Once the site of thriving Mayan seaport, Tulum has evolved to become one of the most popular vacation destinations in all of Mexico. Tulum is a small city located two hours south of Cancun on the Yucatan Peninsula, facing east towards the turquoise Caribbean Sea. With beautiful white sand beaches, stunning outdoor restaurants and bars, ancient Mayan ruins, and amazing cenotes (or natural sinkholes), Tulum offers a relaxing escape that also stimulates the senses.
I’ll admit that I was introduced to Tulum by Instagram, seeing so many amazing photos on Instagram of all the different hotels, restaurants, and especially beaches. When my boyfriend and I were thinking about potential vacation destinations in December, Tulum was on top of my list. We ultimately planned a three night stay in Tulum and an additional two nights in Cancun, and we had an amazing time, even during the COVID-19 pandemic. I was wowed by so many things in Tulum and I’m excited to share some of the highlights of our trip.
HOW TO GET THERE
Since Tulum does not have an airport, you will have to fly into Cancun International Airport. The distance from Cancun to Tulum is roughly 73 miles which takes about 1.5-2 hours by road. I recommended that you book a private shuttle in advance instead of trying to negotiate a cab ride. It can get expensive and it’ll save you the hassle. We pre-booked through USA Transfers and we were very happy and satisfied with its service. When we got out of Cancun Airport, there was a representative from USA Transfers who greeted us and escorted us to a private shuttle which is sanitized, roomy, and air conditioned. We used USA Transfers three times throughout our trip and each time, the drivers were extremely professional, friendly, and reliable.
WHERE WE STAYED
When booking a place to stay, it’s helpful to know that there are two main sections to Tulum: Playa (aka Zona Hotelera) and Pueblo (Downtown). It takes about 10-15 minutes to travel between the two and each provides a different experience. In Playa, you’ll find beach front boutique hotels and trendy bars and restaurants that cater to the tourist crowd. In Pueblo, you’ll get the more authentic local experience with mom-n-pop eateries and shops. We decided to split our time to experience both. In Playa, we stayed at Coco Tulum and in town, we stayed at Elements Tulum Boutique Hotel.
Coco Tulum is a minimal hotel located right next to the beach. Our room was a simple hut that was a few steps from the sand. We were so close to the ocean that we could literally hear the waves crashing from our room, which was a pleasant way to wake up in the morning. Our hut had a bed, private bathroom, and a safe (large treasure chest looking box with a padlock). We also had a small private patio in the front with a hammock and slight ocean view. Free breakfast was included with our stay, which was at the restaurant next door. The staff of Coco Tulum was extremely friendly, helpful, and accommodating. Compared to other options in Playa, Coco Tulum is one of the more affordable accommodations. It’s a nice choice, but it is bit of a walk (20 minutes) or taxi ride (there’s a lot of traffic and taxis aren’t that cheap) from most of the popular restaurants and shops on the main strip.
Elements Tulum Boutique Hotel is a small boutique hotel located in Downtown Tulum. Our room was very clean and modern, had a King sized bed, a big bathroom, and TV. Since it’s away from the beach, there’s a pool in the middle of the hotel courtyard if we decided to cool off. Location wise, it’s about a 10 minute walk to the core part of the Centro where you’ll find a number of restaurants, shops, and bars. Free breakfast is also included at the rooftop of their hotel, which is a nice way to start the day. The staff at Elements was also very helpful as they helped us call a cab to get to Grand Cenote.
Getting around Tulum isn’t that convenient, so overall it was a good strategy to split our time between Playa and Pueblo.
What to bring
Insect repellant is a MUST. I purchased Natrapel wipes, which are supposed to help protect you from pesky mosquitos for up to 12 hours. One mistake I made was forgetting to apply it after showering before going out for dinner. When we finished our meal, I ended up getting two bites on my face and several on my legs!
Comfortable shoes are another must. You’ll probably do a lot of walking in Tulum. Many restaurants, resorts, bars, coffee shops, etc. in Playa have sand or dirt floors. Also, there are also barely any sidewalks in the area and the roads aren’t in the best condition. Bring sandals that you wouldn’t mind getting worn out and for ladies, heels are impossible to wear, even to the nice restaurants. Pueblo was a bit different because there are actual sidewalks, but we did a lot of walking around Downtown as well so I stuck to my sandals.
I’ll get into the details of some of my favorite restaurants in Tulum, but here’s a quick list of places I recommend and places I would skip.
- Reyes Tulum – We had our our favorite meal of our trip here. Reyes is located past the main part of the Zona Hotelera strip, so it actually has a dedicated shuttle that picks up guests from their hotel and brings them to the restaurant. This was great hospitality, a common theme during our dinner. At the restaurant, we were greeted by a nice staff, including the manager. They walked us through the menu, providing great details about the contemporary Mexican dishes. We ordered the guacamole with rib eye and dried blueberries (the best guac I ever had in my life) breaded shrimp, and rib eye steak. In addition to having great food, Reyes offers an awesome dining experience with table side cooking, mariachi band, and even sparklers! I loved it so much, that I’m writing a dedicated blog post on Reyes, coming soon.
- Mur Mur – We were drawn to Mur Mur when we saw that the seats at its bar were all swings! It was a fun and very Tulum way to enjoy some drinks. The house cocktails were based around tequila and mezcal, and the bartenders were very friendly in recommending something that fit your tastes. Mur Mur is more low key than Rosa Negra restaurant across street which was booming music all night, so it’s a good choice for a chill night. You might even see the manager’s dog, Eddie, roaming around underneath your feet.
- Arca- I heard a lot about Arca when researching places to eat, so we decided to make reservations one night for dinner. The open air restaurant makes it feel like you’re dining in the middle of the jungle. I loved the modern decor and the open kitchen where you can watch the hustle and bustle of the cooks. Arca offers up a modern Mexican fusion cuisine, served in small plates. I was super excited to try the bone marrow and we also ordered the scallop crudo and suckling pig roulade. Overall, the food was good, but not mind blowing. I guess I had too high of standards in mind.
- Taqueria La Eufemia- This little spot is a great place to grab some tacos and chill on the beach. You can practically spend all afternoon here and I think a lot of people do. We ordered the shrimp, al pastor, rib eye, and octopus tacos and they were delicious. The tacos were good sized and filled with your desired meat. The margaritas were also super refreshing after a long walk to Taqueria La Eufemia, which sits more south along the main road.
- I Scream Bar – Have you ever had ice cream with alcohol? I never did until I tried it at I Scream Bar. We got a scoop of cacao ice cream and got a shot of mezcal poured on top of it. It was surprisingly a great combination. It’s a good place to check out during the hot afternoon, but it can get kinda wild at night as people crowd the bar.
- Gitano – We stopped by Gitano for after dinner drinks one night. Like its neighbors, Gitano is another hip and sexy outdoor restaurant in Playa. It was a cool scene with vibrant crowd and DJ playing music, however the drinks were more expensive compared to other spots. We would’ve liked to try dinner at Gitano if we had more time in Tulum.
- Burrito Amor – A lot of people recommended checking out Burrito Amor in Pueblo, but I wasn’t very impressed. We were caught in a short rain storm and luckily Burrito Amor was nearby so we ducked in to grab a bite. It was a nice little restaurant, but the burritos tasted very “gringo” and not very authentic Mexican. Looking at the customers, it was mostly tourists, so I guess it catered to that crowd rather than locals. I recommended checking out some of the many other taquerias in the area.
- El Camello Jr. – This was another restaurant in Pueblo that received high marks. It’s a true local mom-n-pop seafood restaurant where a mix of local and tourists ate. The ceviche looked amazing in pictures and I was excited to try it, but sadly I was not impressed. All the dishes though were generous in size. Maybe I just ordered the wrong thing.
- Raw Love Tulum- A popular place for a healthy breakfast, Raw Love is located at the Hotel Ahau Tulum. The outdoor cafe serves up acai, smoothies, fruit bowls, and other healthy items (mostly all items are vegan). We came here one morning and it was a nice way to start the day, but it was nothing special to what you can get in LA. We made the mistake of going to the Raw Love in the center of the hotel instead of the one right on the beach. Maybe that could’ve made the dining experience more memorable…
THINGS TO SEE
- The beaches- Most people who travel to Tulum come for the amazing beaches! Tulum’s pristine white sands and turquoise ocean are the true definition of paradise and is a must visit for any beach bum. I was instantly blown away when I first saw the beach, as it looked like a perfect postcard. The Caribbean Sea was perfect for swimming. The water was the right temperature and very refreshing. It felt like you were taking a dip in a swimming pool. If you’re staying in Zona Hotelera, you’ll have easy access to the beach. Many hotels have beach clubs where you can secure a chair on the sand where you can order food and drinks throughout the day. Some have minimum spend requirements ($20+ USD per person). Our hotel, Coco Tulum, had a nice beach club with no minimum and it wasn’t crowded. If you want to venture away from the hotels, Playa Paraíso and Playa Ruinas are great options.
- Grand Cenote- Cenotes are natural underwater sinkholes. There are over 6,000 cenotes in the Yucatan Peninsula, with many catching ones around Tulum. The ancient Mayans considered cenotes to be sacred crossroads to the underworld and most of them seem like magical oases in the middle of the jungle. There are so many to check out, but the most popular and closest to Tulum is Grand Cenote. It’s only a 10 minute car ride from Pueblo (Downtown). Admission is $15 USD per person. Grand Cenote is comprised of 2 pools connected by a dark cave that you can swim through (you can also hear bats flying around!). The water was super clear making it great for snorkeling, but pretty chilly. It was fun to swim alongside small turtles and small fish. My tip is to swim through the cave to the smaller pool, which could be less crowded. This was the only cenote we had time to check out.
- SFER IK- Described as “an interdisciplinary creative sphere” that hosts rotating art exhibitions, SFER IK embodies the Tulum natural aesthetics. The space is made of locally sourced wood and cement, with plants decorating the walls and big windows allowing natural light to shine through. SFER IK is a must see, as you probably won’t see anything like this anyways. It felt like a huge tree house. There’s a suggested $10 USD donation entry fee. You have to go barefoot to walk around and you’re not allowed to use camera to take pictures (phones are allowed, so you can go crazy getting the perfect Instagram shot).
- “Ven La Luz” Sculpture- Probably one of the coolest entrances to a hotel, Hotel Ahau Tulum features a wooden sculpture by South African artist Daniel Popper. It resembles a female figure opening up her body to reveal plants and an entry way for guests. Tulum locals emphasize the important role nature plays in their culture and history, so this installation aims to capture this essence. Obviously it’s a popular photo op so stop by early in the morning to get a clean shot.