Where we’re at: I’m recapping my travels in 2019, including this trip to Mexico in April.
“Who Killed Tulum?,” asked a widely buzzed about article in New York Magazine’s The Cut that came out just two months before our dream trip to the infamous destination. When friends asked where in Mexico Ian and I were headed, I replied “Tulum” almost apologetically, despite the fact that we’d been talking about visiting for ages.
Tulum had become a place that it seemed many with a microphone — top travel bloggers among them — loved to hate on. The backlash had certainly begun on Mexico’s buzziest beach town. And yet the crowds flood there even today — clearly, the masses still love Tulum.
Privately, I was anxious about the trip for another reason — there were few place that loomed so large in my mind. Had I waited too long to go? Had I missed the boat? Did I even have enough time? My dream trip would have involved two weeks in Tulum… two years ago. Instead, we had four nights. So we made the most of them.
I’ve been to Merida, Progreso, Riviera Maya, Tulum, and since, Cancun Town and Isla Mujeres. I’ve hardly beaten my way off the track in Mexico — yet. I do hope to do so someday. But on this trip, we just wanted to immerse ourselves in all the cliches of the destination we’d been dreaming of for years.
And it worked. We had what I’d say was just about the perfect long weekend in Tulum.
We based ourselves in Tulum Pueblo, a truly fantastic decision, but spent most of our days exploring further afield. Our first stop? The Tulum Ruins. Ian would have very happily skipped them altogether, but also was more than agreeable about joining — and luckily the couple we were traveling with, Ian’s friends from Canada, were super keen as well. As it was Easter Week, we decided to do our darndest to beat the crowds, setting our alarms for dawn to make it to the gates by the 8am opening time.
At MX$75, or about $4USD, the ruins are a bargain to visit. We’d decided ahead of time to also splurge on a tour guide to give us some context to what we were seeing. While our taco breakfast and a few wrong turns and some parking confusion had set us a little behind schedule, we arrived not long after opening and already found the place mobbed — it was, as everyone had been warning us, Santa Semana, after all.
The ruins were beautifully set on the ocean and we had a bright, blue-sky day to visit them. Unfortunately, our guide was, to put it kindly, a bit of a dud. He was a perfectly nice guy, but his delivery of the history of the ruins was as passionate as a Google-translated state department brochure.
Also, we lamented after the fact what an unfortunate route he’d taken us on, lingering at the jungle-side ruins when the more scenic beachside ones were deserted and then bringing us to the highlights once they were heaving with people.
Obviously, I can’t make a recommendation regarding getting a guide or not based solely on our experience — the lead guide we’d spoken to had been incredibly charismatic, and I’m sure we’d have had a very different experience with him. I will advise that if you do get a guide and arrive early in the morning with an aim on beating the crowds, insist on heading straight to the beach and working your way backwards to enjoy a few moments of solitude.
And really, you should aim for that pre-8am arrival. We were kicking ourselves for not getting there when we’d planned, but when we left a few hours later the lines just to get tickets were mind-boggling.
It was about a bazillion degrees but lucky for us, we had nature’s AC going for us. The crazy winds did give us a few great Instagram vs. Reality moments on this trip.
After ticking “visit a Mayan ruin” off our list, we were more than ready to cool down from the epic mid-day heat. Our motorbike rental made it easy to zip up to Gran Cenote, Tulum’s most central and popular cenote for swimming.
The entrance fee is MX$180 or $10USD if you pay in dollars, but there’s free, no-drama parking and we brought our own mask and snorkel set to avoid the MX$80 rental fee.
The photos make it seem like we had the place to ourselves but that’s more a reflection of my patience and angling skills than anything. In reality it was quite crowded here but we didn’t mind — it was still beautiful and refreshing. We splashed around, snorkeled, spotted freshwater turtles, and chilled on the big lawn before declaring the stop a success.
With more time, I would have loved to have hit up even more cenotes for swimming. They are one of the most magical things about this region of Mexico, in my mind! But for a one week trip, I’m pretty thrilled that I got to scuba dive in two and swim in two others.
The final place we used our motorbikes to zip to was the beach, of course. We made two daytime trips to Tulum Playa, a long one-road strip stretching six miles from the Tulum Ruins on one end to the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve on the other.
Tulum Playa is undeniably intoxicating — it’s teeming with world class restaurants, swoon-worth boutiques, and some of the most bohemian boutique hotels on the planet, all seeming to emerge from the jungle like they sprouted right from the earth. It’s truly a design lover’s dream. With the dramatic fog of copal incense cloying from so many directions, it sometimes feels like you’re actually dreaming the place into existence.
But it’s not without issues.
First is really an issue for anyone not staying at accommodation with beach access — it’s laughably difficult to find a stretch of sand to actually enjoy. Two of the four of us were hungry, our first trip to the beach, so we stopped at a cute seafront driftwood-draped restaurant for a bite. When the waiter discovered that only two of us would be ordering food, he demanded that the others pay an exorbitant fee just to share the table. We left. Thankfully, we soon found a venue that allowed us the privilege of ordering cocktails and a few snacks.
The other undeniable issue with Tulum? The seaweed.
We were well aware of the seaweed problem plaguing Tulum and much of the Caribbean ahead of our visit. But still, my jaw dropped when our bike pulled around a particular bend and I had to cover my mouth with my t-shirt to keep from inhaling the stench coming from a mountain of sargassum that an actual bulldozer was working to remove from the beachfront. I wish we’d stopped to take a photo, because it really was beyond belief.
While all we could do was shrug, I can only imagine those paying hundreds or even thousands of dollars a night for beachfront rooms might have felt a bit miffed. A later stroll down a mild stretch of seaweed-ed beach provided another Instagram vs. Reality moment…
Still, seaweed and sanctions aside, the beaches we incredible. The water was a nearly fluorescent turquoise, and the beach clubs and hotels provided adult playgrounds full of sculptures, structures, sand tents, and more. It was so much fun just walking the beach and seeing the different experiences the various clubs had created — it was like the hippie jungle version of walking down The Strip just to ogle all the Las Vegas hotels.
Our final day in Tulum, Ian and I had absorbed the sticker shock of the beach and had decided to just splurge and pay whatever we had to for a day lounging at one of the iconic beach clubs.
We headed first to Nomade and Nest, which I loved the design of and were at the Southern end of the beach where seaweed wasn’t as tragic. When we we arrived we were told that there was absolutely zero availability on any tables, beds, or tents, which were all fully occupied by hotel guests. I have to say the staff was super nice and helpful and not the least bit snobby, which I really appreciated. They told us that some might open up around check-out time, with a minimum spend of around $50USD per person, but they couldn’t guarantee it.
It was quite early so we decided to try our luck and wandered down the beach until we found some open beds at a place called Amigos Beach. While it was cute, it was definitely not an Instagram darling — which really worked in our favor. We got our choice of a prime beachfront bed, the staff couldn’t have been kinder, and the minimum spend was less than half of what we’d been quoted at Nomade. We were thrilled. The crowd was a little less “trendy professionally beautiful people” and more “domestic travelers with kids in tow,” but honestly it was kind of nice to know that there’s a side to Tulum that caters to that, too.
Other than our lunch at Amigos, we didn’t eat many meals in Tulum Beach. We did have a snack one morning at Raw Love Cafe, because I am legally required to eat smoothie bowls in every destination that offers them.
It well worth a stop, but generally we preferred eating daytime meals in Tulum Pueblo, where the prices were more reasonable, the crowds were smaller, and the commute shorter.
Yes, it’s a bit of a production to get the full Tulum Playa experience. But honestly, it was worth it, at least for a few days — it’s magical there. And we saved so much money staying in Tulum Pueblo, we didn’t mind the hassle in the grand scheme of things.
We did find, however, Tulum is a totally different place when the sun goes down.
Ian had been beyond devastated when we realized that Hartwood, his dream dining destination, was going to be closed for Santa Semana. (I personally had no idea what Hartwood was, much to the chagrin of several other people who asked if we’d be eating there.)
So while I can’t say I know what we missed out on, I was absolutely thrilled with his second choice for a total splash out of a meal — dinner at Arca.
Arca was definitely one of the poshest restaurants I’ve eaten at on my travels — and I loved it. The design, the vibe, the food, the service — it was worth the hype for sure.
Needless to say, I’m a sucker for all things presentation when it comes to a lush meal. I don’t often go wild on food photography because (A) I don’t want to embarrass my fellow diners and (B) it’s generally too dark at dinner to get great results, but as the only reservation we’d been able to nab was 6PM, I was so thrilled with the lighting I was willing to discreetly capture the beauty of each and every course and cocktail.
Ian definitely never steered us wrong when it came to where to eat!
For our final night in Tulum, we had no firm plans on where to eat, but knew we were heading to the beach for a party that night so figured we might as well do one more dinner down there. During the day, we’d passed WILD, and were wowed by the beautiful setting and the menu and made a reservation on the spot for that evening.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t our favorite meal of the trip — and it was also pretty empty. Oh well, that’s what happens when I’m allowed to pick, ha!
We were off to our final adventure in Tulum — the Playa Papaya Project’s monthly Full Moon Party. Unfortunately, Ian’s friends had left a day before us, as raves are always a “the more the merrier” vibe. But we felt like we just couldn’t leave the Tulum without checking out one of the iconic beach parties.
We were exhausted that evening but looked it up, saw the entrance was $10USD, and figured what the heck — we could leave after an hour if we weren’t feeling it.
The traffic down to the beach was insane, as was the line to get in. We were cold, shivering, and deeply craving Netflix when we reached the front of the line we’d waited in for over half an hour, bargaining that we’d be crazy to turn around after spending the time and money it took to get there via cab.
Then we got to the ticket booth. “Eight hundred Mexican pesos,” the woman at the ticket line said flatly. My eyes bulged again. The internet had been wrong (a first, surely!) I turned to Ian and said, “well, I guess we’re about to find out how much we’re willing to pay to feel young and hip,” and it turns out that amount is approximately $43USD per person. Zoink.
Once we were in, we committed to making the most of it, as we had with every step along our trip. The setting was incredible — disco balls hung from the palm trees, the water lapped at the bottom of the stage, and thatch roof bottle service tables lined the dance floor.
But, we couldn’t help but think that well, it seemed like people were more interested in being seen than actually having fun. It was the first moment of the trip that I kinda sided with the Tulum eye rollers — it felt like an outdoor Manhattan nightclub over a true wild jungle Full Moon Party.
Yes, everyone was extremely fabulous and well dressed. But I’ve had way more fun at Banyan Bar in my cutoffs. Maybe we just weren’t in the mood — but it definitely didn’t leave me feeling the magic of Mexico. It was such a scene — but still, we were glad we went. It was part of the Tulum experience, for better or for worse!
Despite ending on that bizarre note, I loved Tulum. Yet weirdly, I almost felt guilty about doing so. Many of my followers — very politely — probed me during my trip. Are you aware of the impact of development in Tulum? Are you going to write about the environmental burden of tourism? Are you going to explore alternative destination recommendations?
This is a selfish answer, but it was a time I needed to be selfish — no. I just wanted, no, I needed a vacation. Do I agree I have some responsibility as a travel blogger with a large readership? Absolutely. But do I also think I’m a human being who deserves an occasional opportunity to enjoy the places I’ve always dreamed of gong, in the most responsible way I feel able to do so? Yes to that, too. And talks like those I had with my local dive instructor provided alternative, gentler views on the current, trendy backlash against the place.
I promise that on my next trip I will dive deeper into all the questions my readers asked me to. Because I will be back to this unique, particular paradise.
Tulum charmed me — it was the exact bohemian yoga-filled acai-fueled cerulean-watered design dreamland I needed.
Have you been to Tulum? Would you go? What are your thoughts?
Would you say Tulum vibes are a bit like the Koh Phangan of the west? But sounds like one is expected to pay a lot for this and that, not very relaxing. KPG is less materialistic, I feel.
I’d say more in line with Canggu in Bali — Koh Phangan isn’t nearly sleek enough, though it does have the hippie slash rave blend!
This post captures how I felt about Tulum Playa SO well! I was somehow both enraptured AND rolling my eyes the whole time, ha. While I’m not in love with one particular group of people who visit (wealthy, glamorous faux-hippies who trash the place and destroy the natural environment), I AM in love with the color of the water, the friendly locals and the old-school, pre-tourist-boom eco hotels. And, okay, some of the new boutiques and vegan restaurants. 🙂 Can’t wait until you visit again so I can stare at more beautiful beach pictures!
LOL at enraptured and eye-rolling — yes. Lucky for you there’s a load of Mexico photos about to hit my Instagram feed 😉
Alex, as always, I really appreciate your honest and balanced critiques. I felt the the same complicated feelings about Bali before I went there – that it’s a created inauthentic paradise, that westerners are preying off a SE asian economy and a narrative of paradise – but it’s all about the experience you choose to have when you arrive.
For you next mexico trip – might I recommend Sayulita!
Ah, I’d love to visit! While I’m so grateful to these short Mexico trips for helping get me through 2019, I would love to make my next trip a much longer, more thorough one.
I went to Tulum the first time about…seven or so years ago? Before every inch of beach had an instagram spot. There wasn’t a stitch of seaweed, the beach was like powder, there were barely any people, it was absolutely heaven on Earth. I mean full bliss. We stayed at the Teetotum which is on the road to the beach and the corner into town which was a perfect spot. 99 bucks I think and so, so cool. The following year when we returned I could not BELIEVE that every empty spot had a little business on it, the hotels were over 500 bucks a night, the traffic was insane and it was just all models trying to get a cool shot. It lost so much of its earlier vibe. I went back once more and it hasn’t really improved. I still do love it – it will forever tug at my heart strings – there’s so many great restaurants, cool chill places to see tucked in like Bonita and Tunich – but it has definitely lost its charm for me. I guess I really miss that empty bliss that was experienced the first go. But that’s just my opinion!!
That sounds amazing, Kim. I agree though, it’s kind of like Burning Man — going over the years you feel the changes so distinctly, but if its your first time going, its still pure magic no matter what. We have to be willing to let places and experiences change just like we do.
Firstly your creamy bikini with the floral print featuring here is AMAZE and the cut makes your legs look so long too ????
I may not articulate myself that well here, but hopefully makes sense. The whole travel sustainability over development thing is a hard one. There are places like Tulum, canggu, Boracay that really have struggled with over tourism (traffic, waste disposal, infrastructure etc) but on the contra, as a surfer and diver it’s so awesome to visit all these places, meet the people, eat the food, enjoy the scenery and often it’s the places themselves that over development themselves too fast or put in massive hotels when they should stick to cute boutique hotels or guest houses. As these are often third world places, they don’t have the planning structure and policies in place to expand and grow sustainably and it ends up a mare. My dream job would be some kind of tourism growth impact and planning consultant!!!
Where I get the most upset is by people chasing these destinations that were quieter sleepy places and turning them into the next big thing just for the sake of a photo or lying on the beach. This may sound snobby or over aggressive, but if you’re really just going to lie on the beach, tick off some attractions and want great internet for you insta pics and sufficient power for your straightener before heading for dinner, then there are some places actually suited and set up for that. I’m having a current gripe as all these travel articles are citing Siargao in Philippines as the next place to go, bali before it got crazy busy. Well… now Siargao will get crazy busy. Face palm. Having been and totally loved the sleepy surfer island which is really only known to the world because of its surf break, I would say, unless you are actually going to surf and perhaps check out some of the dive sites, then perhaps it can stay a sleepy surf Town and those chasing beach lounging can stick to another island like el nido ????♀️
That’s my personal opinion ????
So you went to Tulum, you gave business to the less popular area to stay, you went to a ruin, dived and swam cenotes, enjoyed the beach, rented a bike so didn’t need to be taxi everywhere plus I know you use your feet for walking, perfectly acceptable visit And I’m glad you enjoyed it
Well to your first point, that is a miracle because my legs are SO not long, ha!
As for the rest, I find your perspective here really interesting! I hadn’t applied that thought process before to destinations like Tulum but I HAVE thought the same thoughts about Burning Man. If you just want to go to a concert, go to a concert, and leave the tickets for those whoo really want to immerse in the full experience. But then I catch myself, because it’s not a very radically inclusive thought process 😉 Thanks for sharing your thoughts here!
PS: DYING to go to Siargao!
I was reading your recent post about your Mexico girls trip and had to click through to this Tulum recap. A friend and I just got back from a four night trip on Monday, and I was smiling ear to ear reading this entire post! ARCA is indeed incredible, though we only went for cocktails before other dinners nearby. Also, we changed one of our dinner reservations to Wild at the last minute, and it was probably my favorite out of the three higher-end spots we tried (Gitano and Rosa Negra being the others)!
That said, definitely some negatives about Tulum, and especially so during these pandemic times. While all of the locals were wearing masks, my friend and I were in the minority of tourists who regularly donned masks. You’d think some of the tourists didn’t know a pandemic was even happening with the way they were partying! Nonetheless, I was captured by Tulum’s beauty and have already booked another trip to Mexico for January (based on a local’s recommendation, I’m going to check out Holbox)!
Hey Michelle! Noted on Gitano and Rosa Negra, love having some good recommendations! I’m actually about to start posting about my trip to Holbox on my instagram — watch out for my posts there and eventually, here 🙂