When someone mentions that they are heading to Tulum, there are three different places that they could be going. First, they could be heading to the Tulum Ruins – the only full Mayan archaeological site on the coast. Although it is less impressive than Chichén Itzá or the nearby Coba ruins, its setting on the rocky cliffs above the turquoise waters of the Caribbean Sea make it an unforgettable spot. To get there, ask any bus or collectivo running north of town or south of Playa del Carmen to to let you out at the ruins. They will actually drop you off at crossroads leading to the ruins – walk for about 10 minutes to the east to get to the entrance. Bring water, sunscreen and bug repellant. Keep an eye out for iguanas sunning themselves on the ancient ruins.
The second possible (and least likely) place people are talking about when they say they are visiting Tulum is the Tulum Pueblo. This small village straddles Highway 307 and is a little way station for travelers. It has a new and bus station, tourist shops, some good restaurants, grocery stores, and a few hotels. Most people who come through the town are either on their way to the beach or to the ruins. However, wandering a few blocks off of Highway 307 will let you experience a true sleepy Mexican village. The Weary Travelers Backpacker Center, down the street from the bus station, has Internet and a book exchange. It will store backpacks and luggage for a few pesos, as will the bus station.
Finally, the third Tulum that exists is the Tulum beach area, also called the "Zona Hotelera". Running south of the Ruins for many kilometers is a road that parallels the white sand beaches and rocky headlands of the coast. Along this road are places to rent cabañas. The cabanas of Tulum are famous with backpackers in this corner of the world and rightly so. Although they can run the full range of luxury, most are cheap, are right on the beach, lack electricity, and are made of sticks. The back to basics beach life here is different from anywhere else on the Mayan Riviera – it’s a chill, mellow scene that will make you feel like you have found your own tropical paradise. It is the perfect place to relax and forget about the modern world.
To get to the cabanas, it is necessary to take a taxi from the bus station. We recommend stopping at the San Francisco Supermercado at the cross roads between Highway 307 and the road that goes to the coast to stock up on water, beer, and snacks. Most cabana places rent bicycles and that is a great way to visit the ruins or explore the coastal road. Make sure your cabana includes a mosquito netting over the bed.
Here are a couple of places we stayed and really enjoyed:
- Cabanas Copal is the perfect combination of rustic and luxurious. Its cabanas are well furnished and will run about $35USD for a sand floor, shared bathroom cabana to around $200USD for the upscale shack. Its many cabanas are centered on a small bluff overlooking the ocean and there is a small fresh water soaking pool, hammocks scattered everywhere, terraces, a white sand beach, and a little beachside bar. It has no electricity except at its restaurant. It can often fill up so making reservations in advance is recommended.
- Papaya Playa is right next door to Cabanas Copal and shares the same stretch of beach. Unlike Copal it caters to the backpacker crowd and is a bit less expensive and more rustic. There have been a number of recent renovations and improvements though so prices are probably going up. Most cabanas are right next beach and contain a bed, mosquito net, bare light bulb, a plastic table, and nothing else. Papaya Playa does have electricity (which is on only for a few hours at night) and has a small dance floor at their outdoor swing-seat bar. While staying at Papaya Playa for less, we occasionally hung out next door at Cabanas Copal’s soaking pool and bar.
Tulum Restaurants and Food
Most cabana places have their own restaurants and bars and it is pretty easy to walk along the road to find other places to eat (bring a flashlight as the road is unlit and has a lot of traffic). In this cabana zone, restaurants can be pricey and, often, mediocre. The restaurants in the pueblo are less expensive and are usually better.
A ten minute walk south of Cabanas Copal or Papaya Playa will bring you to a small village that has a few restaurants and a tiny convince type store that is pretty expensive. It's worth bringing snacks or groceries from town with you to the cabana zone.
Here are two places to eat that we think are pretty good:
- Trecelunas Cafe - This little cafe serves strong coffee, homemade bread, fresh fish, and good breakfasts. The owners are very friendly and outgoing, speak English (she's from Canada), and will give you great tips for cool things to do in the area.
- Que Fresco is our favorite place to eat in the zona hotelera area. It's located right on the beach and you can hear the waves lap on the shore as you munch on brick oven pizza or sip a michelada. The pizza is the best in this part of the world and the other food (including some vegetarian options) is quite good and relatively in-expensive.
Both of these places are an easy 10 minute walk south of Cabanas Copal. Trecelunas is on the right (if you're walking south) in the middle of the the small village. Que Fresco is on the left at the end of the village at the Zamas Hotel.