If we had a dollar for every wannabe Instafamous stylista we saw in Tulum, we could’ve splurged on the American-plus-priced hotels, bars, and restaurants that just about every other Tulum travel guide gushes is “an absolute must,” “to die for,” or “unbearably chic.”
But we didn’t. So we didn’t.
We’ve also long given up on dreams of being the hippest of the hipsters, especially in a haven like Tulum, where the best from L.A. to New York and Melbourne to London come to show up and show out.
You could say we’re “unhipster.”If you too to spend pesos instead of dollars and eat Mexican food instead of “inspired fusion,” this Tulum travel guide is for you.
In This Tulum Travel Guide:
All the highlights we mention in this Tulum travel guide are marked on this map. You can save it to your phone by following our simple instructions here.
The Best Real Mexican Food in Tulum
“Wait, but those chefs aren’t Cordon Bleu trained…”Tulum traveler
Just about every blog we read discussing where to eat in Tulum said, “You haven’t been to Tulum until you’ve eaten at Hartwood [an acclaimed restaurant run by a couple of New Yorkers.]”
Guess we’ve “never visited Tulum” then.
Sure, it’s nice to splurge every once in a while, but a $100 meal at Hartwood can buy a lot of tacos. 200 or so. And call us loco but we came to Mexico to eat Mexican food.
Here are our favorite restaurants in Tulum:
The Best Tacos Al Pastor
Antojitos la Chiapaneca gets most of the ink when it comes to shawarma spit-grilled al pastor tacos. They deserve it, especially since they only cost 8 pesos ($0.40 US) each.
But don’t go there until you’ve been to El Carboncito first.The chefs at El Carboncito actually use coal to cook the shawarma meat, then they fry the meat shavings for extra crisp.
At 65 pesos for an order of al pastor, it may sound more expensive than La Chiapaneca, but Chris managed to make eight generously meat-filled tacos from that order, so they actually worked out to be about the same price.
The Best Seafood in Tulum
If you’re a pescatarian or are just tired of tacos al pastor, you’re in luck. El Camello Jr. and La Barracuda are only a couple of blocks from each other and in a fierce battle for the title of The Best Seafood in town.
The winner is…
Us, the eaters.
For ceviche, El Camello Jr. is slightly better in both value and taste, but Barracuda is equally worth a dine for their shrimp and octopus nachos (145 pesos / 7.25 USD) as well as their specialty tikin-xic fish—a filet of fish covered in a smoky tomato achiote sauce, veggies, cheese, shrimp, and octopus, then wrapped in aluminum foil and grilled (190 pesos / 9.5 USD).
Go for the Liquido
We’re not sure how the food is at Liquido y Solidos, but their smoothies are awesome.
They serve Chris’ favorite smoothie in all of Mexico: an avocado, vanilla, and cinnamon treat. It was so delicious and such a great value (35 pesos / 1.75 USD) that he went there two days in a row.
Taco Lovers’ Favorite (But Not Ours)
We practically had to shield ourselves from being showered in spittle while hearing the locals praise Taqueria Honorio. They told us you have to go early to get them fresh.
Since Chris doesn’t eat breakfast and Kim isn’t a fan of meat in the morning, we didn’t follow their advice and instead went around 1 p.m. Maybe that’s why we don’t drool at the memory of the tacos the way others do.
Finger Lickin’ Chicken
The coal-grilled chicken from El Pollo Bronco was as excellent as it is reputed to be. We shared half a chicken, fresh blended salsa, rice and tortillas for 80 pesos / 4 USD.
Good, but not Great Tulum Restaurants
Some other places we tried that we didn’t love, but wouldn’t turn down an invite to:
- El Tocoqueto: For lunch, pay 80 pesos for your choice of one meat or stew with a side of rice and a fresh-blended smoothie— we suggest one with chaya, the local spinach.
- Campanella Ice Cream: According to the guy behind the counter, their coconut flavor was named one of the ten best in the world. Chris liked the cookies and cream better. Neither of us thought two small scoops for 60 pesos (3 USD), was a great price.
- Doña Tina: We split the cochinita pibil for lunch. At 100 pesos, it wasn’t anything to write home about, so we won’t waste any more time on it here, either.
- Amor Burrito: This burrito place felt like it was helicoptered in from some yuppie enclave in California. There’s not a word of Spanish in the joint, we didn’t see a single Mexican eating there, and the prices are US-level. The burritos were really tasty, though.
Tip on Water
Wherever you eat, ask for “agua del filtro” or “agua de garrafón”—filtered water from the jug. Most places will give you a glass for free, avoiding the need to use another plastic bottle.
The Best Beaches in Tulum
“Lie on the sand? Ew! Sand’s just glorified dirt.”Tulum resort guest
Most of Tulum’s beaches are covered with king-sized beds and beach chairs for lounging, drinking a designer margarita, and choosing which filter to use for your Instagram story.
You can pay big fees to use them or… you can sit and lie on the sand in the shade of a palm tree.
Best Beaches in Tulum’s Beach Zone
There are no huge empty stretches of beach near Tulum, but there are patches that are plenty big enough to relax on, both shaded and not.
And remember that in Mexico all beaches are public, so you can spread out your beach towel wherever you want.
The biggest and widest empty beach areas are north of the “T” marked on our map.
NOT Sian Ka’an
The “Secret Beach” in the Sian Ka’an reserve south of the main Tulum beach area is not worth the time and effort to get to, and definitely not worth the 35 pesos (1.80 USD) entry fee.
The bike ride to get there is unpleasant and even though it’s a “reserve,” private residences along the pothole-riddled path block all access and views to the beach.
When you eventually arrive, the beach doesn’t reward you for your journey. It’s no better than the ones in Tulum and it’s largely covered in seaweed and trash.
See below, under Day Trips Outside of Tulum.
Inexplicably, Eufemia is the only beach club in the heart of Tulum’s beach zone to have realized it’s more profitable to have lots of people who pay low prices for sustenance than to have a few people who pay high prices.
Tacos are 20-30 pesos each and 1.2-liter beers are a very reasonable 70 pesos (3.30 USD). Although Eufemia is on most Tulum travel guides and is somewhat hipster, it’s definitely worth a visit.
With no other reasonably-priced and fun options for the beach, you’ll probably end up going to Eufemia more than once.
Biking Around Tulum
“You mean there’s No Uber?! …What about Lyft?”Tulum “influencer”
Even if you’re an unhipster, you should get yourself a fixie bike for your time in Tulum. The whole area is super flat, the roads around town are traffic-free, and the cenotes are extra inviting to jump into when you bike there.
As we mentioned above in Where to Stay, your best bet for getting a bike is by booking a place that includes bikes with the room.
If that falls through and you need to rent bikes, we recommend Ola Bike Rentals. Ola’s the most professionally-run bike rental company in town, they’ll rescue you and your bike in case of a breakdown, and they offer reasonable rates (130 pesos / $8 US per day). We rented from them for three days and have zero complaints, which is all you can ask for from a bike rental shop.
Where to Exercise in Tulum
“But do they have organic fair trade smoothie bars?”Hipster Tulum traveler
Tulum has air-conditioned spin classes and the selfie-haven beach Jungle Gym, but they cost more than we spent on a night’s accommodation.
Here are some free and almost-free local alternatives to preserve your beach body while in Tulum:
- Spartans Community. Trainer David leads functional movement workouts that’ll leave you wringing your shirt out with sweat. They only cost 30 pesos and start every hour from 7 to 11 a.m. and 6 to 9 p.m. Check out their Facebook page for more info and drop in.
- Fitclub Community. Classes here are more expensive (70 pesos) than Spartan Community, but Fitclub Community’s classes use more CrossFit-style weights and kettlebells.
The “pirate” beach workout area. If you want to work out on the beach you can pay 400 pesos for the Jungle Gym, or check out this workout area. It’s just up the beach from the Mezzanine Hotel and restaurant (see map) and has barbells, chin-up bars, and tires for flipping. And it’s free.
Day Trips Outside of Tulum
“Wait. Isn’t the rest of Mexico dangerous? And will I have cell reception?”Tulum Hipster
If you’re in Tulum for more than five days, spend one of them in Valladolid.
Check out the local market, eat endless amounts of traditional Yucatecan food, enjoy wandering the colorful buildings, and swim in Cenote Zací in the center of town it’s free if you buy something from their restaurant!
The boutique shopping there is even a touch cheaper. The proprietor at a shop where Kim bought a dress told us that while they have shops in multiple locations, the prices are different. Tulum is the most expensive, followed by Playa, then Merida, with Valladolid as the cheapest.
How to get to Valladolid
Catch the morning bus from the ADO bus station in Tulum town (see map below). Return on the evening bus from central Valladolid. It took an hour and a half and cost 138 pesos (about $7 US) each way.
At 45 minutes along the highway, the bike ride to Bahia Soliman isn’t ideal, but the road wasn’t that busy and the shoulders were wide. It was worth it for us.
Bahia Soliman is mostly famous for Chamico’s restaurant, whose cover as a “secret fish shack” was blown by the New York Times.
We got coconuts (35 pesos each) and enjoyed hanging out in the hammocks at Chamico’s, but we couldn’t justify eating there; the ceviche was twice as expensive and half the size of El Camello or Barracuda. We didn’t find Chamico’s beach all that inviting as it was covered with sargassum seaweed, but further up the bay, we found nicer beaches, free from the current that brings in the seaweed.
Warning if You Bike from Tulum
There’s a spot where Google Maps’ directions to Chamico’s require you to carry your bike around a locked gate (see map).
It’s not a big deal, but it’s worth being aware of so you don’t think “Oh shit, do we have to go all the way back to the highway and take the other route?” the way we did.
The Coba ruins are about halfway between Tulum and Valladolid. We didn’t go but, based on what reliable sources told us, we would if we were to go back to Tulum.
A tour guide who lives by Coba shared a little known secret with us that the ruins re-open later in the evening from 5-7 p.m. If you go at that time, nobody else is there and you can enjoy amazing sunset views from the top of the main pyramid. You should verify this claim beforehand.
Near the Coba ruins are a few cenotes that the same guide and a couple of other residents told us were particularly beautiful and less touristy.
The ideal itinerary would be to rent a car, check out the cenotes first thing in the morning, spend the day in Valladolid, then visit the ruins in the evening.
Without a car, you’d probably have to see Valladolid and Coba on separate days. There are colectivos (shared minivans that leave once full) and ADO buses between Coba and Tulum.
Tulum’s Ruins and Cenotes
“Yeah, I’ve heard of these already. They’re the best places for photoshoots.”Tulum Insta-star
The Tulum Ruins
We saw the Tulum ruins from the public beach half a kilometer away but didn’t bother going in, so we can’t tell you if they’re worth it or not. We were also scared off by the enormous parking lots, tame “wildlife,” and hordes of guides trying to convince us to hire them or do a snorkeling tour.
As mentioned above in Day Trips from Tulum, if you’re into ruins we’d recommend the Coba ruins instead.
You’ll probably be as overwhelmed as we were by how many cenotes there are to choose from. We won’t pretend we visited them all, and every local recommended different ones, so there is no surefire must-see cenote.
We visited the Cristal and Escondido cenotes (120 pesos / 6 USD combined). They were nice for a refreshing dip and some photos and there were only a few other couples there in the midmorning hours. Combined with our visit to Cenote Zací in Valladolid, that was enough cenotes for us.
If you’re keen and able to get farther from town, local tour guides recommended the cenotes by the Coba ruins as well as those outside of Valladolid. Apparently, they’re less overwhelmingly busy than the likes of Gran Cenote and Ojo Azul yet are equally impressive.
What to Pack for Tulum
“But I can still bring my designer muumuu, right?”Tulum fashionista
You’ll be wearing almost nothing the whole time, so there’s no need for you to take more than a carry-on. To get extremely light, check out Chris’ tried-and-true minimalist packing list.
Aside from what’s on his list, here are other Tulum-specific items we recommend:
- Goggles. For swimming in the cenotes. There’s not enough fish to pack a snorkel, plus goggles are much lighter.
- Biodegradable bug spray. The bugs in the jungles around Tulum can be bad. To protect yourself while protecting the environment, use biodegradable natural bug spray. You’ll get cheaper and better stuff if you bring it with you. This one is the best we found and comes in an airplane carry-on size. If you buy it on Amazon, you get both the best price, and you reward us a bit by earning us a commission for getting you to click the link.
- A water bottle. In case you haven’t heard, it’s hot in Tulum. You’re going to sweat and be thirsty and beer is not always the best choice for hydration.
- An umbrella. You won’t need this during the day since you’ll be wearing your bathing suit all the time, but in the evening it can sometimes downpour so it’s handy to have an umbrella to walk around town.
Where to Stay in Tulum
“Ewww… like isn’t that where the staff lives?”Posh Tulum traveler
If you’re on your only holiday of the year and have money to burn, by all means, stay on the beach. But if you’re a budget or are adventure travelers like us, you’re going to want to stay in Tulum town.
Despite the “awe-inspiring” street art that bloggers wear out their camera buttons snapping at, the town’s not particularly beautiful or “wander-ful.” But it’s small, relaxed, easy to get around, friendly, and cheap.
Look to stay anywhere in the green-shaded area of the map.
The most convenient location is towards the eastern edge of this area, which is closest to the Chedraui supermarket and the roads to the beach, but really anywhere is fine, especially if you have a bike.
When looking for a place to stay in Tulum, ask them if they have bikes, and if not ask if they could throw one in if you stay there.
Affordable, Comfortable Choice
We rented a studio apartment at Bin Wayak Apartments for about $33 US a night.
It was perfect for us.It had a well-equipped kitchen, a couple of bikes, friendly owners who gave us a bunch of tips, a laundromat next door, a quiet street, and AC. If that sounds good to you, book your own studio on Airbnb.
First Timer Special
If you haven’t used Airbnb before, book through our link here to save around $45 for yourself and reward us for this (hopefully) helpful Tulum travel guide by earning us $25 credit at the same time.
More Unfiltered Mexico Travel Guides
Read our honest opinion of the place in our post on Playa del Carmen’s pros and cons if your thinking of heading that way.
And if you’re not tanned enough and thinking of heading to Mexico City (which you absolutely should), you’re in luck because it’s one of our favorite cities in the world and with these tips hopefully it’ll be yours too: