One of the most beautiful destinations in the Mayan Riviera is the quaint town and coastal area of Tulum. With wide stretches of powdery white beach and translucent blue water, it's picture perfect. Many locals agree that some of the best beaches on the Caribbean coast are found in Tulum!
Tulum also has a laid-back attitude and atmosphere all its own. The chic, bohemian vibe draws you in! Within minutes of arriving, it feels as if your worries and cares have somehow disappeared.
No matter who you are, or what your vacation style is, there is something here that'll please everyone! It's well worth checking out during your time in Mexico; whether for a day trip or an extended stay. Within the town and surrounding areas you'll find lots to do and see. Between the intimate little boutique hotels and quiet stretches of pristine beach, there are charming restaurants and shops, yoga studios, cultural experiences and, of course, water sports.
Tulum is about 45-minutes south of Playa del Carmen by car (130km / 80 miles from the Cancun International Airport.) It’s a straight shot on Federal Highway 307. The divided highway goes through the town itself, and the beach is just 5 minutes away. Something to be aware of--it's a little bit of a trek from the airport and can make for a long day of traveling!
If you don’t want to rent a car, you can catch the ADO bus from the airport and let them do the driving. Get on board from the ADO main depot in Playa, right downtown on 5th Ave and Juarez. The buses are reasonably priced, comfortable and air-conditioned. The cheapest option to get down to Tulum is by “colectivo”. These marked shuttle vans zip back and forth on the highway all day long. They’re fast and comfortable and yes, there are seatbelts and space in the back for your bags! You can catch one across from the Chedraui on the highway, or downtown on calle 2 between 15th and 20th Avenue.
Ancient Mayan Ruins
Perhaps the most well-known sight to see here is the ancient Mayan ruins. As you’re approaching town, the site is immediately on your left, well-marked with signs. (No way you can miss this—the speed bumps will slow you down for sure!)
This pre-Columbian holy city, which is perched on the cliffs overlooking the Caribbean Sea, is a must! The entrance fee is 40 pesos per person (slightly more for a guided tour and the option to take photos). This archeological wonder is open from 8am to 5pm. The site itself is rather spread out with several structures still standing. No climbing is permitted, sorry. Be prepared to do some walking though.
Bring an umbrella if you don’t want too much sun, and pack a bottle of bug spray if it's calm and cloudy. You're in the Caribbean jungle after all! The walkways are fairly easy to traverse and can accommodate a wheelchair if required. There is a stunningly beautiful beach available for your use, so you may want to bring a towel along too. Grab your camera and head down the stairs for some iconic shots of the cliffs and waves.
There is easy-access parking plus food and drink at the main entrance. (Ranging from air-conditioned, licensed restaurants to pizza and taco stands.)
Tip - Beat the cruise ship crowds of tourists by arriving first thing in the morning if you can. It’s worth it! You’ll also avoid some of the tropical heat that tends to bounce off the brick ruins.
If you want to see the tallest pyramid in the Yucatan (climbing is allowed on this one), the Coba ruins are about an hour further inland. This makes for its own excellent day trip.
Once you’re done with your archeological adventure, you’re probably ready to pull up a chair by the surf or hop in a hammock under a palm tree. Tulum has some of the best beaches in the Mayan Riviera. We’re talking gorgeous Corona-commercial perfection here. Find your favorite!
When you reach the T-intersection on the Boca Paila / Punta Allen road, which way should you turn? Looking for adventure and the virgin beach of your dreams? Go north! Want to be in the centre of the action with lots of activities, posh beach clubs, etc.? Go south!
Protected by the reef, the beaches on the north end of the road are absolutely incredible! A couple of fantastic choices are Playa Maya and Playa Paraiso (very near the ruins). Take the Boca Paila road from town and turn left (north) at the fork in the road where you see the Tulum pillar. A little further up, signs and parking mark the entrance.
These public beaches to the north are the perfect choice if you’re the more self-sufficient type of traveler. Just pack a cooler full of beverages, grab a couple of beach chairs, maybe a football, and you’re all set! (You’ll find pretty much everything you need at the Chedraui grocery store on the way. It’s on the Boca Paila road before you reach the T-intersection. Also en route is an Oxxo convenience store with snacks, playing cards, beers, ice coolers, snorkel gear and other necessary beach items!)
Kids of all ages will love wading and playing on the wide sandy shelf that is lapped by gentle waves. Enjoy some quality family time—there is plenty of space here to throw a football or Frisbee around.
At the perfect temperature, you can walk out into the water a long ways before it gets deep. Or set your lounge chair right in the water and keep your toes cool! The water is very calm and clear here. It really is the beach of your dreams!
Recommended - For lunch or dinner, check out the Mezzanine boutique hotel for authentic Thai cuisine and an array of margarita flavors!
If chilling at a stylish beach club is more your style, sun beds and cocktails are awaiting you at Ziggy's, down on the south end of the Boca Paila road. The food and atmosphere are spectacular! The menu is gourmet and you won’t find better scenery!
Try the mango ceviche or shrimp and chipotle salbutes. In order to use their amenities, a minimum consumption of $25 USD per person is in effect. (That's only a couple of mojitos and an order of shrimp tacos! Not bad at all for an extraordinary day to remember.) Their hours are 9am until sunset.
Another upscale but more romantic option is Villa de las Estrellas. This spot is absolutely magical at twilight!
There are more beach activities here on the south end, including snorkeling, fishing, kite-boarding and so on. Or you can rent a bike and pedal down the beach road that pretty much winds all the way south to the bio reserve of Punta Allen (about forever away). Nearly every hotel offers bike rentals; they’re easy to spot.
If you can pull yourself off of the beach, there are still more sights to see around Tulum itself. When you’re in the Caribbean, you have to do seafood! Be sure to stop in for a bite at El Camello, operated by the local fishermen’s coop. Needless to say, the food is fresh and delicious! Alternatively, La Piola is a great choice for pizza and pasta. This chain restaurant is hip and fun, with a forno oven. Both of these favorites are located on the boulevard parallel with the federal highway, right in the heart of Tulum.
A little shopping after lunch? It’s a unique experience here, with lots of artisan items and custom-made clothing and gifts that you won’t find anywhere else! A word of caution--beware of using stand-alone ATMs (the rates are exorbitantly high). Get your pesos at one of the banks in town instead. Many establishments will take American dollars (at a decent exchange rate, but not the best), and a few may take credit cards. Be sure to check before you sit down to a meal or start picking out souvenirs!
Turtles, Cenotes & Eco-Tourism
Tulum prides itself on its eco-tourism. From May to November you'll see protected turtle nesting grounds on the beach. Seeing the babies hatch and clamber to the ocean is an unforgettable experience! All the shops and hotels on the beach road are powered by generators and wind or solar panels.
If you've been wanting to see a cenote, you're in the right place. These fresh water sinkholes are all over the Yucatan peninsula. With sparkling, clear aqua water and impressive caves, they truly are amazing natural wonders! Some of the best are right around Tulum.
The Grand Cenote is breathtakingly beautiful and has phenomenal underwater caverns full of stalagmites and pillars. Definitely bring or rent snorkel gear for this one! There is plenty of parking, a picnic area, change rooms, lockers and bathrooms. It’s an ideal choice for your first cenote experience! The whole family will love it. (If you have young children, there are shallow, sandy areas for them to explore. A unique feature is the turtle zone.) This cenote located on the highway to Merida, a couple of miles west of the first major intersection in Tulum. You can’t miss it.
Casa Cenote is a little 10-minute jaunt north up the highway towards Playa del Carmen and is a nice refreshing swim. This deep cenote is surrounded by mangroves and is a favorite for scuba divers. 40 pesos will get you in. It's not a bad idea to rent a kayak here and paddle around. No other cenote of this size is so close to the beach (literally across the dirt road), and that truly sets it apart! A few restaurants and houses dot the serene ocean bay.
Without question, this laid-back, welcoming Caribbean village is calling your name! Experience the naturally picturesque seascapes and chill ambiance that is Tulum!
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About the Author
Kelly grew up in northern Alberta where she got her fill of cold Canadian winters! She fell in love with Playa del Carmen when her family first vacationed there in 2000 and moved there a few years later. It's been a great adventure! Kelly spends her time writing, doing volunteer work, snorkelling, diving, and travelling throughout Mexico...and occasionally travelling back to Canada to see family and friends.