How To Do Tulum Right
Ah, Tulum. Where to begin? Mexico is not new to American tourists, with a little under 7 million visiting the country in 2015 alone. We’ve already conquered Cancun and Riviera Maya with our high-rise condo’s and bus tours fully equipped with cliché photos of turtles and caves plastered on their sides. We’ve slowly been taking over the Yucatan Peninsula for years, and we’re always looking for the next best thing for our Spring Breaks and summer vacations. Tulum used to be a secret amongst locals, a fisherman village off the beaten path that boasted gypsies and traveling hippies from around the world. These early visitors understood the beauty of the town, with its pristine beaches, abundant catch, and diverse ecosystems.
A little less than 20 years ago, the town was basically sustained on fishing. The Cenotes (or underground caves) supplied water for the small town. It is even said many years ago, Pablo Escobar built one of his many vacation homes deep into the beach strip and built underground tunnels to a major city in order to supply electricity. Now, Tulum has quickly grown, at a rate of 11.4% in 2015, which is the fastest growth rate out of any city in Mexico right now. It was also ranked the number one destination by Trip Advisor in 2016. Where you would first only see fisherman huts, there are boutiques from L.A. to New York and restaurants charging NYC comparable prices. Needless to say, it’s quickly changing. Thats why I felt my boyfriend and I were lucky to have visited this place right on its cusp of reaching international recognition. Who knows where it will be in the next five years, even the next two. If you’re going to visit Tulum, do it soon! Prices are already rising quickly, and tourism is becoming rampant. The ecosystem is in a fragile state.
We took a private tour with an amazing guy named Nick from Avatar Adventures (if you do any tour in Mexico, definitely hit him up), and he really gave us a sense of the thriving and diverse ecosystems there. He took us to visit the neighboring town of Akumal (just 15 minutes from Tulum by Taxi) where we swam in a beautiful reef and got to see all these amazing creatures from turtles to barracuda’s. What we noticed immediately was the amount of people in the water, “I once saw a guy humping a sea turtle to get a picture”, Nick tells us. Stuff like that is sad and gross, because our irresponsible tourism is disrupting longstanding ecosystems that have been in symbiosis for years. The next place we visited was Sac Actun, or “white cave” in Mayan. This was one of many cenote’s – Tulum has second largest system of underground caves in the world. Nick noted how a lot of these cenote’s, which were considered holy by Mayans, were being polluted by heavy tourism. These cenote’s provide water for the entire town and locals have to drink and bathe with that water. It’s sad to think that we’re coming in to this city and demanding perfect running water at our hotels, constant access to wifi, and steady electricity. When you read some of the reviews for the hotels, the complaints are so first world it makes you cringe. If you want to learn more about Tulum’s water in specific, I recommend watching this short 30 minute documentary called “Shades of Blue” .
So if you really want to get an authentic experience of Tulum, you have to accept the nature of the town. This will only lead you to respect and appreciate the different ecosystems, making your experience even more enjoyable. Now here’s your guide on how my boyfriend and I did Tulum, so you can also do it right! P.S. All my photos are unedited.
Dates: Mid April 2016
What To Bring:
- Tons of sunscreen – we ran out of our one giant bottle in 2 days! Bring tons. They’re expensive at the store in town since they are imported.
- Tons of bug spray – bugs are not a joke in Tulum. Our hotel gave us some, but we used two more bottles.
- Sneakers (ugly ones)– you’ll need these to ride bikes, and to go to some of the sites. There’s a lot of dirt and sand, so bring ones you’re ready to mess up.
- Clothes you can ride a bike in
- Water bottles – buy some big ones from town and keep them. Our hotel kept giving us small bottles or forgetting so we just ended up buying a ton.
- Snacks – get these from town too! Most hotels don’t have snacks or room service, so this is key for a fatty like me.
- Pesos/Cash – ATM fees are INSANE out there so definitely bring extra with you. Do half in half. Almost everywhere accepts U.S. dollars.
- Flash light – don’t waste your phone battery with your flashlight, instead bring a baby one or two. Our hotel key had a flashlight in it, but we needed something more serious for when we were riding our bikes around at night, because it got completely pitch black.
- A straw or bucket hat – the sun is STRONG. So make sure you’re protecting yourself.
What To Know
- You will have to tip EVERYONE. This includes your taxi drivers, servers, and anyone as much as serving you water. It’s customary and appreciated. Typically between 10-15%, so be prepared to dish it up.
- Do not flush anything into the toilet, it’s not appreciated and the systems are very delicate.
- The beach is by far the best part of Tulum, so make sure to spend extra time just lounging on the beach, eating, playing in the water, listening to music, reading a book, or just rolling around with bae.
- Pick up some common Spanish phrases before going, it will help you on your adventures and will be easier when communicating with locals, taxi drivers and staff at the hotel.
- Scorpions: they don’t f*ck around and they just show up everywhere from your hotel room, to restaurants, to the spa. The most intense/hilarious part of our trip was when Bae killed two scorpions in our hotel room. I went to use the bathroom and in the corner of my eye I noticed a scorpion hanging one to one of our drapes. I obviously screamed/bugged out and had to wait for Bae to come to the rescue. It gets better: he goes, “don’t freak out babe, but there are two of them.” *Freaks out*, *dies inside*. There was one by our closet too. This is when we had to get creative. We had a small glass that had a paper cover on top of it. The plan was to smack the scorpion into the glass, cover the top, and throw it out the window. So he goes in with the glass and scorpion #1 doesn’t budge. On to plan B. Bae puts on his Huaraches, grabs his Nike slides (he’s a Nike whore), and decides he’s going to smack scorpion #1 off the curtain and then squash it. He goes in with the slide, the scorpion literally HISSES at him. It gets ready to fight by putting up it’s stingers and aiming its claws at him, ready for battle. What was I doing this whole time? Curled up in bed, completely disabled, simultaneously cringing and directing bae. Scorpion #1 falls to the ground and the Bae SMASHES it with his feet. I heard the crunch. On to Scorpion #2. Bae uses the same strategy and squashes it too. Then he scoops it into this deep candle bowl we had that was filled with sand. Then he throws them out the window. Possibly the sexiest act of heroism I’ve ever witnessed with my own two eyes.
Where We Stayed:
The Nomade Tulum. This hotel was beautiful, authentic and in the perfect location. It is owned by the same people as Be Tulum, so there’s already a bit of an established name there. What I love about this hotel is that it’s located much further inland, almost at the complete end of the strip of hotels on the beach. The beach ends up being much more spacious and secluded because of that. The staff were wonderful, and the food was absolutely amazing. You need to eat at the fish market restaurant on the beach, La Popular, where they catch fresh fish ranging from prawns to snapper and even octopus, everyday. We didn’t get to try Macondo, their holistic cuisine restaurant, but many of the guests raved about it. The great thing about this hotel is that it’s also new, so it’s not busy. The several beach beds and hammocks were a dream. The beach is the most beautiful one I’ve ever personally visited.
One of the views from our window.
Our room: the “Jungle Suite”. I highly recommend this room to anyone that chooses this hotel.
Bae enjoying his piña colada 🙂
The stair case to our room, where my boyfriend killed two scorpions! Hahaha, he is amazing.
The breakfast was amazing. You can get eggs any style. I recommend the Mexican style scrambled eggs or the huevos rancheros!
The hotel had free bikes, which was what we used to get around everywhere! A must do in Tulum
One of several beach beds, this one had no shade, but we took up two beds: one where we could tan, and one directly behind with shade 🙂
La Popular, the fish market on the beach.
Where We Ate & Drank:
Tulum is a perfect city for a foodie or anyone who enjoys healthy eating. Everything is so fresh and cooked in such a healthy way that you feel amazing by the end of your trip. From fresh fish and veggies to dairy free ice-cream, what you eat will truly give you a window to Tulum’s culture. Eat everything!
La Popular: We literally ate her almost every day haha. We loved it so much. You must go!
Fresh grilled octopus with charred beats, corn, baby potatoes and sweet potatoes.
Ziggy’s on the beach: I liked this place because they had a pool table and cute swing chairs at the bar. The service was great and the tacos were delicious!
Casa Banana: This place was definitely more on the “posh” touristy side, but it was absolutely delicious. The chefs have an Argentinian flair, so you have to try their steak/meats. Their drinks were wonderful too, bae got a little tipsy off of the mojito’s because he liked them so much.
Ceviche in Tulum Town: I don’t remember the name of this place because were taken by our buddy Nick at the end of our Akumal and Sac Actun tour, but Tulum town has a bunch of places that are good for Ceviche, and horchata! El Camello Junior is a favorite among locals and so is Chamico’s.
Agua Frescas! Aka popsicles. Mmmmm so good. I had a coconut one and a mango one. Perfect for the weather.
Mi Tierra: Road side tacos and drinks. These guys knew what they were doing!
Gluten and Dairy Free Ice-cream: Sounds gross right? But it was amazing. We went to this adorable place on the strip that had used sliced coke bottles as ice-cream cones and had hammocks to chill in. All under this beautiful green lighting. The decor was delightful.
Hartwood: I took bae here for his birthday based on raving reviews. It was definitely a “trendy” restaurant with a table of “chic” girls from L.A. ordering drinks like it was a bar back home. The line here is ridiculous. But here’s a tip: e-mail them before going to ask for a reservation! It says on the website that you can’t do that, but I did and got the reservation. It works. The food and vibe were great. The drinks were excellent too. I didn’t take that many photos of all the dishes, but you’ll get the point!
Where We Relaxed:
Mayan Clay Spa: Our hotel did have a spa right next door called Yaan Wellness. If you have the bread, totally go there (it looked gorgeous), but the prices were pretty insane. If you want an amazing, authentic experience that isn’t going to break the bank, I highly recommend Mayan Clay Spa. The owner is from New Zealand and came many years ago to Tulum to find the best products for skin. She went to several cenote’s and uncovered this specific clay that she said she saw immediate positive results for her skin and overall health. The massage was in a cute secluded part of the jungle, up the stairs. We got a 90 minute couples massage and they literally covered us head to toe in clay. After the shower, I can safely say we were both glowing. I even bought some clay to take home with me. A MUST DO.
Where We Shopped:
La Llorona: This is the best shop on the Tulum strip. There’s two stories, with the top having tons of cool antiques and old Mexican film posters (probably my favorite thing in there). The main floor has shoes, bags, jewelry, decorations and much more. We ended up only getting things from here. Bae got me these beautiful gold earrings from there!
Random shops along the road! You’ll see tons of shops as you ride your bike along the strip, both on the side of the beach and the restaurants. You can get very expensive things to random knick knacks. We heard great things about the Perfumeria at Coqui Coqui, but didn’t make it there.
Where We Adventured:
Coba Ruins & Cenote Multun-Ha: If you visit any ruins while in Tulum, make it Coba. The other two main ruins are the Tulum Ruins and Chichen Itza. The unique thing about Coba is that it’s the only ruin that you can climb to the top of and it’s about 40 minutes from Tulum by Taxi. I would recommend hiring a taxi to take you back and forth. It will cost you $100 for the day. From the top of the ruins, you have one of the most spectacular views of the entire jungle. You can’t beat it. I also recommend renting bikes for 50 pesos when you get to the Coba park. No need to pay for a guide, just ride around on your bike and climb to the top. There are also a lot of cenotes near Coba. The one we chose to go to was Multun Ha. It was STUNNING and not crowded at all! You walk down a set of windy stairs and you enter a beautiful cave. Definitely jump in the water, it’s so pure – but it’s also cold! Worth it though.
The amazing view from the top
Si’an Kaan Biosphere: This was such a hilarious adventure because bae and I wanted to save money. Tours typically range from $125-$180 per PERSON. Which is insane, so we decided to venture and see this place on our own. This is an Unesco World Heritage site, filled will all kinds of wildlife and we really didn’t want to miss it. First thing to note is that the biosphere is MASSIVE. If you want to see the entire thing, then you’ll have to take one of those expensive tours. If you just want to ride on the lagoon, which is an incredible experience and frankly all you really need to do, then I would recommend taking a taxi to the nearest fisherman stop, and pay one of them to take you for a ride on their boat around the lagoon. Since our hotel was just 5 minutes biking distance to the entrance of the biosphere (it’s at the very end of the Tulum strip) we decided to bike. We were told that it would only be a 30 minute bike ride until we saw a fisherman stop where we could get on a boat. We ended up riding our bikes for over an hour in the SCORCHING heat. It was so funny because we ended up stumbling across two fisherman sitting alone on the side of the road and they ended up giving us an incredible tour of the lagoon for just $40 a person. On our bike ride we saw iguanas, hawks, pelicans and many more cool creatures. The road is very dusty and rough so it was a challenge coming back into town, but luckily we had massages scheduled for when we got back – well deserved! Moral of the story: don’t ride your bike to the biosphere.
Our fearless captain, Pedro!
A manatee!! Pedro knew exactly where to go in the lagoon to find them. It was amazing.
The only Mayan ruin in the entire lagoon.
Where the ocean meets the lagoon. One of the few places in the world where that happens- and Pelicans!
A gorgeous and majestic Crane!
Akumal – Snorkeling With Sea Turtles: This was probably our favorite experience of the entire trip. I took bae for his birthday because he had never been snorkeling before. The reef was so beautiful and our guide, Nick, made it the perfect experience. We got to Akumal by 9:15 and were in the water by 9:30. By then, many people had entered the water, but Nick took us on his own route. We were snorkeling for about an hour and the reef was something out of a movie. The temperature of the water was perfect. We saw everything from baby sea turtles to sea urchins and even a barracuda! This place is truly magical, you must visit.
A beautiful sea turtle, at mature age. They feed on the grass at the bottom of the ocean. This one got really close to me, and when it comes up to the surface to get air, it might be the cutest sight in the entire world.
A squad of squid!
Barracuda- who contrary to popular belief, are not vicious!
Cenote Sac Actun: This means “White Cave” in Mayan. This is the second largest underwater cave system in the world, coming in at 230 kilometers in length. Combined with Dos Ojos, it’s the largest underwater cave system in Mexico. Nick told us so many interesting stories about how Mayans would sacrifice the virgins of their villages in the cenotes, as well as animals and winners of sports games. Bae kept joking he was going to sacrifice me at the end of the tour, hahaha. He also told us that this is the only underwater cave system, with WATER. Most other systems are totally dry, and this is unique to the Yucatan peninsula. The limestone drippings have created these beautiful formations coming from the top of the system and sometimes going deep into the water. You’ll see bats flying around everywhere. We snorkeled in the cenote with a flashlight and then came to an opening where a singular tree was growing out the middle and connecting with the world outside. It was stunning. In Mayan culture, they believed this symboled where the phallus met the vagina and there was “life” – i.e. fertility.
Where the tree met the earth.
Ant bumped his head on one of the limestone drippings hahaha
Our highly flattering “we went to Mexico” tourist pic inside a cenote.
And a few extra photos, just for your enjoyment 🙂
And that’s it. I hope this guide helps you and gives you insight into the beautiful city of Tulum 🙂