Things to do in Tulum, Riviera Maya
Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula is a tourism hotspot, thanks to the popular Riviera Maya, a tourism and eco-resort district straddled along the 307 highway, in-between the Puerto Morelos (north) and the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve (south). Although this peninsula in extremely popular with American tourists, much like Cabo San Lucas on the west coast, the relatively quieter diving and eco-resort haven of Tulum is a better option for seeing the Mayan ruins in Mexico since most of the party crowd favors Cancun. Plus, it is also an easy drive 1.5 hrs south of Cancun, which is the airport you need to fly into from USA. We stayed there for two days and packed in a variety of Tulum activities (minus the cenotes, so you can read this guide on best cenotes in Tulum for your adventures) and this post is filled with all the best things to do in Tulum. So if you are wondering about what to do in Tulum on your first visit, this is the post to get started!
If you have more time on your hands, you can either visit Cancun (read this post on unique things to do in Cancun) and the majestic Mayan pyramid Chichen Itza (read about visiting Chichen Itza with kids right here). Additionally, Isla Mujeres, off the coast of Yucatan Peninsula is also a perfect getaway and you can read about things to do in Isla Mujeres right here! Similarly, Isla Holbox is another amazing getaway from Cancun and a very relaxing place to be in as are self planned excursions to Cozumel, another popular island getaway near Cancun! For more Mexico inspiration, read this fantastic post on best places to visit in Mexico. For planning a trip to Mexico, this post on Mexico travel budget is a great resource.
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Tulum activities: Where to stay
Tulum, albeit quieter than Cancun, is still wilder popular with divers, resort goers and history buffs on the scent of ruins. We arrived during the off-tourist season (November) and therefore were lucky to get a room at the Hotel Zamas, which is right on the narrow road 15 hugging the ocean. Thanks to it’s great views, a private beach, an awesome thatched roof restaurant, free wifi and a very helpful concierge giving us some very good recommendations on places to eat and things to do, this easily qualifies as one of the best places to stay in Tulum. Our rooms were a distance away from the main part of the hotel and therefore the wifi in there was pretty non-existent, but it was made up for the beautiful decor, thoughtfully provided amenities, hot and cold shower and the cute mosquito net provided above our bed (since the place is right next to the woods on the other side). Depending on the rates, the rooms are either ocean, garden or a private pool facing. Zamas also has plenty of parking right next to and across from the hotel. We also met the co-owner, a very kind American lady, who had adopted a local stray (Zula, seen lounging on the sand below) to be a hotel greeter. If you are thinking of where to stay in Tulum, I highly recommend this hotel for your planned Tulum activities and can guarantee that you will be not disappointed by the service and hospitality. The wifi works beautifully in the lounge area and the restaurant where you can sit with a drink or two while watching the sun set over the ocean. Their website is incredibly beautiful and well designed website which provides valuable Tulum tips such as nearby attractions in terms of restaurants and sightseeing. For honeymooners, here is an excellent post on all inclusive resorts in Mexico, many of which are in Yucatan peninsula in and around Tulum!
Things to do in Tulum: Main attractions
1. Mayan Ruins
Riviera Maya is so named because of the ancient Mayans that once called this peninsula home and were fierce warriors, worshippers of nature, bona-fide scientists and expert seafarers. After the Spanish conquest and cruel decimation of their civilization, all that is left of their existence are the ruins of their temples and other structures that are scattered all over the Yucatan peninsula and are pretty well preserved for modern day tourists to gawk over. The most famous of all the Mayan ruins in Mexico and the tallest temple is the one at Chichen Itza, two hours west of Cancun (you can read all about a trip to Chichen Itza from Cancun right here). However, owing to our schedule and the extreme reluctance to be trampled by hordes of selfie-obsessed people tripping each other to get a shot of the temple, we decided to give this iconic place a miss and simply drove to Tulum to see the next best preserved Mayan ruins to get a glimpse into the ceremonial life of the Mesoamerican civilization, possibly one of the most popular things to do in Tulum. These ruins are even more special since they face the ocean, from where Mayans could keep an eye on their enemies. Although off-season, there was no dearth of tourists swarming all over, so plan to arrive as early as possible. An hour north of Tulum lies another ruins site called Coba, which has several smaller ruins scattered all over and a main, tall edifice (temple) standing proudly in the center. Unlike Tulum, Coba’s ruins can be climbed upon but given how tourists have completely taken over this idyllic spot as well, this (2016) was supposedly the last year where they would allow people to touch and climb up the ruins. Finally, the Mayan ruins in the Muyil archaeological site (an easy day tour from Tulum), right next to the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, are well worth a visit, simply because of the well preserved structure and precious solitude since not many people still know of its existence. Although the Tulum ruins had bilingual (English/Spanish) signs explaining the ruins and their importance, there were no such signs in Coba or Muyil. There are many so called guides running large at Coba who will approach you for assistance and if you are a true blue history buff or plain very curious, you might benefit from having one of them. We simply wandered on our own and let our imagination take flight on what the ruins possibly stood for. As for Muyil, we did get a combo guided tour for the biosphere and the archaeological site and therefore had a much more informative experience as our knowledgeable guide dispensed tidbits on the fascinating life, practices and beliefs of the ancient Mayans and explained the symbolism and utility of the various sculpted steles (stone slabs) and temples.
2) Day trip from Tulum: Sian Ka’an biosphere reserve
A trip to the Sian Ka’an biosphere is highly recommended as one of the top Tulum activities and makes for an easy half day trip from Tulum. The Sian Ka’an biosphere is a mangrove vegetation and a beautiful biozone filled with fresh water lagoons (created by the Mayans to ferry them across) and resides in the southernmost part of the Riviera Maya. This reserve is home to hundreds of indigenous plants and birds and has been extremely well preserved by the government. Although not necessary, guided tours are highly recommended to get access to the freshwater lagoons. The customary approach is a quick tour of the Muyil ruins followed by a motorboat that takes you through the freshwater lagoons, after which you can simply float on one of them using a life vest that is provided and watch the birds as you bob along the water. For those of us who are not water babies (i.e. cannot swim to save our lives), the latter might sound alarming but it is actually pretty safe and fun because I live to tell the tale. Your guide will be with you and you will be provided with an additional floatation device to guarantee your safety. All you need is a swimsuit below your clothes and a sporting attitude. If you wear sunscreen (since you will be exposed to the direct sun in the afternoon), you are requested to slather an eco-friendly one that does not leave a harmful residue in the water. If you google Sian Ka’an, you will come across several websites peddling eco-friendly boat tours. Even if you contact them, they are pretty nebulous on details of transportation (being a good hour away from most hotels in Tulum) and meals (being a 3-4 hour excursion, meals are offered by the tourism company). So it is best to reserve a spot a day before your tour when you arrive in Tulum. We struck gold on this aspect since the kiosk of “Mexi Divers Tulum” was right across from our hotel lobby, they being specialists in diving and biosphere tours. For $ 95 USD, we got one of the best Tulum tours of 4 hours, including transportation, meals (freshly squeezed orange juice, water and ham and cheese sandwich that we munched on the boat), a comprehensive tour of Muyil, boat ride and flotation in the lagoon. Honestly, I was expecting to see a bit more as our boat tore through the blue water of the lagoon, but this is a biosphere after all and all you see is dense mangrove vegetation as far as the eyes travel with not much to say or do. There is also a full moon tour of the same and I have been told its really magical.
3) What to do in Tulum: A dip in the Cenotes
We did not cover the Tulum cenotes because neither of us are water babies. But if you need more information on them or scuba diving, read this ultimate guide to scuba diving and wonderful guide to Tulum!
4) Things to do in Tulum: Tulum center
Tulum center/town is the urban, residential part of Tulum lying next to the eco-resort strip along the ocean. It is the epicenter for local businesses, eateries (both touristy and hole in the walls) and for small shopping stores, ranging from quaint ones to those horrifically crammed with tourist souvenirs. Beautiful murals lay scattered everywhere, some peeking from the walls in the by-lanes and we were fortunate to discover quite a few. We picked up several things from many of the stores lined along the main street, such as a beautiful painting depicting a local wedding, small gifts and souvenirs. We also stopped by several times for meals in many excellent and unassuming hole in the walls, serving authentic local cuisine.
5) Top Tulum activities: The best Caribbean beaches
S and I are not beach bunnies; come to think of it, we are nowhere in that neighborhood of chilling on a beach or taking a dip in the salty water, but with one of the best beaches in Tulum so close to our doorstep, we had little choice but give in to the call of the ocean breeze. Playa Paraiso, north of our hotel, is where the purest white sand and the bluest Caribbean water calls your name and you must surrender to its whim. This is possibly one of the most magical things to do in Tulum, i.e. catching a sunrise or sunset at the beach when there are very few people remaining. Since the sun is still pretty strong during the day, we caught a beautiful sunset and were there in time for a glorious sunrise as well. It felt surreal to have the beach to ourselves at dawn with only one more human in sight. I’d never seen a blue like that before and the sand never felt softer. Although one can rent our beach chairs with umbrellas, an early morning or a late afternoon trip with simply a beach towel (provided generously by our hotel) is good enough. If you excuse my shorts and tee (very non-beachy attire but the best my awkward self could muster), this Tulum beach was indeed a piece of paradise and the water was warm and inviting, so unlike what we have back home in San Francisco. You can read this guide with gorgeous photos for more beaches in Tulum!
6) What to do in Tulum: Get a Spa Massage
One of the best Tulum activities that will relax the heck out of you is getting a massage at one of its many spas. After some research, minor fainting spell over overpriced spots and failed attempts to get in to the more popular places, we finally settled for the reasonable Maya Tulum spa resort and got our massages. S got a deep tissue one while mine was an exfoliation followed by a massage. It was a very relaxing and unwinding experience and something that I highly recommend for those looking what to do in Tulum. The spa resort is heavy on yoga and had several sessions advertised for Hatha, Vinyasa, Iyengar and Kundalini Yoga led by instructors.
Things to do in Tulum: Where to eat authentic local food
One of the best things to do in Tulum is to eat your heart out and eat right! Tulum might come across as a tourist haven, yet if you can avoid the obvious tourist traps of Americanized hipster food, there are plenty of places to choose from, ranging from quiet eateries to hole in the wall gems thronged by locals. Our first night started with a bang at the trendy shack of El Tabano, which was high on seafood, small plates and local flavor followed by subsequent meals at La Nave (Italian with a Mexican twist) and many at our own hotel (they have live music on certain nights). However, the local joints of El Camello (ceviche and other dishes so yummy that I still drool even thinking about it) and Taqueria Honorio (a tiny locals only joint serving the best tacos ever, cash only) took the cake in dining. Although most of these are either seafood heavy or meat only, we did see quite a few vegan restaurants along the strip, one being a juice bar and vegan spot named Restaurare, right next to El Tabano. Tulum treated us kindly on food and that is something that warmed my heart aplenty. For more on Yucatan cuisine, read this guide on 12 must have dishes in the Yucatan peninsula.
This brings me to the end of yet another blog post on what to do in Tulum, which you have hopefully enjoyed. Here are some more Tulum travel tips to enrich your travel experience:
1) November is the best month to visit Tulum since Dec-April are peak tourist seasons with a surge in prices in hotels and gets difficult to book tours as well.
2) Its extremely warm and humid here as expected, so better be armed with sunblock, bug spray (if you are extremely sensitive to mosquitoes), sunglasses and of course a hat. Pack in a swimsuit for the beach or the Sian Ka’an reserve for floating (I did not and had to go on a wild swimsuit hunt before our tour).
3) Visit the Punta Laguna nature reserve (largest spider monkey Sanctuary) which lies further north of Coba. We forgot all about it until upon our return to Tulum and then were too lazy to drive all the way up north again and settled for the spa instead.
4) Driving via a rented car is a good option to get around but you do have taxis all over since this is such a popular tourist destination. However, if you can bike then do explore Tulum that way because there is no dearth of bike rental places around.
5) Pay in Mexican pesos wherever possible even if US dollars are accepted. Given the favorable exchange rate now (even in 2019 as I update this post), payment by pesos is way cheaper.
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