tulum city guide
by Juliet Bryant
Imagine this. 6:00, rising sun through the blinds. Throw on semi-damp bathing suits, throw the towels into the bicycle basket, peddle fast, shirttails flying. Only the early workers are out . All is quiet with anticipation. Stop for a jungle grown banana, eat it on the way down the little path. Ah, the glorious beach. All to yourselves. Clothes off, dive in, laughs, splashing water. All is peaceful. The world is yours. Or imagine this. Late night, on the back of the moped. Pull over suddenly, take off your helmet, try to act casual, where are you? He grabs your hand, you sneak through the private hotel (does this mean you’re adventurous?) down to the beach. The sky opens up above you, full of stars, shooting stars. You dust the sand off the beach chair, lay down and look up, breathless. Or this. Weightless, turning, pushed by the waves, pop up, brush the saltwater out of your eyes, and see that clean, beautiful blue, spanning as far as you can see, met by graceful palm trees. Walk up, grab a towel, buy a coconut, and think, ok, I’ve finally figured out how to do life. Yup, you’re imagining Tulum.
Ohhh Tulum. How can I describe it? Full of mosquitos, seaweed, taxi strikes, bad water, blazing hot weather, corrupt police, overpriced stuff, and you can’t even flush your toilet paper down. Wait - what? Tulum, like every other place on earth, is not perfect. I feel like that needs to be said because instagram culture can misrepresent this. You’re left unprepared and surprised once you get there, but fear not! My goal is to make sure you have the very best time possible in every way, so Imma do you better than that! I’ll tell you everything I wish I’d known beforehand but had to go there to find out. Every place has its quirks, so the best thing to do is to know about and be prepared for them! This guide will prepare you to experience the very best of this breath-taking, soul invigorating paradise called Tulum!
I got that happy feeling in my soul when I saw our little hut for the first time. The palm roof stretches far above a luxurious white bed. I felt like we were in the film Against All Odds. It’s a timeless little hut - you could have been traveling to the Yucatan in the 60’s and it would be just the same. Down the winding path, past all the other cabanas, through the lush jungle, you’ll see the beach, blue blue water, black hammocks and lots of comfy chairs.
One thing that makes staying at Coco a very, let’s say, real experience is that unless you book a lux room there is no AC. This is the case with most of the hotels on the beach front; there isn’t an electrical grid in the beach zone so all electricity is made by generators. This makes some aspects really fun, I’ll tell you more in the Dine section! We were worried about not having A.C. and couldn’t find much on the internet about it before we went. I’ll save you the trouble and tell you: it’s quite pleasant if your room either has a fan in it or if it’s right on the beach. The beach is very cool, pleasant, and breezy, but as soon as you walk into the jungle, ooof, sticky humidity. There. I just saved you 30 minutes of googling!
The second place we stayed was the beautifully designed Highline. The architecture is definitely the star here, with cool breezes from the garden greeting you in the open air reception. It has a rooftop pool, too! We liked the Highline, but the stay was made great by renting a moped. The Highline is in a completely new BIG neighborhood, Aldea Zama, where neat new hotels are being built. If you look at the map, there’s the beach zone, there’s the town of Tulum, and in between is Aldea Zama. This means it’s a little trip to either the town or beach. It’s doable by bike (which are available for rent at the front desk for about $10 USD/day) and perfect for a moped. You won’t find taxis here, but the front desk can call one for you. On Airbnb, a lot of the places in this neighborhood have great prices, and are very nice, if you don’t mind a taking little extra time getting around!
We loved Tata! Instagram perfect, amazing service, and the most comfortable beach chairs? Yes please! Tata is attractive inside and out, is superrr chill, and everyone there was so friendly! We loved the drinks, and the fruit smoothies were our favorites! I can’t remember how many I had, but I’d be ashamed to admit the number if I did. SO yummy! I think the day we spent at Tata was the most relaxing of the whole trip, so go here if you want to get rejuvenated while surrounded by beautiful design!
Worth mentioning also is Habitas. Uber cool, boho chic. I’ll send you to my know-it-all friend, google, for that one!
In my personal opinion, you could go to Tulum for the food alone. A delightful gastronomical experience indeed! Noma has blessed Tulum, if that tells you anything. Tulum is a place that absolutely delighted my senses with its lovely gourmet offerings. Ok, lets get to it!
There are really two kinds of eating when it comes to food in Tulum. One is fine dining (hip and delicious), and the other is authentic, local, 50-cent-taco, Mexican fare. There’s also another category which maybe I’d call breakfast fine dining but it’s really just smoothie bowls - because smoothie bowl places are still sort of fancy when compared to 50 cent tacos.
P.S., it’s good to know, all the fine dining and smoothie bowls will be on the beach road next to the ocean, and all the real cheap Mexican places will be in town.
There is something very special about Tulum’s fine dining. For one, because there is no electrical grid, the restaurants feel like a fairyland, lit by candlelight under the palms and jungle leaves. You feel as if you’ve time traveled because dishes are cooked outdoors in big fire ovens, herbs are kept fresh in mason jars of water and produce is perfectly ripe and local. The flavors are all out of this world, and the ambiance is cool off the chain.
Arca - heavenly ambiance, heavenly food, uber romantic. They styled our table with each dish, explained each flavor, and told us how we should best enjoy it. It’s that neat.
Safari - get this, the kitchen at Safari is an airstream trailer and the tacos are cooked over a campfire! How fun is that? You’ll love it.
Hartwood - I know I’m not unique when I say this was one of my favorites! You’ll have to see for yourself…just make sure you make a reservation a month in advance OR show up half an hour before opening to grab a place in line.
Kitchen Table - here’s another spot that will tickle your fancy with the most romantic setting and delicious food! We had the octopus, which I thought was beautiful and strange; my husband thought it was delicious!
MurMur - the one restaurant that has a roof, so go here if it does shower while you’re in Tulum! Expect tasty seafood offerings and great service!
Raw Love - this was probably my favorite breakfast spot. Delicious coffees, fresh and flavorful smoothie bowls (I liked the Tropical Kiss!) and a super chill fairy vibe with wooden tables and a floor of sand!
Matcha Mama - a sensation in Tulum. It would be quite entertaining to watch the Instagrams being made from the perspective of those who work there! You might recognize it from some well-known influencers. The smoothie bowls are even better than their reputation, and it’s definitely a must go place!
When I had my first plate of real tacos, I was a happy woman. It brought back a whole lotta nostalgia for me — I’m a California girl and when my family would get together we’d always be on the hunt for the best hole-in-the-wall Mexican. We were starving, and Chafin said: “I’m getting 11 tacos”, so we did, and had two cokes in glass bottles, and it was all $10. The room was red, no ac of course, the plastic tables were red, the tablecloth was red, with coca-cola polar bears or something, the plates were red, it was all kinda ugly, that’s how you know it’s a really good hole in the wall (plus the trip advisor reviews).
One thing to note is that all these little places in Mexico are sit down. I was expecting we’d just go and order and come when we’re called, taco bell style, you know, but Mexicans are not in such a rush like we are in America. So you sit down, enjoy your food, and get waited on while you eat your 50 cent tacos. When you’re ready to pay, make eye contact and ask for the bill. Because they’re so good at taking it slow (a good place for vacation am I right?) it’s considered rude there to ask if you’re ready for the check.
Antojitos La Chiapaneca - this is the spot I was just talking about, with all the red and 50 cent tacos, and it is VERY good!
El Camello Jr - for super fresh seafood! I liked the popcorn shrimp, and most everyone raves about the ceviche.
Taqueria Honorio - go for breakfast, it closes at 2!
Don Beto - mas tacos!
La Campanella - an adorable spot to stop for ice-cream or very good lattes!
I don’t think ya really need a lot of direction here. You could go soak in the sun, swim in the ocean, breath deep, and tan for a week and you’d have the perfect vacation! However, if you want to spice it up a little, some things you’ll want to make sure you do before leaving are visit the cenotes, see the ruins, and do a lil shopping.
The Cenotes are something magical. I fancied myself an 18th century explorer, seeing them for the first time with wondering eyes, a secret from the rest of the world, never before discovered. Some are in caverns, some are partly covered, and some are full in the open, almost like a lake, but all of them are full of crystal clear water. What are they? One of the longest underground rivers in the world runs through this area, and sections of the earth have fallen in on it, creating an opening into the sparking, pure, azure water. Cenotes used to be the only source of fresh water in the jungle for the Mayans, and they considered by them to be sacred. We visited the Gran Cenote, which is spectacularly beautiful and also very crowded. There is another cenote just a bit up the road from the Gran Cenote, called Cenote Carwash. Other popular cenotes are Dos Ojos and Cenotes Sac Actún, which are close together and about an hour drive from Tulum. There are many, many, cenotes but their secrets are protected by the locals and I am happy that they have they’ve kept some of their history to themselves! If you want to get to a low key spot, ask a taxi driver to take you there (make sure you ask him to wait or you won’t have a way back!).
I always thought the Mayans were straight savages but guess what? They believe that the Mayans were more culturally advanced than the Egyptians! Yes, they had poets, politicians, thinkers…the ruins are full of mysteries and stories.
If you’re smart (unlike us) you’ll get there at opening to avoid the two evils that exist there in modern days: the hordes of tourists and the blazing sun. If you’re smarter still, you’ll wear a bathing suit under your clothes so you can take a dip in the beach after. For me, that was undoubtedly the best part. If you do these two things I know you’re a smart cookie, so also book a tour because it is SO much more interesting to hear stories from someone who is passionate about the ruins, and their knowledge about their history will make all that rubble take on shape and meaning.
You’re in a very fun place for doing a little shopping! Are you super ultra cool with a fat wallet on hand? Then you should shop your heart out at the boutiques along the beach because I think they will blow your mind. Even if that’s not you, you should still peek in some of the shops that draw you because they are inspiring and fun!
OR are you down for the real deal, hand-made Mexican goods, and some good ole haggling? Then you really need to go to the shops in town! They are so much fun, colorful, and lively. The owner will try to talk you into everything and you’ll need to talk them into a good price! The trick is, if you want to buy more than one thing, look around at what all the shops have to offer, then pick one and buy everything you want there. You’ll get a better deal when buying more. Just say, “Will you take *this many* pesos if I buy everything?” For the most part, things are very overpriced until you haggle. I got all of my baskets and woven purses for $60 USD, whereas if I had bought them from the guy down the street they would have been $170 USD. All the shops are priced differently and if they look you up and down before telling you how much it is, you know you’re getting a bad deal and should definitely haggle. When I did buy everything I wanted, it was at a place that I could tell was very reasonable and would be fair. His prices were predefined and much cheaper than the other places.
I think you’re ready for a trip to Tulum! But, remember all that’s stuff I told you to imagine at the beginning of this, that stuff I did? Scratch that! How will YOU experience Tulum? That is the question. You’ll make your own memories! I hope all this insight will empower you to have the MOST amazing time you for you! Stick to the plan, break all the rules, it’s up to you. Remember, none of what you do has to be instagram perfect and it can all be done your own way! Just make sure you breathe deeply, feel free, and go and enjoy all the delights Tulum has to offer!
Farewell friends! Drink from a coconut for me!