Central America, Mexico, Travel

Why you should go to Tulum

November 24, 2015

I’ll just be honest. For many years, I heard about people going to Cancun or Playa and I couldn’t have been less interested. I pictured wild spring break trips like ‘The Jersey Shore goes to Mexico’ or I just kind of thought it was unimaginative. I am so happy to say I was wrong.

Fast forward years later, post kids and post major hip operation and I was looking for a quick and inexpensive flight to somewhere we’d never been. Only Cancun seemed to fit. So, I did what I do — I started doing research and realized that the Cancun airport services the whole Riviera Maya, starting with Cancun and going south through Playa del Carmen and finally Tulum. Each area is unique and surprisingly had way more to offer than I expected. Did you know you can swim with whale sharks here?!?! Are you kidding me? This is one of only a handful of places in the world that you can do this, and most of them are in the Indian Ocean.

Last year, we went to Playa del Carmen, and had a wonderful vacation. We are never the type to just sit on the beach — we do relax on the beach, but I get bored so we also took advantage of everything to do and saw Mayan ruins, swam with sea turtles, snorkeled in cenotes (underground cave pools) and of course swam with the whale sharks! We loved that there were so many amazing things to do that it was hard to even choose.

We loved it so much, we we wanted to go back and this time we decided to stay in Tulum.

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We loved Tulum! Here’s why:

  • There are no high rise buildings. Everything is built into the jungle. There are no giant Sandals-esque resorts here. There are many small, boutique style hotels and guest houses, which are the types of places that we prefer. The kind of places that aren’t part of chains and have their own personalities.
  • Tulum is very laid-back and relaxed. There’s a beach road that’s dotted with with hotels, shops and restaurants. You can easily walk or bike to other places. Or, get a cab for $5 if you’re going a little farther than you care to walk.
  • Tulum is very eco-friendly. Seeing wildlife in their natural habitat is one of the things that gives me butterflies in my stomach and gets me really excited. I really appreciate their efforts here to preserve these delicate ecosystems. In many places here, electricity is limited as there are no power lines, but instead there are solar panels, generators, etc. Hotels limit usage by having fewer lights, limiting air conditioning usage to specific hours or possibly not having air conditioning at all. See more about this below. Also, hotels try to cut down on light pollution at the shore to protect the sea turtles. We talked to locals and they said that this area of Mexico is really working hard to protect the environment and find a sustainable balance with tourism.
  • The beaches are gorgeous. White sand and clear water. Full disclosure: They weren’t as gorgeous as they could have been at times this year when we went due to the crazy influx of sargassum seaweed, but it’s nature, right?
  • The food is amazing! Pretty much all of the restaurants here are open-air and either right on the beach or in the jungle. Many feature very fresh, local, organic food. And, hello, Mexican food! My mouth is watering just thinking about it.
  • I finally got to see the baby sea turtles hatch at night on the beach and it is something I will never forget. It’s something I’ve been chasing for years — here at home on the shores of North Carolina or Florida, Puerto Rico, Costa Rica. We’ve never been in the right place at the right time or just weren’t lucky enough to see it.
  • So many things to do here! So, so many. Beach, culture, history, adventure, nature.

Where to stay

One thing to consider is whether you want to stay close to many of the shops and restaurants to be able to walk everywhere. But, you really can’t go wrong. Even if you aren’t staying right in the middle of everything, you can still get a cheap cab and be there in just a few minutes.

Another thing to consider is how eco-friendly is your hotel? Can you live without air conditioning? I like the idea of that, but in reality, I like a break from the sweltering heat. So, we compromised and stayed at places that had air conditioning from like 6pm to 9am. I would assume any hotel in Tulum does not have air-conditioning, unless it expressly says that it does. I’m not totally sure, but some might take it farther than that and you may be limited with electricity, like hair dryer usage. Don’t get me wrong though, this isn’t just glamping, there are some very luxurious hotels here, a few without restrictions at all.

The Beach Tulum

The Beach Tulum is a luxurious, well-rounded place to stay. Not too stuffy and fantastic personal service. Our room was simple and elegant and we loved having a beachfront ground floor room so we could walk right out of our door and be on the beach. It was so nice to wake up, open our sliding door and be on the beach to see the sunrise and the sunset. The staff here were perfectly balanced — exceptionally warm and friendly in a genuine way and yet unobtrusive. They went out of their way to help us by recommending things, by making sure we didn’t get overcharged by the taxis, helping me with photos, anticipating our needs, etc. We really enjoyed Ziggy’s, the restaurant here, for the atmosphere, food and exceptional service. I had a blast swinging at the bar chatting with the bartender about tequila. The pool here is a nice departure from the usual — it’s narrow and snakes through the property, which is nice because each little section of the pool is private. As Tulum was experiencing the crazy onslaught of seaweed while we were there, the hotel staff made a Herculean effort to clean up and keep the beach pretty for the guests. We really appreciated their effort.

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Rosa del Viento

The Rosa del Viento is much more of a relaxed, less service oriented kind of a place. It is one of the last hotels on the beach before you get to the Sian Ka’an biosphere and is remote in a good way — my life became complete when we saw the baby sea turtles hatch here. Rosa is a beautiful property and we had a really nice room with AC available all day (bonus!) and much less expensive than The Beach Tulum and many of the other hotels. You get to stay at a great place, with beautiful grounds and nice rooms. But, you see way fewer staff here, and while the staff are nice, there is nothing luxurious about the service. For example, the restaurant opens at 8 am you couldn’t get coffee before 7:45 am. Kind of annoying for someone like me who likes to wake early and enjoy the sunrise. By contrast, we could wake at any hour at The Beach Tulum and ask for coffee and if they didn’t have a pot going, they would stop what they were doing and make it. So, in a way, you get what you pay for, but it’s such a nice place for the money.  Also, their website is terrible and doesn’t do it justice. Thank goodness for Trip Advisor and other reviews.

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Other places I thought about:

  • Ana y Jose – We visited this one and it’s gorgeous.  It’s probably one of the priciest.
  • Alaya and Ahau – Alaya is one of the newest hotels and is the sister property to Ahau. They just looked incredible from the photos and reviews.
  • Coral Tulum – Another new one. Sister hotel to Ana y Jose.
  • Hotel Jashita – This one just looked amazing, but it’s not really in Tulum.  It’s to the north so you’d be more isolated, but this looks like an amazing place to be isolated.

Where to Eat

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We ate somewhere different each night and got to try lots of places.  We hit most of the ones we wanted to try, with a few exceptions. We noticed some trends among Tulum restaurants: They are all open-air, which I love. They are either oceanfront or on the jungle side. Many of the restaurants perform the cooking open to the dining area, which I think is neat to see. They are very laid-back, some very casual while others are more upscale.

Hartwood – Highly recommended and wonderful reviews. From the photos, it has a very laidback, upscale kind of atmosphere and they cook only with fresh local foods right in front of you. Unfortunately, the chef was on vacation when we were there and they were closed for a little while. Boo! I was very disappointed.

Casa Banana – This is an Argentinian restaurant and so the steaks are a highlight. The cooking area is open to the seating area and you can see them cooking using the wood fire oven.  Great, romantic atmosphere and tasty food and drinks.

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Gitano – I feel like this place should be a movie set. It’s built into the jungle and has such a cool vibe. Think chandeliers handing from trees, open air dining and cooking, heavenly drink concoctions and delicious food. It specializes in mezcal drinks and I had one with dragon fruit which was delicious. We had heard this was the place to go for drinks before dinner, but the menu looked good to me, so we stayed for dinner and it was quite good. My husband is picky and he enjoyed his food as well. He had the Tamarind Chicken and I had the Avocado Black Bean Tacos.

Pro-tip: Take mosquito repellent.

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Zamas – The setting of this place is gorgeous with 180 degree views of the water as it sits on a point of the coast. One side is beach and the other is like a rocky cliff that we climbed on to see the view. After eating Mexican food all week, we saw pizzas on their menu and it sounded good. They were delicious. Thin crust and just perfectly hit the spot. The service was great and our waiter was so friendly. Come before the sun sets.

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Ziggy’s – We ate at Ziggy’s for breakfast and lunch several times as it was the restaurant at one of our hotels. We really enjoyed the beachfront location, the sand floor, the super-friendly staff, great food and hanging out at the bar (literally) on the bar swings! We also took a ceviche class here where they also made coco locos with decorated coconuts for us.

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Posada Marguerita – According to many posts from others and reviews, this is a can’t miss.  It’s described as what Anthropologie would look like as a restaurant.  And, supposedly great Italian food. But, we didn’t get to try it as they were closed.

La Zebra – This is a beautiful location to dine al fresco overlooking the ocean. Great atmosphere with many seating options and areas for drinks or dinner. The food was delicious and artfully arranged. Our service was great. Really great evening if you are in Tulum.

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Mateo’s –  We had been to pretty nice restaurants the whole time and wanted to try something different. Mateo’s was cool, very casual and had a live band with a Cuban vocalist playing. I tried a local pale ale from Cerveza Akumal and it was really good. And, pretty perfect for me since I’m obsessed with sea turtles and Akumal is the place where you swim with the turtles and where we had been earlier in the week. I love the typical Mexican beers, but it was nice to try something different and still local.

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Must Do in Tulum

Swim with giant sea turtles in Akumal
Absolutely a must. This is a cheap activity and truly so incredible to see these massive turtles up close.  See my post with tons of photos and tips for your visit.

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Visit the Mayan ruins 
There are numerous places here including Tulum, Chichen Itza and Coba among others.  The Tulum ruins are a quick bike or taxi ride away and very beautiful right on the beach. Coba is beautiful and massive in size compared to Tulum.  It wasn’t as hot as Tulum because it’s mostly shady and the ruins are much bigger. I haven’t been to Chichen Itza yet, but hope to at some point.

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See the Cenotes 
There are dozens of beautiful cenotes, which are crystal clear underground or above ground freshwater pools. This may not sound very exciting, especially with beautiful beaches nearby, but there is something magical about these places. And it doesn’t hurt that the water is so cold making it a refreshing break from the sun.

See two of my posts about different cenotes: Private Cenotes (with video), Cenote Tamcach-Ha (with video).

Also, based on locals’ recommendations, others to check out are: Dos Ojos, Nicte-Ha (along the road to Dos Ojos), Il Kil (near Chichen Itza), Gran Cenote (Sak Aktun), Cenote Calavera, Jardin del Eden, Casa Cenote and Pet Cemetary. Next time, I plan to visit several of these.

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Other options of things to do

Other than relaxing on the miles of beautiful beaches, and eating delicious Mexican food, here are some more things to do:

  • Snorkeling – Right from the beach where ever you are, visit the Sian Ka’an to snorkel the second largest barrier reef in the world, Yal-Ku lagoon, Xel-Ha Park and many other options
  • Sian Ka’an biosphere reserve – Sian Ka’an is a UNESCO World Heritage site and in Maya means “Where the Sky is Born.”  It covers over 1.6 million acres and has many ecosystems including lowland tropical forests, wetlands, lagoons, bays and coral reefs. It includes 68 miles of the Mesoamerican Reef, the second largest barrier reef in the world. Additionally, 345 species of birds are found here and 103 species of mammals.
  • Swim with whale sharks – One of the most amazing things I’ve ever done!
  • Swim with dolphins (there are several places to do this) or view them in their natural habitat as we did.
  • Hiking and wildlife spotting (monkeys, etc.) – We went to Punta Laguna on the same day that we went to Coba. We only encountered one howler monkey, but it was a nice hike and we saw a beautiful pond and lake here.
  • Ziplining
  • The potential to witness the baby sea turtles hatching.
  • Adventure & Nature Parks: There are many parks that have cenotes, snorkeling, ziplining, nature trails, mangroves, swim with dolphins, snuba etc. all in one place. Parks: Xel-Ha, Xcaret, Xplor

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Have you been to Tulum? What are your favorite things to see and do?

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  • I Love Tulum. One of my favorite places. This makes me want to go back!

  • Christie

    I was thoroughly enjoying this read until I saw a picture of you holding a turtle hatchling. It made my heart drop. You should never touch them let only pick them up so you can have a photo op. So sad..

    • Whitney Anderson

      Christie, It was not for a photo op, had you clicked through, you would have seen that we were rescuing them from the unusually awful piles of seawood that was taking over the Mexican coast that season. The hatchlings were stuck and dying in the massive piles. And, yes, for a split second after picking it up before putting it in the water, I took a quick snap.