The Trendy Mexican Beach Destination We Hate to Love and Love to Hate

Where we’re at: I’m recapping my travels in 2019, including this trip to Mexico in April.

3-devide-lines

“Who Killed Tulum?,” asked a widely buzzed about article in New York Magazine’s The Cut that came out just two months before our dream trip to the infamous destination. When friends asked where in Mexico Ian and I were headed, I replied “Tulum” almost apologetically, despite the fact that we’d been talking about visiting for literal years.

Tulum had become a place that it seemed many with a microphone — top travel bloggers among them — loved to hate on. The backlash had certainly begun on Mexico’s buzziest beach town. And yet the crowds flood there even today — clearly, the masses still love Tulum.

Privately, I was anxious about the trip for another reason — there were few place that loomed so large in my mind. Had I waited too long to go? Had I missed the boat? Did I have enough time? My dream trip would have involved two weeks in Tulum — minimum. Instead, we had four nights. So we made the most of them.

I’ve been to Merida, Progreso, Riviera Maya, Tulum, and since, Cancun Town and Isla Mujeres. I’ve hardly beaten my way off the track in Mexico — yet. I do hope to do so someday. On this trip, we just wanted to immerse ourselves in all the cliches of the destination we’d been dreaming of for years.

Long Weekend Guide to Tulum

And it worked. We had what I’d say was just about the perfect long weekend in Tulum. 

We based ourselves in Tulum Pueblo, a truly fantastic decision, but spent most of our days exploring further afield. Our first stop? The Tulum Ruins. Ian would have very happily skipped them altogether, but also was more than agreeable about joining — and luckily the couple we were traveling with, Ian’s friends from Canada, were super keen as well. As it was Easter Week, we decided to do our darndest to beat the crowds, setting our alarms for dawn to make it to the gates by the 8am opening time. 

Tour of Tulum Ruins

At MX$75, or about $4USD, the ruins are a bargain to visit. We’d decided ahead of time to also splurge on a tour guide to give us some context to what we were seeing. While our taco breakfast and a few wrong turns and some parking drama had set us a little behind schedule, we arrived not long after opening and already found the place mobbed — it was, as everyone had been warning us, Easter Week, after all. 

Tour of Tulum Ruins

Tulum Ruins

Iguana at Tulum Ruins

The ruins were beautifully set on the ocean and we had a bright, blue-sky day to visit them. Unfortunately, our guide was, to put it kindly, a bit of a dud. He was a perfectly nice guy, but his delivery of the history of the ruins was as passionate as a Google-translated state department brochure.

Tulum Ruins

Tulum Ruins

Also, we lamented after the fact what an unfortunate route he’d taken us on, lingering at the jungle-side ruins when the more scenic beachside ones were deserted and then bringing us to the highlights once they were heaving with people.

Obviously, I can’t make a recommendation regarding getting a guide or not based solely on our experience — the lead guide we’d spoken to had been incredibly charismatic, and I’m sure we’d have had a very different experience with him. I will advise that if you do get a guide and arrive early in the morning with an aim on beating the crowds, insist on heading straight to the beach and working your way backwards to enjoy a few moments of solitude.

And really, you should aim for that pre-8am arrival. We were kicking ourselves for not getting there when we’d planned, but when we left a few hours later the lines just to get tickets were mind-boggling. 

Tulum Ruins

Iguana at Tulum Ruins

Tulum Ruins

Tulum Ruins

It was about a bazillion degrees but lucky for us, we had nature’s AC going for us — crazy winds. The two photos below are a total Instagram vs. Reality moment, and crack me up!

Tulum Ruins

Wind at Tulum Ruins

Tulum Ruins

After ticking “visit a Mayan ruin” off our list, we were more than ready to cool down from the epic mid-day heat. Our motorbike rental made it easy to zip up to Gran Cenote, Tulum’s most central and popular cenote for swimming. 

The entrance fee is MX$180 or $10USD if you pay in dollars, but there’s free, no-drama parking and we brought our own mask and snorkel set to avoid the MX$80 rental fee.

Gran Cenote, Tulum

Gran Cenote, Tulum

The photos make it seem like we had the place to ourselves but that’s more a reflection of my patience and angling skills than anything. In reality it was quite crowded here but we didn’t mind — it was still beautiful and refreshing. We splashed around, snorkeled, spotted turtles, and chilled on the big lawn.

Gran Cenote, Tulum

Gran Cenote, Tulum

With more time, I would have loved to have hit up even more cenotes for swimming. They are one of the most magical things about this region of Mexico, in my mind! But for a one week trip, I’m pretty thrilled that I got to scuba dive in two and swim in two others. 

The final place we used our bikes to zip to was the beach, of course. We made two daytime trips to Tulum Playa, a long one-road strip stretching six miles from the Tulum Ruins on one end to the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve on the other. 

Tulum Beach

Tulum Beach

Tulum Playa is undeniably intoxicating — it’s teeming with world class restaurants, swoon-worth boutiques, and some of the most beautiful boutique hotels on the planet, all seeming to emerge from the jungle like they sprouted right from the earth. It’s truly a bohemian design lover’s dream. With the dramatic fog of copal incense cloying from so many directions, it sometimes feels like you’re actually dreaming the place into existence. 

Daniel Popper Sculpture Tulum

Follow That Dream Sign in Tulum

But it’s not without issues. First is really an issue for anyone not staying at accommodation with beach access — it’s laughably difficult to find a stretch of sand to actually enjoy. Two of the four of us were hungry, our first trip to the beach, so we stopped at a cute seafront driftwood-draped restaurant for a bite. When the waiter discovered that only two of us would be ordering food, he demanded that the others pay an exorbitant fee just to share the table. We left. Thankfully, we soon found a venue that allowed us the privilege of ordering cocktails and a few snacks.

Seaweed Problem Tulum Beach

The other undeniable issue with Tulum? The seaweed. We were well aware of the seaweed problem plaguing Tulum and much of the Caribbean. But still, my jaw dropped when our bike pulled around a particular bend and I had to cover my mouth with my t-shirt to keep from inhaling the stench coming from a mountain of sargassum that an actual bulldozer was working to remove from the beachfront. I wish we’d stopped to take a photo, because it really was beyond anything I ever would have expected.

While all we could do was shrug, I can only imagine those paying hundreds or even thousands of dollars a night for beachfront rooms might have felt a bit miffed.

A later stroll down a mild stretch of seaweed-ed beach provided another Instagram vs. Reality moment…

Seaweed Problem Tulum Beach

Seaweed Problem Tulum Beach

Still, the beaches we incredible. The water was a nearly fluorescent turquoise, and the beach clubs and hotels provided adult playgrounds full of sculptures, structures, sand tents, and more. It was so much fun just walking the beach and seeing the different experiences the various clubs had created — it was like the hippie jungle version of walking down The Strip just to ogle all the Las Vegas hotels.

Our final day in Tulum, Ian and I had absorbed the sticker shock of the beach and had decided to just pay whatever we had to for a day lounging at one of the iconic beach clubs.

Tulum Beach

Tulum Beach

We headed first to Nomade and Nest, which I loved the design of and were at the Southern end of the beach where seaweed wasn’t as tragic. When we we arrived we were told that there was absolutely zero availability on any tables, beds, or tents, which were all fully occupied by hotel guests. I have to say the staff was super nice and helpful and not the least bit snobby, which I really appreciated. They told us that some might open up around check-out time, with a minimum spend of around $50USD per person, but they couldn’t guarantee it. 

We decided to try our luck and wandered down the beach until we found some open beds at a place called Amigos Beach. While it was cute, it was definitely not an “Instagram” darling — which really worked in our favor. We got our choice of a prime beachfront bed, the staff couldn’t have been kinder, and the minimum spend was less than half of what we’d been quoted at Nomade. We were thrilled. The crowd was a little less trendy professionally beautiful people and more domestic travelers with kids in tow, but honestly it was kind of nice to know that there’s a side to Tulum that caters to that, too! 

Los Amigos Beach Tulum

Other than our lunch at Amigos to meet our minimum spend requirement, we didn’t eat many meals in Tulum Beach. We did have a snack one morning at Raw Love Cafe, because I am legally required to eat smoothie bowls in every destination that offers them!

It well worth a stop, but generally we preferred eating daytime meals in Tulum Pueblo, where the prices were more reasonable, the crowds were smaller, and the commute shorter.

Yes, it’s a bit of a production to get the full Tulum Playa experience. But honestly, it was worth it, at least for a few days — it’s magical there. And we saved so much money staying in Tulum Pueblo, we didn’t mind the hassle in the grand scheme of things.

We did find, however, Tulum is a totally different place when the sun goes down.

Ian had been beyond devastated when we realized that Hartwood, his dream dining destination, was going to be closed for Santa Semana. (I personally had no idea what Hartwood was, much to the chagrin of several other people who asked if we’d be eating there.) 

So while I can’t say I know what we missed out on, I was absolutely thrilled with his second choice for a total splash out of a meal — dinner at Arca.

Dinner at Arca, Tulum

Arca was definitely one of the poshest restaurants I’ve eaten at on my travels — and I loved it. The design, the vibe, the food, the service — it was worth the hype for sure.

Needless to say, I’m a sucker for all things presentation when it comes to a lush meal. I don’t often go wild on food photography because (A) I don’t want to embarrass my fellow diners and (B) it’s generally too dark at dinner to get great results, but as the only reservation we’d been able to nab was 6PM, I was so thrilled with the lighting I more than happy to capture the beauty of each and every course and cocktail. 

Drinks at Arca Tulum

Food at Arca Tulum

Food at Arca Tulum

Food at Arca Tulum

Ian definitely never steered us wrong when it came to where to eat!

Dinner at Arca, Tulum

For our final night in Tulum, we had no firm plans on where to eat, but knew we were heading to the beach for a party that night so figured we might as well do one more dinner down there. During the day, we’d passed WILD, and were wowed by then beautiful setting and the menu and made a reservation on the spot for that evening.

Wild Tulum

Unfortunately, it wasn’t our favorite meal of the trip — and it was also pretty empty. Oh well, that’s what happens when I’m allowed to pick, ha!

Wild Tulum

We were off to our final adventure of the trip — the Playa Papaya Project’s monthly Full Moon Party. Unfortunately, Ian’s friends had left a day before us, as parties are always a “the more the merrier” vibe. But we felt like we just couldn’t leave the Tulum without checking out one of the iconic beach parties.

We were exhausted that evening but looked it up, saw the entrance was $10USD, and figured what the heck — we could leave after an hour if we weren’t feeling it.

The traffic down to the beach was insane, as was the line to get in. We were cold, shivering, and sober when we reached the front of the line we’d waited in for over half an hour, bargaining that we’d be crazy to turn around after spending the time and money it took to get there via cab.

Then we got to the front of the line. “Eight hundred Mexican pesos,” the woman at the ticket line said flatly. My eyes bulged again. The internet had been wrong (a first, surely.) I turned to Ian and said, “well, I guess we’re about to find out how much we’re willing to pay to feel young and hip,” and it turns out that amount is approximately $43USD per person. Zoink.

Full Moon Party at Papaya Playa Project, Tulum

Full Moon Party at Papaya Playa Project, Tulum

Once we were in, we committed to making the most of it, as we had with every step along our trip. The setting was incredible — disco balls hung from the palm trees, the water lapped at the bottom of the stage, and thatch roof bottle service tables lined the dance floor/.

Full Moon Party at Papaya Playa Project, Tulum

Full Moon Party at Papaya Playa Project, Tulum

I loved Tulum. And I almost felt guilty about doing so. Many of my followers — very politely, I add — probed me during my trip. Are you going to write about the environmental burden of tourism on Tulum? Are you going to explore alternative destination recommendations?

This is a selfish answer, but it was a time I needed to be selfish — no. I just wanted, no, I needed a vacation. Do I agree I have some responsibility as a “public figure” with a large readership? Absolutely. But do I also think I’m a human being who deserves an occasional opportunity to enjoy the places others go? Yes to that, too.

And Tulum charmed me — it was the exact bohemian yoga-filled acai-fueled cerulean-watered design dreamland I needed. 

 

Have you been to Tulum? Would you go? What are your thoughts?

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