Tulum is a jewel in the crown of Mexico’s Caribbean coast. Much less touristy, and much cheaper, than Cancun, and Playa del Carmen, Tulum used to be a hippy chilled out little town, which has now grown into a top destination for travellers who want to venture (slightly) off the beaten track of the Mexican Riviera. With picturesque Mayan ruins next to a turquoise ocean, fantastic snorkelling and diving opportunities in the sea or cenotes, gorgeous beaches and plenty of excellent restaurants, it’s not hard to see why Tulum is so popular. I’ve put together this backpacking Tulum guide to help you get to know the town and its magnificent beaches, and some awesome ideas for what to do in Tulum if your on a backpacker’s budget!
Where is Tulum
Tulum is on the Caribbean coast of Mexico, in the state of Quintana Roo which is part of the Yucatan Peninsula. It is around 2 hours’ bus journey from Cancun, and about 4 hours from Chetumal (on the Belizean/Mexico border). If you are backpacking Mexico or planning onward travel to Belize and Central America, then Tulum is an essential stop off along the way.
How to Get to Tulum
It is easy to take a bus from Cancun to Tulum, as there are buses that run directly from Cancun Airport to Tulum, or you may have to change at Cancun ADO bus station. ADO is the most reliable bus company, and have clean, comfortable buses. If you are on a tight backpacking budget then there are other cheaper 2nd class buses such as Mayab that also run the route, but these take longer as they stop along the way to pick up passengers, and aren’t as comfy. You have to buy 2nd class bus tickets from the bus station. For the ADO bus tickets, the ADO website for the timetable for up to date bus times and prices. It isn’t possible to buy bus tickets online without a Mexican credit card, so buy them directly from the bus station. If you know when you will be travelling, try to buy the tickets a day or so in advance, or at least an hour before departure if you can, to get more chance of booking your preferred time.
Get Your Bearings in Tulum Mexico
Tulum is built in a strange way; the Maya ruins are on the beach front around 4 or 5 km outside of the main town ‘centre’. The cheapest places for backpackers to eat and stay are in the centre, which is split in two by the highway that runs from Cancun to Belize. Along the beachfront, the Zona Hotelera has sprung up, where more expensive restaurants and hotels in Tulum have been built, including the amazing El Pez Restaurant & Hotel Tulum, which isn’t your typical Tulum backpacking restaurant, but worth a splurge if you can afford it.
What to Do in Tulum for Backpackers
Tulum Mayan Ruins
To be honest, the Tulum ruins are nowhere near as spectacular as Chichen Itza, or indeed many other Mayan ruins I have seen. However, they cannot be beaten on location, and are a must on any Tulum backpacking itinerary. Perched on top of a cliff overlooking the ocean, these are probably the most picturesque ruins you will ever see. For this reason, they are very popular, and get incredibly busy and overcrowded. Arrive as early as you can, they open at 8am so the early bird will enjoy a much quieter, cooler visit! We arrived at 9am, and it was already busy, and by the time we left it was heaving. Most hotels and hostels in Tulum will offer bicycle hire, or you can jump in a taxi to take you to the entrance. Make sure your bike has a lock, you don’t want it wandering off while you’re in the ruins! Also make sure you check the brakes and the seat height carefully before you set off.
Bring sunscreen, water, and your swimsuit, as you can go to the beach for a swim right beneath the ruins.
Backpacking Tulum: Hit the Beach
I have to be honest, anywhere along the coast in Tulum has a pretty spectacular beach. Arguably, the best beach in Tulum is Playa Ruinas at the ruins, for that picture-perfect dip in the water. Other popular spots are Playa Paraíso, and the secluded Las Palmas beach. Snorkelling off the beaches is possible, or just take a towel, sunscreen, and relax! Technically, beach access should be free for everyone, but the entrance to the beach could be on private property so you might have to get on the beach first, then pick a nice spot. If you have snorkeling gear then bring it with you, the sea is crystal clear.
Swim, Snorkel or Dive in a Cenote
Cenotes are natural swimming holes that are dotted all around the Yucatan Peninsular. Some of the largest cenotes in Mexico are found close to Tulum, and swimming in cenotes is a fabulous way to cool off on a hot day! Some of the best cenotes near Tulum include Dos Ojos (easy to reach by collectivo from Tulum) and Grand Cenote. I visited Dos Ojos cenote for swimming and snorkelling, then La Calavera (Temple of Doom) and Casa Cenote for a day of diving in cenotes in Tulum. Diving in a cenote was incredible, although there isn’t as many fish and sea life to see, the water is beautifully clear, and it felt like another world. It is relatively expensive to dive in the cenotes, but if you are a diver then make sure you save enough cash in your budget to do this, it is a unique experience you can only get backpacking in Tulum & the Yucatan Peninsular.
What to do in Tulum: Dive with Crocodiles
Not your average beach holiday activity, I admit! If you are an adrenaline seeking backpacker, this is definitely worth the cash, mainly just to say you’ve been diving with crocodiles! It actually wasn’t as scary as it sounds, although if you’re afraid of the dark I wouldn’t recommend it! Check out my experience night diving with crocodiles in Tulum to see if it is up your alley!
Snorkel with Turtles for Free at Akumal
Sadly, Akumal isn’t the paradise for turtles as it once was, with hotel developments and tourists taking their toll on the fragile habitat of the turtles. Green turtles do still nest here, and there are still turtles to be seen in the bay, but if you do go in the water make sure you do not get too close to the animals. You can take an official ‘turtle tour’ where you will be led through a cordoned off area close to the beach. Life jackets are mandatory, which you can hire from the many touts on the beach. However, if you are smart about it you can snorkel with turtles for free!
If you already have snorkel gear, I advise walking straight past all of this, and turn right on the beach to pick a spot to sunbathe. We snorkelled off the beach and were lucky to spot a turtle just hanging out and eating seagrass. Make sure you have reef-safe sunscreen and take all your rubbish home with you. Any collectivo or 2nd class bus from Tulum to Playa del Carmen will drop you off on the main road by Akumal for around $30 pesos, and you then walk to the beach about 800m away. On the way back, flag down a collectivo to head back to Tulum.
Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve
This large natural reserve of jungle, marsh and mangroves is filled with animals and bird species. I didn’t personally go here, but someone at my hostel took a kayak tour to Sian Ka’an and said it was incredible. If you choose to explore, it is best to go with a guide, either arranged from Tulum or Punta Allen. Eloise from My Favourite Escapes has a great post on visiting the Sian Ka’an Reserve which has more infomation.
Looking for tours in Tulum? Check out these options from GetYourGuide:
Backpacking Tulum: Visiting Cobá Archaeological Site
Cobá is a large Maya site about 45 minutes’ drive or bus ride from Tulum, and less touristy than the Tulum ruins. I spent the night at Cobá in order to visit the Mayan ruins early next morning. You can hire bikes inside the site to ride around and explore, which is a lot quicker than walking, or you can hire pedi-cabs if you’re not up to walking or cycling. It is possible to climb one of the pyramids here, but the steps are uneven and getting down is a lot harder than climbing up! Once you’ve explored Coba, you can hire a bike to visit several cenotes that make a good afternoon trip if you do decide to spend the night. We stayed at the basic but reasonable Hotel Sac-bé in Cobá.
Where to Stay in Tulum for Backpackers
One of the best hostels in Tulum is Hostel Che Tulum, which gets excellent reviews. I stayed at Amorcito Hostel when I was on my own, and at Joy Tulum when I shared a twin cabana with my friend, which was a lovely place to chill out if you have a little more to spend. The best value hostels and hotels in Tulum are in the ‘town’ centre, but on the beach you will find plenty of amazing hotels and cabanas with beachfront views if you fancy a splurge. Check prices & availability for hotels and hostels in Tulum on hostelworld | booking | hotelscombined
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Have you been backpacking to Tulum? What was your favourite activity? I’d love to hear your experiences, share them in the comments below.
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