Tulum is on everyone’s bucket list these days and with good reason. It’s a magical town brimming with unique outdoor adventures, cultural experiences, and super trendy accommodations, guaranteed to make a lasting impression on any visitor. However, the Tulum of even 5-10 years ago is not the same Tulum of today, and there are many things a first-timer (or someone who hasn’t been there in years) should know before arriving.
Tulum’s more expensive than you’d expect
As someone who lives in Mazatlan, Mexico, I’m certainly spoiled with the low cost of oceanfront living and experienced the sticker shock of Tulum firsthand. Everything is a little more than you would expect it to be in Mexico, especially in a once sleepy little town.
The meals are equivalent to what you would pay in the States or Canada, the taxis are the most expensive you’ll pay for in the country, and even some of the hotels are more per night than 5 star properties in Paris or London.
This is not to say you can’t do Tulum on a budget, but know that most things you see will have a higher price tag than most other Mexican destinations.
Taxis are as much as NYC
While we are talking pesos, taxis in Tulum need their own section. First off, the taxis will likely charge you a higher rate per distance than an NYC cab will cost, especially if you are on the beach road. For a 1 or 2 mile ride, some drivers want to charge you $20-$25 USD (or 400 to 500 pesos) and will have no problem driving away when you try to negotiate. To put the prices into perspective, what would cost 400 pesos in Tulum would be about 40 pesos in neighboring town Playa Del Carmen, almost 10x’s the rate.
The traffic, especially during high season, can get seriously congested and at times it’s faster to get out and walk. Many tourists will try and get around the insane taxi prices by renting a bike or scooter during their stay.
Vegan and vegetarian options are everywhere
Tulum has an incredible amount of vegan and vegetarian food available everywhere you turn. From smoothie bowls to vegan sushi to vegetarian tacos, those with dietary preferences or restrictions won’t go hungry. They even have a small vegetarian grocery store called Mr. Tofu where you can buy things like Beyond burgers and Gardin meatless strips if you’re renting a condo and want to stock it with cruelty-free food.
While I’m not personally vegan, I recently spend a week with a vegan friend in Tulum and converted to her eating style the entire time because there were so many good options. The food was always so flavourful I never missed not having chicken or fish.
Beach road is awful
The government of Tulum needs to pave the beach road, and badly. Almost the entire stretch of the road that gives access to most of the high-end hotels, restaurants, and beach clubs is in terrible shape. Massive potholes, flooded areas of mud and deep puddles, and literally no sidewalks to be found. It causes insane traffic backups when you’re inside a taxi, but also some dangerous conditions if you decide to bike or walk.
If you do rent a bike, be careful of potholes and of mud spraying up on your outfit. Don’t wear anything you can’t get dirty. Same thing if you decide to stay on foot – don’t wear any shoes you care about, as they are going to get filthy.
If you want to stay on the beach, expect to pay $$$$
Speaking of the beach, that is where most people decide to get a hotel when they stay in Tulum. Who wouldn’t want to sleep in an incredible hut with ocean views and the sounds of the waves each night? Since this is the most coveted area of Tulum, expect the prices to match. A simple hotel room on the beach can cost anywhere from $300 to $3000 a night, depending on the property and the amenities, but its sure to impress. Here are some of our favorite recommendations on where to stay on the beach in Tulum, including Ma’xanab Boutique Hotel.
If you want to budget, stay in Aldea Zama
Very nearby to the beach is the new master-planned community of Aldea Zama. It’s beautiful! Big paved roads, bike paths, pedestrian-friendly, and most importantly for budget travelers, CHEAP! Here you can rent an entire condo for as low as $100 a night, or a decent hotel room for around $35-$90.
We recently stayed at the Aloft Hotel, which is within walking distance to Aldea Zama and an easy bike ride to the beach. The Aloft was only $95 a night, even with a gorgeous rooftop pool with cabanas and a view of the jungle and ruins.
Get ready for nature, the good and the bad
If you want to stay beachfront in Tulum, just know you’re going to be one with the elements. Some first-timers to Tulum, or perhaps even Mexico, may have no idea that some accommodations might not have A/C, access to non-salt water, or even consistent power throughout the night. We have had readers check into a $1000 a night hotel to realize it’s an eco-stay with just a mosquito net and salt-water outdoor showers, which might be a wonderful experience for some, but hell for others.
Many properties along the beach will lose power throughout the night, so even if your room is blessed with A/C and a fan, you might not reap the benefits of it throughout your entire sleep. Again, totally a preference thing, but most of the beach properties also use salt water for the sinks and showers. Those with already dry and curly hair usually find the saltwater to make their locks super tangled and unmanageable, while others love the experience of it all.
Gratuity will likely be included on the bill
No matter if you are grabbing a quick smoothie to go, or sitting down at a multi-course dinner, 90% of the restaurants in Tulum will be automatically adding a 10-20% gratuity to your bill. Some newbie tourists don’t notice this and mistakenly add another tip, while others get confused on why their bill is so high.
I’m an advocate for tipping well in Mexico when the service is great, but if you have an awful experience, don’t feel bad for challenging an auto-gratuity.
There are two sides to Tulum
Tulum is a town of two faces. One is the boho-chic, eco-friendly, pura vida kind of vibe. The other is more of a EDM, hardcore party vibe. Sometimes these two worlds blend together at the seams, and other times they stay relatively separate. It all depends on the area of Tulum and the time of year.
No matter if you want to get down and dirty Jersey Shore, spring break style, or you want to have a super-chill, romantic, bohemian honeymoon, Tulum can give it to you.
It’s not as dangerous as the news portrays
Tulum has been in the news recently with reports of shootings, and sadly, even the death of some tourists being caught in crossfires. Unfortunately, when there is demand for drugs, gang activity follows. So is Tulum too dangerous to visit? In my opinion, no. Many tourists, especially those from the U.S., are already coming from cities with higher crime rates than Tulum. Visitors should be aware of their surroundings, especially after midnight when almost all of the crimes have happened, and stay far away from drug activity.
The shopping is epic
I’m not a big shopper while on vacation but I have to admit that Tulum has next-level boutiques and stores. There are endless shops with really trendy clothes, beautiful handmade items, and unique pieces you can’t find anywhere else.
I would suggest leaving some room in your suitcase because chances are you will want to take some of Tulum home with you.
It takes longer than you think to get to Tulum
Tulum is close to Cancun, but also so far away. When traffic is bad, it can easily take over 2 hours to get from the airport to your hotel in Tulum. Many first-time tourists don’t realize that on top of their 1 or 2 flights into Mexico, they’ll also be faced with a long drive.
In my opinion, the drive is worth it but just be prepared. Make sure you have pre-planned transportation that is stocked with drinks and pick up some snacks on the way.
We personally use a VIP service with meet and greet in an executive SUV.
Beach vendors are all foreigners
As someone who has spent most of my adult life in Mexico, I have seen my fair share of beach vendors all across this beautiful country, but never have I seen so many foreigners. If I had to put a number on it, I would say 90% of the beach vendors I see in Tulum are not native to the area. They are a mix of European, Australian, and North American expats or backpackers, selling their wares to visiting tourists, competing with local Mayan sellers.
Hardly any cell service and WiFi is sketchy
Being a digital nomad myself, I know how important a good Wi-Fi connection can be, or even having cell service when the Wi-Fi fails. Tulum, chiefly near the beach, is not known for its blazing-fast or reliable connections.
When the Wi-Fi goes out, or you’re walking down beach road, you likely won’t have cell service. You might get a 3G connection here and there and some data will pass through your phone, but don’t expect to upload an Instagram story.
Tons of things to do around the area
Tulum is the ultimate playground for the adventure-seeking tourist. There are endless things to do in the area, both in the sea and on land, including: diving, cenotes, jungle tours, Mayan ruins, ziplining, and so much more.
The photo opportunities are endless
Some say Instagram has ruined Tulum forever, while others say it’s the very reason for its giant success. Whatever your position, the fact is that Tulum has unlimited photo opportunities that are perfect for the ‘gram or just your personal collection in general. Tulum is the place you will capture the most jaw-dropping shots without even trying. Make sure there is tons of room on your phone because you will be snapping hundreds of insanely cool pics.
Beach clubs have a minimum spend
If you didn’t book a hotel on the beach with its own beach club, no worries, because there are many beach clubs open for the general public to come and enjoy, with a caveat of course. Many of them have a ‘minimum spend’ or a fee to reserve one of the poolside or beachside beds, cabanas, or chairs. The cheapest lounge chairs will usually come with a $50 USD (about 1000 peso) minimum spend, while larger cabana beds or prime locations can go from $250-$500. The minimum spend is used towards the drink and food menu and acts in part as a rental fee for use of the bed, bathrooms, and beach area.
We toured a few beach clubs during our recent stay in October 2021 and found one of the best deals to be Roc Luxe. It was only a $50 USD minimum spend per person, comfy lounge chairs, shade options, also has a small infinity pool, great bathrooms, tons of selfie mirrors, and even a live DJ. It was not party vibes, but instead very relaxed and chill, which is what we were looking for.
Yes, you can get a Covid test for returning home
Very relevant for 2021 and 2022 with Canada requiring a PCR test and the USA requiring an antigen test in order to return home. There are testing booths and tents up all over town, no matter the neighborhood you are in. Most antigen tests are around 600 pesos and ready in under half an hour. PCR tests are around 2000 pesos with most results in 24 hours.
It will capture a part of your soul
Whether you end up loving or hating your time in Tulum, it will be a place that you’ll never forget. There is something about Tulum that words can’t quite describe, almost like a magic spell or a piece of its charm that is forever imprinted on you. I myself have this twisted love/hate relationship with the town, also in part by how it’s changed, but I feel ever drawn to keep returning.
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