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Tulum: Our Expert Visitor's Guide

10 min read

Found yourself dreaming of powdery white beaches, turquoise waters, and fascinating historical sites? If so, Tulum, a hidden gem in the Riviera Maya, is calling out to you.

The allure of Tulum lies in its unique blend of untouched nature, deep-rooted history, and a peaceful ambiance that gives way to a slow-paced life away from the humdrum of city lights. As a seasoned explorer in the Caribbean, I’ve been fortunate enough to unravel the magic that is Tulum and am here to guide you through what it’s really like to visit this special city.

What Makes Tulum Special?

Tulum beach with huts.  The allure of Tulum is undeniable. This treasure trove in the Mexican Caribbean holds many delights that make it a stand-out destination.

Bountiful Beaches

An integral part of Tulum's charm lies in its spectacular beaches. Picture white sand blending seamlessly with azure waters that are as clear as crystal. The beaches of Tulum offer an idyllic retreat for relaxation and rejuvenation.

Historical Attractions

The appeal of Tulum extends beyond its natural beauty. The Mayan ruins, sitting atop the cliff overlooking the Caribbean Sea, offer a fascinating glimpse into a bygone era. This encounter with history, set against an unparalleled view, distinguishes Tulum from other nearby travel destinations like Playa del Carmen and Cancun.

A Commitment to Sustainability

Another factor contributing to Tulum's unique appeal is its dedication to sustainability. The proliferation of eco-conscious hotels and yoga retreats in the heart of the jungle demonstrates Tulum's commitment to preserving its natural beauty.

Vibrant Culture

Tulum also boasts an exciting cultural scene. The bustling local markets, lively nightlife, and inventive art installations paint a picture of a vibrant and creative community and make Tulum a dynamic hub for cultural immersion.

Where is Tulum?

Tulum is situated on the Yucatán Peninsula of Mexico, approximately 81 miles south of Cancún.

Access to Tulum is straightforward. Most travelers choose to fly into Cancun Airport (73 miles north) and then journey south to reach Tulum. There is a plan for a new airport located in Tulum and construction is underway so in the near future, you’ll be able to fly directly into Tulum and avoid the 1.5 - 2 hour drive time.

The History of Tulum

Before Tulum became synonymous with boho-chic boutique hotels and Instagram-ready cenotes, it had a rich history that dates back thousands of years. This seaside sanctuary in Mexico's Yucatan peninsula was once a significant trading and religious hub for the ancient Maya civilization.

Around 564 AD, the early foundations of Tulum were laid, but it didn't hit its prime until between 1200 and 1521 AD, the Post-Classic Period of Mayan civilization. Known then as Zama, or 'City of the Dawn', it was a strategic maritime center, acting as a key trade link between the Caribbean Sea, Gulf of Mexico, and inland cities.

One of the last cities inhabited by the Maya, it thrived for centuries until the arrival of Spanish colonizers. Despite initial resistance, the population eventually succumbed to Old World diseases, marking the city's slow decline. However, its resilient ruins, standing defiantly against the azure Caribbean backdrop, offer a glimpse into this rich historical tapestry.

Visiting Tulum Today

A cenote in a lush green jungle.  Ready to immerse yourself in the diverse offerings of Tulum? Today, this Riviera Maya gem is a vibrant hub that marries the natural beauty of its white sandy beaches and azure waters with a flourishing culinary scene, cultural festivals, and dynamic nightlife.

When to Visit Tulum

Ask around, and you'll find most visitors to Tulum Mexico gravitate towards this Yucatán gem during the winter months of December to April to escape snow-shoveling duties for some serious beach lounging.

With Tulum’s temperature at a comfy 80°F, it’s the tropical sanctuary we all crave. But remember, with such an attractive climate, Tulum tends to get crowded, so be a savvy traveler and book your stay and activities in advance.

If you’re looking to balance adventure with a budget, try visiting during Tulum’s shoulder seasons - May to June and October to November. Sure, you might face a bit more rain, but the reduced prices and smaller crowds make it a worthy trade-off. Want to push the budget-saving envelope further? Try the summer months, from July to September, but keep in mind that it's also hurricane season.

Craving a serene beach to yourself? You’re not alone. While Tulum isn't as hidden as it once was, there are ways to make it feel like it. Visit from September to November, during the end of the hurricane season, and you'll find tourist traffic at a lull.

Here’s a tip from a fellow traveler - morning visits to Tulum's attractions in these months promise fewer crowds and lesser heat. And don't fret over a bit of rain, it’s typically short-lived. Besides, a rainy day is the perfect excuse for exploring one of the area's underground cenotes. Keep in mind that weather apps can be a bit overly cautious about rain in this region.

What You'll See When You Arrive in Tulum

As soon as you set foot in Tulum, you'll notice its unique blend of ancient and modern. Tulum can be broken up into three clear sections: the Tulum ruins, Tulum’s beach zone, and the Tulum downtown area.

Imposing Mayan ruins, like El Castillo and the Temple of the Frescoes, peer over the turquoise Caribbean Sea. They bear testament to a grand civilization of yore.

Turn your gaze from the past, and you'll be in awe of Tulum's modern vibe. Picture this: Chic eco-friendly resorts, trendy restaurants, and yoga studios dot the pristine beaches.

You'll also come across a busy town full of local shops, colorful murals, and vibrant markets. Tulum isn't just about the beach, it's also about the culture.

Staying Safe & Fitting in While in Tulum A sea turtle swimming in blue water. Overall, Tulum is safe, but, like any tourist destination, it's always wise to keep your wits about you. Leave your valuables in the hotel safe and avoid deserted areas at night.

It’s a good idea to keep the environment in mind. Tulum Mexico has a strong eco-conscious community. So, remember to respect the local wildlife, refrain from touching the coral reefs, and avoid using harmful sunscreens and insect repellant. They will appreciate you for that!

As for fitting in, just go with the flow. Embrace the relaxed, beachy vibe. Tulum is one of the few places I’ve been to in Latin America where you’ll see both tourists and locals sporting swimwear away from the beaches.

I suggest making an effort to cover up anywhere official, like banks or religious and historical sites, but other than that, most anything goes. Trust me, with the right intentions, you won't have any trouble blending in with the friendly locals.

Tulum's Weather & Climate

One thing's for sure: Tulum delivers a truly tropical experience. Blessed with year-round warmth, the climate here is largely defined by two seasons - dry and wet.

The dry season runs from November to April. During this period, the weather is largely balmy with average temperatures resting at a pleasant 80°F. You're looking at daytime temperatures reaching the mid-80s and evening ones dropping to a comfortable mid-60s. Expect clear blue skies and a moderate breeze – a perfect setup for beach lounging and ruin exploration.

The wet season, spanning from May to October, brings increased humidity and rainfall, particularly in the peak months of September and October. Average daytime temperatures tend to stick in the 90s but fear not, the soothing Caribbean Sea maintains a welcoming temperature of 80-84°F. Perfect for a refreshing dip!

Bear in mind, this period also aligns with the Atlantic hurricane season. Yet, the occurrence of significant storms is pretty rare. Instead, prepare for short, heavy downpours, typically in the afternoons or evenings.

The silver lining? The rain breathes life into Tulum's verdant jungle landscapes and offers a different kind of scenic beauty. If you’re an insect lover, one of my favorite things to do is head into the rainforest after a rainfall and look for tarantulas on the hunt for stranded insects.

Top Tip: Don't let the chance of rain deter your plans. Rain showers in Tulum are typically short-lived, and the sun is never far behind!

Getting To & Around Tulum

Finally, how do you get to this slice of paradise? The easiest way is to fly into Cancun International Airport, then take a bus or taxi to Tulum. The journey usually takes about 2 hours.

Once you're in Tulum, getting around is quite straightforward. You can rent a bike, hail a taxi, or take a colectivo (shared van). If you're feeling adventurous, you can even walk. Most places are close by, and walking is a great way to soak in the sights and sounds of Tulum.

The Contrast Between Cancun & Tulum A wooden statue in Tulum. When you think of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, two places often spring to mind – Cancun and Tulum. Despite being less than 80 miles apart, these destinations offer vastly different vacation experiences.

Party Central versus Zen Zone

Cancun is renowned for its bustling nightlife and thriving resort scene. Iconic clubs like Coco Bongo, Mandala, and The City play host to spectacular parties and captivate global tourists with their energetic ambiance. Here, vacationing is synonymous with partying – think glitzy outfits, VIP experiences, and late-night beach revelries.

In contrast, Tulum offers a more subdued, mindful experience. It's a wellness enthusiast's paradise, replete with yoga studios, holistic therapies, and eco-conscious lodging. The parties here are a different flavor altogether, with beach bonfires, folk music, and an inclusive, laid-back vibe.

Shopping Extravaganza versus Nature's Bounty

Cancun is a shopper's dream come true. The Hotel Zone and downtown areas offer a mix of luxury boutiques, vibrant markets, and sprawling malls like Forum By the Sea and La Isla Shopping Village.

Tulum, on the other hand, is a nature lover's haven. Nestled amidst lush jungles and serene cenotes, it allows visitors to immerse themselves in rich biodiversity. You won’t find any Louis Vuitton here. A strong emphasis on eco-tourism and conservation makes Tulum a preferred choice for eco-conscious travelers.

Hotel High-Rises versus Boutique Stays

In terms of accommodation, Cancun is home to a wide array of high-rise chain hotels offering all-inclusive vacation packages. The towering hotels along the beach give a vibe of staying in a tropical version of Miami.

Tulum offers a stark contrast, with locally owned boutique hotels and eco-lodges woven through the jungle and along the beach. Tulum's accommodations focus on sustainability and offers a unique blend of comfort and conservation.

While both Cancun and Tulum share a rich history and stunning natural beauty, they cater to different visitor preferences. Whether you're seeking a vibrant, action-packed holiday or a peaceful, rejuvenating retreat, this region of Mexico has something for everyone.

The allure of Tulum extends beyond its golden beaches and turquoise waters. Let's dive into the incredible world of cenotes and other unique attractions this vibrant city offers!

Cenotes in Tulum

Submerge yourself in the magic of Tulum's cenotes - natural sinkholes brimming with crystal-clear, fresh water. They're a testament to the Yucatan Peninsula's unique geological makeup and are sacred to the ancient Mayan civilization.

Check out Gran Cenote for a start. Just a stone's throw from Tulum, it's an underwater wonderland for snorkelers and divers alike. You can peek into the mystic underworld of stalactites and stalagmites, while tropical fish dart around you.

Mayan Ruins

You can't visit Tulum without making a pilgrimage to its iconic Mayan ruins. Perched on a cliff overlooking the Caribbean Sea, the Tulum ruins give you a glimpse into a fascinating past.

The iconic El Castillo pyramid takes center stage. You can just imagine the Mayans from centuries ago gazing out at the same incredible sea view.

Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve

This UNESCO World Heritage site is a nature lover's paradise. Covering 1.3 million acres, Sian Ka'an is home to a stunning array of wildlife, from jaguars to sea turtles, dolphins to manatees, and boasts diverse landscapes ranging from tropical forests to mangroves and barrier reefs.

Top Tip: Take a boat tour or go kayaking to explore the untouched beauty of Sian Ka'an. You’ll be surprised at how much you’ll be able to see in just one day.

Our Favorite Tulum Tours & Activities

People walking around ancient ruins. From thrilling adventures to cultural immersion, Tulum offers activities to cater to every traveler's appetite. Here's a selection of my favorite tours and experiences.

Guided Tour of Tulum Ruins

If history tickles your fancy, I recommend a guided tour of the Tulum ruins. Professional guides breathe life into the stone structures with stories and facts, enriching your understanding of the Mayan civilization.

Cenote Diving or Snorkeling

How about an underwater adventure? Take a cenote diving or snorkeling tour. Dive into Tulum's submerged world and get up close to the stunning geological formations and aquatic life. There's nothing quite like it!

Food Tour

Now, let's turn our attention to Tulum's culinary scene. A food tour in Tulum is a must-do. Whether you're devouring street food or dining in a top-notch restaurant, you'll find the flavors of Mexico irresistibly delicious.

Personally, I think Tulum has the best food of any of the Mexican Caribbean destinations. Some of the best chefs from around the world have flocked to the city to experience its idyllic lifestyle and we all get to benefit from their seachange.

Yoga Class on the Beach

For those seeking relaxation, join a beach yoga class. With the sound of the waves as your background score and the gentle sea breeze kissing your skin, it's the ultimate Zen experience.

Want to take it to the next level? Try doing yoga on a standup paddleboard. It’s not as difficult as it looks!

Bike Tour

Lastly, I'd suggest exploring Tulum the local way - on a bike! Rent one or join a bike tour to get around. You'll cover more ground than on foot and get a real feel for the place.

Written by: Cristal

Cristal Dyer was born in the Caribbean and has spent the last several decades travelling and writing, including several stints in Latin America. Currently based in Australia, she owns and operates her own travel site tofutraveler.com and is an expert travel writer, editor and photographer with a focus on solo budget travel and food tourism. 

All of our content at Tourbase is written by experienced travel writers who have visited all of the locations we recommend. And our review board of local tourism experts ensure that all the information we provide is accurate, current and helpful

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