Chances are, if you know what Instagram is, you’ve heard of Tulum. Like Baños, Ecuador, Tulum was once a relatively unknown small backpacker town with dirt roads and hostels along a stunning white stretch of pillowy sand and turquoise water known as the Riviera Maya. It’s a very different scene today, which some describe as the “Burning Man of Mexico meets the party life of Ibiza” where hipster and “spiritual” foreigners come from all around the world to live as expats, or partake in one of the many nightly jungle parties.
The reason Tulum is controversial is because, like many other travel destinations such as Hawaii, (my home state), once beautiful secluded gems home only to locals and the occasional travelers, have been ruined by overtourism mostly caused by social media. As a blogger, I often struggle with whether or not to write a blog post, or from which angle to write it so that I’m conveying a realistic picture. Being able to share travel with other wanderlusters is one of my passions, but I aim to do so in a way that is sustainable and doesn’t take advantage of the local population. If you want an extreme perspective on the not-so-pretty side of Tulum, read this article.
Our experience in Tulum was short, but provided us with enough of a feel for the place. We also visited during the Covid pandemic where there were far fewer people than normal, and no notorious jungle parties. The verdict? It was fun to walk through the main street once, but in our opinion, it’s a totally overpriced ripoff to stay there. Hotels go for up to $7,000 per night…yes, you read that correctly, and that’s in U.S. dollars, not Mexican pesos. That’s more than the Ritz Carlton in Paris! While there are some boutique hotels that run for more around the $200 – $500 per night range, we didn’t feel that staying on a dusty unpaved road jammed with traffic at all hours of the day, just to make beautiful photos for the ‘gram (Instagram, that is), was worth that much money, but to each their own.
The artistic architectural design of Tulum really is unique, and my recommendation if you’re not of the loud-music-loving-hipster-digging-need-to-see-and-be-seen sort, is to simply go there at night and check out some of the hotels and art structures. The lobbies are open to the public, and some front desk agents will even give you a tour of the hotel if you ask nicely.
To set the proper expectations, Tulum is not glamorous. While the structural designs are wow-inducing with their wooden frames, birds nests designs, ropes, hemp and greenery, the hotels and restaurants which line the road, are mostly without electricity, so diesel generators noisily groan all day and night to keep the lights on and the AC running. The beach has no adequate sewer system, so the smell of sewage will often waft up into your nostrils as you’re enjoying your $12 Mezcal drink under a canopy tree courtyard covered with string lights and dream catchers while you make every attempt to ward off the many mosquitoes that make their presence very known around the region of your legs.
After it rains, the dirt road turns into a mud bath, which is actually entertaining watching girls in high heels attempt to walk through mud puddles, makeup running down their face, clenching their white dresses in hand, determined to get that perfect shot for their social media accounts. There’s also no sidewalk, and the road is so narrow you would mistake it for a one-way street. So as you’re walking along the “party stretch”, be prepared to get honked at, and literally within half a centimeter of a car mirror hitting you in the side. That’s the problem with Tulum; wealthy individuals (usually not from Mexico) have the money to invest in a new boutique hotel or restaurant, but the government doesn’t have the money to improve the infrastructure to make the surroundings adequate for the high influx of tourists who visit, making it unsustainable.
Some places have a life cycle which goes from hidden gem, to newly discovered, to popular, and then ultimately overrun and burned out. It’s unclear where exactly Tulum falls in this life cycle, but it feels somewhere near the end, at least for that stretch of beach. To be clear, what I described above is only the one stretch of beach where all the parties, nightlife and boutique hotels are. I don’t want to discourage you from visiting Tulum, because you can still have a unique and wonderful experience in this beautiful place. What I described above does not encompass the entirety of Tulum. We actually really enjoyed our time there, but Tulum Beach Road was a one-and-done experience for us. Alas, there are other things to see, do and eat around Tulum.
Where to Eat in Tulum
Raw Love if you enjoy healthy vegan food. There are two locations; one along Tulum Beach Road (which is where the famous heart-opener statue is), and one in Tulum town.
They make their own almond and coconut milks and probiotic yogurts. You’ll actually see a guy chopping down the coconuts, hacking them open, draining the juice, and chopping up the meat. It’s a full-time job to keep up with the demand!
Casa Jaguar – excellent cocktails with mezcal in a lovely courtyard seating
Chai House – inside Casa Jaguar (go to the back). They serve some of the best Indian-style spicy chai I’ve ever had. They use lemongrass and physically pound the spices to create a creamy and delicious drink.
Del Cielo – great for breakfast & local kombucha
Visit the Tulum Ruins
During the Maya civilization, Tulum served as an important trading center, including goods such as jade, cotton and cacao beans.
Admission Fee: $80 pesos ($4 USD) per person
Hours: 9:00 AM – 3:00 PM daily
It’s quite an impressive sight to see these preserved ruins atop a cliff overlooking a pristine sea (this is the Caribbean Sea, not the Pacific Ocean as some mistake it for.) You’ll also see sun-loving iguanas laying around on the rocks. Though they love bananas (I only know this because a girl next to us threw a banana their way and they ate it up in one gulp), but you are not meant to feed the iguanas.
Visit a Cenote
A cenote is a natural sinkhole filled with fresh water. The geographic area of the Yucatán Peninsula is primarily made of limestone, which is porous and easily penetrable, therefore there are no rivers because the water just sinks through the earth. When it pools up, it forms underground caves filled with crystal clear water. There are over 6,000 cenotes in the Yucatán region alone, so your biggest concern will be which one to visit! Some are merely open pools, and others are unique caves, requiring descending stairs.
You will find small and large fish in almost all the cenotes, especially the little ones that will nibble at your feet and legs because they’re eating your dry skin (free spa day!)
Cenote Dos Ojos
Admission: $350 per person ($10 USD)
Dos Ojos (meaning “two eyes” in Spanish) is an underground cave system, excellent for divers. You can take a diving or snorkeling tour with a guide in order to see the entire cenote, or if you choose to go on your own (which we did), you’ll only be able to see about 30% of the cenote. We visited in December, and I thought that because it was underground the water would be freezing, but it was actually very warm! Life jackets are mandatory at this cenote.
Cenote Aktun-Ha (Carwash)
Admission: $50 ($2.50 USD) pesos per person or $200 pesos per diver
If you’re more the all-inclusive resort type, the Riviera Maya is for you. We stayed for our last few nights at the Grand Palladium Resort, which is one of the largest along this 75-mile stretch of beach, because we wanted to end our vacation with ultimate relaxation, beach volleyball, swimming and an outdoor massage.
If you have more than one week to spend in this region, I highly recommend renting a car and visiting other nearby destinations, including the beautiful lagoon of Bacalar, the quaint colonial towns of Campeche, Merida and Valladolid. For more information, check out my other blog posts:
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