If you follow any travel enthusiasts on Instagram, chances are you have heard of Tulum. Situated 90 minutes south of Cancun on the Caribbean coast of the Yucatan Peninsula, this hippie-ish, small Mexican town has become a new millennial “hot spot,” and it’s easy to see why! With crystal blue water on one side and dense jungle on the other, Tulum has drawn tourists from all over the world to its white-sand beaches, staggering Mayan ruins, and awe-inspiring, natural sinkholes called cenotes (pronounced say-NO-tays). With its jaw-dropping beauty and plethora of unique activities, this once-quiet town has quickly turned into a popular tourist destination; yet, with the increase in ‘hype,’ is Tulum still worth the visit?
The answer is: absolutely, yes! The Yucatan peninsula is wonder-inspiring, and it is easy to explore the best that Tulum has to offer while avoiding the crowds! Tulum’s pristine beaches and charming town are filled with delicious, authentic Yucatan restaurants, friendly locals, and thousands of off-the-beaten path areas to roam. Read on to learn how to explore the hidden gems of Tulum and be in the know about the must-see local spots!
Tulum’s white-sand beaches and sparkling blue water (without the high-rise hotels of Cancun) are simply stunning! While several boutique hotels and beach clubs offer beach access for a “consumption fee,” the more local (and FREE) public beach is just as beautiful and half as crowded! Turn onto the north beach road, find a shady parking spot, and walk right to the public beach, where you can rent an umbrella and spend the day in paradise.
Derived from the Mayan word for “sacred well,” Mexico’s freshwater cenotes are some of the most famous attractions on the Yucatan peninsula. These natural sinkholes and subterranean caverns played a key role in the ancient Mayan civilization, serving as both an essential water source and sacred spaces for special rituals and offerings. Today, with over 7,000 on the Yucatan peninsula, these ancient cenotes range from refreshing jungle swimming holes to mysterious underground cave systems, and they offer adventurous experiences for visitors and locals, alike. The best way to explore these cenotes? Hop in the car and take a drive through the Yucatan! You simply cannot go wrong with whichever ones you choose, but I have noted a few of my favorite, off-the-beaten track cenotes below!
1. Cenotes de Coba
A few miles from the Mayan ruins of Coba are the three beautiful cenotes of Tamcach-Ha, Choo-Ha, and Multum-Ha. These large, underground caves filled with turquoise blue water are simply mind-blowing to behold! You can jump off a high platform into the cool, refreshing water, dive into the depths of the bat-filled caves, or grab a snorkel and observe the amazing underwater world of these ancient caverns.
Just a short ride from the center of Tulum, Zacil-Ha is a private spot frequented mostly by local Mexican families. Though it may be smaller than many of the more famous cenotes, it is a fantastic, low-key spot to lounge in the sun, zipline into the water, and enjoy a sunny morning!
3. Punta Laguna
In the Mayan village of Punta Laguna, tourists can grab a local guide and go on a special jungle adventure: trek through the forest on a search for spider monkeys in the canopy, cannonball into the tranquil lagoon, and repel into the underground Punta Laguna cenote for an unforgettable experience. On a recent visit, a local Mayan guide lowered me from a harness through a small hole in the ground, where I plunged into the dark cavern below, sinking further and further until I gradually slipped into the chilly water. Alone in the cave, with bats flying overhead and only a small patch of sunlight, I was transported into another time. It was only afterward that the guide informed me that the cenote was used by ancient Mayans as a place of sacrifice, and there were several skulls found at the bottom of the cavern that were fully intact after thousands of years. (Talk about a once-in-a-lifetime experience!).
4. Cenote Cristal and Cenote Escondido
Cristal and Escondido are two quiet and private swimming holes surrounded by lush jungle. You won’t find lockers, showers, or crowds of tourists with orange life jackets here! Instead you’ll find local families picnicking, lounging, and jumping off the diving platform into the clear water below. So, bring a picnic and a towel and relax here to enjoy a sunny afternoon!
While in Tulum, some of the most amazing sites to explore are the remarkable cities of the ancient civilization of the Maya. The Yucatan Peninsula is home to some of the most impressive ruins in the world, so take a step back in time and enter in to the ancient world by exploring these remarkable cities!
1. Tulum Ruins
Although they are not considered to be “off-the-beaten path,” The Tulum ruins are not to be missed! This ancient city is absolutely stunning, as it is the only Mayan city to be uniquely and magnificently located on the jagged cliffs overlooking Tulum’s sparkling blue water. Go early in the morning, right when it opens, to avoid the crowds (and the heat!).
2. Coba Ruins
The ruins at Coba can be found deep in the Yucatan jungle, just 30 minutes from Tulum town. Once there, rent a bike for four dollars and ride along jungle paths to various archaeological sites, then head straight to the main pyramid, which is one of the last Mayan structures in the Yucatan that visitors are allowed to climb! While the climb is tough, the view at the top is definitely worth the struggle.
3. Ek Balam
A little further inland from Coba are the ruins of Ek Balam; while not as giant as the famous site of Chichen-Itza, the ruins in Ek Balam are both less crowded and, like the Coba ruins, climbable! Climb to the top of pyramid and gaze around at other imposing Mayan structures towering up from the jungle; it is an unforgettable experience!
1. Laguna Kaan Luum
This beautiful, local lagoon surrounded by jungle mangroves is just ten minutes from Tulum and is on Tulum’s best-kept secrets: with crystal clear jade water and a deep, dark blue cenote at the very center of the lake, this lagoon is a fabulous spot to spend the day.
2. Sian Ka’an Biosphere
Sian Ka’an is an UNESCO World Heritage site and a protected ecological biosphere filled with amazing wildlife, freshwater canals, and dense green jungle mangroves. Take a full day to explore the Mayan ruins at Muyil, trek through the mangroves, take a boat tour with a local guide, and float through the freshwater canals in the middle of the jungle!
As the number of tourists have increased, so have restaurant prices. Chefs from different regions of the world have have opened upscale restaurants both on the beach and in Tulum town. While these restaurants are undoubtedly luxurious, you simply cannot travel to Tulum without experiencing the delicious local Mexican and Yucatecan food (which is not only delectable, but also easy on the wallet).
1. Taqueria el Honorio
Located off a side street in Tulum town, this restaurant is the best place for tacos in all of Tulum, and for about 80 cents a taco, you can indulge in as many as you can stomach! You won’t find too many tourists in here; instead you’ll find Mexican families and workers enjoying a delicious meal of pork tacos, steak tortas, and black turkey stew. If you are looking for an authentic Mexican, this is the place to go!
2. Antojitos la Chiapaneca
If you want more variety of Yucatecan food, then go to La Chiapaneca for 50 cent tacos and awesome chicken panuchos: fried tortillas filled with refried beans and topped with shredded chicken, onions, and salsa.
3. El Camello
For fresh seafood with a Mexican spin, look no further! From ceviche to delicious garlic and coconut shrimp, you cannot get any better than El Camello!
With so much beauty and adventure packed into this culturally rich region, you are guaranteed to have an incredible time!
Have you been to Tulum? What’s your favorite place to explore?
Written by Grace Klopp
Follow along on the adventure on Instagram @gsklopp