This Tulum travel guide is for “unhipsters” who want to eat real Mexican food, be active, not pay American prices and explore beyond the top attractions.
We Can’t All Be Instafamous
If we had a dollar for every wannabe instafamous stylista we saw in Tulum, maybe we would’ve frequented the American-plus-priced hotels, bars, and restaurants that just about every other Tulum travel guide gushes is “an absolute must,” “to die for,” or “unbearably chic.” But we don’t, so we didn’t.
We’ve also long given up on dreams of being the hippest of the hipsters, especially in a haven like Tulum, where the best from L.A. to New York, and Melbourne to London come to show up and show out.
You could say we’re “unhipster.”
If you’re a fellow unhipster who wants to spend pesos instead of dollars and eat Mexican food instead of “inspired fusion,” this practical and adventurous Tulum travel guide is for you.
Unstylish but Practical Tulum Travel Guide Outline
Click any link below to jump directly to the section you’re most interested in:
- Where to Stay
- Where to Exercise
- What to Pack
- The Best Mexican Food
- The Best Beaches
- Day Trips
- Tulum Ruins and Cenotes
- Downloadable Map
“Um… Isn’t that where the staff lives?”
Where to Stay in Tulum
By all means, stay on the beach if you’re on your only holiday of the year and have money to burn. But if you’re a budget and/or adventure traveler like us, you’re going to want to stay in Tulum town.
Despite the “awe-inspiring” street art that bloggers wear out their camera buttons snapping at, the town’s not particularly beautiful or “wander-ful.” But it’s small, relaxed, easy to get around, friendly, and cheap.
Look to stay anywhere in the green-shaded area of the map below. The most convenient location is towards the eastern edge of this area, which is closest to the Chedraui supermarket and the roads to the beach, but really anywhere is fine, especially if you have a bike (which you absolutely should.)
Tip: When looking for a place to stay in Tulum, ask them if they have bikes, and if not ask if they could throw one in if you stay there.
We rented a studio apartment at Bin Wayak Apartments for about $33 USD a night. It was perfect for us: it had a well-equipped kitchen, a couple of bikes, friendly owners who gave us a bunch of tips, a laundromat next door that cost us $3 USD to wash 4.5 kilograms of clothes, a quiet street, and AC. If that sounds good to you, book your own studio directly through their website, or on Airbnb. If you go the Airbnb route and haven’t used it before, book through our link here to save $45 for yourself and reward us for this (hopefully) helpful post by earning us $25 credit at the same time.
“But do they have organic free trade smoothie bars?”
Where to Exercise in Tulum
Tulum has air-conditioned spin classes and a selfie-haven beach Jungle Gym, but they cost more than we spent on a night’s accommodation. Here are some free and almost-free local alternatives to preserve your beach body while in Tulum:
- Spartans Community. Trainer David leads functional movement workouts that’ll leave you wringing your shirt out with sweat. They cost only 30 pesos and are every hour from 7 to 11 a.m. and 6 to 9 p.m. Check out their Facebook page for more info and just drop in when interested.
- Fitclub Community. Classes here are more expensive (70 pesos) than Spartan Community, but Fitclub Community’s classes use more CrossFit-style weights and kettlebells. Here’s their Facebook page.
- The “pirate” beach workout area. If you want to workout on the beach without paying 400 pesos for the Jungle Gym further down the beach, check out this workout area. It’s just up the beach from the Mezzanine Hotel and restaurant (see map) and has barbells, chin-up bars, and tires for flipping. And it’s free.
“But I can still bring my designer muumuu, right?”
What to Pack for Tulum
You’re gonna be wearing basically nothing the whole time, so there’s no need for you to take more than a carry-on. To get extremely light, check out Chris’ tried-and-true minimalist packing list. Aside from what’s on his list, here are other Tulum-specific items we recommend:
- Goggles. For swimming in the cenotes. They’re way lighter to pack than snorkels and there aren’t too many fish to see so goggles do just fine.
- Biodegradable bug spray. The bugs in the jungles around Tulum (where the cenotes are) can be bad. To protect yourself while protecting the environment, use biodegradable natural bug spray. You’ll get cheaper and better stuff buying it beforehand. This one is the best we found and comes in an airplane carry-on-able size. If you buy it on Amazon, you not only get the best price, but you reward us a tiny bit by earning us a commission for getting you to click the link.
- A water bottle. In case you haven’t heard, it’s hot in Tulum. You’re going to sweat and be thirsty and beer is not always the best choice.
- An umbrella. You won’t need this during the day since you’ll be wearing your bathing suit all the time, but in the evening it can sometimes pour so it’s handy to have an umbrella to walk around town.
“Are the chefs Cordon Bleu trained, though?”
The Best Mexican Food in Tulum
Just about every blog we read about where to eat in Tulum said, “You haven’t been to Tulum until you’ve eaten at Hartwood [an acclaimed restaurant run by a couple of New Yorkers.]”
Guess we “never went to Tulum” then.
Sure, it’s nice to splurge every once in a while, but a $100 meal at Hartwood buys A LOT of tacos (200 or so). And call us “loco” but we came to Mexico to eat Mexican food.
Normally when we travel in Latin America we use our Spanish skills to interview locals and unearth their favorite food spots that most tourists miss, but Tulum is so small and saturated with tourists that everything’s been dug up already. Even so, while the restaurants we recommend below are already TripAdvisor favorites too, they’re still worthy of your belly:
The Best Tacos Al Pastor
Antojitos la Chiapaneca gets most of the ink when it comes to shawarma spit-grilled al pastor tacos. They deserve it, especially since they only cost 8 pesos ($0.40 USD) each.
But don’t go there until you’ve been to El Carboncito first.
The chefs at El Carboncito actually use coal to cook its shawarma meat then fry the meat shavings for extra crisp. And while 65 pesos for an order of al pastor sounds more expensive than La Chiapaneca, Chris managed to make 8 more generously meat-filled tacos from that order, so it may even be cheaper.
The Best Seafood in Tulum
Our Tulum travel guide wouldn’t be complete if we didn’t talk about the seafood. If you’re a pescatarian or are just tired of tacos al pastor, you’re in luck. El Camello Jr. and La Barracuda are only a couple blocks from each other and in a fierce battle for the title the best seafood in town. The winner is us, the eaters.
For ceviche, El Camello Jr. is slightly better (both in value and taste) but Barracuda is equally worth a dine for their shrimp and octopus nachos (145 pesos / 7.25 USD) and specialty ticin-xic fish—a filet of fish covered in a smokey tomato achiote sauce, veggies, cheese, shrimp, and octopus, then wrapped in aluminum foil and grilled (190 pesos / 9.5 USD).
Go for the Liquido
We’re not sure how Liquido y Solido’s food is, but their smoothies are awesome. It’s where Chris had his favorite smoothie in all of Mexico: an avocado, vanilla, cinnamon treat. It was so good and such a good deal (35 pesos / 1.75 USD) that he went there the next day too.
Taco Lovers’ Favorite, Not Ours
We practically had to protect ourself from spraying drool when hearing the Mexicans we asked praise Taqueria Honorio. They told us you have to go early to get them fresh.
Since one of us (Chris) doesn’t like eating breakfast and the other (Kim) isn’t a huge fan of eating meat in the morning, we didn’t follow their advice exactly and went around 1 p.m. Maybe that’s why we don’t drooling at the memory of the tacos like others do.
Finger Lickin’ Chicken
The coal-grilled chicken from El Pollo Bronco was as excellent as it is reputed to be. We shared half a chicken, fresh blended salsa so good you could eat it on its own, rice and tortillas for 80 pesos / 4 USD.
Good, but not Great
Here are some others places we ate at that we didn’t love, but wouldn’t turn down an invite to either:
- El Tocoqueto: At lunch, you pay 80 pesos for your choice of one of the meats or stews in the big pots from the kitchen with a side of rice (Chris had chicken in mole) plus a fresh-blended smoothie. (Get one with chaya, the local spinach.)
- Salad at home: On a few nights, we took advantage of our studio’s kitchen to make a big fresh salad. This prevented us from overdosing on fried meat and tortillas and was significantly cheaper than getting an overpriced and undersized salad at any vegetarian place in town. A couple nights we got take-out ceviche from El Camello and Barracuda to go with it.
- Campanella ice cream: They guy working there told us their coconut flavor was named one of the ten best ice creams in the world. Chris liked the cookies and cream better. Neither of us thought two small scoops for 60 pesos / 3 USD, was a great price.
- Doña Tina: The 100 peso cochinita pibil lunch dish we split wasn’t anything to write home about, so we won’t write any more to you about it either.
- Amor Burrito: It seems like this burrito place was helicoptered in from some yuppie enclave in California. There’s not a word of Spanish in the whole place, we never saw a single Mexican eating there, and the prices are US-level. The burritos are really tasty, though.
TIP: Wherever you eat, ask for “agua del filtro” or “agua del garrafón”—filtered water from the jug. Most places will give you a glass that’s free of cost to you, and free of the need to use another plastic bottle.
“Lie on the sand? Ew! Sand’s just glorified dirt.”
The Best Beaches in Tulum
Most of Tulum’s beaches are covered with king-sized beds and beach chairs for lounging, drinking a designer margarita, and choosing which filter to use for your Instagram story. You can pay big fees to use them or… you can sit and lie in the beach in the shade of a palm tree.
By Tulum’s Beach Zone
There are no huge empty stretches of beach near Tulum, but there are patches that are plenty big enough to relax on, both shaded and not. And remember that in Mexico all beaches are public, so you can spread out your beach towel wherever you want.
The biggest and widest empty beach areas are north of the “T” marked on the map below.
NOT Sian Ka’an
The “Secret Beach” in the Sian Ka’an reserve south of the main Tulum beach area is not worth the time and effort to get to, and definitely not the 35 pesos (1.80 USD) reserve entry fee.
The bike ride to get there is unpleasant. Even though it’s supposedly a “reserve” there is one private residence after another blocking any view of and access to the beach and the road is pothole filled and bumpy. And the ride’s not worth it either; The beach is no better than the ones in Tulum and largely covered in seaweed and trash.
See below, under Day Trips outside of Tulum.
Inexplicably, Eufemia is the only beach club in the heart of Tulum’s beach zone that seems to have realized it’s possible to profit by having lots of people who pay low prices for food and drink instead few people who pay high prices. Tacos are 20-30 pesos and 1.2 liter beers are a very reasonable 70 pesos (3.30 USD). Although it’s on most Tulum travel guide lists and is somewhat hipster, it’s definitely worth a visit.
With no other reasonably-priced and fun options on the beach, you’ll probably end up going to Eufemia more than once.
“Wait, There’s No Uber?!”
Biking Around Tulum
Even if you’re an unhipster, you should get yourself a fixie bike for your time in Tulum. The whole area is super flat, the roads around town are traffic-free, and the cenotes are extra inviting to jump into when you bike there.
As we mentioned above in the Where to Stay section, your best bet for getting a bike is by booking a place that includes bikes with the room. If for whatever reason that falls through and you need to rent bikes, we recommend Ola Bike Rentals. They’re the most professionally-run bike rental company in town, will rescue you and your bike in case a tire pops or something, and offer reasonable rates (130 pesos / $8 USD per day). We rented from them for three days and have zero complaints, which is all you can ask for from a bike rental place.
“Wait. Isn’t the rest of Mexico dangerous? And will I have reception?”
Day Trips Outside of Tulum
If you’re in Tulum for more than five days, spend one of them in Valladolid. Check out the local market, eat endless amounts of traditional Yucatecan food, swim in Cenote Zací in the center of town (free if you get something at their restaurant!), and enjoy wandering the colorful buildings.
You can even do your boutique shopping there for slightly cheaper. At one shop where Kim got a dress, she asked if they sold their stuff in Tulum too. The guy said, “Yeah, we have shops in Tulum, Merida, Playa del Carmen, and here in Valladolid, but the prices are different. Tulum’s the most expensive, then Playa, then Merida, and Valladolid is the cheapest.”
To get to Valladolid, catch the 9:10 a.m. bus from the ADO bus station in Tulum town (see map below). Return on the 5:30 p.m. bus from central Valladolid. It takes an hour and a half and costs 138 pesos (about $7 USD) each way.
The bike ride to Bahia Soliman isn’t ideal—it’s about 45 minutes of it is along the highway—but the road’s not that busy and the shoulders are wide. It was worth it for us.
We didn’t eat anything at Chamico’s (we couldn’t justify getting a ceviche that’s twice as expensive and half as big as at El Camello Jr. or Barracuda in town), but did get some coconuts (35 pesos each) and enjoyed hanging out on their hammocks.
Chamico’s beach was covered with sargassum seaweed and not inviting for a swim, but further up the bay are nicer beaches that are free from the current that brings in the seaweed
Be warned that the Google Maps’ directions to Chamico’s require you to carry your bike around a locked gate (see map) at one point. It’s not a big deal, but it’s worth being aware of so you don’t think “Oh shit, do we have to go all the way back to the highway and take the other route?” like we did.
The Coba ruins are about half way between Tulum and Valladolid. We didn’t go but, based on what reliable sources told us, we would if we were to go back to Tulum.
A tour guide who lives by Coba shared what he said is a little-known fact that the ruins re-open later in the evening, from 5-7 p.m. If you go then, nobody else is there and you can enjoy amazing sunset views from the top of the main pyramid. You should verify this claim beforehand.
Near the Coba ruins are also a few cenotes that the same guide and a couple other residents told us were particularly beautiful and less touristed.
The ideal itinerary would be to rent a car, check out the cenotes first thing in the morning, spend the day in Valladolid, then the ruins in the evening.
Without a car, you’d probably have to do Valladolid and Coba on separate days. There are colectivos (shared minivans that leave once full) and ADO buses between Coba and Tulum.
“This Tulum travel guide sucks because it doesn’t recommend the ruins or cenotes.”
The Tulum Ruins
We saw the Tulum ruins from the public beach half a kilometer away but didn’t bother going in, so we can’t tell you if they’re worth it or not. The enormous parking lots, tame “wildlife,” and hordes of guides trying to convince us to hire them or do a snorkeling tour too scared us off.
As mentioned in the Day Trips from Tulum section, if you’re into ruins we’d recommend the Coba ruins instead.
No Tulum travel guide is complete without mentioning the cenotes. You’ll probably be as overwhelmed as we were by the how many cenotes there are to choose from. We won’t pretend to say we visited them all, and every local we asked recommended different ones, so there is no surefire must-see cenote.
All we can say is that we visited the Cristal and Escondido cenotes (120 pesos / 6 USD combined). They were nice for a refreshing dip and some photos and there were only a few other couples there between 9:50 and 11:30 a.m. while we were there. Combined with our visit of Cenote Zací in Valladolid, that was enough cenotes for us.
If you’re keen and able to get farther from town, local tour guides recommended the cenotes by the Coba ruins and the ones outside of Valladolid. Apparently, they’re less overwhelmingly busy than the likes of Gran Cenote and Ojo Azul and equally impressive.
All the highlights we mentioned in this Tulum travel guide are located on this map. You can save it to your phone by following our simple instructions here.
You Want More Mexico?
Read our honest opinion of the place in our post on Playa del Carmen’s pros and cons if your thinking of heading that way.
And, if you’re tanned enough and thinking heading to Mexico City (which you absolutely should), you’ll find all sorts of great stuff on The Unconventional Route:
- A quick and dirty guide to Mexico City to get you started
- Friends’ and local experts’ tips on how to eat like a local in Mexico City
- Why you should get around Mexico City by bike, and how to do so
- A random, but helpful, collection of Mexico City travel tips we’ve compiled over many, many visits there
Last But Certainly Not Least
Don’t be selfish.
Share your thoughts, opinions, questions, reflections, or any other nonsense in the comments below.