Tulum on a Budget- Advice and Recommendations

With all of my travels, it’s never really occurred to me to rent an apartment somewhere and actually like… stay put there. I’m not sure if it was that immersive experience I liked so much or just Tulum, but the combination of the 2 made for one of my favorite travel destinations/trips to date. My life is weird right now (as are so many others during a Pandemic), and we are extremely limited in our travel outlets. If you’re a chronic traveler like me, I know you’re feeling claustrophobic too. So, let’s talk about the place a lot of Americans are discussing right now. A place that captured my heart with it’s laid back atmosphere, quirky personality, and simplicity.

Tulum, Mexico.

I rented an apartment for a little over a month with a coworker (stranger, really), turned friend. We stayed downtown, but close to the beach access road, and managed to explore both downtown and the beach areas pretty well I think. (Edit* I also just returned from another visit to my happy place and have even more insight). It’s not really my style to do a ‘guide’ post for a place, but considering I’ve lost track of how many people have reached out asking for recommendations, I think it will be mutually beneficial to have this all down in one place! Frankly, a lot of the blogs are from the people who stay for a few days on what we lovingly termed ‘influencer row’ on the beach and it’s a pretty skewed version of Tulum. So, if you’re looking for the good, the bad, and the local, I got you!

First things first, where to stay-

Downtown vs beach hotel zone vs Aldea Zama-

It’s pretty simple, downtown is much cheaper and a local laid back atmosphere. The beach is harder to find inexpensive places to stay (with AC) and it’s full of people dressed up in their hipster hats (not hating, I bought a hat) blocking traffic on the one beach road that all of the gated hotels are on. But, you’re on the beach and can roam up and down the white sand shore once you’re inside of your hotel gates. Aldea Zama is a new development area with some awesome condos and would appear to be closer to the beach, however by the time you go around all of the roundabouts in the neighborhood it’s no closer than parts of downtown. Pick your style and priorities.

Downtown has one main strip with most of the shops and restaurants making it super simple to navigate. Even as a 6 foot blonde, I felt totally safe and comfortable walking around by myself. We basically chose our dining based on if they had 2 for 1s (so many amazing places do), and the street taco scene was solid. A grocery store (Super Aki) was within walking distance, and laundry, bike rentals, anything we needed just a block or 2 away. For long-term stays like ours, it was perfect. The start of the hotel zone on the beach was about 3 miles away, and there is a well paved sidewalk to bike on to have a beach day. Our bikes were rented for a cheaper rate from the hostel employees across the street from our apartment that we made friends with, but for reference, we paid 50 pesos a day when we needed one (about $2.30). Another option is, La Veleta is a new neighborhood downtown that will eventually have a beach road as well. But for now if you’re staying on that end of downtown you will have around 2 miles to just turn onto the beach access road. For us, being just a few blocks from that intersection was important.

Aldea Zama is a new construction area with lots of nice condos going up about halfway between downtown and the beach. I kept meaning to go for a jog or bike through it but never did. From all accounts it is really nice and has a few restaurants and cafes scattered around inside of the area. My issue with it is that it’s a long way to casually walk home from either downtown or the beach, and cabs in Tulum are an absolutely rip off. But, the condo listings on airbnb were all really nice and not much more expensive than downtown. (Edit*- after staying here, I would choose to go back downtown next time. Catching a cab was a pain, and the few cafes and restaurants scattered and opening in the new complexes weren’t open when I walked by at night or for a morning run. It’s just not as convenient as downtown in my opinion).

Next item of business – Cenotes

First off, what is a Cenote (say it with me, C-note-A)? It’s basically a sinkhole where limestone bedrock has caved in and filled with rainwater or the underground river system. The world’s longest underwater river system actually flows through the Yucatan and weaves through some of the cenotes in the region. The cenotes were a big part of the Ancient Mayan world as they provided freshwater year round. (I lied when I said this was just a guide, there will be some history sprinkled… I can’t help myself).

There are thousands of them throughout the peninsula, it’s estimated there are more than 6,000 actually. But the first cenote we went to was the closest we could bike to from our house.

-Cenote Calavera was a whopping 2km from our apartment. It’s a bit off of the tourist circuit it seems, as there weren’t any buses dropping people off by the load to hang out here, which was awesome. Make sure you jump in from one of the smaller holes in the ground, the cenote is plenty deep!

-The Gran Cenote- we were the only ones we saw biking this far, but it was only 4km from our apartment downtown, and the price of cabs and the tours vs renting a bike made this a easy choice. This is a popular one, though it wasn’t too busy around 11am. it’s hard to know the norm when it’s not a pandemic so take that with a grain of salt. I do know this is a spot that people take buses from Cancun/Playa to see, so it can definitely get busier. But it’s worth it, photos will speak for themselves. They’re pretty strict about not bringing in anything and this is the priciest cenote we went to at $10. You can rent a locker inside as well as snorkel gear and life jackets, although both times I went we just left our stuff sitting on the deck and kept an eye out.

-Car Wash Cenote is also bikeable from town and just 4km past the Gran Cenote, but I wouldn’t really recommend it unless you’re into diving. It’s not the clear water you expect, but apparently is known for being an ‘underwater garden’ and a dive spot. We found ourselves there mainly because it came a serious downpour on our way to it’s neighbor Zacil-Ha and we were previously informed by the Gran Cenote staff that we could take our wine picnic we had packed inside here. So we mainly used this cenote to wait out a rain shower and have a lovely picnic (I’m pretty sure we were not supposed to be consuming our own alcohol, but no one said anything).

-Cenote Zaci- We stopped into this cenote after a very underwhelming road trip to the town of Valladolid. I say that because most of the town was closed due to Covid. It is part of the Yucatan state while the beach & tourist zone is Quintana Roo, so different rules. But this cenote saved the road trip. It was by far the largest we saw and reminded me of an amphitheater. You can cliff jump from one side if you’re feeling daring, or just enter through the stairs. Definitely not the most natural (that was cenote Calavera in my opinion), but very impressive. The waterfall may or may not be turned on when you go. Hate to give that secret away, but you should know in case you see photos and are expecting it. I was very surprised when we arrived and suddenly a waterfall started pouring from the top of the opening. It’s influencer/instagram approved tho. (Edit- Valladolid on trip two was more productive. We stopped in on our road trip to Merida and really enjoyed roaming the town and having a few beers on the plaza. I also got a great pair of leather sandals in town for $25 that I am in love with).

-We went to 2 restaurants with cenotes on the property as well. – Clan Destino, I’ll talk more about it later, and Muyal Tulum.

-Honorable mentions that are on my list to hopefully see at some point are- Dos Ojos Cenote, Cenote Choo-Ha & Tankach-Ha both by Coba ruins, and Cenote Suytun near Valladolid.

Tulum is known for being a foodie spot, so let’s talk restaurants

I was down there for a month… not a quick baller weekend, so most of my recommendations are going to be budget friendlier options. Let’s be honest though, with the exception of some beach restaurants you don’t really need to consult a menu for prices anyhow.

Beach hotel zone restaurants and beach bars

Clan Destino- this was by far the most frequented spot on the trip, it was the place we took every friend that visited, and we went for a cheap beer and meal. The restaurant is built around a clear little cenote swim hole, so you get free entertainment even if you don’t want to jump in yourself. Super cute, super local, it’s open late, and has good food. (Edit- the water was being pumped in and was a lovely shade of brown on November 15th, I assume it is from rain/hurricane issues, but just a heads up since I am claiming it is a clear swim hole).

Taqueria La Eufemia- this is the dive bar of the beach clubs on influencer row, and I loved it. There is no charge or minimum to spend to use their beach chairs or hang out here, and the tacos are fantastic. So were the jalapenos poppers, and the margaritas were maybe my favorite of the trip. Fresh pineapple jalapeno was my flavor, but there were a lot of fruit margaritas to choose from, and a 6-8 2 for 1 happy hour that got us twice. Definitely had to leave our bikes locked up overnight there one night and just cab home.

Raw Love- where the famous wooden sculpture Ven a la Luz by Daniel Popper is located (you’ll see the line of people waiting to take their photo before you even see the Raw Love sign). Take note, there is the garden seating area AND a little beach hut with the same menu. We had a couple of breakfast smoothie bowls that were delicious, and also rented a beach chair here for a day and had a lovely roasted veggie plate for lunch. It was a $30 minimum and whatever you ate or drank went to it, pretty typical price wise.

Casa Malca- at the very end of the hotel zone you’ll find Pablo Escobar’s former mansion. It’s been converted to a hotel/restaurant now by an art collector who has made it a very interesting and stimulating space. This was one of our expensive meals, and the only time I curled my hair and got ready the entire month, but it was worth it. Tip- you can climb the outside spiral stairs to the rooftop and do some excellent star gazing (or sunset watching). (Edit- these stairs were blocked off during trip 2 by a piece of wood… that we just moved to the side).

Mateos- This is the sports bar, and like any good sports bar there always seemed to be people there. If you want a social spot, this seemed to be consistent.

Ciel Rose Sunset Bar- I’m not sure why this place wasn’t packed both times we went there for sunset, but i’m so glad it seemed to be a secret spot. It’s one of the tallest buildings on the strip, and therefore the best sunset spot. You can watch the sun go down on the jungle and forget there is even a town in that direction a couple of miles away. The tacos and drinks were both really good quality as well.

Diamante K- perfect spot if you’re after a quiet secluded beach club on the other side of the hotel zone. They have a fantastic mixed seafood dish, my favorite grilled octopus in Tulum, and 2 for 1s.

Zazil Kin- A beach club on the ‘other side’ of the beach strip. BUT, since it’s not the boujie side you just have to spend 250 pesos ($12.30ish) to have a beach chair, server, and 2 for 1s.. I love the beach on this side though, and you can catch the fishing boats to do a cheap and quick snorkel trip AND see the Tulum ruins from the water side.

Honorable mentions- Posada Margerita for food, Selina or Taboo for a boujie beach club partying (Taboo was $50 entry and additional $50 credit towards food/drink on a Saturday… and definitely make reservations), Rosa Negra & Gitano for the influencer scene and pricey cocktails (we didn’t get in for food because we didn’t have reservations).

Downtown food spots

I mean… street taco stands, there are quite a few areas with four or five plus options on a street, one of the main ones is behind the basketball court in the main plaza. Av Satelite just off the main strip always had 4-5 lined up every evening as well.

El Rincon Chiapeneco- localllll with a great selection and unbelievable prices. We probably tried one of each item on the menu by the time we left for the month. All of the below was like $22 I think…

Taqueria La Riviera Costena- again, local cuisine and cheap prices is the name of the game here.

La Querida- great location and delicious lobster pizza! 2 for 1s for most of the day everyday doesn’t hurt either.

Batey Mojito and Guarapo Bar- this spot gets a shout out for the best mojito I’ve ever had. You can watch them press fresh sugar cane and the night we wandered in they had live music.

Matcha Mama- I went to this location downtown for a long afternoon session of Duolingo, and I loved the vibe as well as the acai bowl. It was better than Raw Love in my opinion, and the juices and smoothies were great as well. Expensive, but worth it to sit and enjoy in the cute surroundings.

Las Hijas de la Tostada- The tostadas and tacos we each had here were all delicious, really fresh and flavorful! It’s a cute little bar/restaurant area on the main strip as well.

Ok, sooooo I’ve covered where to stay, what to eat, cenotes, so now let’s talk about your options on…

What To Do

Nothing. You can totally just bike or drive around and lounge on the beach and have a great time. There really is a vibe in Tulum and I think it should be enjoyed at a leisure pace. But, if you really want to plan an itinerary and get out and about, I shall help if i can. You are really close to Mayan ruins… Like can bike to the Tulum ruins from wherever you decide to stay and what a shame to be so close and not see them.

Tulum ruins-
These ruins are from a Mayan settlement that flourished from 1200AD until the Spaniards arrived. The city is unique in that it has 16 feet thick walls on 3 sides of it, and the ocean cliffside on the 4th. It was a gateway city connecting the peninsula and therefore important in trade with other Mayan people in Honduras, Belize, and throughout central america. The city remained small, no more than 1600 ever lived in Tulum at once, suggesting that it was more of a religious and ceremonial center. I’ve been in years past, but after seeing the ruins you can go and enjoy the beach below as well!

Coba ruins- we rented a car for the day and did the straight shot drive to Coba. We planned to hit a couple of cenotes that are all scattered close by but we got stuck in a rain storm and were soaked by the time we left Coba.

This ancient city is famous for having the tallest pyramid in the area. Normally you can climb up it and get a view above the jungle, but Covid… and we weren’t allowed to. Coba also has the longest road system in the Mayan world at 62 miles long. The roads were made of white limestone which made night travel possible as the moonlight naturally illuminated the road. It’s a city that’s veryyyy much still covered, but with an estimated 50 ancient roads that led into the city, you can rent a bike to explore the few structures that have been excavated. It’s estimated that this site was once one of the largest Mayan cities and contained an estimated 6,500 structures and 100,000 people living here between 600-900AD with the possibility of settlement as early as 50BC. So, it’s one of the earliest Mayan sites that we’re aware of.

I’ve been to a lot of Mayan ruins throughout central america, but this one made me feel like an adventurer looking for the next structure to uncover. You can see the mounds and the struggle between the ancient world of man and nature throughout the spread out site, and it also makes it feel very quiet and secluded. In short, we wandered at our leisure and really enjoyed this sprawling city before the rains came and caught us wandering through the jungle behind the Pyramid of the Painted Lintel.

One thing you should realllllllly do… A mezcal tasting downtown at Hostel Xkekan with Samy. We actually combined a chocolate and mezcal tasting and they offered it to our group for $20, probably because Laura was a repeat customer lol. She was sooooo knowledgeable and engaging, and she had a great variety and intro to both Mexican chocolate and mezcal. Seriously, it was one of my favorite evenings in Tulum which seems silly, but such a cool way to get to know a couple of Mexican products. If you are interested, I do have her phone number and she is available for private tastings for groups or I’m sure will try to accommodate you at the hostel where she is a couple of nights a week I believe.

Chichen Itza- one of the new 7 wonders of the world is only 2 hours away. Combine this with Coba for a full day of immersing yourself in the ancient Mayan World. Valladolid is also on the way to the ruins for lunch/dinner and city stroll full of colorful buildings and spanish colonial style, and I highly recommend renting a car and doing the easy road trip yourself and hiring one of the guides upon arrival at Chichen Itza.

I could go on and on about this ancient city that once centered the entire Maya empire, but i’m trying to refrain from going down that rabbit hole. I will just briefly mention the main temple, El Castillo, tho. The temple has 365 steps, one for each day of the year on the calendar, in fact their calendar is more exact than the standard calendar we use today. The Mayans had a deep understanding of science, astronomy, and architecture and this temple is proof of all 3. On the spring and autumn equinoxes, a shadow falls on the pyramid in the shape of a serpent that ‘descends’ the steps down to a serpent head at the bottom casting a snake shadow perfectly. The temple was built to worship a feathered serpent deity for fertility (of the earth). They knew that the serpent slithering down meant it was time to plant maize. The main temple in Tulum ruins was also constructed so that the rising sun on the equinox shines perfectly through an entrance for sunrise and sunset.

Ok, done… Just go see them for yourself, and MAKE SURE and hire a guide.

Merida- this is a bit of a haul from Tulum at 3 hours, but for my trip I just got back from we decided to check out this city for a couple of days before we hit Telchac Puerto (for the salt flats and flamingos), and we loved Merida. Such a foodie spot, and the people were soo friendly. We really enjoyed simply roaming around the city for a couple of weekend days and I would recommend it if you have a car and want to combine Tulum with another place full of culture!

These are some options for what you can do in the Yucatán. But truly, I wouldn’t blame you if you post up at a beach club every single day of the trip and enjoy being wined and dined with turquoise water glistening in front of you.

I’m so thankful that I found this little paradise, and while I’m sad watching all of the construction of new condo complexes, I understand the appeal of this place and can’t be mad at the expansion. I hope this post helps you enjoy your trip to Tulum!  Please let me know if it has, if you have any questions, or if you have any other favorite spots that I missed. I’m sure I will be back down there sooner rather than later and will happily explore more :).

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