Though only 1.5 hours south, Tulum is the anti-Cancun. It is perfect for those who prefer boutique-y hotels over mega resorts, stylish open-air restaurants with up-and-coming young chefs over all-you-can-eat buffets and chain restaurants (Hooters! Hard Rock! Bubba Gump!) Daily entertainment in Tulum is provided by beach chair, bike rides, and fresh-water swimming holes (cenotes) in lieu of jet skis, mega-pools, and waterparks.
There is abundant natural beauty to be found in Tulum. But with that, expect reduced electrical power — candle light and wood-fire operated restaurants dominate here; the hotels use generator power for AC, lights, and the ALMIGHTY device chargers. Also… Ahem… expect certain toilet requirements — don’t even THINK of flushing that TP!! The waste can next to you for a VERY important reason — and you will be reminded by sign each and every time your sit your tushy down. It is all manageable but good to keep in mind if this is a serious turn-off for you. For me, the beach, vibe, and seriously great restaurants made up for the inconveniences.
From two recent visits in 2018 and 2019, I am happy to pass along suggestions from restaurants we loved, favorite cenotes, fun activities, hotel ideas for families, and our airport transportation recommendation. Feel free to contact me as well with any other questions — I will answer if I can.
You should know up front — hotels in Tulum are not cheap… more like NYC/LA prices. When I planned our first trip, I considered splitting the time between town and beach. We didn’t end up doing this, but there is an argument for both. Town definitely cheaper AND there are good restaurants here, plus closer proximity to the cenotes. But I would not want to spend the entire time here unless it is a budget concern.
We stayed in two different places on the beach — one on the far north end near the ruins, and one on the southern end near the trendy restaurants. Definitely preferred the southern location though we liked both hotels quite a bit. There are not many restaurants on the north end, but it is quieter up there.
Small barefoot hotel — yes, barefoot… only pure soft white sand, no traditional walkways — with wooden thatched roof bungalows. The staff feels like family after a couple days! Breakfast is included, and the food is good. This place actually feels like a bargain compared to the surrounding hotels.
I recommend this place HIGHLY with a caveat. We stayed in Captain Dale’s Quarter — very Swiss-Family-Robisonish in looks — a stand-alone 2-story bungalow near the ocean. It felt VERY private, and has 3 king-size beds and 2 bathrooms, plus a large wrap around porch with 2 hammocks… PERFECT for a family of 4 with older kids (2 of the beds are on the 2nd floor and not a good idea for toddlers. I’m not sure how the other rooms compare. We walked by several of the other rooms on the way to the restaurant, and they don’t have much privacy on their terraces. But there seem to be many choices so there are probably other good rooms.
Still… location is GREAT, the staff is super friendly, LOVE walking to breakfast barefoot, and totally dig all the hammocks and swings around the property. If you have kids, this is a great place, too. Lots of young families here whose kids were all doted on by the staff.
Oh, actually there is one other caveat… on this second visit, Taboo beach club opened up next door and plays loud house music during the day on the weekend. Other days, they still played club music during the day BUT not as loudly. Why on earth people want to listen to this while relaxing on the beach is beyond me… Maybe, hopefully, this will change soon. The good thing about this club is THE FOOD WAS ABSOLUTELY FANTASTIC! Great Middle-Eastern/Mediterranean menu which was a welcomed break from Mexican.
One final note about the location here. Sancho the donkey roams this area of the beach, and enjoys the attention received from everyone. He lives two doors down from Cabanas La Luna so is frequently found at the hotel. Word of caution — do not attempt to pet him UNLESS you have a snack for him. He gets a bit testy otherwise…
Very near the Tulum ruins in the north area of Tulum beach. Small boutiquey hotel with individual cabanas. Good restaurant. Nice beach bar with swings. We stayed in the ocean front cabana which was large and luxurious. The boys stayed in one of the garden cabanas and it was nice as well, just a little further from the water but convenient for the restaurant.
Pros: Quaint, modern, good service, good food, quiet, picturesque location, great beach bar, and movie nights on beach. Cons: far from the action; restaurant area in the southern beach area is about a 10-15 minute drive. Good if you want to try both locations like we did our first trip.
Tulum Beach restaurants
Our first time here as last year we couldn’t get a reservation. You have to reserve the month before, fyi. OR, you can walk in and try as well — they save some spots for walk-ins. Even with our reservation, we had to wait about 20 minutes, but it was actually quite fun as there is LOTS of energy and buzz, and the drinks are fantastic. The food is excellent, not sure I think it is any better than Mur Mur and Gitano, but another really fun place where you KNOW you are going to eat VERY well. It’s the kind of place where everyone is excited to be there.
Another return visit for us, and it is definitely one of my favorites. The vibe and decor ooze casual cool — swings around the bar, open-air kitchen with giant wood-fire grill, thatched roof dining area, gorgeous tropical fabrics… our dream backyard paradise. The food here is really, really GOOD! Everything is cooked over a wood fire and focuses on the ingredients of the Yucatan. The chef — Diego Hernandez Baquedano — has a 2nd restaurant in Baja which is consistently listed in Latin America’s top 50 restaurants.
We started with a spicy cocktail called Don Nacho Swizzle — tequila reposado, cilantro, chile, and hibiscus. Yum with a kick. Starters included shrimp ceviche (excellent), chorizo and roasted potatoes (THE BOMB. YOU MUST TRY THIS!!!), tomato salad (good but suggest a skip), short-rib tostada. Entrees: Jamie and I each got the fish special of grilled sole. Miles scored yet again (he had the chorizo potatoes) with lamb chops — the best he has ever had apparently. I don’t know… he wouldn’t share. We skipped dessert and stopped for gelato on the way home.
2nd time to Gitano, and it is another favorite. Open-air like the rest of them, packed and buzzy, it invokes that summer joy when I was allowed to stay out late as a kid to play with friends. Probably helped that the fact we drank cocktails named JUNGLE FEVER (mezcal, chili, lime, & cilantro) and KISSES IN THE CAR (mezcal, rum, pineapple, orange, & habenero), the boys joining in with their PINK FLAMINGO (grapefruit, orange, pina, honey, & pink pepper) and JUNGLE MIX (strawberry, banana, & passionfruit) fresh-pressed juices, while we played a couple rounds of Dead Presidents.
Dinner was more a tapas affair for us, sharing several suggested favorites from the waitstaff. Grilled avocado — it’s a thing! And very good. Great ceviche and tacos. And the lentil and chickpea stew was one of the best dishes of the week. You must order the churros for dessert.
This place is new and next door to our hotel. To be honest, we were a little annoyed with them BEFORE dining here due to the constant blast of house music from their beach club. But I was craving meditteranean food and we saw that was their specialty. The place is gorgeous. All open air in shades of earth tones, with a beautiful stone wall behind the bar. The ceiling lamps are a bit alarming as some of them resemble wasp nests, so keep your eyes averted.
First they brought us a complimentary board of artichoke dip, pequillo peppers stuffed with goat cheese, and warm homemade pita. Then complimentary spicy gazpacho. Everything was absolutely delicious — we were getting used to the music as the food, friendly and adept service and overall style had already won us over. We ordered several appetizers to share: more stuffed pequillo peppers (we didn’t realize we would receive these additionally…:|), Greek meatballs with tomato salad and tsziki, hummus with pita, lamb burger, ceviche, burger, king crab salad. I would say skip the burgers and crab salad. But get extra meatballs — amazing! Our waiter turned us onto a tequilla I have seen before but had not yet tried — Clase Azul Reposado. It comes in the pretty blue and white ceramic bottle. 100% agave tequila. This is one you can sip without the urge to gag. Tastes sweet! We each drank it over ice with a little sparkling water and lime squeeze. SO good.
Small outdoor restaurant with great casual vibe near our hotel. Everything is cooked on a camp-fire or prepared inside a picture-perfect vintage trailer. I started with an amazing cocktail: Ruby Red, with mezcal, pomelo, and spicy Jamiaca (not sure what that is but the drink is delicious and not sweet.
Set menu includes guacamole, followed by yucca fries with yummy pepper sauce. Then 3 tacos — fried fish with cabbage on a beet tortilla, wood-fired grilled pork pastor with a mango salsa, and shrimp mole verde with pickled red onion. My boys are not fans of fish so one chose only pork, and the other tried pork and shrimp. The shrimp was the majority winner in our crew. Dessert was a tamale filled with a smokey chocolate pudding.
Second time to ARCA and despite all the great critical reviews, I’ve decided it really isn’t my favorite. It is difficult to get a reservation without reserving at least a week ahead, yet BOTH times we have gone, there are only a few tables with guests. They encourage sharing of plates but it wasn’t made clear how much to order and I felt our waiter had us over-order… there was WAY too much left-over of the bone marrow dish he insisted we HAD to order and that none of us really liked. I will skip this one next time.
Yet ANOTHER beautiful restaurant, a little further down from the others but not by much. This one was not quite so buzzy as the others and never filled up. Food was great and service started out great, but then it seemed like Coco (our waiter) took a disliking to us after the drinks and first courses. Or maybe he just got too busy. I don’t know, but it was pretty comical how friendly he started out but then just ignored us or scowled at us. So all in all a fine meal but nothing to bring us back.
We visited on a night when they have salsa lessons. VERY busy and fun — especially watching the dancing. Food decent.
Skip this one… we had one ok lunch here the first year. 2nd time, a dinner reservation which we ended up leaving after 10 minutes not being greeted.
Tulum Town restaurants
Small road-side restaurant at a major intersection in dowtown Tulum. We stumbled on this place by accident last year and loved the food and wait staff. Even though the location is busy and hot, the decor and vibe here is fun and colorful. They have a 2nd location at Cenote ? which we also stumbled upon — they recognized us and greeted us warmly there as well! So we decided to return for lunch this year before picking up our rental car on the next block over. It was packed but we were assured a table within 10 minutes. Our waitress could not have been nicer — turned out she was the owner and she told us she remembered us from last year! Had no idea we are so memorable… not sure if this good or bad! Anyway, food is traditional but very well prepared. Excellent nachos, pico de gallo, guacamole, fajitas, tacos, ceviche… and margaritas are the BEST!
Second time to this town restaurant. Not a hip place, but popular with great guacamole, tacos and nachos. There is usually some musical entertainment and several tvs either playing Mexican soap operas or soccer games. Fun place worth a stop in town. Lots of souvenir shops in the immediate areas to load up on gifts.
Looks more like a pond than a normal cave-type cenote. Not too expensive. There is a platform for jumping/diving and my 15 year old made good use of it to work on his forward flip. Last year we went in the morning and had the place to ourselves. Scratch that… a baby crocodile enjoyed it as well. This year, an afternoon visit included about 40 others. People not crocs. I’d say skip unless you have kids who want to jump off a manageable platform.
Another repeat visit. This place has 2-3 holes which one can jump through into the cavernous pool beneath. There is a ladder to climb back out. If you are nervous around bats, you may want to skip. We all jumped in, and it was exhilerating and fun. Beware the bathrooms. Visit early if you don’t want to deal with crowds. Not for those who would be bothered by bats and/or fish who sometimes give a little nibble. Wow… I don’t think I would visit after reading my description but it actually was a fun two visits. And a very quick stop, nothing picturesque to linger here.
Choo-Ha, Tamcach-Ha, & Multan-Ha
These 3 are about a 10 minute drive from the Coba ruins — about an hour from Tulum. NOTE: a different time zone here — one hour earlier than Tulum! You can pay to go to just one or all three — there is a stand by the entrance road to Tamcach-Ha and Choo-Ha where you purchase tickets. Choo-Ha is very pretty with lots of stalagmites & tites. No diving platform here but good with little kids. Tamcach-Ha is far underground with 2 jumping/diving platforms, one at 5 meters, the other at 10 meters. The boys liked this one best. Multan-Ha could be skipped if you don’t want to do another. Pretty water but that is about it.
Snorkel tour through underground cenote. It is not a long tour. Kind of cool but wouldn’t want to do it twice. A 2nd La Coqueta restaurant is located here — they even recognized us from visiting their Tulum town hub. Great margaritas, tacos and nachos.
VERY picturesque cenote in a garden setting. At Dos Ojos cenote location.
Wide open cenote that has NO crowds. Looks more like a small lake. snorkel gear included if you want. Also a zip line going across the cenote is also included in price. 2 tall jumping platforms. Also in the Dos Ojos cenote location.
We visited many other cenotes on our first trip that were picturesque, unfortunately I don’t remember the names. But there are lots of choices, just bear in mind that some have better facilities than others. Those tend to be much more crowded as well. Go early to avoid crowds.
Snorkeling with sea turtles
In Acumal, north of Tulum. Very commercialized and you MUST go with a guide but great views of the sea turtles so worth the trip. GET HERE EARLY!! We did, so didn’t encounter crowds until we were finishing the tour. A photographer accompanied us and it was worth buying his photos and videos — they download them onto your SD card, maybe possible to put onto a phone as well.
Ancient Mayan Ruins
We visited both the Tulum and Coba Ruins and didn’t want to travel all the way to the Chichen Itza ruins. We were able to climb the Coba pyramid but I believe this will no longer be an option starting mid 2019. NOTE: a different time zone in Coba and Chichen Itza — one hour earlier than Tulum! Actually quite nice as you don’t need to get up as early to get there when they open which is the BEST time to visit unless you actually enjoy touring with the masses.
I didn’t do a ton of shopping BUT did bring home 2 macrame hanging chairs which we bought coming back from Coba. I think I paid approximately $30 for both and they are SUPER comfortable — I hung them on a covered terrace overlooking our pond and pool.
I also bought some items — costume jewelry and pretty embroidered tote bags — on the main drag in Tulum town. Lots of similar souvenir shops but I found they all varied in prices. There are also a few trendy boutiques mixed in there as well where I bought t-shirts and a pretty hand-painted tin heart-shaped mirror.
We didn’t want to drive to/from the airport so we opted for a car service. But we did end up renting a car for part of the time while in Tulum to facilitate our trips to the cenotes and ruins. A car was not necessary for restaurants but we often took cabs there and walked back after dinner, passing by the gelato shop on our way… a delicious pit stop!
We used Feraltar both years for the car service as they had the best deal. Big vans, good drivers, free beer, water, soda & snacks on board, too. They will also make a stop along the way if you want to pick up groceries, etc. Just note that finding them can be difficult AND all the condo touts will accost you as you exit the airport. We drank margaritas while waiting for them to arrive, so not so horrible a wait.
Car rentals — shop around. The annoying thing is they all require you to take their insurance — our insurance cost more than the car rental for the week. Total shake-down.
Please feel free to ask me any additional questions OR share your favorite restaurants, hotel, or things to do in Tulum. I love talking to people about their travels!