Tulum is a backpacker’s Mecca on its way to being turned into a Cancun or a Playa del Carmen. In other words, ruined. Luckily for us, in its current state it offers the perfect blend of off-the-beaten-track-ness with all the comforts you would hope for in a town aiming itself at young tourists. There are essentially two Tulums, the town, full of backpackers, and the resort, full of holidaymakers. Sticking to the former, we were able to have a jam packed few days, and would have done much more if it wasn’t for the pesky rainstorms that did their best to ruin our afternoons. Here are our recommendations:
As with all of the Yucatan, Tulum is well connected by the ADO bus network. You can get there direct from any of the towns in the region on the ADO buses – it’s always cheaper to get the compra anticipada (advanced rate) a few days in advance at the bus station rather than buying on the day. As things stood, we came from Playa del Carmen so we got a collectivo (a shared van), which cost us 45 pesos instead of the 50 on the bus. What a winner.
Tulum is built on a main road, with collectivos running in both directions pretty much constantly from about 7.30am. They are the best way of getting anywhere and, despite their less than transparent pricing structure, fairly reasonable. Yes it is annoying paying twice as much as the locals do, but unless you fancy arguing in Spanish then, well, tough.
Tulum also isn’t that big. If you just want to go to the near surrounding areas, renting a bike is a decent enough option, which costs about MXP $60 for a full day. You can walk anywhere in the town itself too.
Tulum is absolutely awash with hostels. We Googled and stayed at the highest-rated, which was called Mama’s Home – the best Hostel in North America according to TripAdvisor! It was pretty damn good – made more special by the breakfasts (below), which were different but equally amazing every day, and José and his staff, who couldn’t have been more helpful if they tried. Our only gripe was that it lacked a bit of a party vibe as everything shut down at 11, although this wasn’t helped by the weather forcing all the planned evening entertainment to be cancelled. Other options included Xolo round the corner from Mama’s, where our friends stayed. They had an excellent restaurant and a bar, which Mama’s lacked, but there were no lockers in the dorms.
There is absolutely shedloads to do around Tulum. As I’ve mentioned, we were quite unlucky with the weather so didn’t get chance to do everything, but including recommendations from friends, here’s some options:
- The Tulum ruins (Las Ruinas – even I managed that Spanish) are pretty special. While the site is not as big as Chichen Itza, its spectacular location on the cliffs overlooking the sea more than makes up or it. It’s MXP $65 to get in, plus about MXP $20 per person each way in a collectivo. If you go before 8am or after 4.30 pm, they will charge you sunrise/sunset prices, which are about four times as expensive! Keep your eye out for the army of lizards patrolling the place.
- Cenotes – like the rest of the Yucatan the place is full of them, all a little bit different from one another. Notable ones are Gran Cenote, one of the biggest in the region, where you can see baby turtles; Dos Ojos with some pretty intense cave diving; and Casa Cenote, where the sea meets the fresh water table right by a beautiful beach. They normally cost between MXP $100-150 to get in, plus snorkel rental if you don’t have your own (most hostels rent them for a LOT cheaper than the cenotes).
- The beach – Tulum is on the Caribbean coast. You don’t have to be a genius to realise that the beaches will probably be quite nice. Unfortunately, a lot of the beach has been (for want of a better word) shotgunned by the big hotels, but there is still plenty of public sand left. We found the best place to access it was from the northern end, by the ruins, then just wander south until we found a spot.
- Akumal – Akumal is one of the few places in the world where you can pretty much guarantee seeing wild turtles swimming just off the coast. While it was amazing to see them, it was also kind of ruined by the local sales people trying to get you to part with your cash. They will assure you that you need a life jacket, a guide and pretty much anything else they can sell you. They will warn you that it is a federal offence to swim there without a life jacket – it is not. One man even got quite aggressive with us in the water and actively blocked us from getting near a turtle, ostensibly because we had no life jacket, but actually because we hadn’t paid to go on his tour. My advice would be to get there really early on, before the hawkers start. Not only do you get to swim without the crowds and the guides pissing you off, but the turtles are much more active early on anyway. A win-win.
- Coba – This was on our planned list but got rained off. About an hour away in a collectivo, Coba is a Mayan ruin site in the middle of the jungle. You can climb the pyramid there (unlike in Tulum or Chichen Itza) and the view over the rainforest canopy is meant to be stunning.
Food & Drink
Because of the huge influx of backpackers, there are hundreds of restaurants to choose from in Tulum. As usual TripAdvisor can do you more favours than we can, but a few favourites were:
- El Pollo Bronco – a chicken restaurant on the main street. Half a chicken, wraps, rice, salsa, onions, pickled cabbage and guacamole was less then MXP $100. I challenge you to walk past it and not go in, it smells so damn good.
- Antojitos Mexicana – on a side road just to the south of the ADO bus terminal, this authentic Mexican cantina had a massive menu. The torta Cubana – essentially a sandwich with whatever they can find in it – was utterly enormous and amazing. It cost MXP $60 and nearly floored me but it was so worth it.
- Xolo Hostel – already mentioned it, but the fish tacos here are worth another shout out.
- Rong Hau Comida China – Ok this was a bit naughty, but someone in our hostel mentioned Chinese food and we just couldn’t resist. It’s on the main street opposite an Oxxo mini-supermarket. It is dirt cheap – MXP $105 for both of us, with a drink and an extra spring roll – and the portions were massive. The only slight problem is that nothing is labelled and nobody there speaks English, so there was a fair bit of pointing and hoping going on, but it absolutely hit the spot after 2 weeks of tacos and burritos.