Hidden gems of Tulum, Mexico

 
Sian Ka'an Reserve in Tulum, Mexico

Beautiful beaches, tasty tacos, crystal clear cenotes, Mayan ruins, and a natural lazy river. Tulum, Mexico has something for the adventurer, beach goer, historian, and foodie. Read on to discover the hidden gems we loved in Tulum!

 

Nature

 

Sian Ka´an ruins

Mayan ruins located inside the Sian Ka´an Biosphere Reserve which we explored via this guided tour on Airbnb Experiences (ask for Jenny! She was amazing <3). Our guide led us along the ecological jungle path where we climbed a high tower to overlook the reserve.

 

Sian Ka´an Muyil river float

Located inside the Sian Ka´an Biosphere Reserve, the Muyil River float was the highlight of our trip. This was the second half of the guided tour we booked through Airbnb Experiences. The natural canal’s gentle current carried us through the reserve for about 30 minutes.

 

Jardin del Eden Cenote

Cenotes are large limestone sinkholes that fill with fresh, cool water. While Gran Cenote is the most famous in Tulum, Jardin del Eden was our favorite. The vibe was so relaxing and local families were there escaping the heat. No sunscreen is allowed (it’s toxic to fish and plant life) so be sure to bring a hat and a swim shirt.

 

Restaurants

From upscale experiences to cheap, tasty tacos—there is plenty of delicious food to eat in Tulum.

 

Ka´an

Located inside the Sian Ka´an Biosphere Reserve, Ka´an restaurant is a culinary project inspired by indigenous and village life in Mexico. They are passionate about exploring and sustaining the communities of the Yucatán peninsula and work with local farmers, agronomists, fishermen and food suppliers to source and showcase the seasons best. The menu varies according to the bio cultural network of the Mayan area. The kitchen is led by Hugo Durán and cooks food in a pre-hispanic “ollas” fashioned from Oaxaca clay and fueled entirely by firewood.

We had a delicious meal:

  • Sesame oil with local dried peppers and spices with masa tortillas

  • Jicama salad with coconut milk

  • Guacamole with fresh herbs

  • Smoked tomato risotto with a poached egg, arugula, and shaved manchego cheese

  • Roasted beef tongue (and we can’t remember the rest except that it was delicious)

 

Arca

“From fire to table” is what defines ARCA. The menu is micro-seasonal and is a current representation of the flora and fauna around Tulum. Open-fire cooking dominates their menu which is composed of small plates intended to be shared, a way of eating that is inherent in Mexican culture.

We loved every bite of:

  • Pisco sour

  • Grilled Avocado, Crispy Chaya, Avocado Leaf Oil, Roasted Pumpkin Seeds, Avocado Wood Dashi

  • Tartare of Roasted Peppers, Cured Egg Yolk, Toasted Almonds, Pepper Ash Salt, Morita Chile Oil, House Grilled Bread

  • Empanada with local sweet potato encrusted with black and white sesame seeds served with chimichurri (description from memory)

  • Scallop ceviche on tostadas with avocado (description from memory).

  • Roasted Bone Marrow, Tamarind and Pasilla Glace, Charred Scallion Salsa, Pickled Onion Flowers, House Grilled Bread

To learn more and make reservations, check out their website or follow them on Instagram.

 

Cheap eats

Ki’bok Coffee serves up delicious espresso drinks from organic coffee grown in Mexico. Instagram: @kibokcoffeebar

Prieto is a healthy cafe that serves killer acai bowls. Instagram: @prietotulum

Sonido del Mar is a boutique hotel, yoga loft, and cafe. We stumbled upon it looking for a quick lunch (delicious smoothies and fish tacos!) and decided this is where we will likely stay for our next visit to Tulum. Their website.

Don Honorio locals voted best taco. They don’t have a website or Insta but you can see their reviews on Trip Advisor.

Palma Central is a food truck park! Lots of tasty choices with a local vibe. Their website.

A local’s list of favorite haunts from our very sweet server at Arca.

 

Nightlife

Salsa night at La Zebra

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Right on the ocean in the heart of the Tulum Beach, La Zebra is a hotel and restaurant that has salsa dancing every Sunday night. The live music was hot, the dancers were fantastic, and it seemed to be one of the few places in Tulum that attracts both locals and tourists.

 

Tulum Street Scenes

 

Travel notes on Tulum

Tulum has grown rapidly in recent years as a tourist destination—it’s relaxed, bohemian vibe has attracted world adventurers and Instagramers alike. The people of Tulum were incredibly kind and welcoming (literally did not encounter a single grumpy person) and from our limited interactions seemed happy with Tulum’s growth. That said, the area is struggling in some ways to keep pace.

Some things to know before you travel to Tulum, Mexico:

Environmental challenges

Tulum does not have modern waste management infrastructure, and some ground water has become polluted making the water unsafe to drink (and it has a strong odor and taste). Local experts are working to develop an ecological purifying solution using mangroves, a tropical tree/shrub that has powerful filtration abilities. In order to combat water pollution, most places do not allow you to wear sunscreen in the water since it is toxic to fish and coral, so plan to wear hats and swim shirts. Many bathrooms ask that you throw your used toilet paper in the trash rather than flushing it in the toilet. It takes some thought to override your muscle memory, but it’s not nearly as unpleasant as it sounds. There is much less of a “to go” culture and many restaurants don’t serve straws or use paper products (even beverage napkins were fabric in several places!). Be sure to do you part in helping preserve Tulum (and everywhere you go) by leaving as little footprint as possible.

Wealth disparity

Driving through Tulum, away from the two main roads, you’ll see people living in shantytowns—improvised housing made of bamboo sticks and dried palms. Meanwhile, in La Veleta (where we stayed in an Airbnb) there are two story white concrete walls enclosing what I can only assume are private paradises. One hopes that the new developments springing up on every block will lift the economy and improve infrastructure and education, but it hurt my heart a little to see.

Digestion

We had more trouble with our digestion in Tulum than we have in other countries like China, Costa Rica, and Argentina despite eating at designated restaurants (we skipped street food). Pepto Bismal helped!

Safety

Tulum felt very safe. While the wealth inequality alarmed us at first, we did not get one bad vibe from anyone there. We also didn’t spot any broken glass from car break ins, a telltale sign of petty crime. That said, we’re early risers and tend to skip nightlife, so we were never out past 11 pm.

Currency exchange

Non-touristy places are inexpensive and we found the “real” value of USD to be about 2:1, meaning prices in Tulum are about 50% off the prices of the US (a delicious cappuccino was about $2 instead of $4). That said, Pesos are hard to find without paying hefty transaction fees and getting unfavorable exchange rates. I recommend getting Pesos before you travel (bonus: you can use the envelope method to ensure you don’t over spend!).

Language

We are beginners at Spanish and Tulum was very approachable. Most of the people we interacted with spoke at least some english, and everyone was patient and kind when communicating. Many restaurants have menus available in English, and some of the translations will make you chuckle (“burrata served on an arugula mattress”). I highly recommend learning Spanish with Duo Lingo and using the Google Translate app (App Store / Google Play).

 
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Have you traveled to Tulum? What was your favorite spot?

Let me know in the comments below.


What I packed: 8 days in Tulum

Tropical vacations are the easiest trips to pack for—hot weather, casual outings, and lightweight clothing makes traveling light a breeze. My packing criteria for this Tulum trip: be ready for adventure, beat the heat, and keep my shoulders covered. Here’s what I packed for 8 days in Tulum, Mexico.

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House Tour: Two bedroom Airbnb in the heart of Tulum

Casa Nieve Luna is a stunning two bedroom home with a private courtyard and plunge pool. Located in La Veleta, a neighborhood in the heart of Tulum, Mexico, it’s just a bike ride away from beautiful beaches, tasty tacos, and crystal clear cenotes. See how this home makes the most of every corner of it’s small, square lot.


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