A Guide to Tulum, Mexico

Tulum has become quite a popular place to vacation in Mexico. It is a small town in the Yucatan Peninsula just south of Playa Del Carmen. Recently it has seen a surge in tourism and boasts some of the most beautiful beaches in the world.

Tulum has this sort of jungle boho hippie chic vibe to it. It attracts yogis, free spirits, and eco minded people from all over, so basically me haha! Needless to say I knew I had to go spend some time exploring this place that sounded so perfect and wonderful.

Macrame for days!

I had actually been to Tulum to visit the Mayan Ruins over 10 years prior, like in 2007. I must say that it took my breath away… literally the most beautiful setting and beach I had ever laid my eyes on. The ruins sit atop a cliff overlooking the ocean and the pristine sandy beach below had the most gorgeous waves of clear turquoise water inviting you into it’s majesty. But I had never explored the rest of Tulum or stayed in that area so I was very excited this time around to do so.

I created this guide to help others decide if Tulum is the right place for them to go on their next vacation because although there was a lot of good in Tulum there was also a lot of not so good. So let’s get to it shall we?!

Amazing art and architecture in Tulum

GETTING AROUND: To get to Tulum you will fly into Cancun International Airport which is about 1.5 hours away so you will need to figure out how to get to Tulum. You can either get private transportation or a taxi, which costs about $100 one way, or you can get a shared bus which would save you a few dollars, takes a little more time because of other drops offs, or you could rent a car.

We decided to rent a car since it was myself, my husband, and our two small children (both still in car seats, ages 1 and 4). Renting a car in Mexico is not as easy of a process like it is in the states so it is best to BE PREPARED! Here’s a few tips…

Rent from a reputable car dealership that you have actually heard of, like Budget or Hertz. There are a lot of Mexican car rental companies and these can be a nightmare to work with. Stick to what you know. Also make sure to reserve a car in advance so you’re not stuck with some crazy car. Oh and don’t be surprised to see cars going for $1 a day online to rent, that amount will go up significantly when you actually show up to rent the car, there are other fees and insurances that are not included in that price. Have copies of all the necessary documents like your insurance and car rental agreement for the reservation. If your credit card offers rental car insurance then be sure to take a letter from them stating your coverage, this was easy to do, I just called and them emailed me a copy right away.

It can take a loooooong time to finally get your car because there can be a lot of paperwork involved. We were at the car rental place, we used American Car Rental, waiting in line for a very long time, followed by a very long processing time, it ended up taking over 2 hours just to get the car. Inspect the car for any dents and dings and TAKE PICTURES! You do not want to return the car and get stuck paying a huge amount of money for damages you did not incur.

Once you’ve got your rental car it’s time to hit the road! Proceed with caution, however, I read so many horror stories about how the cops in Mexico will pull over any and all tourists they see and write them tickets even if they are not doing anything wrong, they will insist that you give them money to get out of the ticket or get taken to jail. Luckily we did not ever get pulled over but I was prepared if we did by keeping copies of our passports because they will ask to see them and if you hand over the original and they decide to keep it well, you’re stuck in Mexico. Stay under the speed limit and follow all traffic rules.

When getting gas MAKE SURE YOU SEE THE ATTENDANT ZERO OUT THE GAS METER BEFORE THEY START PUMPING YOURS! This is a common scam where you end up paying for the previous cars gas in addition to your own. Another common scam is when you hand them the money MAKE SURE YOU COUNT IT OUT TO THEM, this is because they will switch out what you gave them with lower bills in a heartbeat and will tell you that you owe them more money. This actually happened to us and luckily I knew ahead of time this could happen so I did not fall victim to their shenanigans, I told the attendant exactly what bills I gave him and he laughed and said okay, sorry.

So back to the road, it’s literally just a straight shot down south to get to Tulum, very easy to navigate your way with many road signs along the way. Once you get to Tulum there is one main road that goes through town and one main road that goes toward the beach. Be prepared however to dodge pedestrians and bicycles throughout the entire area of Tulum since nobody really seems to stay in their lane.

The best way to get around Tulum

Biking is a very popular mode of transportation because it is actually pretty hard to find parking spots in Tulum and much easier to navigate on a bike. Luckily the place we stayed came with two bikes (and a childs seat) that we used most of the time we were there instead of the car. It can be a little dangerous with all the traffic so just be careful, especially at night because there are no street lights. I would highly recommend getting bikes while in Tulum because everything in Tulum area is really spread out, there is no central hub really so be prepared to spend a lot of time just going from place to place. It’s also much easier to park a bike than a car in Tulum as parking is very limited, especially on the beach side.

How we roll….

Side note: our rental car broke down the day after we arrived and it took me two days of arguing with the rental car company to bring us a different vehicle, this completely ruined the first few days for us so again, just be prepared for anything! It’s not as easy as it is in the states to get help with these sorts of things.

A mechanic checking out our rental car that broke down for days

LODGING: There are actually two parts to Tulum, the town side and the beach side. Even though from town the beach is just a few miles it is like a whole other world and takes about 20 minutes to navigate to the beach. If you are looking for a more authentic Mexican experience then I recommend staying in town. You will be immersed in the culture and will get a taste of what it’s like for the locals. There are some hostels and smaller hotels in town as well but airbnb seems to be pretty popular and lots to choose from.

The hotels at the beach are not your big high rise all inclusive style resorts you can find in tourist areas of Mexico but rather each one is unique and much smaller but can be very pricey. They are fancier boutique style spa and cabana hotels. It’s a different atmosphere than in town, and everything costs a lot more. The beach side of Tulum is also a really long stretch, going on for miles and miles on one narrow road. It is walkable via the beach but just getting from one end of the beach side to the other will take a very long time. The beach side has more of a hip vibe to it with beach parties all night and DJ’s music thumping long into the night.

Beach side hotel

We opted to stay in Tulum town at an Airbnb as it had everything we needed for traveling with 2 small children. We did encounter issues with our Airbnb however like the air conditioning in one of the bedrooms quit working so we could not sleep in there, the sink had a drain issue, the shower had zero water pressure, and a few other small nuisances but the hosts were quick to respond, but still put a damper on things right away. After going through that I was afraid maybe we made the wrong decision by not staying on the beach but I’m so glad we stayed in town…. more on this in a minute!

The pool at our Airbnb

Just note that either way you are staying in the jungle, so be prepared for very low shower pressure, weak or no wifi signal, and air conditioning that doesn’t work the way you’d expect it to no matter where you stay.

THINGS TO DO:

Check out the Mayan Ruins, they are located very close to Tulum, just a few miles north of the popular beach area. It is a very affordable experience, just a few US dollars for entry. You will want to go as early as possible to avoid the massive crowds and the daytime heat as there is really no shade here. The ruins are beautiful with the ocean as the amazing backdrop, definitely a must see so plan for taking about half a day to explore this place.

Mayan Ruins

I would normally suggest spending time on the beach but after this last visit I would suggest NOT going to the beach and here’s why. So I had heard about the seaweed problem that has been plaguing the Riviera Maya recently but I didn’t think it would be that big of an issue. So when we went to the beach in Tulum to say we were extremely disappointed is an understatement. Not only was there seaweed everywhere, actually called sargassum, but it was so bad the water was brown and nasty. Long gone were the turquoise clear waters that we were used to seeing here.

A picture of the Tulum beach I took back in 2007, it no longer looks like this sadly due to the seaweed

The sargassum is such a big problem now, it has ruined the beaches to where you cannot even swim or enjoy the beach. Not only that but it smells absolutely putrid! Once the sargassum reaches the land it begins decaying and smells like rotten eggs. There were some workers diligently trying to clean up areas but there was no end in sight to the massive swaths of seaweed rolling onto the shore.

Dirty Tulum beaches

Truly the worst beach experience ever, such a sad thing to see what was once a beautiful beach and ocean be taken over by this constant eyesore. If it does not get under control I can only imagine that this entire area will become a ghost town because the beaches have been a major draw to this area. Beautiful beach clubs sit empty all along the beach line. I personally will not be going back to Tulum unless this problem gets cleared up. So instead of the beaches opt for the pools or checking out cenotes.

The beaches full of Sargassum in Tulum

Cenotes are these amazing underground bodies of water and cave systems all connected, formed by the erosion of limestone creating beautiful sinkholes in the earth filled with the most crystal clear waters. The cenotes were sacred to the Mayans who once inhabited the area. They are great for snorkeling, swimming, diving, and exploring. There are literally hundreds of cenotes in the area so be sure to check out a few while there. Some of them are completely underground while some are open so there is something for everyone to enjoy.

Cenote Gran

We spent 3 days exploring different cenotes in the Tulum area, the ones we went to were a combination of open and underground since we had 2 little ones, we wanted to make sure they had a nice shallow area for them to play in. The ones we went to were Gran Cenote, Yax Kin, and Cenote Azul. We had Yax Kin all to ourselves which was completely magical and the best one for small children. Cenote Azul was extremely busy with tons of people everywhere, it was pretty but there was too much going on to really enjoy it there. Again, go early and avoid crowds.

Cenote Yax-Kin

Palma Central is an absolute gem that we discovered in Tulum. It is a gated food truck area complete with playgrounds and entertainment. It’s a nice clean place that you will see people doing yoga, relaxing with friends and family, or playing games. This is located in Tulum town on a block just east of the main road, just ask a local and they can point you in the right direction.

Enjoying an evening at Palma Central

It is open every evening and has over a dozen food trucks to choose from. Being vegan I easily found food at pretty much every food truck that was incredibly delicious and cheap. Local kids are running around playing and there are lots of tables and seating to just sit back and enjoy a cerveza from the bar. This was our favorite thing to do at night, it was very safe and a lively fun environment for all ages and it was nice to let our kids just run around and enjoy it.

VW pizza oven at Palma Central

Spend a day exploring the town and checking out some of the cute shops and restaurants. The main road has a plethora of choices when it comes to food. A huge selling point for me to go to Tulum was the vast array of vegan food, there are a number of vegan and/or vegetarian restaurants but even at the other restaurants almost all of them have a few vegan options so finding food to accommodate anyone is really easy.

Pasha Mediterranean Restaurant, best falafel ever!!!

The food is really good here so definitely try out as many places as you can! There are lots of choices on the main road and of course the beach side boasts some of the most trendy restaurants in the world, but they are also very expensive. One of the most amazing restaurants is called Kintoh and it is located at the Azulik hotel, it has floating birds nest tables in the jungle that are absolutely incredible.

Photo of Kintoh courtesy of Azulik.com

The shops are full of colorful blankets, clothing, toys, pottery, toys, macrame, and every other souvenir you can think of. Do your shopping in town however because the beach side stores are way more expensive. Be prepared to haggle, some shop owners are willing to haggle more than others and some don’t seem interested at all in working with you but take your time and you will find some great bargains.

shops along the main road in Tulum town

There are some great waterparks nearby too that are worth checking out, two of my favorites are Xel-Cha and Xcaret. We did not go to them on this particular trip but have in the past and both are incredibly unique to Mexico and beautiful. Xel-Cha is a natural aquarium with tons of activities. It is an all-inclusive park so you don’t have to worry about anything other than your entry ticket. They have snorkeling, water tubes, zip lines, river tours, diving, coves and caves, childrens area, biking, trails, animals, and food is included. You will want to spend the entire day here as there is so much to do. Xcaret is another popular water park that will take an entire day to explore, tons of cultural activities are located here. Underground caves, rivers, wine cellar, re-creation of a Mayan village and archeological sites along with a childrens area. The best part of Xcaret is that every night you gather in a huge outdoor auditorium for an amazing show that takes you through a journey of Mexico’s history, the costumes and the presentation is quite a spectacle not to be missed!

Hopefully this has given you a little information to help you out if you are headed to Tulum or thinking about going. I will say, it was pretty difficult with our small children, in fact it was brutal at times just because of the inconvenience of everything and all of the nuances we encountered. Not necessarily a place I would recommend taking small children too but it’s great for couples, girlfriends, solo, or for a nice relaxing yoga retreat, just wait to see if the beaches clear up though or you will be thoroughly disappointed.

So in conclusion here’s what made the good list: the vegan food options, the beer store next door to our airbnb, Palma Central, the architecture, the wading pool for the kids at our airbnb, the vibe, the art, the shops, the people, the bikes, the cenotes

And here’s what made the not so good list: the beaches, the smell, the rental car process, the broke down rental car, the water pressure, the inconvenience of everything, the heat, the scam artists, the lack of parking on the beach side, the mosquitos, the ridiculous increase in price of everything on the beach side, the lack of infrastructure, the trash

The beer store next to our airbnb, a lifesaver for us! Ice cold Coronas all day long!

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