Tulum’s been on the hot list for several years now, and there’s a good reason why. It’s the ultimate place to relax on the beach, dine at incredible restaurants, and admire a minimalist beach chic design aesthetic. And there are many, many ways you can do up Tulum – it can easily add up to a pricey trip, but at the same time, you can explore Tulum and the Mayan Riviera on the cheap. And that’s really how I prefer to do Tulum!
To be completely honest, I’ve never been able to convince myself to fork over the cash for a room in one of Tulum’s boutique beachfront hotels… because even when you don’t do Tulum to the nines, it’s a pristine beach with great food and plenty to do. Here are my pro tips to getting the best value out of every dollar you spend on a trip to Tulum.
Where to Stay — Tulum Pueblo vs. Tulum Beach
I was an early adopter to the Airbnb scene – and the first time I used the website was actually to visit Puerto Morelos, a town about an hour north of Tulum. We visited Tulum for a day trip, on a recommendation from our host, back in 2011.
Tulum is really one city, made of two separate communities. There’s Tulum Beach – it’s what you’ve read about in Conde Nast Traveler, on DesignLoveFest, and in the New York Times.
Then, there’s Tulum Pueblo, which is less luxurious, a little rough, and much cheaper. I prefer traveling on the more adventurous side, so when I visit Tulum, I like to book an Airbnb in Tulum Pueblo – there are so, so many great options for luxe apartments and villas when you expand your search from the beach areas. Tulum Pueblo is about a 10-minute drive away from the beach areas (check the map above!)
Staying in Tulum Pueblo
Pros: better value for per dollar, and the ability to get a glimpse of what Tulum is like for people who live there – cheaper, less touristy, and easier to use as a jumping off point for other adventures on the Mayan Riviera.
Cons: not walking distance to the beach, dirt roads, and the need to rent a car. Related to that — dealing with parking when you go to Tulum Beach.
Staying in Tulum Beach
Pros: walking distance to restaurants, bars, and ruins. Posh hotels and wellness retreats, no need to rent a car
Cons: Expensive, boujie, touristy.
Real talk: If you’re someone who really values exploring and adventuring in your travels, then finding a nice Airbnb in Tulum Pueblo is probably going to be a great option for you. But if you’re someone who likes the luxuries of boutique hotels and the convenience of walking to dinner, then Tulum Beach is probably a better value!
Alas, I have never been much of a luxury traveler – I swear by Airbnb, and when I travel alone, you’ll probably find me in a hostel, taking swigs from a bottle of rum, with 5 new traveler friends. So this is my guide to Tulum on the cheap: what’s good, what’s expensive, and what’s worth it. If you haven’t done Airbnb before, and think I’ve sold you on it, please do use my link for referrals!
Where to Eat
Beach Fancy: Hartwood
You’re likely to read and hear a lot about Hartwood. I had a fantastic experience there, but I have several friends & colleagues who’ve come home to tell average tales of food and service. I say it’s worth a try, as it’s pretty affordable for a nice meal (about $45 per person, with a drink or two).
What’s notable about Hartwood is the minimal electricity – no joke, the small generator they have behind the restaurant is really only used for lighting. Every day, they purchase the day’s ingredients from a market in Valladolid, and put the catch on blocks of ice (all transported in by a local taxi driver). It’s pretty cool.
To go, either email in advance for a reservation, or get in line on an early afternoon to get a reservation for that night. Highlights from my meal – mixed ceviche, pumpkin empanadas, and a papaya salad that was to die for.
Pueblo Cheap: El Camello
The first time I went to Tulum, five years ago, a friend and I asked our taxi driver where we should eat in town. He sent us here. It’s a legit & local ceviche spot. Use perfect or broken Spanish, and unless there’s a whole bunch of you, get the small portions. They’re huge.
Casa Banana — I’ve had drinks here. They were fantastic.
Gitano — cocktails were fantastic, and dinner was alright. Go for the drinks, the people watching, and the open air disco ball atmosphere.
La Zebra — lovely brunch and beach lounge spot.
Posada Margarita — I haven’t been, but everyone I know said the food was incredible.
Literally any beachfront spot with a bar — it’s all good. Live your life.
What to Do
Tulum’s known for it’s cliffside Mayan ruins, which are really cool to explore. It costs about $6 USD to enter the park, and you can walk around all the building structures. On the ocean side, there’s a view point with stairs down to the ocean, where the waves crash against a little beach cove. Make sure you bring your swimsuit and some drinking water — this place gets hot.
The Yucatan Peninsula is known for its incredible sinkholes — in this part of the world, they’re called cenotes. Though there are several pretty close to Tulum itself, my personal favorite is hidden in the jungle near Puerto Morelos, about an hour or so north of Tulum. Drive yourself in a rental, or hire a taxi to find Siete Bocas — all the locals will all know where it is. Entrance fee is about USD $20, and it’s well worth the price. The cenote has six openings (there used to be 7, but they collapsed 2 holes into one giant one). Some have stairs for accessing, and others require a leap of faith! Say hi to Maria, and practice your Spanish. Bring a lunch and relax a bit.
Snorkeling off Playa Paraíso
Just south of las ruinas, you’ll find a beach that’s mostly used by the locals — a couple of beach bars with cheap cervezas and some bachata music set the scene. If you’re as lucky as I was, a local will offer to take you snorkeling in one of the boats on the beach. Pick up a six pack of Sóls at the bar, and hop on the boat to check out the reefs.
Siam Ka’an Biosphere Reserve
Also further south of the ruins is a huge wildlife reserve — to get there, you can either continue driving down the Tulum Beach road (and be prepared for a dusty, long, dirt road). Or, you can Enter through the town of Muyil, from the main Cancun highway. If you enter through Muyil, you can take a boat tour for about USD $45 and hopefully see birds, dolphins, and sea turtles! We explored a bit through the Tulum Beach road, and unfortunately didn’t see anything — but I’ve heard great things from people who have made a day trip out of it.