People used to think of Tulum as just ‘that place next to Cancún with the Mayan temples.’ But now it’s one of the most Instagrammed places in Mexico, and beachfront hotel rooms can go for $2,000 a night.
But is it really worth all the hype? Is Tulum worth visiting, or should you look elsewhere?
Over the next few paragraphs, we’ll take a more in-depth look at Tulum and give you all the info you need to decide if it should be your next vacation. So stay with us as we answer the question: is Tulum worth visiting?
But first, a little background.
Where is Tulum?
Tulum, which is the Yucatan word for ‘fence’ or ‘wall’, is a town on the Caribbean coastline of Mexico — it’s the lower of the three yellow markers on the above map. It’s 80 miles (130 km) from Cancún, which is just under two hours by road, and roughly 50 miles (80 km) from the Mexican island of Cozumel.
Tulum, officially called Municipio de Tulum, is one of the eleven municipalities that make up the Mexican state of Quintana Roo. The residential town of Tulum, which is set back from the beach area, has an estimated population of 24,700, which almost doubles during peak season.
Tulum is most famous for the ancient Mayan ruins which sit on top of 40-foot cliffs overlooking the beach.
Tulum in 60 Seconds: A (very) Brief History
First settled by the Mayans in the 6th century, Tulum was originally known as Zama, meaning ‘City of Dawn’, because it faces the sunrise, which is strong both physically and spiritually. Between the 11th and 15th centuries, Tulum became a major trading centre dealing in cotton, copperware and cacao beans, amongst others.
The Spanish invasion of Mexico in 1519 introduced unknown European diseases which proved fatal to the Mayans. Within 70 years the entire civilization had been wiped out, and the walled city with its Mayan temples was left to crumble.
In 1847, after having faced oppression for nearly 300 years, the Mayan people revolted against their Spanish lords in an uprising known as War of the Castes. The war officially ended in 1901, when the Mexican army occupied the Mayan capital of Chan Santa Cruz. The territory is now part of the Mexican state of Yucatan, but even today most Mayans refuse to recognise the state’s authority.
(Fun fact: Apart from its original meaning of fence or wall, ‘tulum’ is also the name of an East Anatolian traditional bagpipe, and a type of goats cheese from Turkey kneaded with water buffalo milk.)
What is the Best Time of Year to Go to Tulum?
Mexico follows the Caribbean system of only having two seasons — the wet (low) and the dry (high) — with two short ‘shoulder’ seasons in between. There are no official start or end dates for these seasons, mainly because they change as the weather moves across Mexico, but also because the hotels like to set their own seasons based on the rates they charge. However, for Tulum, the seasons are generally:
- Wet (Low) Season – June to October
- Shoulder Season – November to Early December
- Dry (High) Season – late-December to March
- Shoulder Season – April to May
Weather-wise, the best times to vacation in Tulum are Late November through to the start of May, when the temperature is hot but comfortable. The hottest months are July and August, with August feeling a lot hotter due to high humidity. That being said, even during the wet season there are sunny skies most of the time, as storms only last an hour or two.
Tulum also sits in the middle of a hurricane zone. Although hurricanes in this region are fairly infrequent, you should avoid booking in September and October, which is peak hurricane season. Hurricanes do not always follow the rules, and sometimes they don’t appear at all. If you’re feeling lucky and want to chance it, you’re bound to pick up some great hotel deals.
The Problem with Seaweed
Nobody minds a little bit of seaweed on the beach, but in Tulum the problem is, unfortunately, a massive one. Since 2015, great dunes of dirty-brown sargassum seaweed have been washing up on Tulum’s beaches, completely ruining the view and fouling the air with the stench of dead fish and other sea creatures. No one is sure where it comes from: some suggest Amazonian industrial development is belching fertilizer into the river which is carried across the Atlantic, others think that Mother Nature has just had enough of tourists littering what were once pristine beaches.
Either way, too much seaweed can ruin your beach days and stop you from swimming: two of the main reasons vacationers choose Tulum. It’s a known problem, and the government have installed special barriers and nets which are supposed to stop the seaweed from reaching the beaches. Unfortunately, these have proven ineffective, and the sargassum seaweed invasion continues.
There are several websites set up to monitor these massive sargassum blooms, and it’s worth checking the long-range forecasts to make sure your beach experience isn’t ruined by seaweed. We recommend checking the blog posts on mexicanist.com, but there are other sites that collate the same information.
Where to Stay in Tulum
The first thing you need to consider is how much you have to spend on accommodation because there’s a massive range of prices available.
Cheapest Option: Stay in Town
Let’s start with the cheapest option, which is to stay in the actual town of Tulum, known as Tulum Pueblo. The downside of staying here is that it’s a 15 to 20-minute drive from the Pueblo to the beach, although many choose to hire bikes and cycle to the seafront. But the upside, as we’ve already said, is that it’s cheap.
The Pueblo is very much the authentic Tulum, especially towards the end of the beach road where you’ll find fewer people and less traffic. Local restaurants serve real Mexican food and the bars serve cheap Mexican beer (and tequila, of course). The nightlife, it has to be said, is fantastic. Once the sun’s disappeared for the day, street parties spring up seemingly everywhere. If you want a wild night you’re spoilt for choice, with dance clubs and local bars that stay open all night.
Price-wise, it’s possible to find shared hostel rooms as cheap as $8 per day, especially if you book in advance. For hostels, we usually recommend booking through Hostelworld rather than the major hotel sites, as the prices can often be be lower. (Please note that we don’t have any associations with Hostelworld, and we don’t earn any commissions from recommending them to our readers.)
Hotel rooms in the Pueblo start at around $30 per night, and you can get a great B&B room for around $40. One of our well-travelled friends recently stayed at La Selva Mariposa and her reviews were excellent. It’s in a secluded spot at the edge of the jungle with a private swimming pool, a great choice of breakfasts, and free (strong) wifi. Ther are also a few luxury hotels in the pueblo, which you can book at a fraction of the cost of the beach resorts.
More Expensive Option: Stay by the Beach
If your heart is set on getting that famous Instagram shot of the beach bar swings (see below), then you’re going to have to flash the cash. The beachside hotels and resorts, including Coco Tulum which owns those swings, are in the area known as Playa Tulum. This is definitely the most expensive option, with prices starting at $200 per night — although that will only get you a ‘glamping’ spot on the beach, with no AC and no wifi.
An actual hotel room on the Playa will set you back upwards of $250 per night and the upmarket resorts, such as at the Coco, start at $650 for a beachfront suite. And for the height of luxury, the Premier Suite at the Be Tulum — the self-proclaimed most exclusive boutique hotel in the area — can be yours for $2,000 a night plus change.
Third Option: Go Eco Chic
A few minutes south of the Pueblo is a new luxury development, designed from the ground up to be self-sustainable and eco-friendly. Called Aldea Zama (‘Zama Village’), this new community is all about getting back to nature and finding your zen.
Set in 250 acres of natural wildlife, the whole area was designed to be pedestrian and bicycle-friendly, and many walking and biking trails take you into the jungle. Continuing the self-sustainable theme, Aldea Zama’s residential community is made up of houses and condos constructed from organic materials and powered by solar panels.
Many of the homes are offered as holiday rentals, and rates tend to be a lot cheaper than on the Playa. A family-friendly, 3-floor ‘eco-chic’ villa that sleeps 9 can be rented for $300 a night, whereas a small en-suite studio apartment with one bedroom can be as cheap as $60.
If you’re looking for a relaxing, stress-free vacation, with or without kids in tow, then Aldea Zama is definitely worth considering. The brand new accommodation is superb, the tranquillity is spiritually refreshing, and if you crave excitement then it’s only a short walk into town.
What to Do in Tulum
Without a doubt, the number one tourist attraction in Tulum is the Mayan ruins.
Visit the Tulum Ruins
The Yucatan Peninsula is home to several notable Mayan ruins, such as Cobá and Chichen Itza, but Tulum is the only Mayan site with a sea view. The site is one of only a few walled cities built by the Maya and dates back to at least 564 AD. The inner city, home to priests and nobles, was protected by limestone walls up to 26 feet thick; whereas the commoners had to find shelter where they could outside of the wall’s protection.
The most important construction — and the most photographed — is called el Castillo. As well as being a secure stronghold, it was also known as ‘the lighthouse’. At the top are two small windows and, by lining them up, sailors could plot the exact course through the treacherous reefs.
Are the Tulum Ruins Expensive?
Entrance to the ruins is incredibly cheap: it will only cost you 80 pesos (about $3.60) per person if you choose to go unaccompanied, or you can book a guided tour for around 600 pesos ($27.50). There is a small train that will take you from the car park to the start of the site, which will cost less than a dollar per person. You can walk if you prefer (about 15 minutes), but it does get incredibly hot so be sure to wear a head covering and drink plenty of water.
Being so popular, the ruins get crowded very quickly. To avoid the crowds, and especially the coach parties, it’s advisable to get there as soon as the site opens, which is 8:00 am. Alternatively you could go at 4:00 pm, in the last hour before closing when the crowds start to thin. And to save a few bucks, it’s best to get there on a colectivo, which is the local bus service. Colectivos run throughout the day and should cost you less than a dollar.
Swim in a Cenote
A cenote (pronounced ‘seh-no-tay’) is a natural pit, or sinkhole, formed by the collapse of limestone bedrock and filled with groundwater. Cenotes are quite common in many low-altitude regions, especially islands, but in Mexico there are hundreds! The most scenic cenotes are, of course, also the most popular, and tourist crowding can be a problem. So once again our advice is to get there as soon as they open to the public, which is usually around 8:00 am. Another great tip is to take a drone if you have one — the overhead views for most cenotes are pretty spectacular!
Gran Cenote is the largest near Tulum, and a good example of the open-air type of cenote. It’s unique in that you can enter the water in one pool, swim under the rocks, and surface in a totally different pool. As such, it’s very popular with snorkelers, so expect the water to be crowded, especially after 10:00 am. The water is nice and cool, and a swim is a great way to cool off after walking in the hot Mexican sunshine.
Sometimes called the ‘Temple of Doom’, Cenote Calavera is a great example of a covered cenote. The word calavera translates as ‘skull’, which is a reference to the two great holes at the top which look like giant eye sockets. If you’re feeling brave, you can try jumping through one of the holes straight into the water — it’s a rush!
Calavera is actually a great choice, as it’s not that well known and you’ll have a lot of time to explore, especially if you get there early. The lower levels of the pool are filled with saltwater, whereas the top layer is fresh groundwater, and there’s a really cool dividing line which you can actually see once you’re submerged. It’s quite unique, so make sure you bring a waterproof camera!
Chill Out at Taqueria La Eufemia
We’re not using this article to talk about restaurants, but we do want to mention this taco joint. Not just for the food — although it’s amazing — but because it’s a really great place to just hang.
Eufemia (which is an old Greek word meaning ‘speak in good omens’) has a very cool, laid-back hippie vibe, and it serves excellent tacos! Seriously, the tacos are that good: try the baked fish taco with mixed ceviche and you’ll see what we mean! During the day, you can hire one of their deckchairs — the cost is one beer per hour! — and then just chill on the beach.
In the afternoon there’s live music and later on the place turns into a beach club, with some wild dancing fueled by awesome pina coladas and Sol beer. Eufemia has recently been added to the Insta of the rich and famous, and some influencers are going there just for the photo and not the food or the bar. This is a shame, as they’re really missing out!
Don’t make the same mistake: if you go to Tulum, you must go to La Eufemia. After all, how can you not visit a bar with a motto that reads “Sit down, relax, and eat some f’ing tacos”!
Is Tulum Mexico Expensive?
We won’t go into too much detail here, as we’ve got another guide that breaks it all down for you, but basically the answer is “no”. The other guide focusses on Cancun, rather than Tulum, but costs are similar — in fact, Tulum’s costs per day are actually lower than for Cancun.
Here are some useful figures, provided by our friends at budgetyourtrip.com. These are averages taken from tens of thousands of actual travellers, so they’re pretty accurate. The first set of figures shows the average cost of a full vacation in Tulum, including accommodation costs but excluding travel.
Here are some more figures, which show how people spend their money once they’re in Tulum. Bear in mind these are averages, so your plans may involve spending a bit more in certain areas.
How Many Days Do You Need in Tulum?
We’d advise three or four days is about right. During the day, you’ll have more than enough time to visit the ruins, swim in a cenote, and maybe take a bike tour or a trip into the jungle. And in the evenings you’ll be able to try a few different restaurants, and then go into the pueblo to party!
A lot of vacationers choose to spend three or four days in Tulum, and then finish their holiday in Cancun or Cozumel. Another option is head to Playa del Carmen and sample the unique culture and nightlife, which has a more European feel.
Is Tulum Better Than Cancun?
OK, we’ll qualify that for you a little. Cancun and Tulum are two very different places. Cancun is aimed squarely at the American party-goer, who’s made up his mind to party. It’s also a lot more expensive to stay there, because of all the high-end holiday resorts. It’s also definitely the right place if you’re looking for lively clubs and great music. Tulum has a great nightlife, but Cancun turns it up to eleven.
Tulum is a lot more laid back. It’s more of a place to live amongst nature for a while, and spend some time seriously relaxing. And, of course, it’s the place to go for the superb Mayan ruins.
So if you want an all-inclusive, everything-laid-on vacation, head to Cancun. But if you want to do your own thing, Tulum is for you.
Is Tulum Worth Visiting? Here’s Our Take
There are many amazing places to explore in Mexico. Apart from Cancun, which we’ve already mentioned, you should check out Riviera Maya, which is a very cool destination. But this piece is about whether Tulum is worth visiting, and so here is our carefully considered reply:
It’s cheaper than Cancun, and it’s quieter and more laid back than Cozumel. It’s a great place to base yourself for the cenotes and the ruins, and there’s always something going on at the beach or in one of the cool bars. But, as we’ve said before, more and more people are opting for a vacation that combines Tulum with Cancun or Cozumel, or Tulum with Playa del Carmen. The point is that these places are all amazing, and travel between each one is really cheap. So we think you should consider a split vacation, so you can experience more than one destination.
That brings us to the end of our article about Tulum. We hope we’ve answered your questions, and passed on some good advice. If you’d like to chat with us some more about Tulum, or any other place in Mexico, please message us or contact us on social media.
And now we’d like to leave you with our favourite Mexican motto:
“Sit down, relax, and eat some f’ing tacos!”