Less than a two-hour drive south from Cancún International Airport, the eco-friendly city of Tulum is a secluded oasis from the more heavily populated tourist spots along Mexico’s East Coast.
With its recent spike in tourism, it’s hard to imagine that Tulum was a rather desolate village only 10 years ago. It’s only within recent years that certain areas of Tulum got electricity, and plumbing here is still somewhat subpar.
Tulum is rapidly changing as the number of visitors flocking to the remote location jump each year. But if you’re looking for a relaxing seaside vacation off the beaten path, Tulum is still filled with plenty of lesser known wonders to explore.
One of the main attractions that bring people to Tulum, aside from the endless span of white sand beaches, is its own mark on ancient Mayan history.
Once a pre-Colombian port city, Tulum served as a main point of entry for both land and sea trade routes. Situated between ocean and dense jungle brush, Tulum, which translates to “wall” or “fence”, sits nestled between these two natural barriers. With this added security, the Mayans could rest assure that their city would be safe from unexpected invasion and remained without struggle of intruders for the majority of its existence. It was eventually disease that drove its occupants out.
As you crouch through the narrow man-made stone entryway into the walled ancient city, it’s easy to get lost in imagining what a day might have been like for the Mayans. While the ruin buildings are inaccessible to the public, you can still get close enough to inspect the masonry and detail of the structures as well as peer inside windows and doorways. Possibly the most magnificent structure of all is Pyramid El Castillo. Standing tall before the ocean, this structure served as a lighthouse of sorts to guide incoming ships safely to shore through the jagged corals.
Other highlights include Temple of the God of Wind, and the House of the Columns.
As you begin to wind your way through the stone dust paths around the ruins, you’ll be greeted by some of the local inhabitants. The ruins are overrun with iguanas sunbathing on the stone remains and munching on the lush seagrasses around the base of the structures. You might also spot some wild coati, a raccoon-like mammal.
The ruin grounds open around 8 a.m. each day and close at 5 p.m., and you should get there early. I arrived at around 9 a.m. and the grounds were already swarming with visitors by 10:30 a.m. There’s a designated area for swimming in front of the ruins but again, be sure to go early. The beaches are usually packed by 11 a.m.
WHAT ELSE TO DO IN TULUM
While remote, there are still plenty of activities to check off in Tulum before you retire to the pristine beaches. Tulum sits among hundreds of cenotes, or sinkholes perfect for swimming. These crystal clear watering holes are awe-inspiring.
There are many cenotes to choose from in the surrounding area and you should visit as many as you have time for. I went to the Dos Ojos cenotes to swim amongst the cavernous waters and snap photos of the tiny fish and other aquatic life with underwater cameras. You can easily spend a whole day lounging, snorkeling and exploring. If you’re an experienced diver, there are also expeditions available that will guide through some of the deeper caverns.
Since Tulum is rather new on the map for tourism, there’s concern about whether allowing people to swim in these cenotes will eventually cause harm to the environment if the pools are left untreated against human contamination. So act fast if you’re planning your Tulum vacation. There might not be as many of these unique pools open to the public in coming years.
Snorkeling excursions in Tulum are endless. It’s up to you to decide whether you prefer sea, cenote or both. I took an hour-long snorkeling trip from the beach at Playa Paraiso. While not quite as interesting as the cenotes, it was still enjoyable.
The dinghy ride out to the reef takes you in front of the ruins, giving you the perspective of how Tulum would have appeared from incoming fleets. The advantage to sea snorkeling is the possibility of catching a glimpse at the local sea turtles.
Every angle of Playa Paraiso has a picture perfect view. Endless stretches of shallow sandbar bleed into a turquoise sea with palm trees dotting the white sand beach. While Playa Paraiso is often fairly populated, it isn’t hard to walk a short distance from the entrance and find your own private spot.
If you’re looking for an even more remote location, the coastal town of Akumal is just a short drive or bike ride north of Tulum. This area of beach has been mainly quartered off to the preservation of the local sea turtles that come ashore to lay their eggs.
EAT AND DRINK:
Though Tulum may only occupy a small stretch of beachfront, there is still enough dining and nightlife packed into this tiny town to keep you busy for several days and nights.
* Ziggy’s Beach
All caught local and all very fresh, seafood is an obvious must in Tulum. While just about every seafood spot is worthy of a test run, Ziggy Beach by far stands out from the rest with its tables on the sand.
* Gitano Mezcal Bar & Kitchen
If you like mezcal, you’ll be at home at Gitano Mezcal Bar. Modern, simple and damn good, Gitano is a fun place to unwind while exploring many different kinds of mezcal.
* Zamas hotel
This hotel offers the best boozy brunch you’ll find in Tulum. Try a margarita here.
If You Go…
* Tulum is a little more expensive than its surrounding area so be prepared to shell out a bit more than what you would pay in Cancun or Playa Del Carmen.
* If you don’t want to spend your whole vacation here, the city is also an easy day trip from Playa del Carmen or Cancun. There are buses or local colectivos (vans) that you can take back and forth. Colectivos are cheaper, but I don’t recommend this option if you don’t speak Spanish.
* Fall is definitely the best time of year to visit Tulum. Temperatures tend to comfortably linger around the low 70s and 80s, whereas temperatures are consistently in the 90s during the summer months.