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There is always a bit of apprehension when planning a trip to a new place, especially one so far away…What if we get there and it stinks? What do we do if our hotel is lousy and we’re stuck there? What if Tulum is just not ‘our vibe’? I think all of our minds were reeling with those questions as we embarked on the 2-hour drive in our rental car from Cancun airport to Tulum’s jungle road. But oh how I wish you could’ve seen our faces when we arrived, pressed up against the car windows, as we ooh-ed and ahh-ed at every wood structure, hanging lantern, hidden jungle restaurant, and funky boutique hotel. It was EXACTLY our vibe.
Boca Paila road runs parallel with the ocean and is your access point to all things Tulum. On the beach side sit all the incredible hotels and on the jungle side you’ll find restaurants tucked away under the palms. Tulum is hippie, posh, eco-friendly, bustling, serene, yogi, adventurous, and fashionable all at the same time. Each hotel, restaurant, and boutique seems to be following some unspoken rule that each building material all the way down to the light fixtures have to ‘be cool’. This blew me away for the first 3 days of our trip. How did everyone get the memo to only make cool design choices?
As hard as it is to put Tulum into words, I knew I had to put together a travel guide for you all to share this not-so-secret Mexican treasure.
Where To Stay
As we didn’t quite know the lay of the land in Tulum, we were hesitant to pick the right hotel in a good location along the road. We ended up staying at Alaya Tulum and it was perfect in every way, which I will talk about later. We also figured out pretty quickly that it was common to walk up and down the beach, bathing suit only, and pop into each hotel just to look around, which is why I can recommend a few of the other hotels as well.
Every place we entered was gorgeous. Each place had their own signature amenities; some rooms had their own private pools, others a balcony with a hammock, and some hotels with teepees instead of rooms to sleep in (glamping style; we pitied the people who camped in Tulum after one night of bug bites). As far as aesthetics go, you can’t go wrong. The one thing I think is important in choosing a hotel in Tulum is location and that is why I recommend Alaya. Unless you have a rental car like we did, you will really want to be close to restaurants, if walking is your main transportation. These are the hotels I was able to explore and thought were totally dreamy.
Alaya was designed to resemble a tree house and it felt just like that. The rooms are beautiful, beds comfortable, food incredible, and drinks delicious. It was just small enough that the staff knew everyone who was staying there, like the characters in an Agatha Christie mystery, we came to know exactly what room each pairing was staying in. The staff were so attentive and helpful. The first night our air conditioning wasn’t working (SO HOT) and the next morning every person we saw asked if we were ok and gave us updates on when it would be fixed. The hotel is in a great location along the road, close enough to walk to a lot of restaurants, but not too loud or busy nearby.
The room was stocked with organic bug spray, aloe vera, and hair products. Each morning they filled a canister in our bathroom with fresh drinking water. Our room came with a screened in side porch, which made the 7:00 witching hour much more enjoyable. We could watch the reflection of the sun setting in the jungle on the water from the comfort of our bug-free, ocean-view porch. They also offered daily yoga classes in their beautiful yoga studio above the tree tops, which we never took advantage of. But we will be back! I would give Alaya 5+ stars any day.
Ahau is Alaya’s sister hotel, only a few sites down on the beach from each other. The bar and restaurant on the beach look beautiful and the rooms are dreamy, with flowing curtains and a raw wood feel.
Nomade is slightly farther down the beach away from the restaurants, but you gain the beauty of their gorgeous property. The structures, tents, and buildings around their land are so eye-catching and intriguing. I would love to stay in their villas with a private pool or their luxury air-conditioned tents! Keep reading for more on Nomade. I am not done with this gem yet.
Definitely the priciest of the options, Be Tulum is in a league of their own. Just take a peak and you will see. Their use of wood was my favorite and the private swimming pools were enviable.
Casa Violeta is neighbors with Alaya, which means their location is ideal. They have the cutest restaurant with delicious pizza. What’s not to love? Casa Violeta is peaceful, quaint, and delightful. Take a look at their website for the killer photos.
What To Do
Spend Time on the Beach
The beach in Tulum is beautiful. It truly is a beach-centered town. If you don’t like sand, heat, and palm tree shade… pick another location for vacation. Each hotel embellishes their beach real estate with amazing mattress-like loungers, hanging beds, hammocks, and full restaurant service. If you like a particular swing or a chair at another property, sit down and order a drink. There’s no problem with that and they will let you stay all day. There are basically no shells on the beach, which was a big bummer for my mom, but we found incredible black coral sea fans that made their way back to PA. The water is clear, warm, and blue. There are actually waves here, unlike many island beaches, so lots of people were boogie-boarding. With so much to do in Tulum, it can be hard to take the time to just relax. One sip of a pina colada in a coconut or a fresh fruit mojito and you’ll be rethinking running around all day!
Pronounced “see-no-tay” for all you dummies (like us) who absolutely butchered this word when asking for recommendations from the locals. Cenotes are partially collapsed caves that are very prevalent in this area of the country. They are filled with ground water and rain water and are so refreshing on a hot Mexican day. I was nervous before going about just hopping into a cave in the middle of the jungle, but these are very established places with entry gates, showers, snorkel rentals, paved paths and ladders. And there are no unsavory creatures in the water, just some fishies and little turtles and friendly bats overhead. Bring pesos to enter and your own snorkel if you have one!
We visited the Gran Cenote, which is about 20 minutes from Tulum Beach. The sun was shining so beautifully on the water and I think I literally squealed and started running when I saw it through the palms. The water is chilly since it is mostly shaded by the cave, so once you jump in, start exploring so you don’t get cold. You swim right along the lane line into the dark cave. My mom said, as we went in, I have 100% curiosity and 2% courage right now. It was so true! Make sure you arrive within the first 30 minutes of when they open to avoid the crowds. Gran Cenote opens at 8 am. By the time we were leaving around 10 am, it was way too busy to enjoy it the way we had in the morning!
A word of warning: this is definitely a tourist attraction and you should get there very early to avoid the crowds. To be totally honest, I wasn’t super curious to see the ruins and the crowds and pushy tour companies were almost enough to turn us away. When we got there, a man from a tour company told us that the line was an hour and a half wait and that we should go with him, pay $25 a person for a 2 hour tour and snorkeling. I was unsure he was telling the truth, so we walked down the long road to find out there was no line. It cost 70 pesos a person (~$4) and we toured ourselves. Unless you really want to hear in-depth stories and facts, I recommend exploring on your own.
The views were gorgeous and the iguanas were hilarious. I kept hearing rustling sounds and realized it was iguanas running across the grass with their fat bellies hanging down! Many people wear suits and jump in the water since there is barely any shade there. I was not very invested in the history of the Mayan culture, but the men swinging from this tall pole (that I initially thought were fake) were a major highlight and source of utter confusion.
An unmarked gate barely pushed open, a path lined with palms and riddled with bossy security guards leads you to the former mansion and compound of the infamous druglord, Pablo Escobar. Recently purchased by a New York art dealer, Lio Malca, the property has been transformed into a boutique hotel with Instagram fame.
If you can find the tell-tale railroad crossing sign outside marking the property and sneak past security, go take a spin on the gorgeous rugs and hanging chairs. Climb the spiral staircase for an incredible view of Tulum. (Note: I’m joking about sneaking past security, but I have heard they can be selective when people try to explore, unless you truly have a reservation there.)
Tulum is filled with adorable boutiques with gorgeous sustainably-made clothing, enviable bags, and leather goods. Some of the shops I loved were La Troupe, KM 33, and Caravana. Although very cool to pop into, these are pretty expensive boutiques. For our souvenirs, we ventured into Tulum Town where you will find more traditional Mexican goods. Pom poms and tassels were the accessory of the trip, so we brought a lot of those home. I couldn’t resist the gorgeous white hammocks of Tulum so I bought two matching hammocks, one for me and one for Cam. I also bought this amazing macrame dream catcher. It’s perfect in my room at home and reminds me of this amazing adventure. When we came home, our suitcases were 49.7 pounds, just making the cut of 50 pounds. Oops.
Where To Eat
Tulum is truly a culinary dream. There are so many delicious options in such a small area. An incredible part of vacationing in Tulum is that each restaurant uses such fresh and healthy ingredients, which makes vacationing not feel overly indulgent at all. I never felt too full or as if all we had been doing was eating. You might be put-off by the word ‘vegan’, but I truly embraced the fresh fruits, vegetables, and lighter options. It was healthy, clean, and delish all around. We did miss a few on my list (Hartwood, Jaguar, Gitano, Safari), but here are some of the places we did venture to:
A winding path filled with twinkly lights, potted plants, and romance brings you to this beach front Italian oasis. You think Mexico, you DON’T think Italian food. But this one is a must. I had homemade pasta with mushrooms and broccoli. It was so fresh and incredible. We especially loved the bathroom area design so be sure to, ya know, go to the bathroom there. They don’t accept cards, so load up on pesos for this meal.
For lunch we stopped into Mivida on a whim and found a true treasure. We called it the greenhouse of Tulum. A beautiful setting and delicious Octopus, Potato, and Paprika Tacos. Wow! You don’t see this one on any travel guides, but I would put this at the top of your list for a lunch or intimate dinner.
I absolutely fell in love with the decor I saw at Nomade on Pinterest and Instagram and it truly was breath-taking in person. We stopped in for breakfast after a walk on the beach and even my Dad sat on the floor pillows while we dined. I ordered vegan hotcakes, topped with banana ice cream and guava. YUM. If you can get up off the floor after your meal, be sure to sneak around for more peaceful jungle vibes. We all gave Nomade the 1st place prize for most inspiring decor.
This wonder is tucked away on the grounds of Ahau Tulum right on the beach. We ordered smoothie bowls to go and walked up the beach with them, because it was a little too hot to sit there with no breeze. But who doesn’t want to drink their smoothie laying in a hammock in an open-air hippie den?
One rainy night we asked our hotel front desk, where we could find ‘the best pizza’ and this gem next door was the spot. We were one of two tables filled in the restaurant, but we had some quality time with our awesome waiter who was barefoot and sang along to the funky music as he served us ‘the best pizza’ in Tulum. Don’t miss the watermelon, arugula, and goat cheese salad to start. Ya know those nights when you’re with people that you love and it’s just the best time ever? This was one of those nights. We laughed, drank wine, ran through the rain, and decided we were never leaving.
After our shopping excursion in Tulum Town, we stopped into this open-air joint and WOW. I ordered their natural blended citrus juice, which included grapefruit, lime and mint and I will never forget it. The burritos are to die for and the sauces that they give you are out of control good. Mid-lunch a tiny duo came in and sang a few songs for us, while strumming their mini guitar and…jaw bone. Needless to say, we gave them pesos for their sub-par but ‘jaw-dropping’ performance.
Two days in a row, it rained in the afternoon and somehow we got stuck at the same restaurant each time. But we didn’t mind. Mateo’s is so fun and the Dragonfruit Mojito was not too shabby. We ordered the Mexican Sampler platter and consumed mucho margaritas. Turns out their happy hour deal is “you get two margaritas at the exact same time when you order one”. When my dad couldn’t finish the second, they gave it to him in a to-go cup… for the drive. No one batted an eye when he sat down in the driver side with a salt-rimmed margarita. Mexico is another world, y’all.
Best. Gelato. Ever. Done. (Ok not done, I had the Coconut and Cookies & Creme and wow wow wow.) Ok done.
Tulum Tips & Tricks
- Bring lots of pesos! Many restaurants and shops are cash only so its necessary to have cash on you pretty much everywhere. I exchanged money at the airport before leaving for Mexico, but as a last resort there are ATMs scattered around the jungle road (but not as good of an exchange rate).
- There are so many talented artists in Tulum. As you lounge on the beach, you will notice lots of locals walking up and down the beach selling their goods. If you like what you see, just wave them over! I called it Beachside Free People. Another reason to have pesos with you. They speak English very well and are always willing to give you a great deal.
- We went in the off-season for Tulum. The busy season picks up in December. The weather was very hot and it did rain a few days, but the smaller crowds were a big bonus if you don’t mind the heat. We had our pick of the restaurants and never had to wait in line for a reservation.
- That being said, it was so hot. A packing tip: bring breezy, light fabric clothing only. You will mostly wear a bathing suit and cover up. Don’t even think about long sleeves or pants! Pack your bag and then take half of it out and leave it at home.
- Definitely do your research on restaurants before you arrive. Although the locals are so helpful and friendly, their recommendations for dinner places were not always the best, since they don’t eat at the restaurants. Stick to your Pinterest research for dinner ideas!
- Restaurants here are truly on Island Time. Nothing is fast. So if you are in a rush… well… don’t be. You will wait for your food for a while. But it makes your enjoyable experience last longer!
- BUG. SPRAY. When it rains in the jungle, the bugs are bad. After 7 pm, cover yourself in bug spray, go to the beach where it’s breezy, or stay inside.
- Getting a rental car was a hastle but was so worth it. We got to see so much more than we would have without one and it was better than having to constantly track down a taxi. The drive from Cancun to Tulum is one major road and we didn’t even need a GPS.
- The US recently issued a few travel warnings for this area of the country, but I never felt unsafe while we were there. Remember to be a smart and observant traveler.
When I got home, Cameron asked me what I learned from the trip and what I would do differently now that I have traveled there. I didn’t have an answer at first, but now I see exactly how the people of Tulum inspired me. Each night we had the opportunity to meet a new person in the role of our waiter or waitress. They smiled, laughed, tried their best to speak English so that we were comfortable, they went out of their way to serve us, and they shared their stories. One man told us how he lived on the beach for a year, while working, to save money for his future family.
We watched the men at our hotel working tirelessly from morning until night, when they finally went home to their 4 kids. They were out in the sweltering heat all day serving us. How easily do I get tired at work and grumble, roll my eyes at someone on the phone, or have a bad attitude for no reason. Earth to Jo. Take a page out of these guys’ books. Service with a happy and grateful heart.
Tulum is unforgettable, inspiring, and beautiful. I can’t wait to go back already and do it all again.
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