with views of the beach and coastline below however do expect to be blown away by the margs. Make sure on your last night you get a chance to try some dinner at a place you've seen or got a recommendation for. Ours was this little 20' container that served tacos and beer to those passing by. It was like a luxury food truck called XXXXXX. Sit back grab some food and watch those passing by enjoying the spiritual freeness that Tulum encourages.
Being in Tulum is like stepping into a postcard. The town is surrounded by lush tropical foliage, and the pristine beaches are a sight to behold. The warm, inviting waters of the Caribbean Sea are perfect for swimming and snorkeling, while the nearby cenotes offer a unique and refreshing swimming experience. The town is full of color and character, with energy from the early morning into the night. Many lively markets selling local crafts and souvenirs line all 4 major streets. It's hard not to feel relaxed and rejuvenated in Tulum, amid the laid-back vibe of the town yet you can dance the night away under the Mexican moonlight from the various DJs that have made this a stop on worldwide tours. Tulum makes it the perfect destination for anyone looking to escape the hustle and bustle of everyday life and connect back with nature. If you have not been yet you need to make it a priority in 2023. The city is only going to get bigger and busier and coming here sooner is better than later. Happy travels!