Tulum is a unique gem in Mexico’s Riviera Maya district, an area on the Caribbean coastline of Quintana Roo known mostly as a destination for all-inclusive resort and boutique hotels. While one can certainly take a luxurious, relaxation-filled trip to Tulum, the vibrant town offers limitless possibilities for a more adventurous, hands-on trip. With beaches, lagoons, and underground swimming holes just a stone’s throw from nearly anywhere in the area, adding something a bit more relaxing to your agenda at any time is simple.
Tulum’s history dates back to its origins as a walled city in the Pre-Columbian era. What was once an important port city on the east coast of the Yucatán Peninsula is now the impeccably preserved site of some incredible Mayan ruins. The modern town of Tulum provides a look into that ancient world in addition to a community uniquely its own, as endearing and inspiring to tourists as it is home to locals and an increasingly growing population of expats.
A long and narrow village, Tulum has two main roads via which you can access pretty much everything in town – Carretera Tulum-Boca Paila, or Beach Road, and Avenida Tulum, the main strip. Along Avenida Tulum are countless souvenir shops, the majority of them all carrying the exact same items. There are tons of little handmade ceramics, leather goods, and run of the mill mementos – grab something for your loved ones and hold out for a hidden gem or two for yourself.
There are a lot of incredible spots for eating and drinking in Tulum, and while the majority of the more interesting places are along the beach, the main road is home to some great spots. Ki’Bok is an ideal spot to kick your day off, serving up sandwiches and delicious pastries alongside the best coffee in the area. Get your taco fix at El Camello Jr., fill up on burritos and popcorn at Burrito Amor, and if you find yourself not feeling so hot one morning after a night drowning in mezcal, head to Azafran for their deservedly famous hangover special. I won’t give too much away, but mashed potatoes will be one of the items on your plate.
When it comes to watering holes along Avenida Tulum, Batey is a great place to start for solid cocktails and snacks. If you’re lucky, they’ll be projecting old Italian films in the back garden all night. La Estancia Jujeña serves some strong drinks and Argentine grub, La Última Gota is a life and death themed cantina tucked away inside of a local hostel, and there are countless other spots you’ll come across as you stroll up and down the street.
I’m a big fan of good food and strong booze as a reward for great adventures. Fortunately, there are plenty of opportunities for adventure both in and out of town. Within the borders of Tulum are the famed Tulum Ruins – sitting slightly northeast of the main part of town, this is the spot that the Mayans first saw Spanish ships sailing along the coast. The ruins are in fantastic condition and some are right on the edge of the 40 foot cliffs that drop down to the Caribbean Sea. There’s even small, isolated beach you can trek down to if you’re up for it!
The Tulum Ruins are certainly the easiest ruins to get to if you’re staying in Tulum, but they’re far from the only ones – lying 35 miles northwest of town is Cobá, another site of majestic Mayan ruins. Still largely unexcavated, Cobá is spread over some 30 square miles through which you can explore on foot or – the obvious choice – on a rented bicycle. You can ride by everything from ancient ball courts and churches to temples and and monuments. You can even climb up the crown jewel of Cobá, the Ixmoja pyramid – it’s the tallest pyramid on the Yucatán Peninsula.
On the way back to Tulum are three cenotes you should absolutely take a dip in – Choo-Ha, Tamcach-Ha, and Multún-Ha. Cenotes are naturally-formed swimming holes that are sometimes completely underground, often freshwater, and always ice cold. They’re by far the best way to cool off in the area, and with the ongoing Caribbean seaweed problems, cenotes are a nice break from the beach.
For a more relaxing day in Tulum, head to Beach Road and set up shop at one of the numerous hotels on the beach. You don’t need to be a guest at the hotel – just walk out to the beach, find some sun or shade, and relax. There’s no fee to hang on the beach, but the general assumption is that you’re going to get a bite to eat or a few drinks. With ludicrously low food and beverage prices and kitchen to beach chair service, that shouldn’t be very difficult at places like Rosa del Viento and Le Zebra.
After a long day drinking on the beach, you might need some grub to soak it all up. Or, you might want to keep things going – either way, you’re in luck on Beach Road. Mateo’s serves the best burrito I’ve had in my life – sorry San Francisco and New York. Get there early for their 2-for-1 deal and they literally just bring you two drinks when you order one. Casa Jaguar is an ideal place to grab appetizers and drinks before dinner, Cenzontle offers unique dishes like hibiscus empanadas and rabbit stew, and Casa Banana serves up some great steaks and Argentine tapas alongside creative cocktails. Posada Margherita and Hartwood are two of the more well-known (and pricier) options that are definitely worth checking out. Vegans and vegetarians – don’t fret! Most menus have meat-free options, and you can also swing by Restaurare for local, vegan Mayan food among serious Gilligan’s Island vibes.
When it comes to drinks on Beach Road, your options are pretty much endless. Head to Dragón Turquesa for all of your mezcal needs, but make sure to cut yourself off at some point or you risk waking up on the beach the next morning trying to figure out exactly how you wound up spending the night on the shore. Papaya Playa Project, Arca, and Gitano are also well worth a visit.
If you can squeeze it into your itinerary, take a full day to make the trip out to Chichen Itza (just under 2 hours driving from Tulum), the famed site of one of the largest pre-Colombian cities. Though it’s one of the most visited archaeological sites in Mexico, it’s huge enough that you’ll be able to stroll around at your own pace, without having to deal with massive crowds. There are a ton of ruins at Chichen Itza, but it’s most well-known for El Castillo, the iconic Mesoamerican step-pyramid.
When you’ve reached your ruin quota, head back to Tulum but be sure to stop in Valladolid – a little town that looks more like it belongs in Europe than on the Yucatán. With its colonial era cathedrals, peaceful backstreets, and friendly locals, it’s a perfect spot for wandering around with no particular destination in mind. Do be sure to check out Coqui Coqui, a tranquil perfumeria/spa/chocolatier/coffee shop/inn hybrid. It’s well worth poking your head in, even if only for the smells. Once you’ve had your fill of the town, head to Cenote Zaci, a swimming hole worth the long drive in its own right. This cavernous hole in the earth is by far the coolest place for a dip around – sunlight streams through a lush canopy and there are plenty of spots to leap from the surrounding cliffs into the icy water.
One last not to be missed spot is Chamico’s. It’s a restaurant, but not really – there’s no sign, no menu, no website, no phone number. You pretty much just need to know it exists, and now you do*. Chamico’s simple setup of plastic chairs and tables is a charming counterpoint to the white sand beach you’ll dig your toes into, the swaying palms you’ll sit beneath, and the crashing waves just yards from your meal. Once your waiter lets you know what’s available that day – all freshly caught, of course – crack open a beer and soak your surroundings in. The sublime environment is made even better with some of the best seafood I’ve ever had – buttery lobster, grilled shrimp tacos, and the freshest ceviche you may ever have are a few of the highlights.
A far cry from the nearby all-inclusive resorts while still offering luxury and splendor when and if you want it, Tulum really does have something for everyone – high brow, low brow, rustic, upscale. It’s got adventure and relaxation in droves, which when combined with the wonderful weather and endless list of places to eat, drink, and see, make for an idyllic getaway destination.
*To get to Chamico’s, head out of Tulum towards Cancun and turn off the highway at the sign for Oscar & Lalo’s Restaurant. From there drive all the way down the unsealed road, past the little shacks and hotels until you arrive at a gate with a security guard. Let ‘em know you’re headed to Chamico’s and you’ll be allowed through. From there, keep driving until you hit the white sand beach.