One of the perks of growing up in the United States is the convenience of traveling to Mexico. Though I’d traveled across the border as a teenager living in Texas, the Mexican states Quintana Roo and Yucatán had been on my bucket list for years. At that time my starving student budget combined with moving to California could only afford all-inclusive packages like the competitive priced deals Cabo San Lucas and Cancun offered. Several years later in September 2016 I got to experience The Ultimate Tulum Vacation.
Upon our arrival in Cancun, my friend Keith and I hopped on the shuttle to pick up our rental car, fast on our way to Tulum. The short 1.5 hour drive was easy. There were grocery stores and gas stations accessible from the street to pickup whatever you needed: if you’re on a tight budget or just want to save on food and drinks this is the way to go. We pulled up to the Papaya Playa Project, a boutique hotel located directly on the beach where we stayed for five days. Check-in was quick. The staff provided us with maps, phone numbers and a list of places to see and dine although I came prepared with an overly ambitious itinerary for our short stay. We dropped our luggage in our mosquito netted room and enjoyed cocktails on the beach, swimming and lounging.
Pictures don’t lie. The white sandy beaches and warm crystal clear blue water is real. With the growing number of expats I met touring Tulum who had posted up for months, some even years, surviving as surf and yoga instructors at the resorts and hippies turned jewelry makers, it was evident why so many people were attracted to this bohemian low-key lifestyle. A vast number of europeans, celebrities and hip fashion and travel bloggers from around the world have made Tulum a stylish vacation destination. Not to be confused with the subtleties of other touristy islands: riding bikes in summer dresses and designer cork sandals is the norm in Tulum.
With an abundance of things to enjoy: archeological ruins, cenotes, boating, cabanas, beach bars, 5 star resorts, cafe’s, early morning exercising, hammocks, spas, boutiques, outdoor and water activities there is a complete balance of adventure, earthiness, spirituality and luxury. Having been all over the world, Tulum is a combination of my favorite parts of Bali, Maui, and Marrakesh all wrapped into this one city on the Mexican shoreline.
I’m convinced my inner beach bum would have surfaced had there been more time. The radiant sun, great tan, good food, eccentric style and zen lifestyle was appealing. An aspiring nomad I’ve always been envious of those who live out a suitcase and make the trek across the coastline exploring Mexico. I secretly dream of living this life for one year. There is so much to see and do I barely had time to crack the lid, but the cenotes were easily my favorite part of Tulum. There are more than 6000 cenotes so you’ll have to find the ones right for you, but I suggest visiting as many as you can. Aside from the breathtaking views, these magical lagoons offer water activities, swimming and diving.
When it was time to leave Tulum I tried to bargain with my friend Keith to join me for an extended stay. He had quickly become a wonderful travel buddy turned photographer turned constant voice reminding me to apply sunblock and bug spray – hello mosquitos and extreme humidity! Our trip was ideal even if we only had five days. Tulum was exactly what I thought it would be and so much more!
Quick geography tip
Cancun, Playa Del Carmen, Cozumel and Tulum are located in the Mexican state Quintana Roo in southeastern Mexico on the northeast coast of the Yucatán Peninsula which separates the Caribbean sea from the Gulf of Mexico. Cabo San Lucas or “Cabo” as most American-English refer to it and José del Cabo are located in the Mexican state Baja California Sur. They are situated at the point where the Pacific Ocean and Gulf of California meet. Together Cabo San Lucas and San José del Cabo are referred to as Los Cabos.
How do I get to Tulum?
You have to fly into CUN: Cancun International Airport
How far is Tulum from Cancun?
Tulum is located roughly 75 miles South of Cancun past Playa del Carmen. It is harder to access because you have to fly into CUN (Cancun International Airport) and take a shuttle, taxi or rental car to get to Tulum. Keep in mind this increases the travel fare making traveling to Tulum more expensive than its sister islands.
What’s the best way to get around Tulum?
I don’t like to rely on public transportation and schedules so I rented a car to get around the island. Taxi’s, shuttles and buses are easily accessible, too. Most hotels in Tulum offer a shuttle service for an additional fee. A lot of places offer bike rentals. Depending upon where you stay the restaurants, shops and beaches are accessible via bicycles. I personally really enjoyed having a car to come and go as I wanted. For the price you can’t beat a car rental. I booked my car for $20 USD/day. I book rental cars with my preferred rental company to collect points on future travel, but www.hotwire.com is known to have good deals.
So Why Tulum?
After four years and forty countries I’ve traveled to a decent number of cities and wanted to vacation someplace closer to home. I hadn’t been to Mexico in 6 years and read that Tulum is warm in September. There are fewer tourists in the fall so if you want to dodge the crowds September is a good time to go.
History of Tulum
Years back the Mayan Riviera had became a phenomenon. Tulum was split off from the Solidaridad in 2008 becoming one of the newest municipalities. It seemed every travel magazine had published an article about this untapped Caribbean coastline. Today Tulum is a popular hot spot among world travelers, celebrities and social media influencers topping the list of best beaches to visit.
Where to stay
When I travel I like to feel at home so I typically book accommodations via Airbnb, Home Exchange and Home Away. I wasn’t sure how safe staying in one of those accommodations in Mexico would be so I stayed in a resort. I love the charm of boutique hotels and The Papaya Playa Project offered the perfect experience. Other hotels I really like: El Pez Hotel, Jashita Tulum, Coqui Coqui Tulum Residence & Spa, Ana y José, Casa Malca, Ahau Tulum, Nest Tulum, Sanara Tulum, Zamas, La Vita Belle, and Hotel Escencia located halfway between Playa del Carmen and Tulum.
I read lots of food blogs and got suggestions from the locals and friends, but the places I seemed to enjoy most weren’t the restaurants that came highly recommended but rather the ones I stumbled upon accidentally. One afternoon while stopping by Hartwood restaurant to book a table for dinner (Hartwood only accepts reservations made in person or via email) I ended up across the street at local beach bar La Eufemia having tacos and beers with Kurt Cobain. Ok, not the real Kurt obviously but a cool rock & roll chair painted with his portrait on it. All of the chairs were painted with celebrities, musicians and other recognizable faces to complete the laid-back surfer meets gypsy vibe. I also really loved the freshness of everything on the menu at the sea front dining at El Pez Hotel. The food in Tulum is the best I have ever eaten anywhere. It’s so good I ate at Los Aguachiles twice in one week. If you’re looking for a chic ambiance, great music and amazing food Gitano is one of the best. A few more must eats: Posada Margherita, Casa Banana, Antojitos La Chiapaneca, Casa Jaguar, Hemingway, Mateos, Las Estrellas, and Curendero: restaurant by day/bar by night (good for nightlife fun).
The list of things to do in Tulum is long: zip-lining, kayaking, surfing, biking, paddle boarding, fishing, etc. There is so much to keep you busy I highly recommend doing as much as you can. If you are into diving or snorkeling the cenotes are a must. They were my favorite part of the trip. You can also book guided paddle boarding tours and spend the entire day there so plan accordingly. There’s a tour for just about everything you want to do. If you are looking for a guided adventure I suggest making plans in advance so you have time to do everything you want. Tourist tend to crowd popular destinations by 9AM so get up early (5AM-6AM) if you want to avoid the crowds.
- Mayan Ruins
- Sian Ka’an
- Rent bicycles and ride through Tulum town and explore the upmarket shops, restaurants and local beaches.
My favorite cenotes
- Gran Cenote – Perfect for everyone lined with palm trees and water lilies. Don’t be alarmed if you see bats in the cave.
- Azul – Crystal clear water and great for swimming.
- Jardin Del Eden– Great for jumping off the designated cliffs or trees: also good for swimming and snorkeling.
- Choo-Ha – Best underground cenote. The best part, this cenote isn’t freezing cold like the other lagoons.
- La Noria – There is a swing inside this cave unlike any of the others. Also great for diving.
- Verde Lucero – Known for its zip line and cliff jumping.
- Dos Ojos – Largest and most popular cenote.
- El Pit – Part of Dos Ojos located in the jungle.
- Ik Kil – Most photographed cenote. At the top is a large opening covered by vines that hang down into the cenote.
At the time of this article and when I visited Tulum it was considered a safe destination for all travelers including solo women travelers. To be sure, I always check travel warnings prior to booking any trips as things are constantly changing: travel.state.gov.
Language: Spanish is the primary language spoken throughout Mexico, but in the tourism industry most locals speak English too.
Climate: The average weather in Tulum is between the mid-high 80’s F throughout the year. The summer months are known to be warmer and very humid.
Currency: Mexican Peso
Credit Cards and Banks: Most restaurants and hotels accept Visa and Mastercard, some take American Express, but always carry cash. A lot of places and parking lots only accept cash.
What’s next in Mexico?
I wanted to extend my trip to experience the pink waters of Las Coloradas with its more secluded private getaway. Though it’s only 3.5 hour drive from Cancun, this small fisherman community was too much driving for the short five days I had in Tulum so I’ll save that for another trip. I would also like to take a colectivo to Akumal and swim with the giant sea turtles and fish. Bucket list 2017!