Are you planning or thinking about visiting beautiful Tulum in the Mayan riviera, Mexico? If so, get ready for paradise. White beaches, blue ocean & crystal clear cenotes … wait, did I mention tacos? Here are my personal tips on everything from safety, weather, food and things to do in Tulum… written in the airplane on my way home, after two weeks in the sun!
Before we begin … Introduction to Tulum:
Tulum is a tiny little town … area, beach, coastline … in the Mayan rivera, Mexico’s most eastern tip with nothing but the (warm) Caribbean ocean in front of it. You’ll fly to Cancun, approx. 1,5 hours drive from Tulum (I used this service for the lowest private airport transfers). One of the obvious things that makes Tulum the paradise it really is – is the weather. With booming 27°C degrees average temperature all year round, very few rainy days and warm, gentle sea breeze to cool you down.
In my mind, Tulum is perfect … built for and specially catering to adventure/hipster/eco-friendly centred travellers. Tulum is a jungle (literally) and a beach at the same time. Everything here has been built with preserving the nature in mind – having the minimum possible impact on environment, being sustainable, green … you know where I’m going with this. At least this was our experience … That Tulum is best/perfect for some mix of rich travellers and hipsters. There you have it!
– Two things that I wish I knew before my trip –
Uno: PESOS. On every blog I read before my trip people suggested that US dollars would do the job in Mexico, “it will be accepted everywhere”. This is true, but pesos is the local currency and it’s both preferred and you will always pay more with dollars. Go for Pesos. Secondly, Mexico is cheap. But Tulum is not. It’s a big tourist destination and it caters a lot to rich travellers. Most places are expensive (brilliant cheap restaurant recommendations below!).
Dos: SAFETY. This was my main concern before Mexico. After I did my research I found out that: Zika is not a problem (when this is written and for some months/year) and that Tulum is so far away from Mexico city, the border action and all that scary stuff you read about in the news – that it is considered one of the safest places in all of Mexico. Or you can just take my word from it, in two weeks I did never feel scared, intimidated or threatened in any way (with one exception … go to #4).
Lastly, I am not an expert of Tulum or Mexico. Far from it. But I am a vivid traveller and after two weeks on location, here are all the things that I wish I knew before my trip 🙂
My TOP 10 things you must know before visiting Tulum
#10 – Tulum is NOT one beach or town
This was a big confusion for me. I’m going to split Tulum in three for you; the town itself, the beach/coastline and everything else.
Actually, Tulum is a town and on first impression, it honestly didn’t even look that good (I guess I’m trying to say that it looked way different form what I had imagined)! It’s small, simple and anywhere off the main strip actually doesn’t look that sexy. BUT, once you get used to it, you’ll appreciate the charm. The main strip (with one big road in between) has tons of good restaurants, bars and shops. Here you can find the local restaurants and bars (we’ll get to that later) and that is cheap AF.
What I believe most people imagine Tulum as, is the coastline, the beach or the hotel zone. It’s actually a super duper long coastline (more than hours drive through it all) where you have nothing but hotels on the beach and occasional restaurants and shops that form small “cores” here and there. This place was beautiful with tons of incredible gems. But it’s pretty expensive as it’s all catered to the fancy hotels & the travellers that stay there.
Third, there are a million and then some hotels and accommodations scattered all over the area that say they are in Tulum but they are actually 10 minutes drive away. Staying there is totally fine if you have a beautiful beach, hotel pool or activities nearby – but just be prepared to take taxis back and forth (each trip costing from 200-450 pesos depending on time and place) or rent a car.
Then what everyone is thinking; Where to stay in Tulum? I would personally recommend staying on the beach, anywhere in the area between CocoTulum – Gitano – Nomade. But Tulum town is also ideal and definitely the lot cheaper & more local option. However, then you’d be sacrificing the beach as it would be 10+ min drive away.
#9 – Wear sunscreen … lots of it!
Well, this is doesn’t need a long explaination. The sun is reeeeally strong here. Its truly incredible. Go super safe so you won’t burn (… like me & T-dog) and will be able to enjoy all of your time here in the sun.
#8 – The ocean & the white beachesss are incredible
The sand in Tulum is out of this world. It’s incredibly white and soft. As a result, the water is usually crystal clear and appears to be beautifully bright blue! Even better, there are lots of fishes to be seen so bring your swimming googles or snorkling gear. You are going to want to spend a lot of time at the beach!
#7 – Swim with turtles in Akumal
Alright! Akumal is a small beach approx. 20 min drive from Tulum, famous for being perfect to spot sea turtles. You can read more about this by simply google ‘Akumal’. However, I wanted to give you a little heads up: I did not entirely love the area, or Akumal on it’s own. It’s obvious that because of this amazing natural phenomenon (being able to see wild turtles in it’s natural habitant) this place is very popular for tourists. And I realized as soon as I got there that it probably has been very busy with travellers for a long time. You can both see it on the beach itself but also with the endless amount of very aggressive local sale persons. So, the first impression didn’t charm my pants of.
Sorry for the negativity, here comes the good part. Despite my boring describing above, you MUST go! It is amazing. Get there first thing in the morning (be among the first), you will have to pay 100 pesos entering the area and 350 pesos for a tour. You must take a tour to get far out enough to the see the turtles because they are being protected. What makes all of this so much worth it is that these turtles are absolutely amazing. They are huuuge! I didn’t believe it when I saw it first. I had swum with turtles before in Bali, Indonesia but these are so enormous that I couldn’t believe it, it was truly an unforgettable experience. This is why I really recommend this. Note that we did only stay here for approx. 1-2 hours. You can stay longer, but then I’d recommend you to move to the next beach or a nearby lagoon (5-10 min drive) to escape the crowds and get a more untouched beach 🙂
#6 – Experience the beach clubs
No matter where you are staying, do take advantage of the amazing luxury beach clubs that can be found at Tulum beach. Note that the entire beach/coast line belongs to some hotels. There are a few hotels that have incredibly sexy settings and you should definitely make sure to visit some. Here you are able to lay in comfort at the hotel’s sun-beds, swim in the ocean and enjoy world class cocktails, food etc. It is my recommendation to allow yourself a luxury day of two at the very least. This is so much Tulum.
The photo above is from Nomade Hotel.
Some of the beach clubs are far from being expensive while others are expensive AF. One of my favourites was the beach at Nomade, it was one of the more expensive ones but it was so beautiful that I honestly can’t put it to words. The restaurant there was also one of my foodie highlights (more below). Coco Tulum is one of the most popular spots for bloggers/Instagrammers etc. but I was not a huge fan and wouldn’t visit again.
Other suggestions of hotels that have beach clubs worth checking out are Papaya Project, La Valise and Azulik. But honestly, there are probably more than 100 great options in this same area.
#5 – The sea weed …
If you are planning your trip last minute or with only a few weeks in advance, read on carefully. If you are planning your trip way in advance, there’s nothing you can really do.
It was a very big surprise when we first arrived to the Mexican riveria that every single beach was covered in sea weed. Both the beach itself and the ocean next to it. Unfortunately it’s a little disgusting and most people don’t want to swim in it, so for our first week we rarely saw anyone in the sea.
Our trip was still of course absolutely awesome despite all this and later we found certain beaches that had less or no sea weed but this is what I learned: This crazy increase in seaweed washing to land is not bound to a certain season nor is it common. I understand it’s a rare, natural phenomenon that lasts for some weeks to months. Some people we met mentioned this was something to do with global warming (whether you believe that or not!). It supposedly also happened in 2015 and then stayed for a few months.
The seaweed is definitely a little disappointing for beach-thirsty travellers and kills the charm of the beach but a) Tulum has so much more to offer and b) it’s nature, there’s nothing we can do about it. I just felt like letting you know – so if you are planning a last minute trip – do a little check on online forums and try to see if it’s seaweed time right now, you might want to postpone your trip a few weeks to hopefully avoid it.
#4 – Renting a car in Tulum is a great idea
Why it’s great to rent a car in Tulum and what to avoid.
I recommend to rent a car in Tulum. It’s maybe not be necessary for your entire stay, specially if you are staying centrally but there are sooo many things to see and do and everything is scattered around a large area so I found it to be almost a must for at least a few days.
But is it safe to rent a car and drive in Mexico? This was my main concern, and honestly I thought I would never do it. But as soon as we arrived, I realized I would need to rent a car to explore. Driving was super simple, the roads are easy, the signs are clear and there is nothing to worry about.
But … there is always a but! The only thing you should keep in mind is to follow the rules, don’t drive too fast and make sure to keep your eyes open for speed bumps (I think Mexicans love speed bumps more than they love tacos, you’ll see). By doing this, you won’t have any troubles. The police in Mexico is known for keeping a very close eye of tourists on the roads and if you give them any opportunities to pull you over, they will. In that case they will present you with a huge fine and ask you to report to the next police station. However, they also offer to pay them directly, an X amount in cash. In other words, they are technically robbing you. This might have happened to us …
In the unlikely case you will experience this, make sure to keep only a small amount of cash in your wallet (still enough for them to settle for) to minimize your financial loss. In my case I was asked for 4000 pesos but they would have settled for less. In Bali few years ago I convinced a police officer to accept my (fake) Ray Bans and that way avoiding a huge fine … just an idea, but it’s a little different to haggle with the police when they are carrying loaded assault riffles. Just be safe.
#3 – These are the BEST fine dining restaurants in Tulum
The foodie scene in Tulum was superb. Truly incredible and that surprised me a lot in a way. As mentioned in my introduction, I feel Tulum caters a lot to hipstery, eco-friendly, in-touch-with-nature type of travellers and it’s exactly that kind of restaurants that you will find to be totally next level here.
Here are three fine dining restaurants that are to die for and should be a must visit for any true foodie in Tulum:
- Kitchen Table: An innovative jungle restaurant. Amazing food and menu that changes between nights. Note that they have no normal kitchen facilities to leave no impact on the environment and make electricity by solar panels only to power the lights and music. There are no refrigerators or other machines that require electricity and all the food is brought in in ice boxes for every new day. Amazing food & drinks. We had a perfect experience here. If you are interested, you have to check out the Kitchen Table website for more details.
- Kin Toh at the Azulik hotel. This restaurant is also something else. You have to experience it to understand it I think. It’s basically a tree house, definitely the largest one I’ve been to. Just going here was an experience because of the interior and the way it’s built. The food was also fantastic and it didn’t hurt that we were in fantastic company of new friends from Canada. Note, this is probably the most expensive restaurant in Tulum.
- Macondo. I don’t want to repeat the exact same extremely positive adjectives as with the other two restaurants above … But wow, amazing kitchen and beautiful interior. This (and actually, all of the restaurants above) was one of my best meals in Mexico. The look reminded me a lot of Morocco as we sat on pillows on the floor but the food was unbelievable.
#2 – Now … the true BEST restaurants in Tulum
I usually travel through food so I find these recommendations very important. However, I’m not going to count all the restaurant I visited and name-drop and explain each place for itself here.
I’m just wanted to tell you about the true authentic Mexican restaurants in Tulum. The local eateries that are not located inside fancy hotels but in “garages” or any hole in the wall that you can find in Tulum town. Here the waiters don’t speak English, the cleanness of the restaurant would get an X rating for sure in Iceland and the food seriously cost 0,5 – 2 $. I visited a few of these hole in a wall places and the tacos are just from another world.
I can’t recommend you highly enough to go outside of your comfort zone and eat at these places, even though they look a lot, lot different than your average restaurant. Most of them don’t even have a name … You’ll find them on side streets and just off the beaten path in Tulum town.
#1 – Visit as many Cenotes as you can!
Oh my god. Out of our entire Mexico visit, the effable cenotes stand out as my #1 most favourite thing to do.
What is a cenote?
In short, cenotes are natural pits/sinkholes that form underwater caves with natural FRESH water. They are very common in the Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico where there are more than 6000 known cenotes (hallelujah!).
We visited both cenote Manati and another one called Dos Ojos. We had planned to visit between 5-10 of these beautiful gems but there was just so much to do! Cenote Manati was in the backyard of our first hotel so I visited that one quite a few times, first to explore but then just to cool off, swim and enjoy being alive (that’s where I saw the wild crocodile! See in my IG highlight stories).
Cenote Dos Ojos was then again, like something from another world. Dos Ojos means ‘two eyes’ as there are two different cenotes and a huge underwater cave that connects them below the surface. Not only that … we went snorkling there and the caves are filled with bats! I definitely recommend.
Lastly, do your research because as mentioned earlier – there are more than 6000 cenotes to explore and I think you should just choose the ones you that you like the most – or the some that are close to your accommodation. If you could do only one thing in Tulum, it should be to visit one of these cenotes 🙂
Thanks for the read and ohh …. I’m already jealous that you are on your way to Tulum!
Tulum will always have a special place in my heart & I can’t wait to visit again. I also hope this post has been helpful – as all of these points are something I wish I knew before my trip. Happy travels!
Your Icelandic friend,