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Tulum: Where to Eat & Play
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Alan and I have been coming to Tulum for at least a decade, and since 2018 we have lived here for half of the year. We are invested in it, literally (we own property) and emotionally (we love the place). If there is any destination in which we are experts, it’s Tulum and its surroundings. Still, and even though I get asked for recommendations for Tulum at least once a month, it has taken me a long time to actually publish something about it. I guess the more you love a place the more protective you are of it, specially when it’s changing rapidly and in ways you are not particularly excited about. But, I think it’s time to share what I think is the best of Tulum.
You might have guessed this by now, but this post is not going to tell you how to party hard in Tulum. It’s also not going to discuss how Tulum is growing at what seems like an unsustainable pace. I am not here to try to convince you Tulum is the best place on earth, nor I am here to warn you about the hype. That said, we have spent years in the area and have traveled through it extensively, so I have a thing or two to say about which cenotes to visit, which tacos to eat, and which ruins are the most impressive. As should be the case when traveling anywhere, please treat it as your home and be respectful of both people and nature.
If you are looking to explore the Yucatan peninsula (it’s so worth it!) take a look at another post that deep dives on that: Yucatan Beyond Pretty Beaches
Here is a google map with the locations of all the recommendations in this blog post!
Why I Love Tulum
I really love Tulum.
I love the vibrant colors, how everywhere you look you see bright green from the abundant nature and deep blue from the expansive sky.
I love the sounds and smells, of the fresh tropical storms, of the earthy vegetation, of the salty ocean. Overwhelming the senses in all the right ways.
I love its long piece of sparkly Caribbean coast, with white soft sand and waters that are sometimes peaceful, and sometimes forceful. I love the infinite shades of blue of the sea, and I even love that sometimes it’s not as blue, when sargassum currents come and engulf the sea, as it makes me value the transparent waters so much more.
I love the underground river system and the cenotes that are all over this precious peninsula. I love how sometimes the soil collapses to allow us plain humans to wonder at the crystal clear cool waters they expose, sometimes fully open to the sky, sometimes cavernous and full of stalactites and bats. They are truly something out of this world.
I love the food, from the taco stand to the nested-in-the-jungle firewood restaurant. From the Italian trattoria to the fried fish by the road. From the Argentinian empanadas to the local
I love the history of this small town, that went from a Mayan powerhouse, to a small fishing town sparsely populated and seldomly visited, to a yoga retreat paradise, to a drugs-fueled rave center, to a tech-bro festival mecca. Well, I am not super into the last phases of town, but hey, change is the only constant and that means the town will reinvent itself again. Throughout all of its phases, Tulum has remained a special place worth visiting.
I love the vibe, that Tulum aesthetic that is now common in Instagram shots, and one of the things that has made it so popular. The candle-lit spaces, the open architecture, the live music-filled spaces, all of it is alluring.
I just love Tulum, with all its contradictions.
When to Go
When you go matters! The three big things to keep in mind when deciding when to go: weather, seaweed, and crowds
Tulum is a tropical destination, so for the most part the weather will cooperate throughout the year. However, you should keep it mind that it has two main seasons: rainy and dry. The rainy season is from May to October, and the dry season is from November to April. The temperature in January and February can get “chilly” (never lower than 67 degrees F though). The summers are humid and wet, but rain in the tropics is fast and furious, so even when it rains it ends fast (except when there is a hurricane). The best months in terms of weather are March, April, October, and November.
Over the past few years Tulum, and many other Caribbean beaches, have been affected by sargassum. Basically heaps of seaweed just wash ashore, sometimes only a little and sometimes so much you literally cannot swim in the ocean. The Mexican government has implemented several measures to try to help with the situation, including barriers at sea and cleaning programs on the beach, but there are limitations to those.
The reasons for this phenomenon are heavily debated, and generally it’s hard to predict its timing and intensity, even on a day to day basis. However, Tulum is generally affected from April to October in various degrees. If you want to fully avoid it, don’t go during that time. But, if you happen to visit Tulum during this season it’s also not the end of the world. Here are some tips to deal with it:
There is plenty to do other than go to the beach. You can visit cenotes, swim in lagoons, admire ruins, or even go for a day trip to Valladolid or a weekend trip to Bacalar! Check out Yucatan Beyond Pretty Beaches for more on this.
If you still want beach time, you have options! The west coast of Cozumel is free of sargassum year around due to its location (it’s protected by the rest of the island). Holbox island is also spared, although that is farther away so you should plan to stay a night (or 5 :))
Not all beaches are affected by the sargassum the same, it depends on the currents!. For daily information on the amount of seaweed on each different beach on the coast, visit the Facebook Group Red de Monitoreo del Sargazo de Quintana Roo
Ugh, the crowds. Tulum has become an extremely popular destination for Americans, and it can get very busy! The worst time is mid-December through February, when the town all but collapses from the amount of tourists looking to party. Traffic on the beach road can be horrific, and just the vibe… well it’s not our thing. I’d avoid it at all costs. “Low season” is generally May to December.
Best Time to Visit Overall
In our opinion, the best time to visit Tulum is in the Fall: October, November, and the first part of December. The weather is very pleasant (although it can be rainy sometimes, specially in Oct), the town is not very busy, and sargassum is generally gone by then. The Spring (March, April) is also great due to weather (no rains) and less crowds, but sargassum season has been arriving early in the past couple of years, so it’s not guaranteed you will have a sargassum-free visit then. Summers are pretty hot, and also rainy, so not the greatest time to visit.
What To Do
The entire Yucatan peninsula has an extensive underground river system. This is because the soil is very porous (limestone), so water filters through it. When the limestone bedrock collapses it creates a sinkhole called cenote. There are thousands in the peninsula and they are some of the most impressive places you will ever visit. Keep in mind cenote water is cool, at around 77 F (25 C), year round.
Cenotes are generally in private land, so you have to pay to see them. Some you can just pay a small entrance fee and spend as much time as you want in them exploring by yourself, and some are more expensive and part of complexes that make you go with a guide (these can sometimes get more crowded, but are worth it for the diversity). If you have time, go to all, every cenote is unique.
Tankah, Dos Ojos, Casa Tortuga
Tankah is my favorite because it has a bit of everything and it’s less crowded. You get to zip line over a cenote, go canoeing in one, and have a wonderful Mexican lunch. Keep in mind Tankah is a bit more expensive than others and you have to reserve beforehand, but this makes it less crowded and even more special. You can book it with Agua Clara or any other tour operator.
Gran Cenote, Corazón, Escondido, Crystal, Eden, Taak Bi Ha, Yax Kin, Calavera
All of these are beautiful and unique! Gran Cenote is special but very popular, Escondido and Crystal are right next to each other and close to town, Corazon is a good one to spend the day at, Taak Bi Ha and Yax Kin are a bit out of town. There are many cenotes in other areas of the Yucatan peninsula that are very special, some of my favorites are near Valladolid, which is an easy day trip from Tulum. For recommendation on those and other Yucatan areas, check out the blog post: Yucatan Beyond Pretty Beaches
Sian Ka’an Natural Reserve
This is probably my top thing to do in the area and the place I take every single visitor to. Sian Ka’an means “origin of the sky” and this feels true when you are navigating in turquoise waters through narrow mangroves. Sian Ka’an is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that includes 528,148 hectares of diverse tropical forests, palm savannah, pristine wetlands, lagoons, extensive mangrove, as well as sandy beaches and dunes (120 km of coastline!). My point is: there is lots to see and lots of ways of seeing it. But, to me, there are two main things you should do in the biosphere:
Float on a Lazy River Through Mangroves
One of a kind experience. Take a boat ride through several lagoons and through narrow mangrove passages, and then jump in the fresh water and float with the current. You access this tour through the town of Muyil, not from the beach. There is also a tour from the beach side, but that one doesn’t take you floating, which is the best part!
You can drive directly to the town of Muyil, and stop to ask and organize the tour at SianKa’an Tours, or you can use any tour operator to coordinate it. Note that there is a short and a long tour. If you have time, do the long one, if you are lucky you will see manatees!
There are many impressive ruins around Tulum. Below are my favorite
These are some lovely ruins in a very lush setting, they are more unknown so way less crowded but still quite impressive. It makes sense to combine with floating in Sian Ka’an (above) since they are on the same area, and you can (and should) walk from the lagoon to the ruins through a beautiful jungle path through mangroves. If you do this don’t forget to walk up the observation tower for an expansive view of the jungle and the lagoon atop of the trees. If you have issues finding the path, just ask the boat driver where the observation tower is once you are done with the lagoon tour.
I love these ruins because you can rent a bike to see them. The complex is large so biking is the best way to explore them (and also the most fun!). You used to be able to climb the tallest pyramid, which is also one of the reasons I love it, but since covid started they haven’t allowed it any more. I am not sure if it will be possible again. Don’t forget to visit the cenotes close by, they are very unique (huge caves and jumping platforms!): Tamcach-Ha, Choo-Ha, and Multum-Ha.
The closest ruins to Tulum and the only Mayan ruins next to the ocean, the Tulum ruins are a must-see. You can get to them through the highway or through the beach road but it’s easier to do it through the highway. If you want to skip the crowds and the heat, go at sunset (starting at 4:30pm). Tickets are more expensive but the extra cost is absolutely worth it to have the ruins by yourself during golden hour. Covid put a stop to these afternoon tours, but I have heard they are doing it again.
There are many other ruins around the Yucatan peninsula, such as the famous Chichen Itza. For recommendations on those, see Yucatan Beyond Pretty Beaches
These fresh water lagoons are a great place to scape when you don’t want to go to the beach, either because you have come during sargassum season, or simply because you are looking to swim in fresh water.
Kaan Luum Lagoon
This is a lovely blue lagoon very close to town, it’s a great place to spend an afternoon. Very popular with locals. You can rent kayaks and paddle boards.
Another beauty of a lagoon, perfect to spend the entire day on the water. This one is farther from town so usually less crowded. It is in a Nature Reserve so you can combine the visit with a guided tour of the reserve in which you can see spider and howler monkeys!
Ah, so many options!
This is probably why you came. Tulum beach is incredible, and also very long so there are quite a few different areas you can go to. At the highest level, the beach is divided into two, to the right and to the left of the roundabout when getting to the beach road from town (the intersection between Av. Coba and Boca Paila).
The public beach is to the left, this is a shorter stretch of beach (about a mile) but easily accessible since it has a public entrance (it can get very crowded). This is where I come running in the mornings, and when I wake up early enough, see the sunrise. The sea is usually calmer, and you can see the ruins from here!
The longest stretch of beach (7miles to the beginning of the Sian Ka’an reserve, and 30miles to the end of the peninsula) is to the right of the roundabout. For the most part, you can only get to this part of the beach through a beach club, but there are infinite options. In my opinion both the beach itself and the ocean is prettier on this side. You could also keep driving that road until you hit the Sian Ka’an reserve which is a lot less developed and a great place to go if you are looking for solitude (keep in mind the roads can be pretty bad there).
If you want a beach chair and food/drinks, settle for a beach club and spend the day there. Note that most have a minimum spend per person, specially if you visit in high season. A few we like are:
To the left of the fork (public beach area)
Zazil Kin. Affordable, local vibe, lots of palm trees. Food is not great but also not terrible
Ikal. Fancy, cute, decent cocktails and food. Note that it doesn’t have chairs by the ocean
Tekio. Live music (DJs), little shade. Right where the main public beach area is.
To the right of the roundabout
Alma. This is our favorite beach club! It’s far enough to be pretty secluded but easy to get to and park. It is also affordable, and they don’t raise their entry fee depending on seasons. It’s very chill and the food is decent.
Ziggy’s. Excellent food and service. Small beach area. Raises entry fee in high season. We used to love this place and come very often, but it has become too popular and expensive lately.
Rosa del Viento. Secluded, comfortable.
El Ultimo Maya. Inside the Sian Ka’an (far), secluded.
This is a beauty of a beach, we go almost every weekend when we are in Tulum. You can park here (pay 60 pesos per person) and once you are at the beach walk left and find a spot to set up after the big hotel and the volleyball court. There are also a few beach clubs to the right, but to this beach we generally just take a cooler and do a picnic.
Great option for when most beaches are covered with seaweed as it has a protected area, and a couple of cenotes! It’s very close to Tulum. You have to pay 300 pesos/$15 per person and there is a single beach club which doesn’t have good food, so just plan to eat before/after!
This is a beach in a nature preserve and a favorite for nesting turtles. Because it’s protected you can’t take food and there are no beach clubs. It’s gorgeous and wild.
We have not been here yet but I think it’s worth a mention since it’s the furthest tip of the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve and it’s supposed to be incredible. You can get there if you drive on the beach road all the way to the Sian Ka’an Reserve entrance and then many many more miles, but the road is notoriously bad so you can also get there with a boat (and it’s common to see dolphins on the way!).
You can do most everything we recommend by yourself, but if you would like to book tours we highly recommend Agua Clara (Trip advisor), just ask for Eyal and mention Carla and Alan recommended you. They specialize in scuba diving in cenotes (!) but really do anything.
What To Eat and Drink
Oooooh the food!!! Tulum has great food, and a lot of diversity in restaurants, both in cuisine and in prices. In general, anything in town will be more affordable as it caters to both locals and tourists. Anything on the beach road (both jungle side and beach side) will be much more expensive, as those cater almost exclusively to tourists.
Note that there is a local delivery service called Tomato that works extremely well if you want to order something to your airbnb/hotel.
El Canaston. Best tacos sudados ever. Get the chicharrón prensado, requeson, and mole with mushroom! Pair it with one of their great fresh juices. Perfect for breakfast before heading to the beach.
Sabor de Mar. Excellent hole in the wall for Mexican seafood. Order the taco de costra de queso with poblano (on a flour tortilla) and the tacos fritos with marlin tinga. I dream about those tacos.
Cetli: if you want traditional Mexican (think: mole!) surrounded by colorful decorations then don’t look further that this cute place a bit outside of town. Great for dinner, but they also serve breakfast. Order the mezcal jamaica margarita, the Chile en Nogada, the cheese enchiladas with green mole, and the Chile filled with Huitlacoche and peanut mole (spicy!).
Taqueria Honorio: good greasy tacos in town for breakfast, cochinita FTW! A perfect cure for hangover.
Humo. Pretty space and one of the best breakfasts in town (nice for dinner as well). Their chilaquiles are excellent.
Tropitacos: tacos al pastor are not traditionally from this area so they are actually not easy to find (at least not good), but this place is consistently good.
La Chapaneca: *the* local spot to grab traditional Yucatecan fair: panuchos, salbutes, empanadas, and every other tortilla permutation from the Yucantan peninsula. Try a bit of everything.
Burrito Amor: I don’t like burritos, but I *love* these ones! Our favorite is their rib eye, but we also like their pork and pineapple. Good strong margaritas too!
Tres Galeones: love this cute little spot. Great for a good ambience dinner than won’t break the bank. Very good cocktails and Mexican food (mostly seafood).
El Camello Jr: An institution for fresh seafood! Famous for its ceviche and fried fish, but everything is good.
Matcha Mama: good smoothies and healthy breakfast bowls. I buy all my coconut water and coconut milk from here. Three locations (beach, town, and Aldea Zama).
Pizza Papi. Lovely spot (behind Matcha Mama) with very good cocktails and vegan pizzas.
Tierra @ Holistika. Excellent spot for a healthy breakfast. It’s also a hotel, yoga mecca, and art center. Definitely worth visiting even if you are not eating there, make sure to walk around the grounds.
Botanica Garden Cafe. cute place for breakfast.
Acqua e Farina: very good little Italian spot.
Italdo. The best bakery in town, for both breads and pastries. I get all my bread from here (they have a beet one!) and I am obsessed with their Bombolone (pic below!). They also serve breakfast.
La Trattoria da Mauri e Simo: pasta pasta pasta.
Chaca Bar: in Aldea Zama (so not in town nor the beach). Good wood oven pizzas
Pizzine: Cool ambiance (and parties after dinner). Wood oven pizzas.
India Express Curry House. Very good Indian food. Have never been physically in the place (only ordered in).
Curry by Po Thai. Excellent Thai food, best in Tulum. Have never been physically in the place (only ordered in).
El Asadero: For good meat in town, this is your spot !
Palma Central: love this place with lots of food carts and live music almost nightly. Tuesdays are for salsa and it gets packed! I like the Argentinian empanadas place, and the Asian Bodega Thai.
Campanella: By far the best ice cream in town. Three locations (beach, town, and Aldea Zama). I am obsessed with their hazelnut passion fruit flavor.
Pasha: great Lebanese food and cute spot, but pricey for being in town.
The street behind the main Tulum plaza has street carts every night. Don’t miss having a marquesita from there! Rolled crispy waffle filled traditionally with cheese and cajeta, yum!
Beach Road: Jungle Side
Kitchen table: one of or favorite places in all of Tulum. Get the huitlacoche sope.
Hartwood: famous NY chef, always packed, very good, must make reservations way in advanced or go early.
Casa Banana. Excellent spot for meats. Also get the beet salad.
Arca: beautiful spot and great food and cocktails.
Treehouse: great cocktails and food right next to a gorgeous pool and house. Make sure to get there before sunset and have your first cocktails at the rooftop.
Beach Road: Beach Side
Posada Margarita: Eat yummy homemade pasta by the ocean with your feet on the sand.
Habitas. Pretty place with good sharable plates (many vegetarian). It often has events, live music, movie showings, etc.
Mezzanine. Good Thai food, beautiful views of the ocean.
Batta Sushi. Excellent sushi, get the omakase. There are no sea views but the restaurant’s architecture is beautiful and the hotel grounds are very pretty, make sure to walk around.
The Real Coconut. Good vegetarian place for both breakfast and dinner.
Zebra. Taco Thursday has live salsa music and all you can eat tacos (you can also just buy them individually, which is what we do).
Several beach clubs also have good restaurants, including Ahau, Ziggy’s, and Ikal
Bars & Live Music
Encanto Cantina. Excellent live music some days of the week. Check their instagram. We love the band Los Brockolis and they often play here.
Batey. Live music and art almost every night of the week. Great mojitos too.
La Tulumeña. Reggae every Friday by a great band called The Most High Band, and live music other nights as well.
Palma Central. Cool spot with lots of food carts and live music almost nightly. Tuesdays are for salsa!
Tulum Food Trucks. Karaoke on Wed and Sat! Good cocktails and they also often have live music too.
El Grifo. beers, lots of beers!
All the above are in town, as we don’t generally go to bars at the beach, but there is plenty to choose from including: Habitas, Casa Jaguar, Azulik, Gitano, Nomade, Ikal, etc.
A Temazcal is a ceremony which originated with pre-Hispanic Indigenous peoples in Mesoamerica. The term Temazcal comes from the Nahuatl word temazcalli or “house of heat”. It was done as part of a curative ceremony thought to purify the body after exertion such as after a battle or a ball game. It was also used for healing the sick, improving health, and for women to give birth.
A Temazcal ceremony usually lasts about 2 hours and is done in a type of sweat lodge, usually a circular dome made from volcanic rocks and cement adobe bricks. To produce steam, water is poured over heated volcanic stones in the middle of the dome. The ceremony is generally done with as many people as the dome fits (sitting shoulder to shoulder), with music, singing, in complete darkness, and with lots of steam. It’s an intense experience and not to be taken lightly. It can be deeply meaningful, beautiful and freeing.
I have only done it in Botanica hotel and highly recommend it.
Azulik describes itself as a place that “aims to reconnect individuals and tribes –both native and contemporary– with themselves, with one another, and with the environment”. They are mostly known for their very expensive hotel by the beach, which also has a famous rooftop bar. But, what I think is most impressive is their museums. They have one by the beach (right next to the hotel) and one next to the town of Muyil, inland in the jungle, called Uh May, which also has a restaurant. We actually haven’t been to the one in the jungle but have heard raving reviews. I recommend going to both, the architecture and style is just magical and are a true representation of “Tulum style”
Important Tip: Renting A Car
Renting a car in Tulum is worth it since there is lots to see outside of town and even to get to the beach or to town it’s useful to have one. There are a few important things to know about renting. Rental companies in Mexico will force you to get insurance when you pick up the car (and this is usually not shown in the total when you book). However, if your credit card provides insurance (many do) and you book through Expedia AND with Avis then, you can avoid this! This makes it much more affordable to rent. Note that if your credit card doesn’t include insurance you can just get it through Expedia. Also note that you will need to leave an open voucher of around $2.5k in case something major happens (that said, if something does happen your insurance will cover it).
Ok. that is it! All in all, go to Tulum!
But as with any other trip, go informed, be intentional, and take care of the place. It’s our home.