The Ultimate Travel Guide to Tulum

by | Last updated Nov 4, 2020 | Mexico | 0 comments

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Our first trip to Tulum was in October 2018, and believe it or not I ended up being disappointed. I hadn’t discovered the Tulum everyone was talking about – apart from the Tulum ruins and general boho vibes. Now that we live here as digital nomads and have discovered a new side to Tulum, I wanted to re-write my best of Tulum guide to give you all a brief overview of what to do, where to stay, eat, play, and more!

From scouting out the best cenotes around Tulum to finding the best places to eat and activities to do, to finally exploring the Tulum ruins and secret beaches (and not so secret)… Here’s my guide to the best of Tulum!

The Ultimate Overview Guide to Tulum

There is a lot to love/hate about Tulum. First, when you visit, the layout of Tulum can be a bit confusing. Tulum is essentially very spread out and divided up into 2-3 main areas. You have the Tulum Pueblo (Town), Aldea Zama (expat/condo neighborhood in development), and the Hotel Zone which runs parallel to the coast (there’s also the up-and-coming La Veleta expat neighborhood).

Tulum Neighborhoods

The Zona Hotelera is probably what you think about when you think/see pictures of Tulum. Boho-chic shops, gastronomic restaurants, popular Instagram photo spots, luxurious “eco” hotels, and private beach clubs. It takes at least 45 minutes on the bike to see the length of the Hotel Zone and get to the more popular places like the amazing art statue “Ven a la Luz” or the swing bar at Matcha Mama. The road you take in is the road you take out, and it’s super crowded with trucks, cars, and it’s just not fun. Parking is a nightmare. That said, people tend to overidealize this area of Tulum. In truth, there’s a lot of greenwashing – aka smearing “eco-friendly and sustainable” all over the place. (More on this later).

Tulum Pueblo is the town where you’ll find both local gems and more expat/touristy spots. This is the area where we live and we honestly love it the most. It’s where you’ll actually get to witness Mexican culture. Eating out and shopping is generally cheaper here, too. You are also closer to all the cenotes, which are just east, north, and west of Tulum’s pueblo. There are many cenotes along the Coba road (on the way to Coba ruins) to check out.

Aldea Zama is an upscale neighborhood in development. It’s in between Tulum Town and the Hotel Zone. There’s not much to see here, just yet, unless you are searching to buy a condo or rent out an apartment. The neighborhood is quiet and so many expats choose to live here. You wouldn’t just wander in here as a tourist because, for now, there’s not that much to do. La Veleta is a livelier, more upbeat neighborhood on the southwest part of Tulum Town. It’s one of the most sought-after places to live since it offers both convenience (closer to the town) and quiet (close to the jungle).

Where to Stay

As for where to stay, this is tricky. Tulum has some of the most incredible hotels. Places that are just jaw-dropping. But they often come at an environmental cost.

The below list is just a few of the most eco-friendly hotels and accommodations in Tulum. They are not going to save the world or solve Tulum’s eco-crisis, but I would feel comfortable staying in these resorts as someone who endeavors to travel responsibly.

Papaya Playa Project: Papaya Playa is a whole vibe on its own. Its reputation as an award-winning hotel precedes itself as one of the most popular hotels in all of Tulum. They use retreated wastewater which irrigates the plants and garden; their food is also locally-grown and organic when possible, they use solar energy made in Mexico, and they were able to retain 93% of the jungle when constructing (compared to the 5% average).

Habitas: Habitas is one of the best places to stay in Tulum whether you care about sustainability or not. Here, between the sea and the jungle, lies a “sustainable sanctuary” filled with incense-lined, sandy pathways and luxury hammocks swaying between palms with their gastronomic restaurant, Moro, as its centerpiece. We had dinner here one evening and it was an awesome experience.

Ahau: Another option for eco-friendlier accommodation (and beach club) is Ahau. This hotel is located behind the lady goddess/art structure in the Hotel Zone. Ahau uses composting toilets, biodegradable bags/cups/straws; catches and recycles rainwater; purifies its wastewater and recycles for the garden; provides natural/eco toiletries, and more. They often do beach clean-ups and their construction was built without disturbing the natural jungle.

The Dark Side of Tulum

The Dark Side of Tulum (Documentary) from The Dark Side of Tulum on Vimeo.

When you get the chance, watch this documentary. It reveals the sad and rapid demise of Tulum that many people don’t know about. It is appropriately called The Dark Side of Tulum. It is a must-watch for everyone planning to visit Tulum now or in the future. Share it with your friends, too!

Tulum has exponentially grown over the past decade. As a result, the town has become saturated with tourists even during the off-season. The town’s infrastructure wasn’t meant to maintain the number of people visiting Tulum every year. And in fact, the beloved “eco-friendly resorts” for which Tulum has become famous aren’t all that eco-friendly or sustainable.

Most of the so-called eco-friendly resorts run completely off diesel generators and all the waste is horribly unmanaged and left to drain into the underground river. Yep, the cenotes – another reason why Tulum has become such a popular destination – are being polluted by thousands of tons of literal sh*t.

If you choose to stay along the Hotel Zone, you’re more than likely contributing to this mismanagement of waste. I know it’s not 100% avoidable. But there are hotels doing better and are trying to implement eco-friendly practices when and where they can. When you come to stay in Tulum, at least take this into consideration. When you can, support businesses and hotels who are doing the opposite of greenwashing and are actually trying to make a difference.

Where to Eat

You can basically find every type of food and restaurant in Tulum. The most popular areas to eat are found in both Tulum Town and the Zona Hotelera – choose from dozens of vegan and vegetarian options, from earthy cafes and hipster bars, and of course, local authentic Mexican restaurants!

La Hoja Verde: La Hoja Verde is a vegan-vegetarian gem right in the heart of town. Their barbecue soy-based tacos are SO good and so are their bowls, salads, juices, and mezcal cocktails.

Bonita: For burgers (beef, chicken, vegan) plated with a side of garlic, parmesan, or habanero fries, head to Bonita. Go for dinner when their cute outdoor patio and centerpiece tree is strung with evening lights.

Botanica: Botanica knocks Tulum’s boho-chic decor out of the park. It only opened in Sept-Oct and has since become one of our favorite places to eat here with delicious brunch-style toasts (with homemade bread), quiche, and fresh juices and treats. Their food and ambiance are just perfect.

El Bajon Vegan Tacos: One of the first local gems we discovered when we moved to Tulum this year. This hole-in-the-wall is an awesome spot to dig into vegan tacos. Cheap at $25 pesos/taco and oh so good. Right next to a vegan market too!

Ki’bok Coffee: A Tulum “staple” for where to eat. Their breakfast/lunch is always spot-on. But they’re extremely popular and sadly have become somewhat a victim of their own success.

Matcha Mama: That famous Instagram swing bar? That’s Matcha Mama. You can slurp down acai bowls and green smoothies here. There are two locations – one in town and the famous one down the Hotel Zone.

Raw Love: Another famous place to eat with 100% plant-based items. I freaking love their avo toast with purple sauerkraut. They also have two locations (town + hotel zone behind the amazing lady art piece).

Burrito Amor: Burritos served in banana leaves and a cute indoor/outdoor tropical ambiance. Definitely recommend for lunch on a beautiful day in town. (P.S. cash only).

Fun Day Trips

If you’re based in Tulum you will quickly find out that there are plenty of day trips you can do.

As I mention above, the most popular quick and easy day trips from Tulum are definitely to Coba Ruins and the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve.

But it’s also possible to drive to Playa del Carmen and even Cancun. There are islands nearby like Isla Mujeres or even Cozumel that you can visit in a day if you leave early enough. But don’t stretch yourself out too thin. These places definitely deserve at least a full day or two to explore and discover so the best is to hang around the 1-2 hour range around Tulum.

On the other hand, many vacationers who stay in Tulum take a trip to Valladolid to see nearby Chichen Itza.

There are plenty of tour buses that run early in the morning so you can get there and even be back later in the evening. But again, these sites merit at least a full day or more so you don’t feel rushed to see all the sights.

Final Thoughts: Best of Tulum Travel Guide

Tulum is both an example of raw natural beauty and human greed.

On the one hand, its gorgeous cenotes, beaches, people, and culture inspire people around the world to come to visit and share in the learning of the Mayan culture and natural beauty Tulum offers.

On the other hand, Tulum is getting destroyed by irresponsible unsustainable business owners and mismanagement of hotels, waste removal, etc. And the surplus of people further aggravates the pollution and litter which seep into the ground into the pure water flowing beneath your feet.

So if you do visit Tulum because it’s on your bucket list, make sure to travel with purpose and be conscious of your impact on the local environment. We must promise to be better conscious travelers and leave Tulum better than how we found it!

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