The second half of our trip couldn’t have been more different from the first half. Both places may speak Spanish, and it may only take an hour to get from one destination to the other, but Tulum was another world from Cuba. It’s beautiful here. Like, really beautiful. I’m from Hawaii and even I was in awe of the beaches, the cenotes, and the jungle. Unfortunately, the rest of the world also knows how beautiful Tulum is, which is why it’s probably one of the most touristy places I’ve ever visited. After interacting with locals constantly in Cuba, it was off-putting to be surrounded by so many influencers and wealthy Europeans in Tulum. Regardless, Anthony and I made the most of it and tried our best to find ways to do Tulum differently.
Most tourists in Tulum stay in outrageously expensive resorts on the beach. Many of these resorts are imaginatively designed and undeniably stunning, so if you have some extra cash, you can stay at Azulik, where you pay $700/night for a villa with no roof or no WiFi. We stayed at a glamping hotel called Nativus Tulum. The hotel contains six tents tucked into their own little corners of the property, each with zippered screens to keep any bugs out, a spa-worthy outdoor bathroom (outdoor shower included!), and a backyard with a hammock and outdoor seating. We’ve had an outdoor shower before — in our extravagant hotel on our safari in South Africa — but it was the first time we felt that there was complete privacy, so we really enjoyed using ours here, in utter paradise. The entire property had WiFi, complimentary bike rentals, an outdoor yoga studio, and huge breakfasts every morning. The best part, however, was direct access to a cenote, where we kayaked, paddleboarded, and watched the sunset from the deck. And if we wanted to go to the beach, all we had to do was cross the street and enter through a hotel. Since our hotel was on the southern end of Tulum, this part of the beach wasn’t crowded at all. This is how to do Tulum.
We stayed in Tent #5 (cinco)
Loved the design of our outdoor bathroom
Comfortable bed, with outlets, WiFi, and all the necessities
Our outdoor shower
The entrance to our hotel
Fresh eggs and quesadillas for breakfast
Breakfast, part 2
Our hammock right in front of our tent
View of the cenote from our hotel
Anthony goes paddleboarding
Watching the sunset from our deck
Of course there’s a yoga area at our hotel
We were very adamant about not sitting on the beach all day, so we booked a couple of all-day tours with MexicoKan. Our first tour, Mayan Inland Expedition, was our favorite. We were driven deeper into the state of Quintana Roo to the ancient Mayan city of Cobá, which was once the most powerful in the region and is estimated to have had a population of over 50,000 at its peak. Massive pyramids and monuments have been buried in the jungle for over a thousand years, only recently discovered by archaeologists. Lush vegetation still covers most of the city, and it’s exciting to see only half-excavated ruins emerging from the vines and tree roots. We biked through Cobá and climbed Ixmoja, the largest pyramid. The climb up isn’t too bad, but coming down the steep, slippery steps is the hard part.
Climbing up Ixmoja
We were the first ones to the top! And wearing sandals instead of sneakers!
Climbing down was the scariest part
Our hilarious tour guide
Riding a children’s bike to different ruins
After returning our bikes, we visited the stunning Punta Laguna nature reserve, where we searched for spider monkeys (it wasn’t difficult, their screeching are blood-curdling), ziplined across a turquoise lake, canoed, and were blessed in a Mayan ceremony.
After ziplining and canoeing across this lake, we took in the views
For lunch we went to the nearby village of Nuevo Durango, where we visited the house of a local family who created a project that nurtures injured or endangered animals and reintroduces them into the wild. They have all types of birds and farm animals, as well as medicinal plants and honey bees that don’t have stingers. We made tortillas and had a delicious home-cooked meal there.
Wanted the recipe for this soup!
Our last activity on this tour was swimming in a cenote that our group had all to ourselves. A cenote is a deep, water-filled sinkhole in limestone that is created when the roof of the underground cavern collapses. This creates a natural pool which is then filled by rain and water flowing from underground rivers. The word cenote comes from the Mayan word dzonot, which means “well.” The water in these cenotes is crystal-clear, cool, calcium-rich freshwater. The calcium levels are so high, in fact, that it’s hard to tread the water; I had to wear a lifejacket because my arms were getting so tired! The Yucatán Peninsula has thousands of these cenotes because the ground is primarily made up of limestone, which is porous. Cenotes were the area’s main source of water and played an important role in ancient Mayan civilization, as passages to the underworld and sites for sacrificial purposes. Some cenotes are easy to access, with staircases leading down to the water, while others are a bit more tricky, with ladders. Anthony and a couple other brave souls jumped from the very top, which was 8 meters high.
Imagine stumbling across this!
Wearing a lifejacket because my arms got tired!
Enjoying the cenote with our new friends
The next day, we had another tour with the same company. The World Wonder Discovery tour was very different; instead of adventurous millennials, we were surrounded by mostly uncultural middle-aged Americans, and the pace was much slower. We started off at Chichen Itza, one of the New Wonders of the World. The iconic Temple of Kukulkan is a step pyramid of nine square terraces. The four faces of the pyramid have protruding stairways that rise at an angle of 45°. Around the spring and autumn equinoxes, the northwest corner of the pyramid casts a series of triangular shadows against the western balustrade that evokes the appearance of a serpent wriggling down the staircase. It’s widespread belief that this effect was achieved on purpose to record the equinoxes.
Nearby is the Great Ball Court, the largest and best preserved ball court in ancient Mesoamerica. This sport was played throughout the Mayan civilization, but it was more than just an athletic event; it was also a sacrificial and religious event. The winning team’s captain was decapitated, an honorable sacrifice to the gods. A rubber ball could be hit with the right hip, right elbow, and right knee, but no hands. The aim was to move the ball through the stone ring up high.
After Chichen Itza, we had lunch at a touristy but beautiful former mansion in Valladolid, a quiet colonial town. Then we swam in another cenote, which was even more impressive than yesterday’s. It had a rope running through the middle just in case you got tired from swimming in the calcium-rich waters. On our way out, we looked at the fossils inlaid in the cenote walls — proof that the entire Yucatan used to be underwater.
Beautiful restaurant for lunch in Valladolid
Mole on chicken enchiladas
Most of our meals in Tulum alternated between just two places (a dirt-cheap taco joint on the beach, and a mid-range vegan spot just a few steps from our hotel) because everything else by us was so overpriced, we felt like we were back in New York. Tulum caters to tourists so much that all places take USD and Euros; I sometimes forgot that I was in another country. Fortunately, we found two spots near our hotel that didn’t hurt our heart or wallet too much: Charley’s Vegan Tacos (a vegan spot with fun decor) and Taqueria La Eufemia (a boisterous beachfront taco shop where we saw the most locals in the entire region).
Crispy fish and grilled shrimp tacos at La Eufemia
If we had another day in Tulum, I’d try to make reservations at Hartwood, the most prestigious restaurant in Tulum that was even beloved by locals.
Tips for future travelers:
- There are ATMs everywhere, and many of them only give out USD, which just highlights how tourist-centric this place is.
- Tip restaurants 15% and tour guides $50-70 per person. 1 USD = 19 Mexican Peso.
- We used a car service called eTransfers to pick us up from the airport and to take us back. I paid online, and they showed up on time and in a comfortable van.
- If you only do three things in Tulum: enjoy the beach, visit a few cenotes (they’re all unique, so you’ll want to explore more than one), and book the Mayan Inland Expedition tour with MexicoKan. MexicoKan Tours picks you up directly from your hotel in the morning and drops you off just before sunset.
- Wake up early and watch the sunrise from the beach, since it faces east.