Tulum: it’s a destination frequented by fashion editors, celebrities, the mega rich and… beach camping hippies. Known for yoga retreats, ubiquitous juice bars and trendy restaurants, Tulum was, at least for me, a much preferred alternative to nearby Cancun.
It’s easy: airlines like JetBlue, Delta, American and Aeromexico all offer direct flights from major U.S. cities to Cancun.
It’s not as far away as you think: flights from Northeast cities to Cancun are less than five hours, while flights from the west coast can be a little over five. Basically, it’s an ideal vacation destination for all regions of the U.S., especially if you live somewhere in the middle, or to the south! Once you arrive in Cancun, Tulum is about an hour and a half’s drive away.
I’ll start this post off by saying that my 48 hours in Tulum did not go as smoothly as I’d imagined. This was due to the fact that there were *way* too many people attempting to vacation in this small beach town over New Year’s. The town actually ran out of water while we were there (that’s right, no showers) and every time we went to the beach it was a mega traffic jam. It was also nearly impossible to eat at some restaurants, with huge crowds lining up outside before opening time. I lived in New York City – I’ve spent enough of my life waiting in line. I definitely don’t need to do that while I’m on vacation in paradise!
I thought Tulum was fabulous, but I hope I can go back someday when it’s not so crazy busy and try to actually enjoy my surroundings. Tulum bills itself as an eco-friendly destination, filled with resorts touting their sustainability efforts – but there’s nothing sustainable about a traffic jam of Escalades three miles long, filled with 1 percenters hoping to get to the latest hotspot restaurant and spend $75 per person on dinner.
So what’s a better way to spend a weekend in paradise? Here are my tips for 48 hours in Tulum:
Stay in town, not at the beach.
The town is wayyyy more chillaxed than the beach at night. We were easily able to wander into different restaurants, bars and shops without fighting for parking spots and reservations. The variety of restaurants, from Argentinian grills to vegan cafes and taco joints, was very diverse and there were options for all kinds of budgets and tastes.
My home base in Tulum was Posada Luna del Sur, a boutique hotel that was quite affordable ($80 to $120 per night) compared to the flashier waterfront properties. It was tucked away, a little off the main road, in a neighborhood where you are surrounded by local homes on all sides.
While the rooms were pretty standard, there were two things that made our stay at Posada Luna del Sur awesome. First was the map provided by the owner, Tom, detailing all his personal recommendations from restaurants and bars to shops and tourist attractions. I could tell that his insight was truly based on experience, and it was far beyond the typical list a chain hotel concierge would provide. Second was the excellent breakfast, which was included in the room rate and served on the rooftop terrace. Posada Luna del Sur’s Chef Eric Diaz created something incredibly delicious each morning, and on our last day was more than happy to cook our meals a little earlier so we didn’t have to head to the airport hungry. I’m still dreaming about his burritos and quesadillas!
(Just a little legally required disclosure here – the above section contains affiliate links to Booking.com. Basically, if you book a stay at Posada Luna del Sur after clicking on it, I’ll receive a small commission. It helps me earn some money to keep the blog going! As always, my opinions are my own.)
Hit the beach.
This might sound obvious when visiting the Caribbean, but figuring out exactly how to get to the beach in Tulum was a challenge as every area seemed to be part of a private resort. Fortunately, the beach is actually open to the public and as long as you can find parking somewhere you can walk on. We chose to hang at Ziggy’s Beach Club, a laid back spot where you can order drinks and food while relaxing in the sun. They also have a bar with swings, which instantly earned them 5 stars in my book. My insider tip for Ziggy’s is to order the watermelon juice… so refreshing, I’m craving some right now!
Biking is huge in Tulum, and it’s the perfect way to escape the beach traffic jam. It took us a while to find bikes to rent as every shop was sold out (seriously, this place was WAY too crowded with tourists) but when we finally located a pair, it was about a 20 minute ride to the beach from town. Just be careful when returning at night, as there are no lights on the bike path. As a last resort, you can use the flashlight on your phone to guide you.
Indulge your inner foodie.
The restaurant of the moment in Tulum is Hartwood, a spot opened by New York expats in 2010 featuring locally sourced ingredients cooked over a wood burning fire. This place is so hard to get into that you might as well not even try if you’re in town during a high season weekend. Trust me, I attempted and failed. The restaurant opens at 6:00 p.m., but patrons start lining up at 5:00 p.m. When the doors open, reservation times are doled out to those standing in line until they’re gone. While I’m sure the food is delicious, I honestly wasn’t too disappointed in missing out on Hartwood. After all, I can get expensive food cooked by New Yorkers in New York.
But there were two beachfront restaurants I enjoyed and highly recommend. Close your eyes and imagine your dream “shabby chic” beach house – you’ve just envisioned Posada Margherita. This authentic Italian restaurant (seriously, I eavesdropped on a conversation the waiters were having in Italian) serves a very limited but delicious menu. Just like Hartwood, it gets hopping at night so I would suggest heading over when they open at 4:30 p.m. and snagging a prime table for watching the sunset.
Posada Margherita serves a menu of freshly squeezed juices, so I skipped a boozy drink and went with the jalapeño pineapple juice instead. I had to bike home after this meal, and biking in the dark with a buzz didn’t seem like a very good plan! For a meal I ordered a simple pasta (made in house, of course) with sauce, and it was probably the best pasta I’ve eaten in my life. Trust me, I wouldn’t believe someone if they told me the best Italian pasta dish they ever ate came from Mexico either, but it’s true.
The second restaurant that I loved was Mezzanine, an upscale Thai eatery with Mexican flare recommended by the Posada Luna del Sur map. They also have a smoothie and juice menu curated by a real nutritionist (I kid you not folks, this is Tulum). Because I wasn’t biking that evening, I chose to mix a shot of rum into my banana smoothie. Yum!
I’m a pretty big Thai food snob because the neighborhood where I used to live in New York has some of the most raved about Thai food on this continent. While I still rate my local stuff as better, Mezzanine’s food was delicious and I liked that they let you pick the level of spiciness. The location is also great because it’s a little out of the way of the madness – we came here after being unable to find a parking spot on the other end of the beach.
In town, there are plenty of more affordable places to grab dinner. While I didn’t go there myself because it was closed on Sunday, the food cart Tacos de la Fuente is run by the chef of our hotel which means it’s probably fantastic. There was also a small casual restaurant around the corner from our hotel with no name serving tacos for less than $1, a far cry from the $20+ entrees at the beach.
For a more upscale meal in town, I liked Estancia Jujena, an Argentinian steak house. While the service was almost painfully slow, the ambiance is very chic and the food, when it eventually arrives, quite good.
Monkey See, Monkey Do
The best part of my 48 hours in Tulum was actually an hour away from the town at Punta Laguna Nature Reserve, an off-the-beaten-path attraction that’s about an hour’s drive from Tulum and Playa del Carmen.
Punta Laguna is operated by local Mayan residents, and while you can explore the area on your own, hiring a guide for a private tour turned out to be quite affordable. We were primarily interested in seeing monkeys, but it didn’t take much for us to be convinced to sign up for the adventure package that included zip lining, kayaking and rappelling into a cenote. This entire excursion ran us about $120 for a group of five, a complete steal seeing as tour companies are offering the exact same excursion for $180 per PERSON.
Our tour began with a Mayan ritual, where we were blessed by a shaman before entering the trail. While they say this ritual is a requirement to enter the sacred reserve, I’m 99% sure it is in place solely to entertain tourists.
After the ritual was complete, we followed Miguel into the trees, where we would soon discover that we definitely needed his expertise to spot the monkeys. Seriously, I would have completely missed them if we hadn’t hired a guide. Miguel knew exactly where to look and was super laid back about letting us stand around taking about a million photos. He even suggested different spots I should stand in for the best photography angles.
Seeing monkeys out in the wild was such a cool experience. They were swinging from tree to tree, playing with each other and staring down at us inquisitively. A younger fellow even swung from the tail of his friend. This was completely different from the time I’d seen monkeys in Costa Rica – there, the animals were so used to tourists that they would approach people and steal their food. Here, the natural habitat was much better preserved and the monkeys were in no way interested in coming closer to us.
When we’d finished snapping pictures of these cuties, the adventure was just beginning. Miguel brought us to the edge of a lake and introduced us to his 11 year old nephew who would help us cross to the other side in kayaks. The scenery was beautiful and as usual, I probably spent too much time taking photos and not enough rowing the boat.
After we disembarked, Miguel explained that occasionally you could spot a howler monkey in this area, but there are very few and unfortunately none wanted to come out and hang with us. But there was another reason we’d journeyed across the water: it was time for zip lining. As a first time zip liner I was a little nervous about literally running and jumping off a cliff, especially since an 11 year old was in charge of my safety, but when in Mexico, right? Once I was in the air, it was so easy and fun; not scary at all. I’m even feeling inspired enough to find a more thrilling zip line to try on my next trip!
Zipping above the water was not the day’s final adrenaline rush, though. Little did we know, we were about to descend into the Mayan underworld. Miguel and his nephew led us to a small, dark hole in the ground and explained that we would be lowered in via a rope. We were a little skeptical, especially since we couldn’t see a thing in the darkness below, but Miguel calmly explained that many children swim in the cenote daily. Basically, stop being scaredy cats and hop in. So once again I put my life in the hands of a child, hooked my harness up to the rope and took the (literal) plunge.
As I was slowly lowered into the cenote, bats fluttered by my head and I briefly wondered if this was the silliest thing I had ever done. But once our whole group was inside, a light was turned on and we were able to take in our surroundings. We were floating at the bottom of a massive underground cave, the water was crystal clear and I could see fish swimming beneath me. I’m only bummed that my GoPro camera had malfunctioned earlier in the trip and I’m not able to share any photos of the inside!
Still the hardest part was yet to come. In order to get out of the cenote, we had to climb up a very tall and slippery rope ladder. Even with the help of the rope pulley, this was hard work on the arms. I recommend a regimen of bicep curls, starting about two weeks before you do this one!
More Things to Do in Tulum
My time in Tulum was limited so I didn’t get to do a few things that were on my wish list. I’m determined to return soon, since it’s so close to Cancun, a short flight from NYC. If you’re looking for more things to do in Tulum besides eat and go to the beach, these are the activities that came highly recommended by locals and frequent visitors alike:
- Mayan Ruins – There are ruins right on the beach in Tulum, and other options are one and two hours away at Coba and Ek Balam, respectively. Just like Chichen Itza, these places are popular and you should go early in the morning to avoid crowds.
- Snorkeling in Dos Ojos – Dos Ojos is the biggest underwater cave system in the world, and it’s about 20 minutes from Tulum town. You can rent snorkel equipment and hire a guide on site.
- Fitness – I got my exercise in by walking and biking, but there’s no denying that Tulum is a huge wellness and fitness destination. If I had more time, I would have loved to have taken a yoga or stand up paddle boarding class!
- Sian Ka’an Biosphere – Guided kayak and boat tours of the biosphere are available, and while they weren’t being offered the weekend we were in town, our hotel owner said this is one of the most popular tours in Tulum.