In Search of the Real Tulum
Light breaks over the ocean
the sky becomes brilliantly pink
the sun oozes towards heaven
scattering glitter across the sea.
Pelicans guard the rock islands
beside their fishermen counterparts
couples power walk down the shore
while the yogis open their hearts.
In awe of the sunrise I sit in silence
feeling that all darkness is gone
I see why the Mayans called this magical place
“Zama” the “City of Dawn.”
Just down the road but a lifetime away
the bustling town comes to life
shop fronts and tour desks open their doors
taco stands serve up delights.
Town empties out as fast as it opens
and sits like a vacant roadside stop
waiting for nighttime to wake from its nap
to dish out mojitos and Latin pop.
The gatekeepers unlock the walls to the ruins
where iguanas laze like kings
I ride my bicycle down the jungle path
and enter the temples like a queen.
By the time the tourists come plowing through
I’m already down at the beach
talking about life with the locals
listening to the seagulls screech.
Back on my bike through the hotel zone
I see yoga and green smoothies galore
it gets me all sorts of excited
as a self proclaimed wellness whore.
Though after a while they lose their charm
and it all starts to feel fake
too much of anything will make you get sick
even raw gluten free cake.
I look around at the eco resorts
feeling separated from Mexico by this bubble
surrounded by luxe couture clothing shops
is Tulum just SoHo in the jungle?
But even though it seems commercial
I feel the energy of something else
even though there’s development
I can still feel the beat and the pulse.
I recall the many stories
of the Tulum of yesterday
when the beach housed only hippies
and had no electricity.
When the stars lit up the night
and drumming was the only sound
when the beaches were still virgin
without anyone else around.
Though I can’t quite see it
I know that place still exists
though I can’t quite see it
the feeling still persists.
Longing in my heart to go deeper
beyond the touristic costume
I dedicate the rest of my journey
to finding the “Real” Tulum.
With my eyes set on the jungle
I speed past the hotel zone
beyond every bungalow and spa
all the way to the end of the road.
Into the Sian Kaan reserve
where most only enter with a tour
on that muddy road I find
exactly what I had been looking for.
Where sweet green jungle gently kisses
the glowing Caribbean sea
where I nap with the lizards and birds
in peace and harmony.
After nature feeds me so well
my intuition tells me to wander
I discover a narrow path out to a lagoon
and a boatman takes me yonder.
Birds crow from their nests
Mayan clay covers my body
in this paradise wonderland
the best things in life come freely.
The sun sinks lower and I know its time
to feel more Mexican estilo
back to the public beach I go
for ceviche and musica en vivo.
Toes in the sand cerveza in hand
I feel that familiar fiesta vibe
though life has changed over the years
I feel the one love tribe.
Clouds rolls in on the horizon
turning the sky dark and gray
in the distance I spy a rainbow
so I run to its prism gateway.
It takes me all the way over
to a sacred ceremonial fire
naked with strangers in the darkness
I strip myself of all of my desires.
The stones come in and sparkle
like balls of lava glitter
we chant and sing and scream and moan
it just gets hotter and hotter.
When the fourth door opens to let us be born
free of all of our ancestral scars
we run through the jungle in a snake
to swim bare bottom under the stars.
Walking alone down the shoreline
in the darkness feeling such peacefulness
sparkles gather around my toes
the ocean is full of phosphorescence.
I think of all of my judgements
and let them out with a sigh
and realize perfection is always there
beneath the ego’s disguise.
In that enchanting moment
I see that Tulum is much more than it seems
in that clear rainbow moment
I see that Tulum lives and breathes
in that glitter bomb moment
I know that Tulum is as real as anything else that I see.
How to Find “The Real Tulum”
Once upon a time the beaches of Tulum had no electricity, saltwater showers, and the only parties were hippie drum circles. Those days may be over, but if you know where to look you can still find plenty of magic. Here’s my best advice for how to find the “Real” Tulum, that travelers fell in love with long ago.
No matter which part of Tulum you stay in, you’ll need transportation. Tulum is surprisingly spread out and each area has its own reason for a visit. The town, with fun nightlife and cheap tacos is about a 20 minute bicycle ride from the beach, which stretches for miles from the famous ruins all the way out to the Sian Kaan National Park. Not to mention, there are tons of cenotes, ruins, and beaches within about an hour drive to explore. Having your own transportation enables you to wander and explore more freely without being restricted by an organized tour. My best experiences in Tulum came from simply wandering down the road on my bicycle and discovering my own hidden spots.
If you’re traveling solo on a tight budget, rent a bicycle to get around Tulum and take local collectivos and buses to get to further destinations like the Dos Ojos Cenotes and Coba ruins. If you can budget it, my top recommendation is to get your own car. With your own car you can camp at remote beaches, explore cavern cenotes, and head into town for nightlife, all in one day.
Sleep Under the Stars
Before the hotel zone was a thing, travelers either stayed in the town or camped out on the beach. While there’s more “Eco” Resorts than campsites these days, you can still find spots to camp with no electricity. It’s not only the most authentic way to feel Tulum, it’s also the cheapest. You can rent tents or bring your own. Consult my “Where to Stay in Tulum” section below for my recommendations on where to camp.
Befriend the Locals
Speaking Spanish will get you a long way in Tulum. Brush up on some phrases before you get there and you’ll see how quickly the locals open up. Mexicans are some of the friendliest, most hospitable people in the world, happy to share local tips and experiences with you. By becoming friends with locals and foreign expats in Tulum, I got to visit private cenotes, take a solo boat trip out into the lagoon, participate in a community temescal, and learn many beautiful stories about the history and culture of the area.
Be Adventurous (Always)
To have an authentic experience, you usually need to step outside of your comfort zone. Tulum caters heavily to tourists, which means most of the magic lives off the beaten path. Ignore the tour operators and ride your bicycle down the muddy road into the reserve. Wander to a taco stand where nobody speaks English and trust that your stomach can handle it. Get out of the hotel zone and find live music with the locals. Even if you have no idea where you’re going, trust that you will find whatever you’re meant to experience. That’s usually when the magic happens.
Where to Stay in Tulum
More than any other beach town I’ve been to, which part of Tulum you decide to stay in will vary your experience tremendously. Each of the areas: town, the public beaches, the hotel zone, and the reserve have their own sweet spots and advantages. Keep in mind, prices vary dramatically depending on the season. To get the best deals on the beach, come in the low season after Easter and before Christmas. Here’s the difference between each area and my top recommendations for where to stay.
Advantages: Inexpensive, Nightlife, Convenient
Disadvantages: Far From the Beach, Not So Pretty
Most budget travelers choose to stay in town because of the wide variety of inexpensive hotel and food options. In town you will find awesome street food for pennies, great restaurants with healthy food at reasonable prices, and a lively local atmosphere. Pretty much all of the hostels are located in town, and if you want to experience nightlife, this is definitely the place to stay. That said, the town itself isn’t particularly attractive and there’s really nothing to do there in the day. It’s a far better place to be at night, though you’ll miss out on the stargazing and sunrise swimming that you experience down at the beach.
$12 for a dorm bed, $40 for a double includes breakfast
Rated the best hostel in Tulum, Mama’s Home has a great social atmosphere without being a party hostel. The rooms are clean and comfy, the rate includes a good breakfast, and each night of the week there’s a different event going on. If you’re on a budget and want to socialize, I recommend staying here.
The Weary Traveler
$12 for a dorm bed, $40 for a double includes breakfast
No guide to Tulum would be complete without a mention of the The Weary Traveler. On the backpacker trail The Weary Traveler is a classic stop, and you’re bound to meet plenty of interesting characters there. I haven’t actually stayed here since they changed locations (I came on my first trip to Tulum years ago) but I recall that it wasn’t as nice or as clean as Mama’s, but it integrated more of the local community into the hostel which I really enjoyed. It does have a bit of a party atmosphere, but late in the evening everyone goes outside of the hostel to the bars nearby. They’re perhaps most famous for their DIY included breakfast where you’re given the ingredients to cook your own food.
Maya Yoga Hostel
$10 dorm bed, $30 private
I’m not a huge fan of the layout of this hostel, the common space is a small makeshift yoga studio and the dorm rooms are essentially divided with nothing but curtains and rows and rows of beds, but if you’re looking for a more conscious crowd this is the best hostel bet. Downstairs they have a super yummy juice bar and in the mornings they ofer yoga classes.
Secret Garden Tulum
$75 for a bungalow that sleeps four plus kitchenette
The beautiful courtyard gardens make this a tranquil place to stay in town. I recommend getting one of the bungalows with two levels and a kitchenette for the best value.
At the Public Beach
Advantages: Fun/Local Vibe, On the Beach, Close to the Ruins
Disadvantages: Crowded Beach, Expensive for Value, Limited/Expensive Food Options
Most travelers who aren’t staying in the hotel zone will visit the public beaches near the ruins. The beaches begin at the end of the road from the town and stretch for miles to the left all the way to the ruins. There are a few Eco Hotel options, far less than in the hotel zone, and a few camping options. If you want to stay at the beach and be close to the ruins, without being immersed in the Eco Chic vibe, this is a good area to stay in. Prices for lodging vary dramatically depending on the season, though camping is always affordable. A very rustic bungalow with a shared bungalow can cost as much as $100 per night in the high season. Be aware, there are no inexpensive restaurants or stands, so you’ll need to pay a lot for food or make trips into town.
Double rooms with shared bath starting at $98
This class Eco Hotel has some of the best rooms for value on the beach, with cozy bungalows with private or shared bathrooms. It’s expensive for what you get, but so is everything else on the beach in Tulum.
Rustic bungalows starting at $100, camping for $5
Meet other travelers, sleep for cheap, and watch the turtles nest under a starry sky at this classic camping spot. You can rent and pitch tents in the trees a few minutes from the beach, use the shared kitchen, and enjoy live music at their beachfront bar and restaurant. The bungalows are absurdly expensive for the quality in the high season, but in the low season you can get one for around $30 a night, which while still overpriced for how rustic it is, isn’t terrible if you’re sharing it.
Lobo Inn Tulum Hostel
$10 for dorm, $30 for private includes breakfast and bike
A rarity in Tulum, Lobo Inn is an actual hostel near the ruins and the beach. It’s just a ten minute walk to the beach and includes a full breakfast, bicycles, and a shared kitchen. If you’re on a backpacker budget and not into camping but still want to be near the beach, this is your best bet.
At the Zona Hoteleria
Advantages: Beautiful Beaches, Close to the Reserve, Lots of Food and Lodging Choices
Disadvantages: Exorbitantly Expensive, No Local Culture, Construction
Apparently the area now known as the Zona Hoteleria (hotel zone) in Tulum used to be a long stretch of virgin beach that led all of the way out to the Sian Kaan reserve. Hippies would camp and have bonfires on the beach under the stars with no electricity. Those days are long gone, but fortunately the Zona Hoteleria has at least been developed tastefully. Most hotels are “Eco Chic” made from rustic materials and use limited electricity and are lit with candles in the evening. There’s plenty of health conscious restaurants, spas, and yoga on offer if that’s what you’re into. The beaches are gorgeous and you can walk for miles with few other people on the beach to watch an amazing sunrise or sunset. The main disadvantage with staying here is that it’s absurdly expensive. You can expect NYC prices for lodging, restaurants, and boutiques. When I was there, a lot of construction was going on so it wasn’t very peaceful to hang out during the day. Another disadvantage is that you might not feel like you’re in Mexico since all of the travelers are people on vacation from Western countries.
Rent a House
If you plan to stay in the Hotel Zone, my best tip is to rent a house through VRBO or AirBnB. It’s far better value for the price and you’ll have your own kitchen and can save money by cooking your own meals. I spent a week at Casa Miel with my Mom, a house owned by Amansala Eco Resort, which was super cozy, spacious, and a third of the price of just a double room on the beach. You can also rent rooms in people’s beachfront houses for an even lower price.
Camping for $6 per night
For those on a backpacker budget, Chavez Camping is the only camping spot left on the beach in the hotel zone. Here you can get a taste of what this beach was like long ago, however the experience is certainly tainted with all of the expensive eco resorts around you.
Cenote El Encanto
Private glamping tents starting at $30
Another camping option just beyond the Zona Hoteleria and nearly to the reserve is Cenote El Encanto. It’s a conscious gathering place for healers, astrologers, permaculturists, yogis, etc with workshops going on all of the time. Beach access is tricky because all of the land in front of it is fenced of, but you have direct access to a beautiful cenote.
Double rooms starting at $50
On the jungle side, but right across from the beach, Yoga Shala is a great value for the price in this area. The rooms are lovely in a beautiful garden setting and they have daily yoga and a healthy restaurant Canopia. It’s located about halfway between the road to town and the entrance to the reserve.
Double rooms starting at $65 (low season)
Right in the center of the hotel zone, Tunich Naj has perhaps the least pretentious vibe of anything in the area. Also on the jungle side, the rooms are a good value for the price and the restaurant has affordable brunch all day with fresh green juices. The owners from Canada couldn’t be sweeter and are a breath of fresh air in what can at times feel like a “snooty” yoga town. It’s one of the closest places in the hotel zone to town and is near plenty of other hotels and restaurants.
Glamping tents starting at $40, includes breakfast
When you wander down the beach in the hotel zone, there’s only one spot that lacks beach loungers. Instead they have a sacred circle surrounded by stones and you’ll often smell palo santo around sunset. All of the lights are out in the evening and pathways are lit with candles. For these reasons, Uno Astrolodge is the only place I found in Tulum that felt like a genuinely spiritual place. They have a healthy restaurant onsite, daily yoga, meditation, and they even do full and new moon community temescal. Other than camping, the rooms are the best deal you’ll find on the beach, with glamorous style tents with full beds and big bungalows.
Rooms starting at $150/night (low season)
Walking down the beach in the Zona Hoteleria, you may be overwhelmed by number of Eco Resorts offering yoga, Mayan healing, and Temescal. Indeed wellness tourism has taken over in Tulum and the offerings are many. If you’ve got in the budget, I recommend staying at Amansala, which is one of the originals. Design-wise it’s certainly the most beautiful, with rustic finishes and luxurious designer textiles. In the evening they cover the deck with candles and you can look up at millions of stars while eating fresh seafood. The staff are super sweet, especially Jose and Ramon, and I quickly felt like family here.
In the Reserve
If you’re looking to get away from it all, head into the Sian Kaan reserve with miles of virgin beaches. You can wake up and watch the sunrise and watch the sunset just across the path at the entrance to the lagoon filled with tropical birds. It’s spectacularly beautiful here, though at least an hour bicycle ride from town. Your option for sleeping is at El Ultimo Maya Camping, an incredible spot run by an indigenous cooperative. It’s one of the cleanest campsites I’ve seen in Tulum, with beautiful facilities and space for tents or camper vans.
Where to Eat and Drink in Tulum
Tulum has excellent food for every budget and preference. In town you’ll find fruit and veggie markets, awesome street tacos, healthy restaurants, and lively night spots. In the public beaches your options are mostly Mexican food at exorbitant prices, but with a fun atmosphere. In the hotel zone you’ve got excellent restaurants as expensive as you’d find in an international city. Here are my top recommendations for eating and drinking in Tulum:
You’ll find all of the markets and the least expensive eating options in town. Some of the best meals can be had just eating at taco stands for a couple of dollars.
Fruit and veggie stalls are everywhere, with varying quality. I didn’t find anywhere selling organic goods, though on Sundays you can swing by the expat community Aldea Zama for a farmer’s market. Saturdays stop by Frida’s Hostel in the afternoon for a farmer’s market in their garden. The huge Chedraui supermarket on the road to the ruins also has a pretty decent selection of organic goodies including gluten free amaranth granola. There’s also a small health food store with a very limited selection a few doors over from Mama’s Home Hostel which has organic yogurt, greens, and bliss balls.
This little juice café downstairs from Maya Yoga Hostel is a great place to get a healthy juice or smoothie. They also have some small breakfast items and sandwiches. I recommend the beet, carrot, orange, ginger juice or the hot ginger lemon tea first thing in the morning.
Healthy, delicious, international twist on Mexican classics like beetroot and pumpkin salad with tequila dressing. The space is open and casual, the price is right, and the owner is cute. What more could you ask for?
Veggies and health conscious eaters will love this cute café serving all kinds of vegetarian specialties. They have big salads, sandwiches, and healthy breakfasts. You can also choose from a wide selection of superfood smoothies and fresh juice.
Roadside Wheatgrass Shots
On the road out to the ruins, you’ll find a little permaculture spot that sells fresh wheatgrass shots for a dollar. Stop by on your way in or out of town for an energy boost.
The classic spot for Mexican seafood. This place is always packed with locals and the fish is fresh. I recommend getting an order of ceviche or octopus tacos. Expect to wait for a table.
If you hit up just one bar in Tulum, make sure it’s Batey. This place has the best mojitos I’ve ever had, made from real sugarcane, and all kinds of other amazing cocktails. They usually have live music, a fun atmosphere, and yummy tapas platters.
Food on the beach is expensive. Very expensive. More expensive than you’ll expect even though I’ve told you it’s expensive. We’re talking $15 for tacos. If you can’t budget it, pack food from town when you head to the beach or the ruins to have a picnic and then share some drinks at one of the beach bars for sunset and live music. When you want to treat yourself, here are my favorite places!
When I’m traveling, usually all that I crave is a good salad. A salad like I’d make at home that big and crunchy and satisfying. Amansala just might have the best restaurant salads I’ve ever tasted. They’re not cheap, $15 for a salad with a piece of grilled chicken or fish, but oh so good. I also recommend the garlicky grilled shrimp with quinoa and veggies and their Skinny Girl margarita.
All raw, all healthy, all delicious at this spot in Ahau Tulum in the Hotel Zone. Think superfood smoothies with greens and raw cacao, chia pudding, raw phad thai made from zucchini noodles, raw brownies, bliss balls, and so much more! This place is heaven for health nuts.
Beautiful and refined healthy gluten free, vegan, and paleo options in this beachfront restaurant that’s part of Sanara Resort. At breakfast get the superfood chocolate smoothie that’s like having desert first thing in the morning, except healthy, or the homemade coconut yogurt chia pudding parfait, OMG. At dinner be sure to try the coconut tacos in tortillas made from coconut flour! Most ingredients are organic and sustainable and everything is delicious.
This 100% sustainable and refined eatery was mentioned in various publications in New York, so these days you have to wait in a line for hours to get a table. I didn’t eat here personally, but many reviewers say it doesn’t live up to the hype. To be fair, could anywhere live up to such a long wait? If you’ve eaten there, let me know. Is it any better than the other excellent restaurants in Tulum? Is it worth waiting for?
Come sunset there’s not better place to take in live music and a Michelada than Pancho’s. On the weekends starting at 4pm they have great music and dancing. Food is so-so and expensive (you can get way better quality for the same price in the Hotel Zone) but the vibe is awesome, so grab a drink and share a guacamole or ceviche.
This fun and lively Mexican restaurant at the start of the hotel zone is popular among locals, expats, and tourists. They’ve got a big menu boasting Mexican favorites and they often have live bands.
In the hotel zone, Papaya Playa Project is where the party’s at. Most days they’ve got live DJ sets starting from noon. On the weekends expect live music by international artists and DJs with the biggest parties in Tulum. Every month they also have a full moon party.
What to Do in Tulum
There’s so much to do in and around Tulum, you could spend months just exploring. It’s easy to get overwhelmed. If you’ve got a week, spend a day biking to the local ruins and hanging out at the public beaches, a day in the Sian Kaan reserve, a day diving or snorkeling in cenotes, and a few days of just relaxation and wandering.
Go Back in Time at the Tulum Ruins
Anyone will tell you that the Tulum Ruins are hardly the most impressive in the Yucatan. However, the location up on a cliff overlooking the turquoise Caribbean is truly stunning. DO NOT MISS THEM! I highly recommend going early in the morning so that you’re there when they first open at 8am. Later in the day you’ll be surrounded with crowds on day trips from Cancun and Playa del Carmen.
Get Lost in the Sian Kaan Reserve
The Sian Kaan Reserve encompasses miles and miles of stunning virgin beaches, lagoons filled with tropical birds, and wild Savannah with many animals. If you’re on a bicycle, just ride through the reserve until you get to El Ultimo Maya Camping. There you’ll find beach access to a glorious beach and a little path out to the lagoon where you can take boat trips to Punta Allen to see dolphins and turtles. If you have a car you can drive all the way down to Punta Allen yourself. Alternatively, you can visit Sian Kaan with a tour, but you won’t get much time in the reserve and it costs around $90 for a three hour tour.
Visit the Local Cenotes
On the road out to Sian Kaan through the hotel zone you pass some local cenotes where you can pay a few dollars to swim. These cenotes are open cenotes, so don’t expect to climb down into caves, but the water is super refreshing and healing.
Dive or Snorkel at the Cave Cenotes
The first time I ever went snorkeling was three and a half years ago in Tulum at the Dos Ojos cenote. It blew my mind completely, snorkeling through crystal clear water surrounded by dramatic cave formations. For divers it’s meant to be even more amazing. There are tons of cave cenotes nearby to Tulum, but Dos Ojos is easily one of the most beautiful. If you plan to dive, hook up with MexiDivers run by my lovely friend Alejandro. Otherwise, you’ll save a lot of money by organizing your own transport to the cenotes (driving or taking a local collectivo) and getting a guide at the entrance. If you decide to do it through a tour, the most popular involves snorkeling with sea turtles in Akumal followed by cave snorkeling at Dos Ojos for $90.
Visit the Nearby Ruins
In close proximity to Tulum you’ll find some of the most impressive ruins in Mexico. World famous Chichen Itza is a couple of hours away and plenty of tour operators will organize transport and a tour guide there. You can also do it on your own by taking a local bus. Close to Chichen Itza are arguably the more beautiful ruins of Ek Balam with far fewer tourists. The closest ruins are Coba, about an hour drive or bus ride, where you can ride a bicycle through the jungle to explore.
Stretch it Out in Yoga
Tulum is no doubt a worldwide yoga destination, with retreats going on constantly and many many many yoga resorts. In town you can take inexpensive classes at Yoga Dicha and Maya Yoga multiple times per day. In the hotel zone you’ll find tons of places offering yoga including Amansala, Papaya Playa Project, Utopia, Yoga Shala, Sanara, and Uno Astrolodge. There are occasionally yoga events going on as well.
Sweat in a Temescal
One of the most popular healing treatments in Mexico is the Temescal, also known as the Indian Sweatlodge. Traditional temescal involves a fire ceremony and a two to three hour journey inside of a sauna made of sticks and mud with a shaman. However most of the temescal experiences you’ll find in Tulum are a 45 minute mellow sauna experience. Both are healing in their own way. If you want the latter, you can easily find it at the many hotels in the hotel zone. If you’re looking for the traditional shamanic journey, you’ll have to ask around.
How to Get to Tulum
Tulum is located on the Caribbean Coast in the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico. It conveniently connects with many destinations in just a few hours by bus. Most people coming to Tulum on vacation will fly into the Cancun airport and head south to Tulum from there.
If you plan to take a shuttle or private transfer, I recommend organizing it through your hotel for the best rate and the potential to share with other travelers. Taxis are always an option but they are very expensive, as much as $150. The major issue with the Cancun airport, is that for security reasons regular taxis and cars are not allowed to enter the airport. So you will have to use authorized taxis or shuttles. Be aware that if you have someone meeting you at the airport, have a phone where they can reach you because it’s quite confusing (I met my Mom there and we were waiting for each other for 4 hours).
You can also rent a car from the airport, then drive yourself down to Tulum, which is my recommendation. Those who want to take the bus can take a shared shuttle from the airport to the ADO bus station, where buses go every half hour to Tulum. There is also a bus, which runs from the airport straight to Playa del Carmen, where you can then transfer to Tulum. They run on the hour from 1030am to 8:45pm .
When you’re coming back to the airport from Tulum, there are direct ADO buses that go all the way from the Tulum bus station straight to the airport terminal.
Tulum also connects through ADO buses with towns all over the Yucatan, including Merida, Palenque, Laguna Bacalar, Playa del Carmen, Chichen Itza, and more.
Have you been to Tulum? Did you find the real authentic spots? Share with us in the comments!