Prior to arriving in Costa Rica, we enjoyed a 10-day vacay in Tulum, Mexico. This small town just south of Cancun is now known for its laid-back vibes, numerous yoga studios and white sand beaches. At first we were a little hesitant about spending that long there, but it turned out to be a great amount of time for relaxing, reading, blogging and exercising.
Truth be told, my opinion of Tulum is now a little skewed as I got super sick the very last night. Not sure exactly what caused it but perhaps I became overly confident at the hipster cafes… It just seemed too much like home yet was still Mexico. Nonetheless it was an enjoyable stay with lots to recommend.
The 3 Faces of Tulum
There are really three main parts of Tulum:
- The Chic Beach Town: The “hotel zone” right on the water is filled with highly Instagrammable restaurants and cafes and beachfront hotels. This area is the picturesque image of Tulum you now see in Travel + Leisure or on social media. While that is certainly the much more westernized area with cleaner streets and the hip restaurants you read about, it has the expensive resort prices to match. Breakfast will cost you about $15 USD a person and your basic hotel room will start around $300. I was surprised that everything runs along just one 3-4 mile strip of road with no sidewalk and no view of the ocean, as beachfront space is taken up by the hotels. But once you cross a hotel or restaurant to the beach, it is pretty stunning!
- La Puebla: “Tulum town” is where we elected to stay, in part because it was about 1/3 cheaper than the beach hotel zone. While not as glamorous by any means with the main strip also being the highway with big trucks zooming by, trash on the sides of the road and limited sidewalks, there were plenty of nice lodging options like our AirBnB, good restaurants and shops. It is about a 4-mile stroll along a nice bike path to the beach but for $200 a night or more less, it is a solid option!
- The Local Side: After a few years of being a trendy Yucatan vacation destination, Tulum is certainly getting more developed. However you can’t forget that it is still a very poor area. Just blocks off the main road, feet away from the fancy resorts, you’ll see homes without four walls, garbage everywhere and dirt paths instead of roads. Here’s to hoping the development also brings positive improvements for the locals of Tulum.
What To Do
There was plenty to do in the area from beach activities to just lounging around quirky cafes. Here were some of our favorites.
Swim in a Cenote. The whole Yucatan area is known for cenotes, super clear freshwater at the bottom of an underground limestone cave. There are about 7,000 in the area, but we opted for the Gran Cenote, just about a 10 minute drive outside of town. While they did charge 160 pesos per person (about $8 USD), it was easy to get to, clean and well-preserved. Unlike what we heard about other cenotes, you didn’t need to wear a life jacket and could just jump on in.
We brought our own snorkels and masks which made it perfect to explore the cave from below the surface. As some of you may know, I have a potentially unnecessary fear of open water, but this was like being in a pool it was so clear. Even swimming into the small cave was a fun, unique experience. We swam with turtles and fish and even spotted some bats within the cave walls. Now would I go diving into the dark in one of the deeper cenotes? No thanks! This one was perfect.
Snorkel in Akumal Bay. One afternoon, we made the 20-minute drive up the coast to a big beautiful bay. Although there were a lot of people lounging on the sand, enjoying beachfront restaurants or playing in the water, it wasn’t overwhelming. Ignoring the people claiming we needed a guide and life jackets, we popped on our snorkels and masks and headed into the warm water. Brice fortunately led us to the coral, an easy swim from the shore, where the colors were vibrant and fish numerous.
Dinner on the Beach. If you’re going to spend time in a Mexico beach town, obviously you need a date night overlooking the ocean. We selected Ziggy’s for our fancy dinner out. Yes, it was exorbitantly expensive (probably $200) but we had a gorgeous view, delicious food and cocktails, great service and even a mariachi band serenading us. Perfect evening out!
FitClub Community. We turned this portion of our trip into a “get fit” week as well. We joined the local Crossfit gym, with such incredibly friendly staff and some damn hard workouts, especially given the humidity. Brice’s favorite part? This gym was also an Herbalife affiliate which meant finally trying their famous protein smoothies.
Jungle Gym Tulum. Lifting weights right on the beach with a view of the ocean and breeze blowing? Count me in. I hesitated going here as it is another spendy excursion (about $20 USD) but seriously you cannot beat that view. From monkey bars to squat racks to dumbbells made out of wood, they’ve got all you need to both get your workout on and have fun. I also participated in their morning bootcamp class which was a blast.
Where to Eat
Tulum is the place for vegetarians! Unlike Mexico City, which had a lot of delicious food but hard to find meat-free options, Tulum was the exact opposite. If it wasn’t exclusively vegetarian or vegan, nearly every restaurant had several veggie-forward meals to choose from. I was so happy!
There was a big mix of chic, hipster restaurants and more traditional, local joints.
Co.ConAmor. For exclusively vegetarian spots, Raw Love for smoothie bowls and La Hoja Verde were good choices but this one was our fave. It was a little backyard oasis with couches, big tables, trees and murals on the walls. The food was delicious and cheap. I particularly loved the Amor Cubano Bowl with black beans, brown rice, lentils, beets, carrots and pumpkin seeds.
Burrito Amor: A trendy spot for tourists, but for good reason. Their burritos are top notch and it is surprisingly reasonably priced. Plus they had several vegetarian options and even one killer vegan option loaded with nopal (cacutus), chaya (Mayan spinach), black beans, rice, pico, avocado and epazote spice sauce. Everything is served with four homemade salsas, ranging from an herbed coconut oil to a smoky and spicy chipotle aioli. It was too difficult to pick a favorite, so every bite I would alternate. Messy but delicious. Any burrito can come as a bowl, or as I preferred, in a housemade gluten-free coconut tortilla.
Tulum Art Club: This café became one of our regular hangouts with good wifi, cold brew coffee, friendly service and local artwork decorating the space. Their food was also great, in particular their avocado toast and the Burrito De Arte with scrambled eggs, tons of veggies, and a spicy cream sauce.
Tres Galeones: I was so excited when I saw this restaurant that we loved in Mexico City also has an outpost in Tulum! This time as we were digging the “being healthy” vibe, we ordered the lettuce tacos with grilled shrimp, coconut and ginger. So good!
El Camello Jr.: One of Brice’s few requests was to get a whole fish. Like the kind that comes with the face, the scales, even the eye ball. In part I think he likes to order it to make me squirm a bit. However we had read in several places if we wanted seafood (and not for a million dollars on the beach), this was the place to go. It is nothing fancy with a relaxed, local feel, they do it up right. Brice knew this place was a winner when they dropped off a large basket of totopos (tortilla chips) and a spicy black bean dip the moment we sat down. Perfectly grilled shrimp for me and of course for Brice, a whole fried hawkfish. For less than $10, Brice was able to stuff himself with fish, black beans, rice and a cold Corona. Thank you, Mexico!
Key Tip if You Head to Tulum
Rent a car. I was surprised by how spread out Tulum is. Walking from one end of town to the other is about 1.5 miles, another 2 miles just to the beach, then the beach road goes on for at least 5-6 miles. I’m always one for walking rather than driving, so I assumed the walk to most places would be fine.
But I wasn’t aware of a few aspects that make driving a lot more preferable: There are few sidewalks in town, so you’re often strolling on the dusty shoulder that is covered in trash. Cars drive fast and while there are crosswalks, they don’t always stop for pedestrians. The weather isn’t always your friend, it can either be hot and humid or pouring down rain in a moment’s notice, neither are great for walking!
Getting to the beach is easy enough by car but note free parking is hard to come by if you aren’t staying at one of the hotels.