The Minimalist's Guide to Tulum
First, let me explain why I'm titling this guide 'The Minimalist's Guide to Tulum'. Matt and I traveled Tulum with a minimalist's attitude, spending money and engaging in experiences with an editing, intentional attitude to optimize happiness and minimize excess. We intentionally tried to create a balance of 'doing' and 'being' on our trip, seeking out what appealed to us based on our values, interests, and lifestyle. We tried to discern between authentic, genuine restaurants/experiences and their purely trendy counterparts. In some instances trendy was authentic and genuine, and in some instances we felt some of the regularly recommended spots were purely hype. Of course, our recommendations are based off of our values and interests, and so you must discern what experience will speak most to your heart once you are in Tulum, but it's my intention that this post will serve as a general framework on which to design your trip around.
WHY WE LOVE TULUM:
We LOVED Tulum! Matt is already talking about booking a return trip. It's hard to put into words what we loved about Tulum but I'll do my best. We loved the overall experience of Tulum. The beaches were beautiful, paradise beaches, that day dreams are made of with soft, powdery white sand, warm crystal clear water, and gorgeous sunrises/sunsets set in a tropical jungle-like setting. The food scene is amazing! There are some of the most creative, delicious restaurants we've ever visited in Tulum with food for every type of person. We personally were most excited about the raw, vegan, clean, holistic food scene there. The history, and natural beauty are unreal. The cenotes, beaches, mayan historical sites, and ecological preserves are plentiful meaning if you love history and/or natural beauty, there's a never ending supply. We are also major yogis and into holistic/alternative healing lifestyle so we took full advantage of trying new yoga styles and new healing experiences. The city is also full of little reminders of this present-focused, holistic vibe like stop signs that simply say 'breathe', signs along the beach road urging you to 'live the present', 'free your mind' ect.
There are really two main parts of Tulum with two different vibes. There's the town/city of Tulum which we referred to as "el centro" when directing taxis there, and then there's the beach portion with all of the eco resorts. This is something I didn't realize before booking our trip and we spent the first half of our trip in an airbnb in town for the 'doing' portion of Tulum. Tulum town is very cool. It's full of street art, vibrant cool restaurants, and lots of shops. Tulum town is much more reasonably priced with regards to accommodations, shopping, and restaurants. It's also less relaxed, noisy, and exactly what you'd think a bustling town in Mexico would be like. The playa portion of Tulum is about 20-40 minute bike ride away from town (really not that easily accessible when you factor in wind, heat, and humidity unless you take a taxi). The playa portion is what we envisioned when we thought of Tulum. It's basically all tourists. Think of a holistic, clean food, one love, yogi vibe set in a jungle along a soft white sandy beach with crystal clear warm water. We spend the second half of our trip at the playa for the 'being' portion of our trip. When booking, I didn't realize the distance between the town and beach, or how different the vibes were so I just want to make that clear in this guide. If you are on a budget, you could always do what we did and book half your trip in town and half at the beach since there is such a price difference (think beach accommodations are approximately 2-4x more expensive). Our town stay served as a home base for us to do all of our day trips, sightseeing, shopping, and to try all of the amazing restaurants in town. Once we got to the playa, we really didn't leave. We spend the playa portion laying on lounge chairs, eating raw vegan food, doing yoga, and trying new experiences like sound healing that were offered in this neighborhood.
WHAT TO DO:
- Cenotes: Cenotes are basically entrances to a waterway. The Yucatan Peninsula has a huge underground waterway and cenotes are basically fresh, clean, crystal clear waterway entrances. Some look like open pools of water at ground level, others comprise of caves and tunnels you can swim through, and some are far below ground-level meaning you must take stairs down to enter into the water. We visited el gran cenote and it did not disappoint. There are only a few cenotes you can take colectivos to, while the gran cenote requires taxi, or bikes and an adventurist attitude.
- Akumal: Akumal means 'place of the turtles' in Mayan because it's a small bay where sea turtles live and nest. There is some great snorkeling along the white sandy beaches, and you are sure to have some sea turtle sightings. You do not need a tour guide to snorkel here, though many hustlers along the beach road will try to convince you that you do. However, if you don't go with a guided tour, you will be limited regarding how far out into the bay you can snorkel. They had a roped off section where snorkelers are allowed and men along the perimeter in the ocean patrolling to prevent perimeter crossings. Apparently these new regulations just began because of multiple sea turtle deaths caused by tourists grabbing and touching the turtles. If you want to snorkel out further, you actually do need a tour guide, but we went solo for free (since we brought our own snorkels). We spotted a turtle in the first 5 minutes. Big tip: Go early!!! If you can arrive around 8:00am, you will be glad you did. When we arrived, there was nobody on the beach, and by 11:00am the beach was so crowded and full of tourists. We took the Playa Del Carmen colectivo there and back which cost 35 pesos/person each way (approx. $2.50 USD).
- Tulum Ruins: The ruins in Tulum are the only ones built along the ocean. The ruins are rich with spiritual history. Once in the ruins, you also have access to the ruins beach, so you could make an entire day out of this trip, spending time seeing the ruins, and then the rest of the day at the beach. Go early!!! Go at 8:00am when the ruins open or you'll be sorry. We arrived around 8:45am via colectivo and as we were leaving, bus loads of tourists were literally pouring in. It was awful. If our ruins experience had been with all of those crowds, I would have hated it, so going early is my number 1 tip. All the tour guides and crowds, made the ruins feel like an amusement park attraction, but luckily we only experienced that as we were exiting.
- Tulum Town/Pueblo: The main town has tons of street art, astrologically-based street names, innovative restaurants, and an authentic representation of how Tulumians live. My advice is to do your shopping here as boutiques along the beach road at the resort area are 2-4x more expensive, often for the exact same items. I picked up a dream catcher and a ton of friendship bracelets.
- Yoga: There's one yoga studio in town from what I could find, and a ton of yoga offered at almost every resort along the beach road at the playa. The open air studios overlooking Tulum's beach are unreal so if you are ever to try yoga, this is the place to do it. We stayed at the Yoga Shala, a little boutique hotel along the beach road, and they offered 3 high-quality yoga classes/day. My recommendation is to try something new. We tried Ashtanga yoga for the first time and plan on incorporating it into our regular practice now.
- Alternative/Holistic Experiences: This is a yogi, holistic community so you're not getting the full experience unless you try something healing such as massage, reiki, sound healing, Temezcal. I was dying to try one of Tulum's full moon Temezcal ceremonies, but one was completely full, and the other we signed up for was cancelled due to low number of participants. If you are interested in Temezcal, Yaan Wellness, Maya Tulum, and Ahau are all resorts that offer this during full moon. We ended up trying a sound healing session at Alaya Tulum and it was an awesome, relaxing experience. The cost for the sound healing was $35 USD/person and lasted approx. 1.5 hours. Sound healing probably ended up being the better choice in the end as it didn't require any emotional or mental energy like Temezcal would have.
- Sunrise: You gotta watch a sunrise in Tulum. The sun rises over the ocean and sets over the jungle. Sunsets, while of course beautiful because of the lighting, aren't actually observable through the trees. Sunrises, however can be viewed from the beach and are the perfect simple pleasure in Tulum. I don't think I'd actually seen the first glimmer of sun as it rose above the horizon line before Tulum. It was a magical experience.
- The Beauty of Doing Nothing: This is the only must on my list. Vacations are about 'being' . As I mentioned before, the last 4 days of our trip were all about 'being' for us where our major accomplishment for the day may have been a yoga class or sound healing session. Some days should be spent laying around, connecting with your significant other, friends or family, reading, and general laziness in my opinion.
WHERE TO EAT:
- Burrito Amor: Really tasty, unique, creative burritos. They have plenty of vegetarian/vegan, gluten free options and make their own coconut flour-based gluten free tortillas. My husband told me I have to mention the sauces they bring to every table. They had 4 different sauces to choose from in squirt bottles you could add to your burrito, and my husband had a fun time trying all of them. We both had the nopales burrito and fresh juices, and they did not disappoint.
- Antojitos la Chiapaneca: This was a traditional Mexican taqueria, where all the locals go. Their tacos were 7 pesos each (about $ 0.38 USD). Matt and I had multiple dinners there for around $6 total! I recommend the el pastor tacos if you eat meat or make exceptions. We ended up sharing a table with two women from Denmark there and another time with a young man from Germany. It was cool to hear their stories, and exchange information about excursions/restaurants in Tulum.
- La Coqueta: Great fresh juices, really delicious food, and the owner walks around greeting people. We ordered veggie fajitas and a fresh juice, and the fajitas were served with a honey mustard sauce on the side which was a super creative and delicious addition.
- Campanella Cremerie: Possibly the most amazing gelato I've had (excluding gelato in Italy). The prices were reasonable and the gelato is frickin' amazing. Think super rich creamy gelato atop homemade fresh waffle cones served up in a fresh, modern shop. We didn't try this place until the last night of our pueblo portion and were so bummed we hadn't discovered it the first day. Worth a visit.
- Batey's: This is a super cute mojito bar on one of the side streets off the main strip of town. They serve mojitos with freshly squeezed cane juice squeezed right out front in an old hippie painted VW bug. Live music, fresh drinks, and a killer ambiance. Even if you don't drink, this is a must see!
The Beach/Eco Resort Area
- Fresco's: Best cup of coffee we could find on the hotel strip. Coffee was kinda' a hot commodity over there as it was often served in cappuccino-sized cups with no refills. This coffee trend left us extremely unsatisfied. but Fresco's provided quality coffee in satisfying sizes, and they open at 7am. People always asked us where we got our coffee when they saw us with to-go cups in our hand. The breakfasts looked really yummy here too.
- Raw Love: Think smoothie bowls, raw pizzas, fresh juices, set in an open air restaurant under palapas, amongst hammocks, and under the jungle trees. This restaurant has super clean, super yummy food in paradise. Even if you are a hardcore carnivore, you must stop here for a smoothie, or small bite to eat for the ambiance alone. We ate multiple meals here. This a must on my list!
- Charly's Vegan Tacos: If you are a vegan you must go. If you are a yogi you must go. If you like healthy eating you must go. If you like food you must go. Bottom line....you must go! The nicest staff out of any restaurant we visited, really creative, tasty food that will convert even the most dedicated carnivore. The ambiance is also open-air, paradise, tables under the trees.
- Ahau Resort Restaurant: We ate multiple meals here, facing the ocean, in disbelief that we were able to eat such a beautiful meal with such a beautiful view. We loved the quinoa breakfast bowl with fruit. This restaurant had delicious, reasonably priced, locally sourced organic food and overlooks the ocean. What's not to love.
- Taqueria Eufemia: This is a little taco place on the beach. They have all varieties of tacos, but we especially loved their veggie and fish tacos. Even though this is more of a night/party scene, we ended up having our most romantic dinner of the entire trip there. We happened to sit away from the bar, on a large cushion right atop the sand and ate our tacos overlooking the ocean under a full moon. Our entire bill for that dinner was around $15 USD total. This was a good reminder of how the simple things in life can be the most special, and that you don't have to spend a lot of money to have exceptional experiences.
- Taxis: We took taxis from town to the eco resort/beach area, to cenotes, and when we had luggage or baggage with us. I recommend asking taxi drivers for quotes to where you are going ahead of time so you have a reference point for avg. cost before you actually go to hail a taxi. For us, the most expensive taxi ride cost around $10 USD and was from the Tulum ruins to the eco resort area.
- Colectivos: Colectivos are white vans in lieu of the public bus system which drive specific routes and you can hop on and off anywhere along those routes. They run all day and will save you so much money. Once we mastered the colectivo system, we felt like we had mastered travel in Tulum. There are three main routes: Playa Del Carmen, Coba, and Tulum Playa. You can stop anywhere along the way but you have to find the right colectivo for your route. The colectivos' routes are marked on the van and also color coded (blue for Playa Del Carmen, Orange for Coba, and Red for Tulum beach). Short trips cost around 20 pesos/person ( $1.05 USD) and longer routes could cost around 35-45 pesos/person ( $2-3.50). Our 30 minute trip to Akumal cost us 35 pesos/person each way (a great deal in my opinion).
- ADO/First Class Bus: We used ADO bus for transportation to and from the Cancun airport. First class bus tickets are like the charter Discovery buses in the U.S. with plush seats, and a television. We spend $25-35USD total for both bus tickets each way vs. $150 USD for a private shuttle. As soon as you exit the Cancun airport, there's an ADO bus station kiosk amongst the renal car and taxi services. You can book your ticket to Tulum when you arrive, and then at the ADO station in Tulum town for your return trip. If you want to check the bus schedule you can visit their website here. There aren't as many direct trips between the airport and Tulum, but you can always take the bus to Playa Del Carmen and then catch a connecting bus from Playa Del Carmen to Tulum. I think they run every 15 minutes or so and actually are very simple to connect to. There are so many tourists going this route so when in doubt just ask a bus station employee and they will direct you correctly.
We didn't spend a lot of money in Tulum (around $3,000 USD total for 10 days, including food, accommodations, excursions, and airfare) . My husband and I get a lot of pleasure from doing things simply and affordably. We don't believe you have to spend a lot of money to have beautiful, meaningful, life-changing experiences and that was the guiding philosophy for our Tulum trip. If you'll notice, we did a lot of things independently (e.g. avoided guided tours) and didn't eat at expensive restaurants. We wanted to spend money only on things that increased our happiness and try to avoid spending excess when the excess didn't truly contribute to our experience. Of course, everyone is different and derives happiness levels from different things based on their values. Feel free to reach out to me on social media with any Tulum-inspired travel questions. You can find me on Instagram @happiness.collective. If you are debating on whether to go to Tulum, you won't regret it. Have a great trip!