Once upon a time, if you said you wanted to visit the gorgeous beaches of the Yucatan peninsula without all the fuss and spring-break parties of Cancún, people would point you to Tulum. Located ~130 km south (a 2 hour bus ride from the airport), Tulum was a sleepy seaside town that boasted azure beaches, white sands, and hilltop ruins from an ancient civilization. All these things are still there when we visited, but adjacent to them are now massive beachside resorts and pricey restaurants catering to tourists. There are still a couple of places for people like us travelling on a shoestring, but they take a bit of work to find. That being said, visiting Tulum is TOTALLY worth it for some of the most beautiful beaches we had ever seen. We’ve made some notes below that document our visit and might help you plan yours.
Interested in seeing the pictures of our stay? Click here!
Tulum Layout: Tulum is split into two parts: the coast (containing the beaches, ruins, and resorts) and the town proper that is inland by ~2km (including stores, restaurants, and bus station). The two are separated by a vast swath of jungle and you can only get between the two by walking south 2 km, making a sharp left at the main road, and then walking north about 4 km. The beachfront is now primarily resort hotels, with a couple of restaurants in between. The main street of town caters primarily to tourists, with tour runners, souvenir shops, yoga studios, and pricey restaurants that look like they belong in Santa Monica (think high open spaces, chalkboard menus, and minimalist décor). The road in between the two is littered with new developments, apartments and condos galore aimed mainly at attracting English-speaking buyers.
Getting around: The easiest ways to get between the beach and town are by bike or by taxi. You can rent a bike in town for about 80 pesos/day, and if you’re renting for >1 week you can easily negotiate them down to 50 pesos/day. There are tons of taxis that camp out both in town and along the beach to shuttle tourists, and will charge you 70 pesos a ride. Drivers wouldn’t negotiate in front of other taxi drivers (we tried), but we found that if we started walking toward town, some drivers would flag us from their cars and offer a discounted rate (30-40 pesos). Given these expenses, we spent most of our time along the beach and only went into town for groceries once every 2 days.
Finding a cheap place to stay can be daunting, but there are still a couple of affordable camping spots along the beach. We stayed at Playa Roca (above): located about 2 km from the ruins, it’s the best deal we found (80 pesos/person/night). As a bonus it had direct access to the beach. Max, the campsite manager, is super awesome and laid back, and lives on site with his family. The campsite included showers, toilets, a shared kitchen, and tarps to keep the rain off your tent:
Playa Roca is also a great place to meet other folks! We met Limberth, who’s from Mérida, over the weekend while we were camping:
If you want a spot, show up early in the day! We noticed that in the late afternoon, especially on weekends, the sites filled up quickly. Not comfortable roughing it that much or didn’t bring your own tent? The guy next door to Max’s campsite rents spacious 2-bed (yes, literally two beds) yurt-style tents for 800 pesos/night.
Eating: Food was also a bit of a challenge for us, as the nearby restaurants were pricey and town was far. We solved it by buying groceries in town and then cooking at our campsite’s kitchen. We found that the following meal was the most economical to cook (and tasted ok):
Ingredients: 1 16oz can of beans, 1 8 oz can of mixed veggies, 1 8oz can of salsa/diced tomatoes, half a bag (4oz) of small pasta, some spice mix, some water
Directions: Mix all of this together in a pot (dump in the liquid from the cans so you don’t need to find salt), simmer for 6-10 minutes until pasta is tender, and serve with crackers/tortillas/bread. This made a little more than 2 servings, so we found that we could keep the leftovers until next morning and pour them over scrambled eggs. It wasn’t exactly gourmet, but had plenty of calories, protein, and fiber to keep us going.
The one exception to our monotonous meals was Jungle Kitchen Table, a small French-Mexican restaurant nestled in the jungle along the beach. Recommended to us by a friend (THANK YOU Joël!) and running about $50 a meal, we could only afford to eat there once, but it was easily the most amazing thing we ate during our time in Mexico. Our list of dishes included: a huilachote and scallion quesadilla with pickled onions and herbed yogurt, crusted pork ribs with plantain fufu, the house beans and chipotle crema, and a dulce de leche pot with pecans. And it wasn’t just the fancy dining that impressed us, but also the unexpected flavors and textures like the star anise in the pickled onions and the fluffiness of the plantain fufu (although full disclosure, I had no idea what a fufu was until I came here). Yes, it’s expensive, and yes, you should order multiple courses, but it’s entirely worth it.
There are three major categories of things to do: the jungle, the ruins, and the beach. All of the jungle-related activities required a pricey tour or transit, so we skipped them, but you’ll find nature preserves with monkeys and birds, the standard zip-lining and adventure activities, and clear freshwater cenotes to swim and dive in. We found the cenotes in particular to be more expensive here (100+ pesos/person) compared to those in Merida and along the Puuc route (~50 pesos/person), so unless you’re looking to visit a specific cenote, do your cenote swimming in Mérida.
The ruins (65 pesos/person) were a fun half-day trip, and what the buildings lack in size they make up for in complexity and history. The people that lived in this ancient port were neither Maya nor Olmec, but a mix of multiple cultures that thrived on trade with groups inland and along the coast.
The beach was the main draw for us, though. While we didn’t do any of the snorkeling or diving tours, should you want to snorkel the cheapest way is to hire a boat directly from the beach. We got them down to about 200 pesos (our target was 100 pesos) and they generally won’t go much lower than that. You don’t need to hire a boat to enjoy the beach, though! We spent 5 days jumping in the waves, swimming, and laying on the sand reading. And every morning, we woke up to this: