Looking for ancient Mayan ruins and crystal-clear cenotes in Mexico? Tulum is a really cool place in Mexico for that, and it’s a part of any Yucatan itinerary these days.
We’ve traveled a bit in Mexico, starting with our time (twice for Dan!) in one of our favorite cities in the WORLD, which is Mexico City. From Mexico City, you can fly to Cancun and then take a bus to Tulum.
If you’re already in the Yucatan region, maybe you’re coming from Valladolid. If you want to know how to get to Tulum from Valladolid, it’s easy: take the ADO bus. We liked having both these places in our 5-day Yucatan itinerary.
Another part of a Yucatan itinerary is seeing Chichen Itza, the famous Mayan ruins and grand pyramids of the region. After seeing this landmark, you can head to Tulum for some fun in the sun.
Tulum is (or was) a small beach town on what’s called the Mayan Riviera, meaning the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula. This is the south-eastern-most region of Mexico and it sits on the Gulf of Mexico, closer to Belize and to Cuba.
The culture here is different from Mexico City, from Baja California and from Acapulco and from Oaxaca. The Yucatan Peninsula gets its culture from the Maya and their descendants, who still live in the region today.
In fact, you may hear locals speaking Mayan languages. This language has nothing to do with Spanish, as it’s a native American language spoken by the indigenous peoples who lived in this region before the Spanish took control and colonized.
We’ll tell you how to beat the crowds in this popular Yucatan destination, and where to get the best tacos.
What’s Tulum like and why should I go?
Tulum used to be a dot on the map of the Mayan Riviera.
Due to over-development in nearby Cancun and Playa del Carmen, Tulum caught on as a developing destination with white sand beaches, an indie vibe and some laid-back places to stay.
Between 2017 and 2020, Tulum’s popularity exploded. Tulum is now a destination for millennial travelers, destination weddings, weekend getaways for Americans and travelers who want to escape the Cancun crowds.
Is there anything left in Tulum that’s not over-touristed? Let’s see. But first, let’s talk about sustainability in Tulum.
How to be a sustainable traveler in Tulum
The fact is that with people and popularity comes ecological challenges, and this goes for any tourist destination.
Tulum started out small, and as it grew, it started facing problems like where to put trash, how to keep the beach clean, how to properly cope with the need for additional plumbing, where to source clean water and how to protect wildlife.
If you’re interested in being a sustainable and eco-friendly ‘green’ traveler and we hope you are, check out these awesome tips for helping Tulum stay environmentally safe and being mindful of the nature while you are there.
Maintain respect for the culture in Tulum
Remember that Tulum started as an important Mayan landmark with its ancient ruins from the ancient civilization. It’s easy to consider that you’re on vacation to party, enjoy yourself and forget everything else. For locals, Tulum is a place that’s suffering from a fast influx of travelers, and the key is to protect places especially like the Ruinas de Tulum (Mayan archaeological site at Tulum National Park).
Should you buy drugs in Tulum?
No, ten times no! Never! Buying drugs abroad is always a risk, as you never truly know if your ‘dealer’ has connections to the police or worse, a cartel of sorts.
Buying drugs abroad also supports the deadly drug trade that has wreaked havoc in countries like Mexico and also Colombia, and has turned the lives of many into tragedy. Gangs, while you don’t really ‘see’ them in Mexico, are still part of the facts of life in Mexico, and it’s best to avoid being a part of this trade completely.
Remember also that mezcal is what to try in Mexico, from Mexico City to the Yucatan, and by drinking Mexican mezcal you are, on the contrary from the above, supporting the economy.
Be mindful of what you consume and throw away.
For some “zero-waste” alternatives to shopping elsewhere, shop at La Minimal and CoCon Amor. These are some local recommendations of sustainable shops. There’s also ByeBye Plastic, which is working hard to help the transition of eliminating single-use plastics from events.
Next, Proyecto Refill supplies water stations and there are already several throughout the area, so be sure to have your reusable water bottle nearby. If you’re planning on sticking around Tulum for a while as an expat or digital nomad, check out Tulum Recycles. This organization provides a pick-up service for recyclables, but you have to sign up.
Avoid and say no to jungle raves in Tulum
“Jungle parties” put an unnecessary stress on nature, and are something that has been becoming popular in the last few decades for travelers, as a ‘unique experience’ to have abroad and far away from home. In having these parties deep in nature, we’re disrupting the rhythms of nature, which harms wildlife and affects their home.
With noise and light from humans, animals lose their sense of where they are, and may head toward the highway or urban areas. This in turn, harms people, because lost animals can wind up near your hotel. Last year, several jaguars and pumas were killed because they left the jungle.
You can party in places that are man-made and in the towns like Tulum’s bar street, or the hotel bars along the ocean.
Be conscious with your spending in Tulum
Choose to support businesses that are doing good things for the environment. Many businesses do not recycle, for example. If you find out about a business that is doing things well for sustainability, choose to support them, and spread the word!
Support locally-grown food at Farm to Table Tulum
This eco-friendly business has a compost system to support other businesses, and they also have local drop-offs called Woolis Solutions. This is all carried out by Farm to Table’s owner, who is Mauricio, and he is leading a great movement to support.
Follow the beach cleaning promoters #Makers Tulum
Give them a follow on Instagram. This group promotes positive social impact and making a difference. Keep an eye out for their beach clean-up initiatives!
We’ve done beach clean-ups in the Dominican Republic, where it was a feel-good activity and it was a difference that we could feel a part of.
Things to do in Tulum that aren’t super touristy
Tulum is more or less a town along a highway. It consists of a main strip of shops, its bus station (ADO), restaurants and souvenir shops along a main road with a barrier in the middle, and it’s not much of a picturesque place to be.
The action is at the beach.
But, the beach is located about a 15-minute colectivo ride from most places in the town near the highway. If you’re not staying at a beach resort, you won’t have the white sands at your fingertips and you’ll have to walk, bike, take a colectivo van or a taxi (not the cheapest way).
You can also get a book to help you navigate unique spots in Tulum. We always get a book for the destination or region where we are visiting. It helps us learn local phrases, understand history about where we are and find unique things to do. Check out this guide by Moon.
Go snorkeling in the cenotes and bike your way there
Located just across from Taqueria Honorio, this place will rent you a snorkel (for cenotes) and a bicycle. The owner speaks English, and all you have to remember is to bring a real ID like a driver’s license or a passport.
If you bring a paper copy of either of these, the owner will tell you that he can only give you a paper copy of a bike (true story).
Which cenotes are the best for beating the crowds?
We chose to go off the beaten path down to Cenote Cristal and Cenote Escondido, where you can buy an entrance ticket that allows you to visit both. We biked down the highway to the south, and after about 30 minutes had to keep our eyes peeled for signs.
Cenote Escondido will be to your right, if coming from Tulum, and Cenote Cristal will be on your left. Both were not crowded, had docks for jumping, and not many people at all! This was an awesome way to cool off after biking in the heat. Alternatively, you could take a taxi from town.
The best lunch tacos in Tulum: Taqueria Honorio (we’re obsessed)
It opens early (6 am) and it closes early (by 1:30/2 pm): it’s Taqueria Honorio! This place is perfect for afternoon/brunch/lunch tacos, tortas and agua frescas.
We also went there twice. Everything on the menu is perfection. Go early if you want to get there before they run out of ingredients for the day. We went twice around 1 pm and they were already out of some types of tacos.
🌮🌮🌮 We were so busy eating tacos that we forgot to take photos! 🌮🌮🌮
The best all-day tacos in Tulum: Antojitos la Chiapaneca
This is the taqueria of all taquerias: Antojitos la Chiapaneca. If you’d like tacos that cost $0.40 (USD) each and you can stand for a 20-minute line before you get seated, go here around dinnertime for late-night.
It’s in a location near the ADO bus station, and you can find it by looking for the line of people on the street waiting for a table. Try the horchata. Beware of the salsa picante - that is some serious stuff.
Best vegan + gluten-free spot in Tulum
We’re always on the lookout for gluten-free travel spots and without even trying, we found this great cafe in Tulum to cater to Becca’s diet and Dan’s vegetarian tendencies.
This little restaurant and cafe,La Hoja Verde, had nice vegetarian food and good smoothies/juices. There’s an English/Spanish menu available.
We ordered smoothies, which were delicious, and staff brought us complimentary sweet potato chips with a homemade salsa. WiFi available!
Where to stay as a backpacker in Tulum: Mama’s Home Hostel
Mama’s Home gets a 10 out of 10 from us. Located on Calle Orion, in between the centers of all the action in Tulum (the main strip and the bar street), the location is ideal.
A private with an ensuite bath ran us around US$40 per night for a private 2-room suite.
Upon arriving, we were told not to miss the amazing breakfast, which lived up to expectation and was included, along with coffee. we recall someone saying to us, “You’ll want to Instagram this.”
In addition to the colorful wall art, great tunes, long tables in the main social area that are great for meeting other travelers and good security, the staff is truly awesome and want you to have a memorable time in Tulum.
Staff recommended us where to rent bikes, where to rent snorkels, which cenotes to visit, where to get the ultimate cheapest tacos in town and more.
We like to bring travel locks with us with we visit hostels. Check out our favorite pick for travel locks on Amazon.
How to beat the crowds at the Tulum Mayan ruins
Learn about the history of the Maya in their beach-side past home on the shores of Tulum. What makes these ruins different from Chichen Itza is that they’re more modest in size, and the beach-side makes for gorgeous scenery.
Go early (8 am) to beat the crowds, and wait on the line in order to be one of the first tickets sold for early morning entry.
You will not regret it, as tour groups start coming in bus-loads by 9 am and it starts getting hot as well.
Bring swimsuits so that you can take the stairs down to the water and go for an early swim to cool off! The water is perfect there. We wish we had done this.
How to get to Cancun airport from Tulum
We left on a ADO bus direct to Cancun airport for US$12 per person, or around 225 Pesos per person.
If you plan to take an ADO bus, buy tickets a day or two beforehand, as soon as you can, because they do sell out and seats are assigned. The airport bus only runs three times per day from Tulum and takes two hours.
Taking the bus to the airport from Tulum is seriously the best way to get there, as you will get some space, a movie and frigid air conditioning. The price can’t be beat, per person.
As mentioned above, do make sure that you get your bus ticket as far in advance as possible so that you don’t have to take a private taxi or private shuttle the entire way there. It’s two hours, and if you flew into Cancun, you’ll have an idea of how far it is (but not really so far from Tulum, relatively).
Is Tulum worth going to in my Mexico itinerary?
That’s a great question, and to be honest, we thought the Tulum beach was one of the best we’ve been to … in the world! Yes, that says a lot! The Tulum beach did not disappoint at all, whereas lots of beaches around the world that are ‘hyped’ kind of don’t live up to the expectation created online (or their Instagram reputation… yikes).
We also liked that there’s a lot of ‘things to do’ in Tulum while being based there, from physical activity like biking down to the cenotes and then going swimming in them, to walking along the beach-side ruins (*as early as possible in the day).
Lastly, it’s Mexico, after all, so the value is great for the USD, the hostels are fun and the tacos were excellent.
Should you go to Tulum even in high season?
That’s up to you. We went to Tulum in low season, which was a great choice. In November, the weather was not too hot (pants at night!) and we didn’t get any rain.
In high season, you can expect most places to be booked up, or really have slim pickings if you arrive with no plans and no reservations.
Is Tulum overrated?
That’s also a good question, and it’s ultimately going to be one that you answer for yourself. The benefits to a Tulum trip are, as we mentioned above, that there’s a lot to do within the Tulum region on its own. For this region, we thought it was a great destination for a couples trip.
If you’re looking for somewhere totally off traveler radar, somewhere off-the-beaten-path and somewhere that’s not yet frequented by the mainstream crowd, then I think you know the answer – Tulum (or its main “must-see attractions”) is going to feel a bit overrated for you.
But if you want a trip that’s pretty straightforward, Tulum seems like a good bet. The beach is beautiful, the array of things to do for every type of traveler was solid in our book and we enjoyed our stay.
Last updated on January 24th, 2021