In Tulum, Skip the Tourist Traps and Lean Into These Adventures Instead
Dive into secluded cenotes, party at rooftop bars, and explore ancient ruins by the beach.
Not long ago, tourists considered Tulum to be one of the best-kept secrets in Mexico, the antithesis of the all-inclusive revelry often found on the crowded beaches of Los Cabos or Puerto Vallarta. Today, the fact that Tulum has been dubbed the “Williamsburg of Mexico” might trigger some alarms that the paradisiacal destination has become an overplayed hipster haunt. Yet despite some areas transforming into touristy thirst traps, Tulum still has infinite surprises up its sleeves for newcomers and repeat visitors alike.
Perched on the shores of the Yucatán Peninsula in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo, Tulum is about 80 miles south of Cancún. Because Tulum has no major international airport of its own and its population of 50,000 is dwarfed by Cancún's nearly 900,000, this comparatively tinier resort enclave emerged as the kind of anti-Cancún. Tulum offers more zen vibes, chicer restaurants operating with a jungle-to-table ethos, boho-chic beach clubs, and tasteful boutique hotels that are the antithesis of theme park-sized resorts.
Yes, the past decade or so have seen the crowds swell, but reports of Tulum becoming a tropical Williamsburg, have been greatly exaggerated. From its almost cartoonishly picturesque cenotes and Mayan ruins to all-natural lazy rivers and life-changing tacos, here are the things to do in Tulum you haven’t seen played out on social media.
Best places for first timers to visit in Tulum
When most people think of Tulum, their perceptions are likely dominated by scantily clad beach-goers and late-night club-hoppers. But considering its prime location on the Riviera Maya—which is teeming with jungles, shoreline, and lagoons—Tulum is just as dreamy for those who prefer wearing clothes. In addition to the famous cenotes, Tulum offers lots more ways to recreate in nature, only some of which involve luxuriating on a daybed at the beach.
To make sure you see all the sights, booking an organized tour is a great way to go. There are different tour companies available, but the best is the sustainably focused Mexico Kan Tours. The company provides loads of adventure excursions, from cenote bike tours to Mayan lore at Chichen Itza, but the ideal way to go full-throttle Tulum is with a tour of Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve. Each elaborate and informative outing includes a jaunt through the jungle to pyramids and temples, before setting up by the coast for a wholesome picnic lunch. It’s then into a motorboat for a hair-flapping spin through the reserve’s turquoise-tinted lagoons and waterways. It all culminates with a life-changing “lazy river” experience, floating in life jackets on a free-flowing stream through dense mangrove canals. You’ll never look at Volcano Bay the same way again.
But, truth be told, if there’s one thing you do in Tulum, beyond the requisite beachside cocktail and fish taco awakening, it’s taking a swim in a cenote. Natural limestone sinkholes filled with groundwater so shimmeringly pristine they make holy water look like sludge, cenotes are to Tulum what all-you-can-eat buffets are to Cancún. Whether they’re exposed to the open air or within stalactite-strewn caves, these photogenic wonders of nature are all over the place in Tulum. Most of them you’re not likely to see, since they’re often underground and/or on private property, but a few places allow you to swim and explore.
Where to eat and drink like a local in Tulum
Everywhere you turn, from the beach club to the street carts to the jungle-chic fine dining at Hartwood (a restaurant that takes much of the blame for the Williamsburg-ification of Tulum), amazing food and drink are there to dazzle you. A lot of this can be chalked up to Tulum’s enviable geographic position between lush Yucatan jungles and the Caribbean Sea, affording the utmost in both surf and turf. It’s why, when it comes to signature dishes in the region, the offerings run the gamut from ceviche and fish tacos to cochinita pibil, a traditional Mayan method of marinating pork in citrus, tinting it bright-orange with annatto seed, wrapping it in banana leaves, and roasting in an earthen oven.
The lauded Hartwood is as quintessential to Tulum nowadays as the Mayan ruins and the beaches, and it’s well worth trying to grab a reservation—they’re super limited, and can only be booked via their website a month out, but if you’d really like to throw caution to the wind, walk-ins are accepted. The restaurant is distinct in its location and approach, applying an almost Noma-like ethos to rigorous local sourcing and reimagining traditional dishes. Menu offerings change daily, cooked exclusively on a huge grill or in a wood-fired oven, giving it the feel of a jungle omakase in an open-air courtyard illuminated with lanterns. From papaya empanadas and grilled Caribbean lobster with creamed yuca to wood-fired beets with avocado habanero cream, each bite is as adventurous as the uneven terrain you stumble across to get here.
While gems like Hartwood are hidden in jungles, much of Tulum’s culinary epicenter is along highway 307, which runs through the heart of downtown, a.k.a. Tulum Centro. Mestixa Restaurant is another prime example of the region’s proclivity for turning local ingredients and timeworn dishes into stunning novelties—in this case a clever mashup of Latin American and Asian cookery. Mestixa is a dark, funky, and artsy restaurant, bedecked in dragon murals and dainty umbrellas, serving a street food-inspired array of flavors: jumbo shrimp tempura tacos in lettuce wraps with furikake, pickled ginger, and ponzu sauce; oyster mushrooms al pastor with cured egg yolk, grilled scallion oil, and brown butter ponzu; and Thai coconut raspado with miso flan, cacao brownie, and lemongrass.
For street food without the “street food” quotation marks, Tulum Centro is also dotted with copious taquerias and carts. It’s hard to go wrong with any of ‘em, but a couple standouts include Taqueria Honorio, known for its cochinita pibil tacos, and Tacos y Torta El Tio, a frills-free cart stuffing tortillas with grilled hanger steak and spicy chorizo.
Rooftop bars are to be expected in sky-scraping cities like Chicago and New York, but for a comparatively shorter city, Tulum certainly boasts a robust rooftop scene. Chief among them is Naná Rooftop Bar, tucked a block off the main drag at the Maka Hotel Boutique. The whole vibe is very jungle treehouse, looking like someplace the Lost Boys might hang out if they were into mezcal—and of age. To access the bar, you walk across a few stone steps through an elegant, zen-like pond, then up a contemporary spiral staircase to access the posh bungalow bar filled with dark greens and wood (the ceiling has the look and feel of a tree canopy, and it’s accented with quirky decor like a Furby in a birdcage).
Another nearby rooftop oasis is Bhanu Sky Kitchen, perched atop the Kimpton Aluna Resort Tulum, where small plates come with big ambitions—and a sweeping panorama of the Tulum jungle on all sides. Up here, chef Rogelio Dominguez Vargas presides over a dynamic menu of locally sourced ingredients at their freshest and most pristine. Cooked in a huge, wide-open kitchen and fresh off the coal-fired grill, dishes include sea scallop tostada with smoked chili oil, papaya and lobster ravioli, pork belly baos with beetroot and jicama kimchi, and barbacoa tacos with bone marrow sauce in freshly made tortillas.
History and culture in Tulum
Interested in a beach break? Get to know the area’s historic side with a visit to Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage Site on the southern end of Tulum. Established to protect and preserve Mayan ruins, jungles, and Caribbean Sea in 1986, it’s a park whose lofty translation of “Gate of Heaven” actually seems modest compared to what it holds. Clocking in at about 3,280 square miles—making it the largest protected area on Mexico’s Caribbean coast—the reserve includes 23 Mayan archaeological sites.
One of these is Muyil, among the oldest Mayan civilizations in the Yucatan, with relics and looming stone pyramids that date as far back as 350 BC. Well-preserved ruins are scattered throughout the jungle, and touring the forests here is a far more accessible experience than visiting the touristy Tulum Ruins further north. Trails weave their way through the jungle out to the coastal wetlands and lagoons, where tour boats take visitors out to explore a different side of the park.
But it’s not all fun in the sun. This being a biosphere reserve with similar protections and regulations as the US National Park Service, the park is stringent about sustainable practices and environmental efforts. They currently run a tree-planting program to offset their carbon footprint, prohibit sunscreen for anyone going into the water, and actively promote the Save the Marine Turtle Project.
Cenotes and beaches in Tulum
As mentioned above, Tulum’s cenotes are nothing short of a national treasure in Mexico, and visiting without exploring them is basically a cardinal sin. A good place to get your feet wet is Cenotes Casa Tortuga, a kind of all-natural water park in the Mayan jungle, where guided tours take you through aquatic caves—and plunging off small cliffs into wide-open pools. Unlike water parks, though, this place actually prioritizes conservation and ecology, which means preserving the delicate caves and their pure waters. Thus, sunscreen is not allowed (it can wash off and damage the water) and all visitors must rinse off in a quick shower before taking the plunge. Each tour consists of four cenotes, a mix of open-air and underground pools, and provides life vests and optional goggles. Keep in mind you will be fully immersed in water, so unless you have an airtight waterproof case for your phone, you’re gonna want to leave that—and everything else—either in your car or one of the provided lockers.
In the same jungle as Cenotes Casa Tortuga, Buuts’Ha’ Cenote Club is more like the Soho Club of cenotes. Like, if the Mayans were around today and they liked Dom Perignon bottle service, they’d 100% hang out here. Whereas the former is more of a family-friendly environment with guided tours, this one is a literal cenote club, complete with full-service restaurant and bar, accessible via reservation only. The name Buuts’ Ha’ translates to “smoke and water,” a nod to the sacred rituals of burning copal wood and soaking in the springs. The heart of the club is a huge sunken grotto, surrounded on all sides by iguana-clad cliffs and bookended by gentle waterfalls. Within the grotto are chic booths and even chicer hammocks, dangling above the jade-green depths.
Other notable cenotes to consider include Cenote Sac Actun—a 260-mile underground river and cave system boasting best explored via a tour with conservation-minded Alltournative—and the otherworldly, subterranean Dos Ojos, which can transform your swim into a sensory-deprivation dive. And of course, a trip to the popular Gran Cenote is essential provided you don’t mind bigger crowds (and a bunch of turtles).
Of course, you can’t talk about outdoor activities in Tulum without mentioning the beach. With over 10 miles of prime Riviera Maya real estate distinguished by the kaleidoscopic clash of azure-blue water lapping up against sugar-white sand, these are some of the most breathtaking beaches on the continent. Tulum’s north side beaches tend to be quieter and more natural, while the south side feels more like Miami’s South Beach at times thanks to its abundance of posh resorts, beach clubs, and ripped torsos.
For tranquility with a side of ancient history, Playa Ruinas is a singular stunner. It’s located about 40-feet below the cliffs at the Tulum Ruins, making it a refreshing dip in the warm sea after exploring the remnants of a centuries-old city—and dodging hordes of visitors along the way. Like the ruins above, the beach remains untouched by hands younger than the 15th century, making this one of Tulum’s purest sections of shoreline.
Further south, Playa Pescadores (a.k.a. Paradise Beach) offers a few more modern amenities, and what it lacks in ancient pyramids, it more than makes up for in passion fruit margaritas. Although resorts are dotted along this stretch of developed beach, it’s still publicly accessible via a short, breezy walk through palm trees.
If you’re gonna go full-tilt Tulum, your best bet is snagging a shaded cabana at Maïa Beach Club. Part of the Ikal Hotel, it’s chichi and hip without feeling too pretentious, with a full-service restaurant and bar offering service with a smile no matter how elite your seat is (the beach club also has, ya know, regular tables and chairs in case you don’t want to pay a cabana fee).
Tulum’s hotels and other great places to stay
If you weren’t already compelled to spend the night after a food coma-inducing feast at Bhanu Sky Kitchen, allow us to confirm that Kimpton Aluna Resort Tulum is indeed the ideal jungle bungalow in which to rest your head—on silky-soft Frette linens, no less. Nestled within a grove of tropical trees in the Aldea Zama neighborhood, the peaceful location is optimal for being just far enough off the main drag, while still minutes from the beach and an easy drive or walk to the action of Tulum Centro.
The whole vibe is very spiritual and zen, starting with a welcome ritual in the breezy lobby that entails writing something you want to leave behind (e.g. work stress, a bad breakup, and literally all of 2021) on a piece of paper and then burning it in a bowl of smoldering copal wood.It’s a sentiment that carries over throughout the property, from the bungalow-style balconies in each room (top floor balconies are even topped with a jungle-esque thatched roof) to the rooftop yoga, the fresh fruit and seafood at Parallel 20° on the ground floor, and the tranquil pool, meandering through the tree-draped center of the property like a chlorinated river.
For those looking for an all-inclusive experience, grab a room at Catalonia Royal Tulum, an adults-only oasis perched right on the perfectly sun-bleached beach. Here, the spacious jungle-facing rooms make up for their lack of ocean views with incredible chances to spy wildlife. Here you’ll find most everything you’re looking for—unless what you seek is a party, in which case, you’ve come to the wrong place. This is a laid-back, secluded, and very anti-scene spot for the chill to, well, chill.
Of course, this being a locale known for its bougie beaches and lantern-lit jungles, it’s no surprise that glamping is a popular pastime here too. We’re talking decked-out tents at Harmony Glamping, with art and themes inspired by the likes of Frida and the Hindu god of Shiva. There are also swanky RV-sized oceanfront tents at Casa Nawal, where additional amenities include sound therapy and astrology readings, so probably a tad different than your childhood camping memories. But if there’s any place that can blend the ancient and the modern, the primitive and the posh, it’s Tulum.
What to know before you go to Tulum
Best time of the year to visit Tulum
When you’re sandwiched between the shimmering Caribbean and dense jungle this close to the Equator, things are bound to get sweaty. Indeed, summer—while less expensive—is not for the faint of heart, due to both the sweltering heat/humidity and the heightened likelihood of rain from June through September. But as temperatures taper off in the autumn, the weather feels downright perfect from November through March.
November and December are at the tail end of hurricane season, so there’s still a chance of storming, but more than likely you’ll just experience occasional drizzles and refreshing ocean breezes. January through March are lovely and balmy, albeit the most crowded time of year in Tulum. That may result in hefty hotel prices and a lack of available day beds at the beach, which is the most First World problem you’ll encounter here. That being said, Tulum’s relative isolation from the rest of the Riviera Maya (and the fact that there’s no convenient direct access aside from bus or private driver) keeps it from becoming Disney World—compared to Cancún's annual visitation of more than 10 million people, Tulum sees about 1.5 million each year.
April and May are also optimal months (as long as you strategically shun spring break), so you can sneak a trip in before the summer heat and hurricane season.
Tulum’s time zone
Tulum falls under Eastern Standard Time (EST). It shares a time zone with New York, and is three hours ahead of California’s Pacific Standard Time.
The weather and climate
Tulum is classified as having a tropical climate, marked by sunny, humid days, breezier nights, and consistently warm temperatures year-round. The rainy season lasts from May to October, while it’s somewhat cooler, windier, and drier from November to April. The average temperature rises to 83.5 degrees Fahrenheit in June and August, and falls to 74.2 degrees Fahrenheit in January.
Tulum is a Mexican city and the official language is Spanish, though English is also widely spoken in more touristy areas.
How to get around
There’s no airport in Tulum, so getting to the area can be a bit of a hike. The most common way to arrive is to fly into Cancún International Airport, which sits some 80 miles north. From there, there are multiple methods of transport into Tulum, including rental cars, private shuttles, taxis, ADO buses, and a network of local shared mini-buses called collectivos. You can also fly into Cozumel International Airport (50 miles northeast), but traveling from there to Tulum would also include a ferry ride in addition to ground transport.
Once in town, there are plenty of options for navigating Tulum. If you decide not to rent a car, taxis are a popular and plentiful option, and can get you anywhere you want to go. Tulum is quite walkable in parts, and biking is also a fun and reliable way to see nearby attractions like the beaches and ruins. Some hotels offer free bike rentals, while a few bike shops in town will deliver your rented ride to your lodging for a fee.
Tulum uses the Mexican peso (MXN) and each peso is worth 100 centavos. As of December, 2023, $1 USD exchanges for $17.13 MXN.
International adapters you’ll need
Tulum, like the rest of Mexico, uses type A and B plugs (the same as the US). Standard voltage is 127 V and the frequency is 60 Hz.