The tiny town of Tulum, Mexico, is two hours south of, and light years from, crazy Cancun, and a four hour haul north of the Belize border. The Riviera Maya is the area of Mexico's Caribbean coast from Cancun to roughly Tulum, and Tulum is about a half hour south of gringo playground Playa del Carmen. The coastline stretching from about 100 miles south of Tulum to Belize is called the Costa Maya.
Why You Need to Visit Tulum
Tulum is everything that's wonderful about the Mexican Caribbean. It's been discovered, for sure, but the sugar white beaches are still some of the best I've ever stepped foot on. The ocean is as clear as gin and you can get a big meal by the bus station for two bucks. You can also sleep in Tulum for mere pesos.
If that's not enough, how about the fun, open-air bars and incredible Mayan ruins? Get here before the rest of the world discovers it. Speaking of crowds, visit nearby ruins and parks in the early morning -- Cancun crowds are bussed in later and you'll be swarmed by them if you opt to visit anywhere then.
What's it Like in Tulum?
Tulum is quiet, with very few clubs or nightlife to speak of except during Carnival season in February. The main part of town lies along either side of Highway 307, which traverses the Riviera Maya from Cancun south, and consists of some touristy stalls, local shops, and what seems like dozens of places to eat chicken. The town hosts some budget digs and internet cafes. The "Hotel Zone" lies one mile east on the beach, as do the famous Mayan Tulum ruins.
What About Tulum's Hotel Zone?
Tulum's "Hotel Zone", on a beach road parallel to the coast, is where what passes for action is, and that's a good thing. It's almost a separate place from the town of Tulum, and has a completely different vibe.
The three mile-long stretch is populated by some deluxe digs these days, but hammocks under palapas are still to be had for $10/night. Generators supply electricity for much of the day, with occasion power cuts at busy times. Expect friendly locals, yoga, health vibes, and early-ish nights.
How to Get to Tulum
Hopefully I've convinced you to head to Tulum, in which case your first steps are to figure out how to get there. Fortunately, it's super simple and inexpensive.
To get to Tulum, you'll most likely opt to fly into Cancun's airport, which is the closest one to the town. From there you'll be able to take a shuttle to the main bus station in the city center (called "centro"). Be sure to look at the bus' reader board to find out where it's going.
From the central bus station, you'll be able to hop on a bus south on Highway 307 to Playa del Carmen, and finally, a bus to Tulum from there. Altogether, the journey shouldn't take more than an hour and will cost under $10.
You can also rent a car at Cancun airport, but you won't need a car unless you plan to pack your days with lots of sightseeing -- local Mexican buses in the Yucatan can take you everywhere for very little money. It cost's just $2 to make the 20 minute journey from Playa del Carmen to Tulum, for example..
Where to Stay in Tulum
Accommodation options in Tulum range from expensive ecolodges to palapa-roofed beach cabanas for $10 a night. Take a look at the Hotel Zone's Piedra Escondida if you're looking for a place to splurge on -- stay upstairs in room six and watch the sun rise over the Caribbean through French doors leading to a hardwood mini-balcony.
Tip: score some fresh fruit for a bargain price at the downtown market if your guesthouse doesn't offer breakfast.
Where to Eat
Mexico's pollo obsession is widespread here, with most spots devoted to chicken, and fresh fish is just as easy to find. For some fantastic fresh fish at a great price, try Don Cafeto, which is located downtown.
While you're in Tulum, look for signs reading, "Aguas Frescas" for fruity cold drinks that are fantastic for cooling down under the hot Mexican sun. Try tepache, too, whcih is pineapple agua fresca with piloncillo (Mexican sugar) and canela (Mexican cinnamon).
For a fancy meal, splurge on dinner at Zamas in the Hotel Zone. There's Cuban hip hop on the speakers, fresh fish and cold, cold beer on the table. Perfecto!
What to Do While You're There
Laying on the beach gets oh so boring...
- Check out Tulum's prehistoric Mayan ruins -- $3.50 (free on Sunday) -- you can get a guide for $25, but I don't think it's worth it.
- Underwater park Xel ha -- about $25. It's a little theme-parkish, but still lots of fun. Get there before the tour buses (opens at 8:00 a.m.) and bring a GoPro with you to capture your underwater adventures.
- You must swim in a cenote (clear, fresh water sinkholes) -- see the Gran Cenote, which is located west on the road to Coba, and well signposted.
- See Aktun Chen, which is an above-ground cave park near Akumal. About $20.
- Tour nearby Sian Ka'an -- an incredible nature reserve.
Mexico Travel FAQ
Or check out these specific FAQ's:
An itinerary and budget for a week on the Riviera Maya
...or how to spend a week on the Riviera Maya in seven spectacular days.
Days One and Two:
Fly into Cancun; spend two nights in a breakfast-included hostel to save the bucks for Cancun clubs.
- Eat breakfast on the beach.
- Walk north on the Hotel Zone road to the ruins ($3.50 entry -- free on Sunday). Arrive at 8:00 to miss the tour bus crowds.
- See the Guatemalan "pole dancers" in the ruins parking lot (free; tip the guys, though).
- Lounge on the beach -- have a limonada (fresh lemons, sugar and water).
- Eat dinner in town at a chicken stand, opting for the one with the biggest queue ($2-10).
- Eat breakfast at the sidewalk restaurant next to the downtown bus station.
- Catch the bus to Sian Ka'an at Ana y Jose's or hitchike to the Gran Cenote sinkhole (free) for swimming and lounging.
- Splurge on dinner at Zamas in the Hotel Zone ($20).
Days Six and Seven
- Bus it back to Cancun ($10) -- now you know which hostel you like ($10). A last night of partying, then head home again.
Total land budget for a week of student travel on the Mayan Riviera:
- Buses - about $30
- Cozumel ferry - $17
- Hostels - $60 plus tax (varies by 10%)
- Breakfast - about $5-7 total
- Lunch - about $2-5 day (street food rules) -- $21
- Dinner - average $7 per night -- $42
- Tulum ruins - $3.50
Total amount spent: $181
This article has been edited and updated by Lauren Juliff.