A tiny township sat snug on the Mexican coast, Tulum is a haven for peace and relaxation. A far cry from the hustling bustling mayhem of its neighbour Cancun, Tulum offers the weary traveller a place to bring down the revs and absorb the life of Mexico on the Caribbean.
I am constantly surprised at how big Mexico is. It’s enormous – like 1,958,202 km² enormous. Its border between the USA is the 2nd largest border in the world and it has 9,330km of coastline.
So finding a tiny little gem like Tulum, Mexico in such a huge area boggles the mind. That’s probably why – until about 20 years ago – there was nothing where Tulum now stands other than jungle and beaches.
Cancun isn’t much older, but somehow it’s captured the hearts of the Eternal Spring Break crowd and is now a hedonist’s haven. Tower blocks and resorts cover the coastline, and the US Dollar is the main currency here.
Tulum is pretty much the antithesis of this. Hotels and restaurants are locally run, tourists are laid back and there are far fewer people around.
The drive (there are plenty of car hire companies near the airport) from Cancun airport south to Tulum takes about 2 hours. We did it at night and it wasn’t a lot of fun. Streetlights here aren’t common and road conditions vary – as does the skill level and patience of local drivers.
Our essential guide to Tulum, Mexico
Pulling into Tulum, you realise quickly it’s a town built on a crossroads. The northeast road comes from Cancun. Northwest, the road comes from the inland town of Valladolid; southeast, the road hits the beach and an enormous national park. Southwest the road heads for Berliz.
The town proper is all on the southwest road – though it only takes a couple of minutes to drive through it before you’re back surrounded by jungle.
The southeast road – heading to the beach – is where most of the hotels are now. It’s a narrow beach road with retreats and restaurants on either side.
Where to stay in Tulum
Where we were staying – at the Casa de las Olas (House of the Waves) – was one of the first hotels here and therefore the furthest from the main road. It’s right next to the national park.
It’s a beautiful little 4-room suite-only eco retreat overlooking the pristine waters of the Caribbean. And it gave us the luxury, privacy and romance we were looking for.
As for food, Lulu – the genius in the kitchen – makes the best margaritas in Tulum, the best daiquiris in Mexico and the best fish tacos in the world.
There are lots of other places to stay in Tulum but we believe this place is the friendliest – not only to its patrons but to the environment too.
You can also find villas and houses to rent here. Check out our friends Home-InTulum.com for more details.
Where to eat in Tulum
All the way along that southeast road that runs along to the shoreline for about 8km are places to eat.
Taxis run up and down the road regularly so getting to and from your accommodation is easy – though a walk in the moonlight while the jungle towers over the road isn’t bad either.
Our favourite place for dinner was MamaMuu – a little, artfully ramshackle bar, grill and lounge. The barbecued fish and the mezcal cocktails here are superb.
Hartwood is highly recommended, though the times we tried to go there, they had a function booking the whole place out.
Casa Banana is a lot of fun, dishing up Argentine dishes and good looking cocktails.
If you’re staying somewhere with a kitchen or off out on a roadtrip, there are a couple of supermarkets in Tulum to pick up some food.
The Super San Francisco de Asis – right on the crossroad – has all the essentials (we even found whole pigs’ heads in the freezer section!), while Chedraui Supermarket on the way to the beach is a bit more sophisticated with a better range.
And best till last:
A little bit out of town heading north, you have to check out Chamico’s. Just a little shack on the beach surrounded by palm trees and decked out with crappy plastic chairs and tables, this place is the epitome of Mexican beach dining.
It’s superb and you’ve got to go there. Here’s more about Chamico’s, Soliman Bay.
What to do in Tulum
The main aim of going somewhere like Tulum is to relax. The beach is the main draw card here, and swimming in these blue waters is nothing short of heavenly.
Make sure you get to swim in the Caribbean here at least once every day or you’ll regret it when you get home!
If you go to the Yucatan, you’ll see Mayan ruins. It’s the same as going to Rome and seeing statues – it’s going to happen. But Tulum is unique in that the ruins here are on the beach.
Most evidence of the ancient Mayan civilisations is found in the jungles and therefore away from the coast. But here in Tulum, there is a major archaeological site overlooking some of the most beautiful beaches on this part of the coast.
It’s very easy to get to and more than worth the effort. This was one of our favourite things to do in Tulum.
Cenotes are natural swimming pools created by erosion and sinkholes in the rock. Fresh and saltwater mix to create amazing semi subterranean baths.
These dramatic natural features are dotted all over the landscape, and Tulum has a couple of its own.
There are also snorkeling and diving experiences, and spa therapy, massage and wellness experiences you can do here too. Contact our friend Marion at Home-InTulum.com for more information and to book.
The ruins here in Tulum are amazing because they’re on the cliffs. If you want to see the grand scale of ancient Mayan civilization, go to Coba. It’s a 45km drive through the Quintana Roo National Park north west of Tulum and worth every minute.
We arrived with very little time left so we hired a man to ride us round the site on a little wagon thing. Also worth every peso.
Coba is a huge site with a pyramid at the end of it you can still climb. It goes well above the jungle canopy, so if you’re not good with heights, this might be better viewed from below.
If you have time, go to Chichén Itzá much further west. The pyramid is bigger here but it’s much busier and you can’t get near it.
If you have a day to spare, take a trip to Mayan villages to meet real Mayans. There are still a couple of million of them living in Mexico and meeting them is extraordinary.
We went with Home-InTulum.com to visit this modern-day iteration of a civilisation that has been around for over 4,000 years.
Visiting Tulum has been one of the most memorable things we’ve done. It’s such a beautiful part of the world – we highly recommend it. If it’s on your bucket list, it’s there for a very good reason.
Here are our other features on Tulum and Mexico you might be interested in:
Have you been to Mexico or Tulum in particular? Do you have any other recommendations we’ve missed out here? Tell us in the comments!