Ultimate Tulum (Stress Free) Guide in 2020
For one of the most globally trendy vacation destinations, Tulum can be extremely stressful! From figuring out where the best (slash affordable) places are to stay, to finding all of the MANY photo spots!
Not to mention, staying sane and confident amongst the hundreds of “influencers” constantly snapping shots (yes, I’m guilty of it, but I swear it’s my full time job of 7 years). Plus the constant worry of being denied entry into a beach club without a hefty fee!
In fact, I have to admit, that although I love how visually alluring Tulum is…that’s pretty much all that I love about it. Not only is it stressful because of its secluded layout and constant crowd, but wildly expensive (although barely any of the money goes to locals), and not at all as eco-friendly as it boasts to be!
So before you decide you love Tulum and start planning a trip there with my tips, please read Tulum’s Eco Secrets and How to Be a Conscious Traveler, or watch the documentary The Dark Side of Tulum!
Regardless, if you visit Tulum, PLEASE be respectful of the environment and the locals! DO NOT bring or leave ANY plastic. Don’t flush toilet paper or anything else down the toilets. Try not to use electricity a lot since it’s all run by diesel generators.
Now on to what you’re really here for:
How to Get to Tulum:
This will depend on how long you plan on staying. For stays less than a week, I would suggest renting a car from the airport. I usually use Firefly and it’s 300 pesos/day for the cheapest car, and they don’t ever charge extra for hidden fees or extra insurance. It comes with minimal coverage, and they don’t have a full coverage option, but if you book with certain credit cards, they will cover you anyway.
*UPDATE: It appears as though the deal I get above is only at the Playa del Carmen office, and likely because I talk in Spanish and say I live there. Someone recently used Firefly at the airport and they were charged a much higher amount for mandatory insurance! If you want to save money, you may want to consider taking the bus into town and renting from there!
If you’re planning on staying longer, you’ll want to first try to pre-arrange transportation with your accommodation. Taking a taxi from the airport will likely cost you one hundred USD or more, but there aren’t many other options.
You can take a bus for only about 265 pesos (about $13) which is your cheapest option.
How to Get Around
Having a car is necessary if you’re staying in Downtown or La Valeta and you plan on going to the beach area a lot. The only downside is the nearly non-existent parking. If you do find parking at the beach, be prepared to pay between 200-400 pesos ($10-20).
If you have a car and you’re staying in the beach area, make sure your accommodation includes parking! Then, regardless if you have a car or not in the beach area, you can opt to rent a bike (or even a quad or motorbike).
You can also of course walk. However the beach road is extremely long, and would probably take a couple of hours! This isn’t a problem during high season (November-January) because it’s a bit cooler, but any other time it’s sweltering hot and humid!
What Are the Main Popular Areas of Tulum
There are two main areas of Tulum; Downtown / La Valeta, and Playa Ruinas / Hotel Zone / Tulum Beach. The former is more affordable but makes it harder to get to the more desirable area, which is the latter.
La Valeta is more of the area where you have affordable accommodation, and Downtown, as the name implies, is where the souvenir shops and some bar/restaurants are. I’ve heard some good things about restaurants and bars there, but for me personally, when I drove through it, it wasn’t appealing.
Obviously the more popular area is the beach area. There’s one narrow, speed bump laden road to get there, and it’s always congested (as is the beach road). Once you finally reach the end, you’ll have the option to turn left or right.
Towards the left is a barely-developed road that feels like you’re going through a jungle tunnel. It has several hotels and beach clubs, and stretches all the way down to the beach just before the Tulum Ruins. If you want a quieter area, and dare I say, cheaper, or to see the ruins from the beach, head that way!
But the more “popular” places are to the right of the main road.
When you first turn right, you’ll be in the “Zona de Hoteles” (hotel zone) which is where the big resorts are like Amansala, Papaya Playa Project, and Azulik. I also like to refer to them as the “influencer resorts”, as they are extremely picturesque and desirable, and thus every “influencer” tries to go there. Don’t worry, they have policies against excessive photo taking (and if you’re an influencer trying to get it, contact them for the form/waitlist).
Also, if you don’t want to splurge to stay there, you can head to their Beach Clubs, just be warned that they may charge a hefty fee. Oh and definitely make a reservation in advance for a seat!
Past the hotel zone you’ll start to see cute little boho-chic restaurants and shops. If you’ve been to Bali, you’ll have immediate nostalgia! Endless adorable shops owned by expats with ridiculously over priced items (buy from the locals on the beach instead), and tons of delicious over priced restaurants!
There’s different clusters along this area, with hotspots to see in each. For example, in the middle is the Ahau Resort where the famous giant tree statue is. But farther down are the famous hotels/beach clubs like Nomade, Be Tulum, and Casa Malca. I’ll get to all of these in a bit.
What Area to Stay in
For short stays, you might want to splurge to stay in the beach area, because that way you can just easily walk/bike everywhere. When I was there last, I stayed on the beach and a friend was staying Downtown, and it took her 30 minutes to get to me by car!
If you’re staying longer though like she was, I’d say stay in La Valeta/Downtown. Not only is it cheaper, but the electricity and wifi is more reliable. Everywhere on the beach is reliant on diesel generators…which is not good for the environment at all.
Speaking of Which…..
Don’t Get “Greenwashed”!!!
Nearly every hotel, restaurant, and shop in Tulum slaps the word “Eco” on their names, when in reality, they are the opposite! In fact, 80% of hotels and condos don’t even have proper waste management, and dump human waste directly into the underground river, mangroves, and ocean! And many of them use the word “eco” in their name!
Not to mention, basically every accommodation, restaurant and shop were built on top of mangroves, and paid locals very little to build them. Plus they ALL use diesel generators for their/your electricity! Recycling is also nearly non-existent, which means unless establishments are paying to send their trash to a sorting facility, they are sending them to a landfill, right in the middle of Tulum.
PLEASE do your research when choosing where to stay and where to eat! Read the About section of websites, even email to ask questions if you don’t clearly see what makes them “eco-friendly”. Definitely ask what their method of waste management is, and what their sustainability efforts are!
And for the love of our planet, PLEASE do not use plastic in Tulum, and turn off your lights and AC whenever possible!
How to Find Places to Stay:
I usually use Booking.com’s map feature first to A) Figure out where the most popular areas are (areas with the most hotels) and B) Use it as a price comparison with AirBnB.
FYI: most places that are listed on sites like Booking, also list themselves on Airbnb (and vice a versa), and sometimes they are more expensive due to all of their annoying fees. BUT! Sometimes you can find unique stays on Airbnb, and even better, you can attempt negotiating a better rate!
Some of the best hotels that are also approved as eco friendly and sustainable are:
I did find a really cute tree-house like place on AirBnB called Origen! It was a GREAT value for the location!
Most Picturesque Beach Clubs
So now that you’re all set with how to get around, where to stay, warned about the ridic un-eco-friendliness, etc., it’s time to figure out what to do! I’ll start with the beach clubs!
Almost every hotel along the beach has its own beach club attached to it. A beach club is basically a cute outdoor area on the beach that serves food and drinks, and later might have a DJ or something. You can go to many of them for free, but the more popular ones have started charging per person! When I was there last weekend, they wanted $70 USD PER PERSON!
Here are some that I went to that I liked, as well as some of the most popular ones:
- Amansala (free)
- Villa Pescadores (free)
- Dos Ciebos (free)
- Ahau (free)
- Nomade ($70)
- Be Tulum ($70)
- Casa Malca ($100)
- Habitas ($20)
- Papaya Playa (n/a)
Best Photo Spots in Tulum
As I’ve mentioned several times, Tulum is an “influencer”‘s heaven. I know that not only as an influencer myself, but because of the extreme amount of them you constantly see there! If you’re hoping to get some awesome shots yourself, here is a list of all of the most popular ones!
Note: Most of these are connected to small businesses. If you decide to take a photo there, please at least consider purchasing a beverage or snack from them as well!
Also, I’m including the ones that are “strictly guests only” so you don’t get your hopes up when you see someone post it on social media, and they don’t tell you they aren’t open to the public…
*Click on the camera icons on the map I created to see the name of the photo spot!
- Giant Tree Man at Ahau
- Follow that Dream sign
- I Love Tulum So Matcha shop
- Wedding Dress Curtain at Casa Malca (strictly guests only)
- Giant Hand at Hun (for guests only, influencers must apply)
- Clan Destino cenote-bar
- Azulik (guests only, influencers must apply)
- Amansala Beach Club
- Tulum Beach! (Playa Ruinas, Playa Paraiso, Tulum Beach)
Oh and let’s not forget the beautiful photo spots that were in Tulum before the mass construction of Instagrammable places:
- Tulum Ruins
- Dos Ojos Cenote
- Gran Cenote
- Casa Cenote
- Si’Kan Bio Reserve
- Coba Ruins
When to Go to Tulum
Tulum is popular year round, however from November to February is the extreme high season! All of the snow birds come down, completely booking out and crowding the area, so I would suggest coming any time besides then!
Do note that it is very hot and humid most of the year, and rain showers are common (and refreshing!). Hurricane season is end of September to early November.
Crucial Safety Information
As beautiful as well all make Tulum look in photos, and as alluring as it is in real life, you absolutely MUST take crucial safety measures while visiting. In the two months I’ve been living in this area, I’ve already heard of multiple violent crimes, and I wouldn’t feel right posting this guide without letting you know that it exists.
Please follow these crucial safety tips if you visit Tulum:
- Do not walk alone at night but.
- Do not take an unverified taxi alone at night (get one from a hotel or known company)
- Be extremely vigilant when going out at night, especially alone. Watch your drink at all times.
- Do not buy drugs from anyone (you’ll get asked a lot).