Unfinished Business: 3 Days in Tulum
Earlier in the year, we had taken a day trip to Tulum from Playa Del Carmen and enjoyed ourselves so much that we booked a 3 night/4 day trip to fully enjoy all this jungle surrounded beach community has to offer. While Tulum has become quite trendy and some might even say a victim of its fame, it is possible to distance yourself from that and have the experience you dream about. For us, that was staying on the beach, biking around and checking out cenotes, running the beach, swimming in the ocean, and eating some really good food at the outdoor restaurants along the beach strip. In this post, we’ll share what we did during our days in Tulum.
The Tulum Vibe:
“Tulum” means “wall” in the Yucatec language and refers to the large barricade that surrounds the settlement (Source: LocoGringo) and to travelers around the world, it evokes “that off-the-beaten path paradise that was great before the secret got out but is still very trendy” and it is not uncommon to hear people say “Oh yeah, that’s the next Tulum” of other trendy beach destinations in Mexico and around the world. While Tulum’s visitors may have been hippies and backpackers 10 years ago, now, a large proportion of visitors are the young, rich, famous, and some outliers, including ourselves. We also think some just come to Instagram with all their props and outfits and that an air traffic control tower will be installed due to all the drones flying around.
While Tulum is quieter than Playa Del Carmen’s beach club party vibe with loud pop/techno songs, there is still some of that party vibe on the beach as some of the hotels on the beach in Tulum host 21:00-04:00 parties and it’s not uncommon to see the party still going around 07:00 in the morning. That being said, it is easier to get away from that beach club party scene in Tulum due to how long and wide the stretch of beach is. In addition, due to limited accommodations at affordable prices, many people use the beach during the day and leave in the evening. Nonetheless, the beach never feels crowded in Tulum except when guy in a speedo plops down right in front of your lounger chair and ruins that pristine view you’ve been enjoying!
While some aspects of the vibe are annoying, it truly is a unique beach destination unlike anywhere we have ever been. The natural beauty here and stretch of beach is stunning.
Where We Stayed – Encantada:
Things sell out way ahead of time in Tulum during some times of the year and it was by fluke that we found a room at Encantada, an 8 room luxury boutique hotel on the beach that brands itself as a “Private Paradise”. Encantada has always been one of our top choices in Tulum because the rooms are luxurious beach style cabanas further down the beach in a less crowded/busy area. In addition to the high prices to stay on the beach as a result of the high demand and low supply of rooms, at this time all hotels are independent other than the Papaya Playa Project which is an SPG/Marriott property so you can’t really redeem points to offset the high cost of most hotels. As prices keep creeping up, staying on Tulum beach becomes out of reach for many people and people tend to think Mexico should be cheap because of the abundance of high density all-inclusive resorts but that’s definitely not the case here. That being said, if you compare the price of rooms at Encantada and other hotels on Tulum beach to resorts in Hawaii, Barbados, and other Caribbean destinations, the cost per night for what you get in Tulum isn’t that bad and you can’t beat being on the beach in a non-highrise mega resort. In some cases, a garden view room (AKA as parking lot view) in Hawaii and the Caribbean goes for the same price as our room at Encantada; we don’t have any regrets about our stay at Encantada and are in the process of booking to go back.
Our room at Encantada was a garden view ground floor room, about 50 steps from the water because technically you’re on the beach. The thing that hit me the most first was that there were no walkways, it’s just beach sand that gets rakes and groomed by maintenance a few times per day. I was able to roll out of bed, and just walk down to the beach to watch the sunrise in less than 1 minute, which was great. The rustic beach cabana rooms are about as close to camping on the beach as we’ll ever get while offering all the things that a modern and luxurious hotel has to offer.
While our room was beside the restaurant that also welcomes non-guests, it was very quiet and sound-proof. Of all the 4 hotels we stayed at on this trip, Encantada was by far the most relaxing. We had the large comfortable bed with the mosquito netting and screens in all our windows and doors so that we could sleep with the windows open while the breeze flowed in. Breakfast was also included which helped to keep other costs down and since it was so hot, we weren’t that hungry. A day of meals consisted of breakfast, a snack somewhere in the afternoon and dinner. While the food was slightly expensive and the portions a little small at Encantada, it wasn’t unreasonable and the quality was actually very high. Everything tends to be more expensive on the beach in Tulum but you can’t beat the setting.
The Cenotes – Cristal and Escondido:
There are so many cenotes to visit in the Tulum area whether or not you want to snorkel, scuba dive or just swim. While some are accessible via “Collectivo” vans and by cycling, a rental car is recommended to access many of them but we haven’t really developed enough of a comfort zone to undertake driving here yet so we have been focusing on those that are accessible by cycling.
This time, we chose to visit Cenote Cristal and Cenote Escondido about a 10-15 minute bike ride (4.2 kms) outside of town down highway 307. I’ll be honest and say it was a little unnerving to bike on the highway due to how fast people drive, there is a small lane that appears to be a bike lane and there is a lot less traffic than the road to Gran Cenote which goes to Coba.
These cenotes are a little more off the tour circuit so you won’t see bus after bus packed with people. In addition to being less crowded than the Gran Cenote, you can pay 120 pesos to visit big cenotes which are close together. If you don’t feel like paying for both, you can pay 80 pesos to visit one or the other but you need to buy your ticket at Cenote Cristal before 16:00; the usual hours of operation are 08:00-17:00.
We decided to keep our bikes parked at Cristal while we went to Escondido, which is across the highway. The dirt roadway that leads to Escondido is definitely suitable for bikes and if you don’t feel like walking about 15 minutes, you may want to bring your bike with you.
We enjoyed both cenotes but have to say that Escondido was our favourite of the two. The water felt cooler and it was a lot less crowded and we were even able to find our own little spot to swim and relax away from other people. For one reason or another, we neglected to take photos of Cenote Escondido and the ones we did take are of poor quality.
Cenote Cristal is equally stunning but more crowded. It also has a jumping platform for those who are inclined to jump into the cenote. I don’t want to say this cenote was “swampy” but it did feel like more of a swimming hole in a marsh than Escondido.
You can’t wear sunscreen in a cenote as it can harm the organisms so wear a hat and long sleeve SPF clothing if you burn easily because there isn’t a lot of shade in the cenote while you’re swimming.
You can rent a life jacket and snorkel equipment here but there are no lockers. We kept our belongings near us when we swam as did others.
Sargassum Seaweed on the Beach:
As Tulum is on the Atlantic ocean’s Caribbean side, it has not been immune to the Sargassum seaweed invasion plaguing some of the world’s most stunning beaches.
We were aware the seaweed could be really bad and affect our ability to swim in the ocean but we hoped for the best and checked webcams daily and even asked friends to send us daily reports (I’m a Sargassum seaweed creeper in my free time these days!). We experienced conditions that varied greatly from day-to-day and even from time of the day. We were able to find places on the beach that had little seaweed in order to swim and it gets better when you get a little further from shore. Encantada does a really good job of clearing the beach so you can take photos without it in it and keeps the beach free of the rotting smell associated. The surf is a little rougher in Tulum and here is a strong enough undertow so exercise caution when swimming and be ready to dive under waves.
Food and Drink – Where we ate and drank:
One would probably need a few weeks to eat their way through all the top restaurants in Tulum on the beach and in town and so with limited time, we did our best to visit the places that were at the top of our list.
- Safari: Safari was at the top our list. Think campfire in the jungle; wood-fired casual food like tacos executed like it’s a high-end restaurant with great service, a unique and unpretentious outdoor setting in the jungle, with a great craft beer selection. We each had 3 tacos and enjoyed them so much we wanted to go back again but they are closed on Sundays. Of the 3 tacos, our favorite was the fish a la plancha due to the flavorful slaw that topped it but we also enjoyed the lamb barbacoa, and the pulpo (octopus). While the prices might seem a little high for tacos in Mexico, the portions are generous and the quality high, so it’s definitely worth it. They also had Colima Brewing’s Piedra Lisa, a session IPA and our favorite craft beer in Mexico. Like most places in Tulum, Safari is cash only and we didn’t see any ATMs around.
- Kitchen Table: We wanted to love Kitchen Table, one of the higher-end and top rated restaurants in Tulum but the experience was quite negative for us. Kitchen Table is another open aired restaurant with a wood-fired kitchen and they serve up local ingredients with the execution and presentation of a high-end restaurant. Everything was pleasant and enjoyable until our waiter started to get frustrated with us when we didn’t fall for his high-pressure upselling pitch. We tried our best to enjoy the food we’d been wanting to for months; the deviled avocado, the squash blossom quesadilla with and the pulpo, which was a lot of food for 2 people (2 appetizers and one entre). Of every dish we had, the quesadilla was our favorite but the pulpo was probably to most tender we’ve ever eaten. We wanted to save room for dessert but when we asked to see the dessert menu, we were asked to settle up our bill and we were moved to the cigar/coffee/cocktail bar of the restaurant at the back which somewhat strange and off-putting. Don’t get me wrong, the back space was really nice and unique but by this time, we’d have enough of our server. If you eat here, make a reservation for one of the 2 seatings (18:00 or 21:00) and bring lots of cash because they only accept cash and cryptocurrency.
- Zamas Restaurant: While “zama” means dawn in Mayan, don’t be fooled by the name as Zama’s is a great place to catch a glimpse of the sunset in Tulum and while it’s not as trendy as other places, it’s a really fantastic place with well-balanced margaritas (don’t miss the 2 for 1 happy hour from 15:00-18:00), really good food at affordable prices, exceptional service, and a pretty spectacular setting. We’ve been to Zamas a few times and everything is very consistent. We’ve enjoyed the guacamole, the fish tacos, and the cochinita pibil with margaritas (90 pesos each) or beers. Zamas is a family friendly casual place where you get sand in your toes and feel the gentle breeze of the ocean. Compared to a lot of other places, Zamas has parking but no bikes racks so be prepared to lock your bike around a tree.
- Ciel Rose: Ciel Rose is a bar that offers the best views of the sunset over the jungle in Tulum. It is essentially a 3 story tower built in the jungle with a bar. They have a happy hour from 16:00-18:00 so margaritas are 2-for-1. We arrived around 18:00 and had 2 drinks as we waited for the sun to set. This is also a family friendly place; there were more children here than adults, go figure. Thankfully, we found bar stools away from the chaos of screaming children.
- Encantada: Sure, eating at the resort can be a bit boring a copout but in the right circumstances, it can be pretty convenient and he beach-side setting is hard to beat. We ate at the resort a couple of times and enjoyed everything we had, from the breakfast that was included each morning to afternoon snacks of ceviche and aguachiles in the afternoon. While we were paying “resort prices”, the setting, service, and quality was definitely worth it even if the quantities were a little small. I don’t think it would be wise to only eat here when you’re in Tulum but a few meals here and there, why not?!
- Tacos Honorio: Tacos Honorio is a typical “Mexican roadside taco stand” located in Tulum town. If you are a cochinita pibil aficionado, this is the place for you. While the taco restaurant is in town, everything is made the traditional way outside of town; the cochinita is cooked is a pit under coals for 12 hours. If you’ve been to Bali and loved “babi guling” or had BBQ in Austin, you need to try cochinita pibil, a distant tasty cousin of slow cooked pork. While we eat lots of vegetarian/vegan food, cochinita is one of the reasons why we can’t ever give up meat. While they don’t have an official website, they are usually open everyday from 05:30-14:00, except Mondays when they are closed. We arrived around 13:00 after our trip to the cenote and most things were sold-out so we got 3 cochinita pibil tacos and a mineral water as they don’t sell beer here, which is a shame!!
So there you have it, an outline of how we spent our 3 days in Tulum. I got lazy and just combined everything into one post so hopefully it was useful and enjoyable to read. While we complained about the vibe in Tulum, we really did enjoy it and would go back. If you want to experience Mexico or a beach destination outside of an all-inclusive or generic mega resort, this is the place to be; it’s very easy to get around and explore while enjoying really comfortable and luxurious accommodations. At sunset, we felt so lucky to get to stay on the beach as the mass exodus of people left but that is not to say we won’t stay in town and commute to the beach in the future.
Have you been to Tulum? What did you think of the vibe? Did you have different experiences at any of the places we mentioned?
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