Travel Guide: Tulum, Mexico

I‘m going to start out by saying like all good stand-by travel trips this one began with an entirely different plan.

I had never been to Mexico. I had plenty of friends who had vacationed in Cancun and at all-inclusive resorts all over the country but for whatever reason it was never a big destination goal for me. Luckily a friend of mine had just gone to Tulum and shared photos of beautiful beaches, fresh, creative food and a kind of hippie-vibe that stuck with me. So when our plan for Germany fell apart, Tulum became the focus and off we went.

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Lodging: The hotel zone in Tulum is widely considered the beach area that goes for a couple of miles. Here you’ll find beachfront cabanas, private pools, balconies overlooking the ocean and some of the coolest architecture I have seen in this kind of area. Many of these hotels seemed to be more on the expensive side but from what I can tell are absolutely worth the price. I could honestly spend all day looking at photos from Azulik & Papaya Playa Project‘s Instagram accounts, seriously give them a look!

Another area of boutique style hotels has popped up between the Tulum Pueblo and the Beach which is where we ended up finding Naay Boutique Hotel. Naay was a small hotel with plenty of charm and a rooftop pool area that could not be beat. Free parking, bike rentals and a really clean, comfortable room. The real winner of this hotel was the breakfast included. Every morning the nicest staff ever served freshly squeezed juice, assorted muffins, a fruit plate and so many main course options. I still dream about this breakfast to quite frankly.

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Day 1: 

We arrived just before dinner so we headed over to Tulum Pueblo to check out the “downtown.” Lined with souvenir shops this was definitely the place to get your more inexpensive gifts. We stopped for food at a little taco shop but let me tell you the entire block of restaurants smelled incredible. We found ourselves on a little post-dinner pub crawl on Calle Centauro S. Between restaurant/bars like Pasito Tun Tun & La Malquerida we had the best time swinging life away- no really, there were swings instead of bar stools- and drinking a few too many tequila shots because Mexico, am I right??

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Day 2: 

After breakfast at our hotel we drove out to the Tulum ruins. Tulum is the only Mayan city that was built on the coast and these ancient ruins are only minutes from the center of town. The ruins are scattered over quite a large area and really well labeled if you’re a nerd like me wanting to learn what they once were. Like most tourist traps they are  visited by thousands of people every day (think tour bus central) so we were glad we went early before the tours really started to get going. The views overlooking the ocean are breathtaking and with these ruins being so easily bikeable from anywhere in town I’d highly recommend stopping by to see them.

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After trekking around the ruins we made our way down the hotel zone to find a spot to set up for a beach day. I had read that a lot of the hotels allowed you to sit by their cabanas for free so long as you were buying food/drink but the one in particular we had heard good reviews of was La Zebra Hotel. We found a bed, made friends with the bartender and ate some of the most incredible fish tacos I’ve ever had in my life!

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After La Zebra we headed over to Coco Tulum because I had been heavily influenced by all of the photos I’d seen on Instagram while doing research- we decided to stay for a drink but honestly it was pretty overrated. The music was unbearable and the vibe was just a little tacky while also being expensive.

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For dinner we went back to Tulum Pueblo and hit up an Argentinian restaurant called Estancia Jujena. The restaurant’s ambiance was rustic chic, with reclaimed wood being the focus and candles lit everywhere. The menu was large but if you go and don’t get as many empanadas as possible I’ll be disappointed in you. After dinner we headed over to Batey Mojito Bar which may have been my favorite part of the entire trip. The fresh sugar cane made for some of the most incredible mojitos. There was an awesome live band and the servers were all really nice and very on top of their game! It was cash only so keep that in mind when you go.

Day 3:

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After yet another excellent rooftop breakfast we hit the road for the ancient Mayan city of Coba to explore some more ruins.  Located about an hour from Tulum the ruins of Coba are home to one of the only Mayan pyramids that you can still climb to the top of. There is a fee to enter the ruins but once you arrive you can rent bikes for $2 and explore the miles of jungle roads around the site. It honestly felt like being in an Indiana Jones movie. We got there early and headed straight to the pyramid so we could climb it a little before the crowds started to arrive. While it is only 120 steps to the top, these steep and damp steps are no joke. All in all Coba was a must see, especially first thing in the morning before the crowds become overwhelming!

One of the most magical parts of Tulum are the countless cenotes scattered throughout the area. It seems like every mile you drive has another sign advertising these beautiful sinkholes. Newbies to the cenote hunt we opted for one of the more popular ones called the Gran Cenote. Being one of the more touristy ones comes with perks of having clean bathrooms, large changing rooms and plenty of lockers to keep your things in. I’d recommend buying one of those plastic cases for your phone to take underwater photos (we did not, regret that one). There were definitely crowds but you could find a lot of spots that had nobody around. I was fascinated by swimming with all the baby turtles but a whole lot less intrigued by all of the bats chilling when you swim under the cave… in any event visiting cenotes are a must when traveling Tulum! The ones I wish we had also visited were Cenote Dos Ojos, Cenote Nicte-Ha so when you do go make sure you add those to your list.

Whenever traveling I tend to keep to a budget for most food & beverage purchases with the exception of one special meal at a place I wouldn’t normally go to. On this trip the final meal was at Rosa Negra, a beachy yet upscale Latin American restaurant in the hotel zone. This place was magical! The open restaurant was dimly lit and intimate while also employing an in-house DJ that played everything from lounge music to dance beats. The service from the moment we sat down was world-class and the bartender crafted some of the most unique cocktails.  With a focus on fresh seafood the menu was filled with local produce and showcased their spin on the area’s cuisine perfectly. It was the best meal to finish off a great (yet unexpected) trip to Tulum!

Transportation Tips: Tulum can be found about 1.5 hours west of the Cancun airport. I have heard that there are plenty of buses as well as cars for hire out of Cancun. There are plenty of taxis once you get to Tulum but after talking with friends and figuring that we’d want the freedom to be able to explore the area more we decided to go the rental car route. I would definitely recommend doing your homework before renting a car because in Mexico you are required to buy insurance on top of your own coverage. It is recommended for a whole host of reasons including theft that you go with full-coverage. I’m glad I knew this because I rented a car through Thrifty and added the extra coverage but when I arrived at the airport there was definitely an attempt to strong arm me into purchasing even more coverage. When I showed receipts that I was already covered the gentleman quickly backed down.

I had also heard that people were pulled over for random reasons and “waived on” if they paid the fee of whatever was in their wallet so I made sure to be extra careful about my driving and also what was in my wallet. To be honest, I didn’t have any problems driving or stopping for gas but I was cautious so I would say just be smart about it.

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I know that Tulum has been criticized over the last few years for becoming more and more commercialized but I think they are doing a pretty good job of managing that influx of tourists while maintaining that laid-back beachy vibe it’s known for. Going in I thought I was going to be drawn to the hipster hotel-zone (#basic) and while I did love exploring the unique beach clubs and the restaurant scene- seriously you should see some of these restaurants! I was surprised to find that the Pueblo’s genuine mix of local, expat and tourist vibes was where I actually gravitated towards. Two things I wish we had done but didn’t have enough time for would be a day trip to Chichen Itza and a day trip snorkeling/paddle boarding around the Sian Ka’an. Next time!

I would highly recommend adding Tulum to any travel plans, especially if you’re looking for a relaxed vibe with plenty of added adventures easily available in the area.

Have you been to Tulum? Where did you stay? Would you have done anything differently?

Til next time, friends!

Kari

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