Mexico is such an amazing and diverse country with so much to see. You could easily spend years exploring it! The beach paradise Tulum is no exception and you’ll be spoiled for choice when planning what to do. Fascinating history, beautiful culture, diverse nature, delicious food and excellent white sandy beaches – there’s something for everybody! Here’s a blog post about some of the highlights to help you plan your trip to Tulum.
1. Enjoy the Beach Life
Photo: Unfortunately, uncontrolled and sometimes shady development is starting to have an impact on Tulum (for more on problems with development in Tulum check out this article by The Cut and this article by The Guardian plus this one by Newsweek magazine). Luckily you can still stroll around freely on the beach in Tulum, as opposed to some of the other regions on the Yucatan peninsula, where resorts have put up walls, fencing off the beach from locals and non-guests.
The first thing to do in Tulum is the most obvious. Beautiful palm tree lined beaches with sand so white it almost hurts your eyes and turquoise-coloured water in the background. For many, the beach life is the main reason to visit Tulum.
Take a stroll, go for a swim or just relax at one of the beach restaurants with a nice drink. It’s hard not to fall in love with the relaxed beach vibe in Tulum.
2. Swimming in a Cenote
Photo: The most awe-inspiring part of cenote Sac Actun has to be this spot, where the cave has collapsed, opening up a natural window.
The Yucatan peninsula is famous for many things; boozy parties in Cancún during spring break, mouth-watering flavours and the many ancient Mayan ruins. The area is also known for the thousands of cenotes it is home to – around 6000 to be exact.
The reason cenotes have been able to form in such large quantities in this area is the porous limestone that can be found here. The Yucatán peninsula is often described as a great Swiss cheese filled with these cavities and sinkholes. Over time these holes have filled up with fresh water, forming cenotes. As the natural wells of fresh water they are, cenotes have provided humans, animals and vegetation with a much-needed source of water throughout history.
Seeing at least one cenote should be on every Tulum visitor’s itinerary. Why? They are simply incredibly beautiful with unbelievably clear water. The experience is just magical!
The vast number of cenotes will leave you spoiled for choice. There are small cenotes, large cenotes, open-air cenotes and underground cenotes. Many cenotes are connected to each other and in fact form part of the world’s largest known underwater cave-system.
If you’re up for it, a tour of the underwater cave-system is an experience of a lifetime. I highly recommend exploring Sac Actun, check out my blog post on this other-worldly place.
Although you’ll get the best cenote experience swimming in one, if you can’t stand the idea, there are plenty of cenotes you can admire without having to take a dip.
3. Check Out the Tulum Ruins
Photo: Looks like paradise without any people doesn’t it? Hate to break it to you, but Tulum ruins are usually a lot more crowded than what it looks like in this photo. The beach in this photo is fenced off, hence no hoards of visitors (they’re all behind me!). I was so happy to read about the reason: turtles! Turtles come and lay their eggs on this beach. Remember to respect the fenced off areas when visiting historical places or beautiful beaches like this one, usually there’s a good reason why access isn’t permitted.
It’s hard to imagine there being a more picturesque location for an ancient city. Perched on a limestone cliff, overlooking the gorgeous turquoise Caribbean sea complete with its own white sandy beaches, the ancient city of Tulum is a true paradise.
If you’re staying in Tulum a visit to these ruins is definitely a must! In addition to the fact that it’s visually appealing, it’s a historical unique place. For example, did you know it’s one of very few ancient Mayan cities surrounded by walls?
Contrary to for example Chichen Itzá, Tulum is tiny and compact – you can see it in as little as an hour. The ruins are located right by Tulum, so getting to and from is easy and quick – you can even get there by bike.
The entrance fee is just 70 pesos, so it’s a good deal for budget travellers as well.
More information, travel tips and interesting facts about Tulum in my Tulum ruins travel guide.
4. Watching Wildlife
Photo: This iguana was enjoying the sun at Tulum ruins. At Tulum ruins you’ll probably spot a gang of coaties as well.
Birds, foxes, racoons, coatis, butterflies, iguanas and turtles. There’s no end to the amount of animals you can spot while visiting Tulum and its surroundings.
5. Admire the Street Art in Tulum
Photo: One of the many, many amazing murals all over Tulum and nearby areas. This one was one of my favourite, you’ll spot it at the north end of Tulum beach road.
If you love beautiful murals you’ve come to the right place. Both Tulum and its surroundings can boast with a surprisingly large number of amazing examples of street art. They display awe-inspiring creativity and turn the boring grey concrete of the streets into beautiful colour parades.
A stroll around Tulum is practically like visiting an open-air art exhibition! And it’s not just downtown Tulum. Plenty of murals can be seen along the beach road in Tulum as well in the surrounding areas, for example in the nearby town of Akumal.
The murals portray very different styles – there’s everything from more abstract works of art to lifelike paintings. What they have in common is that they’re all high-quality work – several internationally known artists have left their permanent marks in this region.
Many of the murals were born thanks to the Tulum Art Project that was organized in December 2014. Check out the project’s Facebook page (Tulum Art Project) for more information and maps with the locations of some of the murals. Here’s a link to Tulum Art Project’s Facebook post with a map with the murals.
6. Party and Dance All Night Long
Photo: I Scream Bar on Tulum beach road has happy hours, occasional live music and on Wednesdays there’s free mezcal for ladies.
In Mexico, I’m usually sound asleep before any kind of nightlife begins, but it does seem to be the place to be if you love nightlife. From relaxed happy hours at bars to full moon parties on the beach and even music in a cenote – there’s something for every kind of party animal.
For fans of electronic music, there’s usually a larger festival featuring internationally renowned DJ’s and artists once a year. The previous two years it’s been Sound Tulum, this year (2019) it’s Zamna Festival. I’m not sure about my opinion about festivals organised in such fragile environments (it’s literally next door to a biosphere reserve), but I want to trust what Zamna has stated on their web page (scroll way down to the brief section about social responsibility): they have taken implementations that guarantee zero percent environmental impact (I’m sorry, I’m a bit sceptical, but trying to keep an open mind).
For more information on different bars, parties and clubs check out this helpful blog post by Gypsy Sols, a travel couple who’ve lived in Tulum.
7. Eat and Drink
Photo: Cocktail with a view! Pineapple daiquiri followed by a pizza at Rosa del Viento on Tulum beach.
Guacamole, spicy salsas, enchiladas, pico de gallo and margaritas. Mexico is famous for its mouth-watering cuisine and amazing cocktails. In fact, so excellent are the foods and drinks that they’re already reason enough to visit Mexico!
Tulum is a great destination for foodies. There are plenty of great restaurants to choose from both in Tulum and the surrounding area. What’s more, Tulum in particular is great for vegans and travellers on a raw food diet. Here you’ll find detox juices, healthy smoothies and hearty vegan dishes.
Tulum has both laid back beach-side bars as well as fancy (and expensive!) restaurants offering avant-garde Mayan-Mexican fusion cuisine.
8. Rent a Bike
Photo: You’ll find plenty of places (many hotels for example) from where you can rent a bike in Tulum.
What does Tulum have in common with Copenhagen? Bicycles everywhere! As the beach road itself is 10 kilometres long and Tulum downtown is a few more kilometres away, a bike might not be a bad idea. Rent one and enjoy the freedom of getting from point A to B with ease.
9. Visit Chichen Itzá – One of the Seven Wonders of the World
Photo: El Castillo remains the most photographed structure at Chichen Itzá. Arrive early to beat the crowds.
Although located quite a distance from Tulum, this world wonder is definitely worth the trip. The ancient Mayan metropolis Chichen Itzá is fascinating to visit and will allow visitors to submerge themselves into the colourful history of the Yucatán region.
The most famous structure in Chichen Itzá is El Castillo. This pyramid is so interesting I dedicated a whole blog post to it, check it out for fun facts about this structure!
However, Chichen Itzá is much more than just El Castillo. The site is huge, so if you’re on a tight schedule you might have to plan your visit wisely. I’ve listed seven of the best places to visit in this ancient city in a previous blog post, click here to check it out.
For visiting Chichen Itzá you should reserve a day. It’ll take you around two hours to the site and exploring it will take at least two hours, preferably more. On your way back to Tulum you can stop by the colourful colonial city of Valladolid (scroll down for more on this).
10. Snorkel with Turtles at Akumal
Photo: Not only is Akumal Beach known for its turtles, it’s a very beautiful beach as well.
If you love animals and want to learn more about turtles head to Akumal Beach, located a short distance from Tulum. This beach is famous for the turtles that frequent its waters. In fact, the name Akumal even means Place of the Turtles in Mayan.
This is a great activity for travellers on a budget since it can be done for free if you do it independently. Just remember that several species of turtle are endangered and it’s important to act accordingly when encountering these beautiful animals. Remember to always maintain a respectful distance to the turtles (unfortunately, scrolling through Instagram you’ll see that not everyone seems to care about these wonderful creatures)!
For more information on how to snorkel with the turtles and tips on how to do this in a responsible way, make sure you read my Travel Guide for snorkelling with these majestic creatures.
11. Explore Nearby Villages
Photo: Along the main road towards Cobá there are plenty of villages and vendors selling for example fruit and vegetables. This stall was also selling “Pollo recien matado”, meaning recently killed chicken.
If you have the possibility, don’t just stay at the beach. Go explore and see what the area is really like.
Along the main road towards Cobá you’ll find lots of villages and the chance to interact with locals, try out street food or buy a coconut drink or watch how soft tortillas are made from dough.
12. Look for Crocodiles in the Ancient Canals of Sian Ka’an
Photo: Sian Ka’an translates to Where the sky is born. A name that seems fitting once you arrive and see the colour of the water.
If you visit Tulum, you can’t miss the breathtakingly beautiful biosphere reserve Sian Ka’an literally next door. Not only beautiful, this place is home to an astonishing amount of wildlife including manatees, dolphins, jaguars, monkeys and tapirs, just to list a few. It’s also home to not one, but two species of crocodiles!
For those who dare risk the possibility of a chance encounter with a croc, a great way to explore the area is taking a swim along the ancient canals the Mayans once built. The crocs tend to sleep during daytime, so it’s highly unlikely you’ll spot one, but it does happen from time to time. Crocodiles seldom attack humans, so even if you do encounter one there shouldn’t be anything to worry about.
The area of Siajn Ka’an was made an UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987 to protect the vast amount of flora and fauna it’s home to, including many endangered species.
The area is enormous, over 5000 square kilometres and it includes all of the principal ecosystems found in the Yucatan peninsula, like tropical forest, mangrove and fresh- and salt-water marshes. It also includes a portion of the world’s second largest reef, the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef.
13. Climb a Mayan Pyramid in Cobá
Photo: Perhaps 42 metres doesn’t sound like much these days, but climb to the top of this ancient pyramid and you’ll feel like you’re on top of the world!
The ancient Mayan city of Cobá is a must-see place for anyone looking for a bit of adventure. While most of Tulum and Chichen Itzá is fenced off, Cobá can be explored freely. In fact, what Cobá is most famous for is the pyramid Nohoch Mul that visitors can climb.
At 42 metres, the views from the top of the pyramid overlooking the thick, green jungle are breathtaking! For more tips on how to climb this pyramid, check out my previous blog post on the subject.
14. Visit Colourful Valladolid
Photo: With its colourfully decorated entrance Iglesia de San Servacio towers over the main square in Valladolid.
Although exploring Tulum itself is great, it doesn’t give you the same glimpse into the everyday life of local people as a visit to a larger city does. Taking a day trip to one of the bigger cities on the peninsula is highly recommended for anyone who wants to experience Mexican city culture.
Valladolid is a great city to explore. It’s the perfect pit stop on your way home from exploring Chichen Itzá. It’s suitably compact, with most of the main attractions located at a short walking distance from each other and the city centre. This means it’s the perfect city to see with just a couple of hours to spare.
The colourful colonial architecture is an attraction itself. Houses lining the streets come in all colours imaginable from intense blue and green to light pastels.
The main square – the plaza– with Catedral de San Gervasio, a beautiful cathedral, is worth a visit. Make sure you stop for food while you’re here. Many locals I chatted with told me that Valladolid is the place they head to when they want to have particularly tasty food. Several good restaurants are located close to the plaza. More tips for Valladolid in my previous blog post.
15. Embrace Your Spirituality
Photo: One of the most photographed street signs in Tulum is this Follow That Dream sign. For many, the dream is being in Tulum.
Anyone looking for a spiritual experience, healing or just hoping to detox and let go of stress will find a wide range of options to choose from. There’s yoga, meditation, massages, spiritual guidance, healing – you name it.
Even if none of these are your cup of tea, Tulum with its relaxed atmosphere has plenty to offer for those looking for a chance to focus on balance, tranquillity, letting go of stress or detoxing.