Tulum Travel Guide: Things to Do, See & Eat

by Dottie

What are the best things to do in Tulum? Where is the best place to stay? Is Tulum safe? What is it like during COVID-19? My comprehensive Tulum travel guide dives into all the details.

I chose Tulum as the starting point of our 2020 Mexican adventure without knowing much about it. Sure, I had heard about the picturesque beaches and seen Google photos of the famous Mayan ruins, but that was about it.

If you plan to visit Mexico to truly experience the culture, Tulum probably isn’t the destination for you. Tulum largely caters to rich tourists and international jet-setters. It’s a place to sip $15 cocktails on the beach and be seen in your $200 bohemian-chic swimsuit cover-up; to get your perfect Instagram photo at a luxury eco-resort and dance to electronic music into the wee hours of the morning.

Still, unlike some tourist wastelands (cough, cough Cancún), Tulum manages to pull off the luxury beach destination vibe well. Tulum’s swanky beachside hotel zone has an eco-friendly, design-first ethos that I haven’t seen anywhere else. All of the hotels are creatively designed with a rustic, bohemian-chic aesthetic, and everything is made out of local and organic material. Exploring these spaces is a to-do in its own right, and partying at these venues feels like you’ve landed in a glamorous movie.

Mexican culture still exists, of course, but outside of Tulum’s pricey hotel zone. If you explore the town’s center, you’ll find the charms of Mexican culture — local markets, street stalls, stray animals trotting around the streets, and folk going about their day-to-day lives.

After spending two weeks in Tulum, I’ve put together a guide to share what I’ve learned and show you the best things to do.

Table of Contents

Click to jump directly to each section below.

Thing to do in Tulum: Playa Paraiso

Tulum Travel Tips

  • Always carry pesos. Credit cards are rarely accepted outside of Tulum’s swanky hotel zone. Scotiabank and Santander ATMs will be your best bet for getting money in town, and beware the ATMs by the beach — they are notorious for fraud and low withdrawal limits.
  • It’s good to know some basic Spanish or have Google Translate on hand.
  • Transportation can be tricky. If you stay in the town center and take cabs to the beach, taxi fare, at 200 pesos a pop, adds up quickly. We saw many people hitchhiking from town to the beach. Try a bike during the day, rent a car, or make sure to factor in transportation costs into your budget and cut corners elsewhere.
  • Pack at least one outfit to impress. People go to Tulum’s hotel zone to be seen. Expect fancy bohemian beach cover-ups, elegant two-pieces, and beautiful bikinis. I suggest you pack at least one nice ensemble to fit in!

Tulum During COVID-19

There is a clear absence of preventative measures for COVID-19. If this worries you, I would not recommend Tulum as a travel destination right now.

We’ve visited a few cities in Mexico so far, and everywhere handles COVID differently. In Oaxaca and Mexico City, for example, everyone wears a mask at all times, even if they are simply walking on the street. Bars and restaurants close at 10 PM. Our friends who visited Merida and Valladolid also observed a general adherence to mask-wearing.

In Tulum, it’s like COVID-19 doesn’t exist. Bars, nightclubs, restaurants, and beach clubs are all open, there is not a mask in sight, and no one practices social distancing. Sure, everything closes a little earlier compared to normal times, but you can still go out and enjoy nightlife until 1 AM. The only place where a mask seems to be mandatory is the supermarket. Really — if you wear a mask on the streets of Tulum, you will be the odd one out.

I’m not sure why Tulum is so relaxed when it comes to the virus, but my guess is that most of Tulum’s visitors are young and less fearful.

Another interesting observation — there are currently a lot of long-distance couples barred from traveling to each other’s countries that are using Tulum as a meeting point to be together. We met at least three couples doing this during our two weeks, and I bet there are many more.

Costs & Budgeting

Tulum is one of the most expensive destinations in Mexico. It certainly is not “cheap.”

If money is an object, know that prices vary drastically based on what area you are in. Tulum’s swanky hotel zone spanning Tulum Beach caters almost exclusively to tourists, and prices are comparable to San Francisco, NYC, and LA. If keeping expenses low is a priority, I would opt to stay, eat, and play in Tulum’s center and avoid partying in the hotel zone at night. Those weekend cocktails at fancy beach clubs really started to take a toll on our wallets.

Of course, there are still ways to enjoy Tulum Beach without the sky-high price tag! During the day, most beach clubs have a 300-500 peso ($15-$25 USD) minimum spend limit so you can lounge and enjoy the views without breaking the bank. For cheap tacos and free access to the beach, Taqueria La Eufemia is the best (and maybe the only) choice in the hotel zone.

More up north, Playa Paraiso is a public beach that you can enjoy free of charge, but you’ll have to bring your own beach gear.

Layout of Tulum & Where to Stay

Tulum travel guide: Where to stay in Tulum — Tulum neighborhood map
Source: Getting Stamped

There are three main areas in Tulum to be aware of as a tourist. Tulum Pueblo, or Tulum Town, the hotel zone on Tulum Beach, and the public beach and Tulum ruins area.

If you want to feel like you’re actually in Mexico and save a few bucks…Make Tulum Town your home base. (You will, however, have to take a 10-25 minute, 200-peso cab ride depending on which stretch of beach you go to.)

Looking for swanky beach parties, posh restaurants, high-end boutiques, and money is no object? Try one of the accommodations at the hotel zone on Tulum Beach.

Interested in being close to the beach but not in breaking the bank? Try a stay on the public beach. You’ll also be a hop and a skip away from the Tulum ruins.

Things to Do in Tulum

Take a Street Art Tour in Tulum Town

There is amazing street art all over Tulum Town that you definitely don’t want to miss. You can take a photo tour of Tulum’s best murals and access the exact location of each in my blog photo tour of Tulum street art.

Best things to do in Tulum: Street art tour

Visit the Tulum Ruins

If you’ve Googled Tulum, you’ve likely seen some variation of the image below—cliffside Mayan ruins, white sands, and pristine Caribbean waters. We actually did not make it to the ruins 😂, but everyone says they are a must-do.

You can visit the Tulum ruins from 8am-5pm, and cost of entry is 80 pesos (though it’s rumored that you’ll have to pay extra for photography equipment). Expert Vagabond has a handy guide for visiting the Tulum ruins that you can check out for more details.

Best things to do in Tulum: Tulum ruins
Source: Senator Riviera Cancun Resort

Day Parties & Nightlife

Bars in Tulum Centro

  • Batey. Our favorite bar in Tulum’s center features live music acts every night and is always packed to the brim! They even have a Volkswagon Beetle that they’ve repurposed to press fresh juice from sugar canes.
  • Ki’Bok. This second-floor bar is located right next Batey, and is a casual place for a few drinks and meeting some new friends.
  • Nana Rooftop Bar. Located on the rooftop of Hotel Maka, Nana is a chic cocktail lounge that we found purely by luck. It is a great place to start a Friday or Saturday night.

The Places to Party on the Weekends

On the weekends, there are generally agreed-upon places where locals and tourists alike go party. Keep in mind that most of these are located in the hotel zone and thus come with steep entry fees and cocktail prices.

  • Thursday Casa Jaguar
  • Friday — Gitano (need a reservation)
  • Saturday night — Papaya Playa Project (600 peso — $30 USD — cover charge and get there early, like 8-9 PM)
  • Sunday day — BOA Tulum

Explore the Many Hotels & Clubs on the Beach

Where We Went

Tulum Travel Guide: Things to do in Tulum: Taboo Day Beach Club
Taboo beach club.
  • Dos Ceibas. A quiet eco-resort perfect for a day of reading, sipping cocktails, and relaxing on the beach.
  • Taqueria La Eufemia. A casual taco restaurant and free beach club with cheap beer and a more laid-back vibe than anywhere else we went on Tulum Beach
  • Taboo. On Saturdays, Taboo has a big day party that you absolutely need a reservation to get into. Call ahead of time, but keep in mind that renting a cabana or beach chairs might run you a couple hundred dollars.
  • Tekio. A fun bar on Playa Paraiso, the free public beach north of the hotel zone. Cocktails are pricey, but the location and vibe can’t be beat. The staff is very sweet too!

Recommendations From Ivy, Our Local Guide, and Other Friends in Tulum

  • Vagalume
  • Habitas
  • Nomade
  • Kanan Hotel & Spa
  • Mia Tulum
  • Caleta Tankah

Swim & Dive in Cenotes

There are over 6000 cenotes in the Yucatan, and many in and around Tulum. We went to Dos Ojos cenote, which is 25 minutes from town and features incredible cave diving and snorkeling.

2TravelDads has a comprehensive list of cenotes near Tulum that you can check out to help plan your cenote adventure.

Take a Day Trip

The Yucatan is famed all over Mexico (and the world, really) for its beaches, cenotes, ancient Mayan ruins, and quaint towns and cities. We went straight on to Oaxaca after Tulum, but if we had time we would have tried to visit the following:

  • Bacalar Lagoon, for pristine turquoise waters and Instagrammable hammocks and swings right in the lake
  • Akumel, for a beach paradise and swimming with sea turtles
  • Isla Holbox, for island life, boat trips, and swimming with whale sharks
  • Chichén Itzá, a Mayan pyramid that is one of the New Seven Wonders of the World
  • Valladolid & Mérida, for Mexican culture and charm
  • Uxmal, for Mayan ruins

What to Eat in Tulum

Like elsewhere in Mexico, food in Tulum is delicious and has infinite variety. During our stay, we had incredible seafood, tacos, soups, and other Mexican favorites.

The cool thing about Tulum is that cooks flock in from all over Mexico to start restaurants and bring the diverse flavors of their hometown with them. In our two weeks here, we met cooks from Chihuahua, Pachuca, Sonora, Sinaloa, and more—you’ll truly get a little taste of everything.

You can check out my full list of food recommendations in my Tulum restaurant and street food guide.

Is Tulum Safe?

Though we generally felt safe during our time in Tulum, there have been many instances of violence just in the last month. Coinciding with the explosion of tourism, the cartels have been fighting for lucrative drug territory and leaving a bloody trail in their path. Drugs are ubiquitous in Tulum, and chirps of “Cocaína? Marijuana?” follow you everywhere you go.

“If you purchase from a dealer, you are more than likely supporting one of the most deadly drug wars in the world, attracting more and more violence to the area.”

The Dark Side of Tulum

As Luis, a new friend from Mexico City put it, elsewhere in Mexico the cartels sell large amounts of drugs for cheap, while in Tulum they can charge wealthy tourists American prices without having to go through the trouble of trafficking and importing the money back to Mexico.

On Halloween 2020, there was a shooting at a 500-person beach party at Vagalume, a swanky beach club and hotel. In October 2020, there was a murder at I Scream Bar in the hotel zone. We’ve also heard of shootings at popular tourist bar Batey, which we went to three times during our stay.

Assuming the Mexican government does not want to scare tourists away, I did not come across these bits of news during my research and largely heard of them via word-of-mouth.

Should this stop you from going to Tulum? That’s up to you. There is a heavy police and military presence in Tulum in an effort to control the violence (which mostly seems to be between cartels and not targeted at random tourists). Still, you could potentially get unlucky. We were seriously considering the Halloween Party at Vagalume, and I’m so happy that we ultimately did not go.

Despite all this, we had a great time during our stay — just be aware of your surroundings and avoid buying drugs and fueling the fires of the drug cartels.

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