From a sleepy beach town, Tulum has quickly become one of the most popular destinations in Mexico among young, hip social media influencers and wealthy vegan health enthusiasts looking for a more glamorous backpacker experience. But with so many influencers snapping at the best angles, editing pictures to their liking; how much of what you see on social media is actually real? Will you be disappointed or blown away? This blog post is a critical review of Tulum that explores if the ultra-trendy destination is all it’s cracked up to be and will help you decide whether or not Tulum is your cup of tea. As always, these are all my personal opinions and I realize not everyone will agree.
Tulum is beautiful and charmingly refreshing
Photo: The beach is amazing with lots of nice bars and restaurants to choose from.
Located some 120 kilometres south of Cancun International Airport, Tulum definitely offers a welcome change. Compared to the giant resort complexes lining the beach practically all the way from Cancun to Playa del Carmen, Tulum is smaller, cuter and more down to Earth.
Here the beach is open to everyone and you’re free to walk about from one end to the other, without having to show your all-inclusive-bracelet to guards. Everything is nice and compact. No giant chains, just individual small restaurants and hotels. The vibe is more rustic with candle-lit bungalows built on stilts. Gone are the screaming neon signs typical of many tourist-infernos as well as the usual souvenir shops lining the beach roads.
And speaking of the beach. It’s beautiful! The enticingly turquoise Caribbean Sea offers a nice burst of colour; rolling in over the sand so white it almost hurts your eyes. Ever so slightly tilted palm trees line the road, swaying smoothly in the light tropical breeze. What’s not to like?
Photo: A nice pineapple daiquiri by the beach enjoying the beautiful views.
Instagram-friendly and visually appealing
Photo: The little café/snack bar Matcha Mama is one of the most photographed spots in Tulum. It’s not hard to see why, this whole place is just adorable! It’s the perfect spot for those looking for a quick healthy, vegetarian snack. Note that it’s not the cheapest place, though. Located on the southern half of the beach road.
The idyllic natural setting is already a great selling point, but adding even more to Tulum’s attraction is the fact that almost everything here – from restaurants to hotels – is just adorably aesthetic.
In Tulum you’ll find delightful restaurants in tree houses, swing-sets instead of chairs and white hammocks with gorgeous backdrops. As if this wasn’t enough you’ll often get your drinks served in coconuts and pineapples! Even the street signs are cute, encouraging you to follow your dreams instead of angry, forbidding signs (sure, you’ll see speed limits and no-parking signs too, but who can even notice them with all the cuteness going on!).
It gets to the point where it’s almost too good to be true. Everything is so cute and picturesque it’s almost as if it all were designed just for social media. Did the restaurants and bars here just envision how it all would look on popular blogs and on the accounts of Instagram-icons? Is this the true, authentic Tulum or just a manicured façade – a giant stage for the rich, young and beautiful?
On the other hand, I’m sure many entrepreneurs have tried and failed to create a visually appealing, Instagram-friendly set-up. It’s clear that people doing business here have a very visual mind-set. Some of the places are practically pieces of art!
And be this the authentic Tulum or just a façade, who cares? Who doesn’t prefer sipping their drink from a cute fruit, swinging away in a hammock, rather than from some environmentally awful disposable cup in a white, impersonal plastic chair?
Photo: I Scream Bar located close to halfway down the beach road is also one of the more photographed spots. Offering happy hour fun and vegan ice cream this place is worth checking out.
Playground for the rich and the social media famous
Photo: The vegan restaurant Raw Love is located about halfway down the beach road.
Whether the cuteness attracted the social media influencers, or the influencer attention encouraged this place to make a conscious effort to step up its aesthetic game the fact is that today Tulum is an extremely trendy destination for famous influencers and it continues to grow in popularity.
All this attention comes with a price tag. Compared to many areas around this region, Tulum is fairly expensive. For someone visiting from an expensive country (like Finland) Tulum is still affordable. Just don’t expect cheap backpacker bargain prices.
Because of its super-trendy hipster-status, don’t expect it to be all about the laid-back atmosphere. It seems as if the vast majority visiting this place is obsessed with the perfect picture, checking off famous Instagram-spots on their lists, moving along in perfect boho-beach-style outfits, flawlessly done makeup and coiffed hair. I’ve been to hippy beach destinations where nobody cares about washing their hair or doing their makeup and the clothes people wear have no label. Tulum is definitely not that kind of a destination. This is where wealthy young people come to detox or dance at beach raves.
If you chose to eat or drink at one of the popular spots, don’t expect to be the only one there. Chances are someone will show up, wanting to snap a frame in that exact location. Who enjoys eating a meal with people standing in line waiting for you to finish so they can start taking pictures in your seat? So if this is something that might bother you, perhaps choose one of the less Instagrammed spots for more privacy.
Photo: Since the beach road is pretty long (around 10 kilometres) and the town is located at around 3-4 kilometres from where the beach road starts, many visitors will rent bikes to get around easily.
Pictures don’t lie – or do they?
Photo: There are several beautiful murals in and around Tulum, make sure to check them out! This one is located at the point where the beach road starts (the North part).
I have a hard time believing anyone could argue with the fact that Tulum really is a beautiful destination. The paradise vibes are definitely present by the beach.
However, many of the famous so-called Instagram-spots in Tulum do look a bit different in real life compared to the often highly edited pictures you’ll see on Instagram. Not necessarily worse, but nonetheless, perhaps not what you expected.
Based on the image you get on social media, many people might think that downtown Tulum and the beach are the same destination. This is not the case.
Tulum pueblo, the town, is actually quite far from the beach. It’s around 3-4 kilometres from the town to the point where the beach road starts. The beach road stretches for almost 10 kilometres. If you’re staying at the southernmost point of the beach road, you’re looking at some 13-14 kilometres to get to downtown Tulum.
A vast majority of the pictures you’ll see from Tulum are from Tulum beach. So if you’re about to book a hotel in Tulum pueblo (downtown), don’t expect ocean view. Then again, staying by the beach, don’t expect a town centre with all its conveniences right nearby. Tulum beach is just a long road with restaurants, boutique-style shops and hotels lining the street.
Photo: The beach road is lined with palm trees, providing welcome shade.
Should I go or not?
Photo: Tulum is a great base camp for exploring the area. The beach by the Tulum ruins (pictured) is amazing!
This blog post hasn’t just been about singing the praise for Tulum. I’ve also tried to highlight some of the less appealing parts – the aspects you don’t see on social media every day. The purpose has by no means been to discourage you from going, but to bring to light both sides of the story and help you form a more realistic picture of the destination, thus aiding you in deciding whether or not to go.
To recap, here are the pros and the cons
There are plenty of reasons Tulum might be the place for you, here are a few:
- If money is not an issue, you’re looking for a beautiful paradise right by the beach and you like going to trendy places where “everyone who is something” seems to be going; then yes, Tulum is for you.
- You’ll also like it if you follow a vegan diet or are into yoga or meditation. There’s plenty of excellent vegan and vegetarian restaurants and you’ll have the wonderful opportunity of doing yoga right by the beach.
- Those who love visually appealing places (like restaurants, cafés, hotels) or who are into taking beautiful pictures for whatever purpose will also enjoy Tulum beach.
- This is also the place to be for those who don’t want to stay at a huge resort and love the idea of beach camping, but want to do it the more glamorous way, with running water and wifi. Here you’ll certainly find places that offer you the charm of staying right at the beach in a cute bungalow, but with all the conveniences.
- There’s also a lot to see and do in this region and Tulum is a beautiful base camp for exploring the area (check out my travel guide to visiting the Tulum ruins for example).
However, Tulum is not for everyone. Reconsider Tulum as a destination if:
- You hate influencers and can’t stand witnessing photo shoots or seeing people filming and snapping pictures everywhere you go. If that’s the case, perhaps you should head somewhere else.
- You’re the type of person who likes to enjoy vacations without having to care about appearances and you get self-conscious if there are others nearby in full makeup and styled outfits. If so, it’s possible you might feel uncomfortable here. On the other hand, if you’re confident and couldn’t care less about how others are dressed then you’ll enjoy yourself anyways!
- You’re looking for a bargain priced backpacker destination. There are other more affordable options in Mexico. If you’re really set on seeing Tulum, there are of course ways to save money – you can do Tulum on a budget too. However if you’re just looking for any bargain priced beach place, pick somewhere else.
- If you can’t live without reliable cell phone reception. The reception by the beach is not always great, for example I didn’t have any during the whole time we stayed by the beach (in downtown Tulum, on the other hand, my cell phone worked normally).
Photo: Anyone looking for a nice place to do yoga, get a massage or do some meditation will enjoy Tulum.
Photo: A map (found near the Tulum ruins), showing where the different bars, restaurants and hotels are located on the beach road in Tulum.