Grant and I LOVE Mexico! We’ve been at least a dozen times and we cannot get enough! The food, the people, the language, the landscape; it is all sublime. But this past weekend we died and went to Mexico heaven aka TULUM!!!
I hadn’t heard of Tulum until a year or so ago, but it is becoming exponentially more popular and on the radar of travelers. However it is still far behind its Quintana Roo neighbors; Cancun, Playa del Carmen, and Cozumel. And when I say “far behind” I mean in the best way possible! Such as no mega resorts, no cruise ship ports, and no inauthentic Mexican food.
If you can imagine the best parts of Europe, Southern California, and Mexico having a baby… that is Tulum! It is seriously a dream town and I’m already planning my next visit.
Here’s the low down.
Tulum is divided into two parts: Pueblo and The Beach (Zona Hotelera)
- Pueblo is the town center of Tulum consisting of one main road and 2 or 3 stoplights. It has a locals only vibe and is about 3 miles from the beach. It is lined with shops, restaurants, and small businesses. Most places are Spanish speaking only and with the exception of 2 Subways (so random) there are no chain restaurants or tall buildings. During the day Pueblo is pretty relaxed with people biking or walking around but just wait … At nighttime the streets come alive! Behind previously closed garage doors are trendy bars and restaurants beaming with live music, divine aromas, and romantic lights.
- The Beach (Zona Hotelera) is the hotel zone right on the beach with more of a touristy vibe. But these are not your average hotels. They are charming boutique hotels right on the sand! Tulum is the epitome of eco-chic. Everything is open air, eco friendly, and has a seamless transition from indoors to outdoors. Aside from accommodations, the beach has fashion boutiques, beach bars, and restaurants with delicious, healthy options! (I’m looking at you vegan, paleo, gluten free people) The best part: there is yoga on every corner. Literally. It is a yogi’s mecca AND it’s all stunning beachfront yoga!
We were only in Tulum for a long weekend but we packed a bunch of fun in!
On our drive down from Cancun we took a break in Playa Del Carmel for a late breakfast. Playa is pretty touristy but the restaurant we ate at was far from it. We chose it simply on proximity to our street parking spot. We were starved so we weren’t feeling very picky. But in true Davis fashion, we found a hidden gem! El Jardin had unreal chilaquiles, great service, and cheap prices! We chatted with the owner for a while and they have an AirBnb rental in the back named Funky House and live music in the evenings!
We stopped in Simple to cool off with a cerveza while exploring the Zona Hotelera. This open air seafood restaurant is effortlessly trendy and my favorite part: their fresh catch displayed under a “good vibes” sign. We met a couple who had just went spearfishing for lionfish and they were having it prepared by the chef they knew. Davis luck strikes again! Lionfish is super poisonous unless prepared correctly but the talented chef made ceviche and a sashimi scampi that was mouthwatering. Knowing your fish is super fresh and was swimming an hour ago, makes it that much better!
El Camello Jr
We biked here from our AirBnb (which was AMAZING and also in Pueblo) and our dinner was excellent. The seafood was so fresh. Grant had fish and I had surf n turf kabobs, complete with all the Mexican fixings (rice, beans, salsa, guac). We didn’t try the ceviche but it was one of their popular dishes and looked great! Per usual in Mexico, the price was right too. We spent under $25 including our appetizer and beers!
Go to lunch in Pueblo and you will find the best.tacos.ever. Coming from someone who lives in San Diego, that is HUGE! A friend recommended this one to us and it was crazy good! It’s a hole in the wall where everyone speaks Spanish but you have to go! Order the conchita tacos and cover them with all the sauces available. NOM. Best part: They are literally less than $1 USD. You can pick up your jaw now.
Located in Zona Hotelera and famous in all of Tulum, Hartwood came highly recommended. It was a foodie heaven with fresh locally sourced ingredients paired with flavorful libations. It is pretty upscale and reservations are hard to come by but the atmosphere is perfect and the food is delicious. Grant thought it was overrated and I thought it was as expected but it will cost you a pretty penny. We didn’t skimp on ordering but we spent an easy $100 USD. Honestly, if I didn’t know I could get life-changing 70 cent tacos 3 miles away, I may have liked it more.
Yep, burrito love, they nailed it. We eat burritos once a week so we came in critical and left impressed! They have a variety of awesome sauces but the burritos don’t even need it! Bonus: There are lots of health conscious options. Grant had a vegan burrito and I had vegetarian; both were SO YUMMY! The look and feel of the restaurant was as good as the food. The atmosphere was super trendy, similar to those by the beach but this one was right in Pueblo.
When we arrived in Tulum we were kind of in a funk after traveling (and breaking my iPhone / almost breaking the rental car) and we needed a pick me up. An iced coffee sounded divine so we headed to Ki’Bok in Pueblo. It came recommended from a friend and did not disappoint. The espresso drinks were delish!
Coco Beach Club
While walking on the beach in Zona Hotelera we found Coco. As if the beach isn’t gorgeous enough with its screensaver like perfectness, Coco has all the vibes. White washed with hints of turquoise and swings at the bar, it is a boutique eco chic dream. The drinks were average and US priced but you’re paying for the atmosphere and it is perfect! Insider Tip: After a dip in the warm, clear Caribbean rinse off under the conch shell shower…mermaid goals !
Batey Mojito Bar
Right in the middle of Pueblo, This place was SO much fun! The bar is nestled between a few restaurants but you can’t miss it with the crazy painted VW Bug parked out front. Batey has a variety of excellent mojitos, complete with sugarcane straws…mmm tasty! But what really sealed the deal for us was the live music! The band was awesome and the crowd, a good mix of tourists and locals, was so into it. We left around midnight and it was still bumpin’.
Okay, I LOVED this place. In the heart of Zona Hotelera it is the ultimate trendy cocktail bar. Throw some elderflower and lavender in a drink and I’m sold! The cocktails even have names like Gypsy Disco and Stardust. The food is supposed to be great too but we came after dinner and sat in the lounge. It is dimly lit with lots of candles, a retro disco ball, and pillows everywhere! Insider Tip: Pay with pesos over USD, their exchange rate sucks!
Papaya Playa Project
This place is great! We happened to be in town during Vegan Fest and the full moon so we got double doses of goodness. We didn’t have time to attend Vegan Fest but we did make it to yoga at PPP which was free due to the special event! San Diego has great yoga so I had high expectations and they were exceeded. If you haven’t heard the waves crash during Shavasana, you haven’t lived! Also at Papaya Playa Project was the full moon party. The entire town was talking about it and most were attending! It was my first full moon party but Grant’s second (he went in Thailand) so we were expecting fire twirlers and body paint. The PPP one was a much different (but awesome) vibe. It was basically a night time beach party complete with bottle service and a DJ spinning house music. It was a blast!
About 20 minutes north of Tulum is Akumal, which in Mayan means “place of the turtle” and it sure is! I love sea turtles so we did not want to miss the chance to snorkel here. Everyone from the parking lot attendant to the guy on the beach with a clipboard will try to get you to pay $40 USD for the snorkel tour. Don’t do it! We brought our on snorkels, paid $3 USD to park and swam right in! We saw two turtles in about 30 minutes! The water is clear, calm, and the depth is only 6-8 ft so if you’re a confident swimmer I say skip the tour!
The Yucatan Peninsula is known for its cenotes. They are basically freshwater caves made from limestone and they are everywhere! This was something I really wanted to do but we were running low on time so we went to a quick one on the side of the road. It was super cheap and a locals only spot. More of a freshwater pond than a cave but still cool. Next time we visit, we will go back to some of the bigger ones!
You can’t go to Tulum without seeing the Mayan ruins! It was about 10 degrees too hot and high noon so we didn’t stop to read every plaque but we definitely experienced the ruins! It is really cool to peek at ancient history and the location is top notch. The Mayans had that part figured out! Insider Tip: Don’t forget a swimsuit! There are stairs that lead from the ruins directly to the beach and it was so refreshing to go for a swim after trekking around in the heat.
Check out this video from our trip to Tulum!
** We went back to Tulum, because we couldn’t get enough! Read more here.
For more information on Mexico, grab this Lonely Planet guide book.
Inspired Recipe: Blackened Fish Tacos from Host the Toast
This Mexican seafood mix has me dreaming of Tulum. The blackened rub is SO YUMMY! It is spicy and savory with a hint of brown sugar, ahh! We used fresh bluefin tuna, but I think it would be great on any type of fish or shrimp. Buen provecho!Blackened Fish Tacos with Avocado-Cilantro Sauce
2 thoughts on “Tulum, Mexico’s Best Kept Secret…Until Now”
What do you do with your personal items, like money and passports when swimming at the beaches in Tulum or Akuml?
Great question! We don’t keep our passports on us on day excursions but we keep a photocopy in our luggage and a digital copy in our Google Drive (cloud). As for money we usually just try to keep the minimum amount on us that we need for the day and leave the rest in the safe in our room. Other than that we keep a beach bag and try to have it where we can see it from the water. If we think it is necessary we will take turns swimming but usually, it is not. We have had people as us to watch their stuff while they go swimming which we have gladly done so that could be an option also. If you really want to play it safe you could get a daybed at one of the many resorts. Some of the Cenotes offer lockers that you can use also.
Luckily we have not had too much trouble with the crime or getting our stuff stolen (other than flip flops). Hope this helps!