At the tail end of a particularly long Chicago winter and a self diagnosed vitamin D deficiency, I found cheap flights to Cancun last minute. I jumped on those tickets real fast ya’ll (I’m talking twenty minutes fast). Having only a few days to read up on the Yucatan, we we’re off three days later with a rough-ish idea of what we wanted to do.
As a rule, I generally don’t revisit places that I’ve already been to. I mean, there is just so much world to see and not enough time to see it. I find it hard to justify to myself going back to some place I’ve already been to. However, I will admit that I went to Cancun my high school senior year for spring break. Before I knew better. Downing foot long frozen margaritas, experiencing hordes of horny high schoolers feel each other up (honestly, there wasn’t a safe pool in sight!) and dodging the dance floor creepers for six days straight wasn’t my jam then and most definitely isn’t my jam now. Despite the aforementioned Cancun encounter, I decided to give the Yucatan another shot. Afterall, there were so many amazing shots of Quintana Roo on Instagram that didn’t involve bros in Senor Frogs muscle tanks. I knew there had to be more. I will say, I am specifically talking about high school spring break. I’m sure Cancun is perfectly lovely at all other times of the year!
An Intro to Tulum
I heard a lot of hype surrounding Tulum… even though I wasn’t quite sure what that hype was about. I just knew it was pretty chill, had many cenotes and it was close-ish to the Cancun. Everyone says things like “Tulum isn’t what it used to be. It’s so built up now”. But not having a frame of reference for what it ‘used’ to be like, I was fine with it as I had nothing to compare it to. So I threw caution into the wind, picked an Airbnb in Tulum and it became so.
So basically, Tulum used to be a small fishing village that has tripled in the past ten years and has seen a hurricane of development. I would imagine that it would indeed be pretty jarring to see it now if you had visited ten years ago. The city has branded itself as an eco-chic destination where city dwellers come to unplug and soak up its eclectic, yet laid back, scene. I got sort of a hipsteresque, upscale bohemian vibe that has fused with Mayan culture but has taken cues from both LA and New York. When I think Mexican color palette, I think fun pops of bright colors expressed in creative ways. Tulum’s color theme was heavy on neutrals like white, cream and beige with an unexpected amount of dream catchers.
Where to Stay in Tulum
There essentially three zones you can stay in: ‘Tulum Pueblo’ (within the town), the beach strip or the Aldea Zama neighborhood. Staying within the town is great if you want to be in the heart of it as there are plenty of restaurants, bars, shops and whatever else you need. Accomodation rates here are the cheapest, however be prepared for a bit more noise as you’re in close proximity to places. I saw rooms as low as $30 USD so this is the best option if you’re on a budget. The beach is obviously more calm and is filled with upscale eco chic hotels and resorts. If you’re looking to treat yo’ self, this is the place to do it. Expect to drop around $300 a night along the beach. Aldea Zama is sort of a weird one. It’s sandwiched between the town and the beach. The entire neighborhood is undergoing development so there is a lot of construction during the day and is sort of a ghost town at night. It looks like a year ago there was nothing but jungle there and then all of a sudden someone was like ‘Hey! Let’s build an entire planned development with luxury condos and apartments!’. The AirBnb that we stayed at didn’t have construction near it so it was quiet but I recommend you check reviews to gauge noise levels. The place was kind of a steal at only $70 USD a night – it was a brand new luxury build that was modern, clean, had great amenities and a helpful staff. The downside is that the neighborhood isn’t really finished. Aside from a handful of restaurants and a convenience store, we were far away from everything. This neighborhood will completely transform within the next couple years and I’m sure rates will increase considerably as time goes on. It was really safe and chill so I liked it.
Getting Around Tulum
Personally I think the best way to get around Tulum is by bike. Most of the AirBnbs and hotels have bikes that you can rent and the whole town is bike friendly. Taxis are everywhere and the price is ‘zone based’. Taxi drivers should be able to show you their zone card – rates should be flat based on this. For example, going from the beach to town was always $150 MXN (roughly $8 USD) and going from the beach to Aldea Zama was always $100 MXN (roughly $5 USD). Whenever I am travelling, I always ask locals how much taxi rates are and I always confirm the rate before getting into the taxi. I didn’t have any issues with taxi drivers trying to raise the rate when I was already in the car in Tulum. Another option is a car rental. I think this would be a great option for a road trip down the Riviera Maya however, if you’re staying put in town for the most part it could be challenging. I noticed that it was hard to find parking in town and the hotels generally had very limited spaces (usually between 3-5 spaces). Personally, that would stress me out so I’m all about the bikes and taxis.
Adventuring In and Around Tulum
Cenotes are sinkholes made from collapsed limestone. They are made from underwater cave systems and most are filled with fresh water. Tulum is home to the Sac Actun System, the largest underwater cave system in the world. There are quite literally hundreds of cenotes in and around Tulum and thousands more in the Yucatan Peninsula. If there is anything you should know about me is that I’m obsessed with caves and my happy place is swimming. So a centote to me is the best Buy One Get One Free special on the planet!
It’s hard to say what the ‘best’ cenote is because it really depends what kind of experience you are looking for. Cenote Dos Ojos and Gran Cenote are probably the two most popular cenotes in the area. I opted to visit two cenotes that were a bit less crowded and would allow me to soak up the atmosphere a bit more.
Cenote San Actun was easily a highlight of my trip! You need to hire a guide to go inside of this cenote but it is well worth it. I only saw a handful of people the entire time visiting the cenote. There were only two others in my group and the guide gave us time to just chill, swim and enjoy our time in the cenote. It felt like we had the cenote to ourselves most of the time which was pretty amazing considering how crowded some cenotes get. The mouth of the cenote is pretty big and runs along a rock face but there are parts where the ceiling gets low and you have to mind your head from hitting the stalactites. This place was other worldly.
Cenote Nicte-Ha was the second cenote that I checked out. This one was for jumping into and just hanging out in the water. It did look like you could go into the cave but it was roped off. I visited during the middle of the day and it was pretty crowded at this time. I’d recommend hitting this one up earlier to avoid the crowds.
Sian Ka’an Biosphere
This place. Straight out of my dreams. It’s a biopshere reserve that’s been named a UNESCO World Heritage site and is the largest protected area in the Mexican Carribean. It has Mayan ruins, hiking, wildlife and boat rides through the lagoon. And for some reason, it wasn’t crowded despite if being only about a 25 minutes drive from Tulum.
After making your way through several ruins and an easy 20 minute hike, there is a small boat launch. This is where the magic begins. Nothing was very official looking – just some dudes standing around under some trees. A hired guide is mandatory for this part (about $40 USD per person) for a guide and the whole lagoon experience. As there weren’t many people, we had our own boat which was pretty cool. We boated through the lagoon and a couple of channels before coming across more Mayan ruins. This is where we jumped in a floated down a river for a good half hour – just us two. It was one of those incredible moments where you feel like you’re the only person on the planet.
There are so many places to snorkel in the area. I went to the Yal Ku Lagoon in Akumal off of a recommendation. It’s an enclosed lagoon that has areas for changing, snacking and can meet all of your snorkeling desires. You can take a collectivo to Akumal from Tulum and then a taxi to the lagoon. We were told it was a short ten minute walk and made the trek that ended up being about 35 minutes. In the rain. I would go with the taxi if faced with the decision again. I will say that I was pretty cold after about an hour of snorkeling because it was raining the whole time. I recommend going on a sunny day. Lolz.
Eating In Tulum: A Hurricane of Vegan Nom Noms
The one thing I will say about Tulum, is that it is a vegan paradise. There is no shortage of vegan cuisine here. Even the more conventional restaurants will have amazing vegan options. I had a few favorites. Starting wiiiith:
Raw Love Tulum was my absolute favorite. Most menu items are raw vegan, although they do have some cooked options. This was hands down the best acai bowl I had in Tulum, which is saying a lot considering that you can’t go 500 meters without hitting another acai bowl establishment.
Bejuco has the prettiest food hands down. This is a conventional restaurant but they have an entire vegan menu. It’s a bit pricer, but it’s a great night out. If there’s one nice meal you are going to have in Tulum – this should be it. E’erything was so gorgeous. The staff there was super friendly and the restaurant itself it awesome.
La Hoja Verde is another great vegetarian spot with plenty of vegan options and an amazing juice menu. The prices are really reasonable and the portions are more than enough. It’s a great casual spot in town right off the main strip.
Del Cielo is amazing for both vegan and non vegans alike. It’s a rad brunch place with amazing coffee. This place is always packed so show up early if you want a seat without waiting.
I can’t say enough positive things about Tulum. There are so many great places to see and more than enough things to do – An outdoor lovers paradise to say the least. I will say if you’re looking for a more authentic Mexican experience, I don’t think this city really hits the mark in that respect. I for one, will be coming back to get my advanced divers certification so I can do some cave diving and swimming with sharks.
Let me know if I missed anything amazing in the area that you’ve done so I can put it on my list next time!