The east coast of Mexico has undergone a massive transformation over the past 50 years, evolving from an untouched and unknown white-sand oasis to the home of the top tourist destination for the entire country. Cancun is massively popular for a reason — it lies on one of the most beautiful stretches of the Caribbean coast, but if you’re less inclined to vacation by way of “all-inclusive,” luckily the Riviera Maya to the south is still relatively untouched by spring breakers and cruise ships.
Tulum, a small beach town about 90 minutes south of Cancun, has also seen plenty of change in the last 10 years. It has transformed from a sleepy backpacker town praised for its lack of electricity and yoga-centric mentality to a mecca for boho-chic urbanites seeking world-class restaurants with killer cocktail programs in a jungle setting. There’s still plenty of yoga and solar power, but the food and drink scene is at the center of Tulum’s identity now. From roadside ceviche to shockingly good Italian food, there are frankly not enough meals in the day. What’s different about Tulum’s recent growth is that it feels symbiotic. These aren’t restaurants and bars that popped up to accommodate an influx of tourism. They’re there because chefs and mixologists came from all over the world and decided to make something great in a beautiful place.
While it may be slightly more lively than it once was, Tulum will still have you waxing hyperbolic. With pure white sand and crystal clear turquoise waters, you could very well spend an entire trip lounging in a hammock just staring at the horizon, mouth agape, but you’d be missing out. There’s plenty to do in Tulum, so by all means go for as long as you can because you will definitely find it hard to leave. Even if you only have a long weekend, you’ll still leave Tulum feeling restored, tanned and full of mezcal. Here’s how to do it:
Mid-Day: Arrive at the Cancun airport and either rent a car or meet your driver and head to Tulum (about 1.5 to 2 hours depending on traffic).
Afternoon: Check into your hotel and head straight to the beach for a nap and a dip in the Caribbean Sea — the best kind of travel recovery.
Dinner: Head to Cenzontle. The small “jardin secreto” feels more like a cozy candlelit living room than a restaurant. This local favorite features globally-focused twists on traditional Mexican cuisine, an impressive cocktail program, and a solid wine list (plus an incredibly friendly staff).
Night: Thursdays are for jungle parties at Casa Jaguar. DJ sets starting at 11 p.m.
Morning: Do yourself a favor and get up early to head to the Tulum Ruins via taxi, car or bike. The Mayan city perched precariously on a cliff is breathtaking and not to be missed. Bring your swimsuit and take the stairs to the beach below the ruins for the most beautiful swim of your life. The hordes of tourists begin to flood the site around 9 a.m. The ruins open at 8 and you should be there at 7:50. $40 pesos per person.
Breakfast in Pueblo: On your way back from the ruins stop in town at the popular (and Aussie-owned) Ki’bok Cafe for coffee, fresh pastries and eggs.
Midday: Walking the beach is a daily pleasure in Tulum. Join the stream of explorers and people watchers traversing the sand, stopping for agua frescas and checking out hotels and restaurants from the water’s edge.
Lunch at Taqueria la Eufemia: Stop at the chill local favorite for a late lunch of no-frill tacos, margaritas and a distinct respite from “Tulum chic.”
Afternoon: Find your favorite hammock or beach bed on your walk home and hang with a book. Most hotel beaches are not exclusive to guests and welcome drop-ins.
Evening: If you can finagle it, Friday evening is a great night for Hartwood. Opened by an expat couple from Brooklyn, this is the restaurant in Tulum. It’s so buzzy that it would be very easy for it to fall short of the hype. It doesn’t. Everything is wood-fired and the menu changes seasonally, so talk with your servers about suggestions and don’t second-guess them. If you’re inclined to try some of the new wines coming out of Mexico, this is the place to do it.
Night: Gitano is the scene on Friday night. Known for its impressive mezcal program and creative cocktails, Gitano serves some of the most expensive drinks on beach road, and they’re worth every peso.
Morning: Tulum is built on limestone, some of which has collapsed to form a network of underground caves and rivers. The cenotes were worshipped by the Mayans as fresh water sources and they’re a dream for snorkeling and scuba diving. As with the ruins, it’s best to go early in the morning to avoid the crowds. Check out Dos Ojos, a stunning three-cenote system where you can snorkel and explore two large caves that lead into a smaller “bat cave.” A private tour costs $600 pesos ($500 for a group tour) and includes snorkel gear, wetsuits, photographs and lockers. You can also book a more “off the beaten path” cenote tour through Fly High Adventures.
Midday: On your way back, stop again in the pueblo for lunch at El Camello Jr. This roadside ceviche joint is flooded by locals daily.
Afternoon: Hit the beach for a few hours — that’s why you’re here, isn’t it?
Yoga on the beach: Trade happy hour for a 5 p.m. yoga class at Sanara overlooking the ocean.
Evening: While neither cheap nor traditional, Posada Margherita is disarmingly good and manages to maintain an “Italy-meets-shack-on-the-beach-in-Mexico” vibe while still being one of the most sought-after reservations on the beach.
Night: On Saturdays folks head to the big hotel at the end of beach road, Papaya Playa, and once a month all of Tulum heads to PP beach for the full moon party at the beach club. It starts early (3 p.m.) and goes late (4 a.m.).
Morning: After a night at Papaya Playa, you’ll likely need a slow start, some fresh coconut water and a morning swim.
Midday: Wander (slowly) down the beach or rent bikes (some hotels offer them for free) and bike to Ziggy’s for one of the most delicious and affordable brunches on the beach. Dig into homemade bread and detox smoothies that cure all sins.
Afternoon: Tulum has its own style and there are plenty of boutiques that can outfit you if vacation wardrobes are on your bucket list. Check out Josa for “refined beachwear” for men, women and children, Hoki Poki Kana if you’re looking for top designers from Mexico and New York and Wanderlust for all of the above. If those are out of your price range, the rest of beach road is dotted with plenty of shops worth pulling your bike over for.
Evening: Head to Casa Banana for more fire-focused fare. This Argentine restaurant calls on the flavors and styles of Mexican cuisine using wood-fired ovens, but it’s so different from Hartwood that it’s worth trying both. The Argentine sampler sets the stage for fantastic steaks and fresh-caught fish. The sides are even memorable here — the fire-roasted beetroot salad is the standout. There is also an incredible wine list full of well-aged wines from Argentina that go way beyond Malbec and pair perfectly with jungle dining.
Night: On Sundays, the town heads to La Zebra for salsa on the beach. The live band starts around 9:30 and while everyone is welcome to join, sitting back and watching the feet fly is a lovely way to spend an evening. La Zebra also boasts a shockingly good cocktail program in case you were afraid of going thirsty.
Morning: South of Tulum lies the Sian Ka’an Biosphere, a Unesco World Heritage Site. It’s full of centoes, beaches and different species of birds and fish, but most picturesque are the large lagoons full of crystal-clear turquoise water. If you can arrange a tour like SUP (stand-up paddleboard) that takes place at the lagoon, do it. Otherwise take a car or taxi straight to Kaan Luum Lagoon for swimming and photos.
Midday: Head back to beach road for lunch at Nomade, the definition of an eco-chic hotel with two very popular restaurants (one vegan).
Afternoon: Directly across the street from Nomade is the Yaan Wellness Spa, which is somehow simultaneously simple, beautiful, traditional and decadent all at once. Pamper yourself with its menu of massages or try one of the Mayan energy therapies or a traditional Temazcal sweat lodge ceremony.
Evening: For dinner head back to the pueblo and live like the locals who love Cetli, which focuses on traditional dishes and family recipes. Walking into Cetli feels more like stepping into someone’s home than a restaurant, a feeling amplified by the fact that the kitchen is staffed only by chef Claudia Pérez Rívas. This is a long, intentionally slow-paced, indulgent last meal in Tulum.
Night: Finish your trip with live music and Mojitos at Batey.
Where to stay in Tulum:
Nest – This tiny and relatively new boutique hotel is nearly at the end of beach road, which is perfect if you’re looking for some peaceful relaxation. Each room is unique and seamlessly blends detailed design with simple comforts. The staff is friendly and happy to recommend activities or leave you alone to lounge on the beach beds. Rooms starting from $150 with breakfast and daily happy hour included.
Amansala – If you’re interested in the wellness/yoga/health-focused side of Tulum, then beachfront Amansala is perfect. The eco hotel offers retreats and yoga packages and is conveniently located within walking distance of most bars and restaurants for those non-yoga hours. Rooms starting from $120.
Tips When Traveling To Tulum:
- Tulum is broken up between the pueblo, which has cheaper accommodations and more local hotspots but is not on the beach and is split down the center by a major highway, and Beach Road, which is the main drag with the beach on one side and the jungle, which is home to most of the major bars and restaurants, on the other.
- Tulum is an all-cash town. There is an HSBC bank in the pueblo if you need to exchange. Locals do not use the ATMs on the beach road.
- The town is solar-powered so there are no streetlights — most hotels provide flashlights.
- The nightlife is mostly open-air in the jungle, and while they have a lot of natural methods of repelling bugs, you may want to pack heat.
- Summer (off-season) is the best time to go. The crowds are thinner, the rates are cheaper and the strong daily breeze off the sea negates a lot of the heat.
- Email Hartwood the second you book your trip — if you’re lucky you can snag a reservation without having to wait in line all day. Otherwise, talk to your hotel about when you should line up.
- AC and Wi-Fi are not givens — if this is a deal breaker check with your hotel.
- There is a lot of English in Tulum, but luckily it’s not everywhere yet, so you may want to get nice with Google translate.