1. Where to Stay
Avoid the crowds and stay at the solar-powered, four-room Casa de las Olas (from $150), situated on the beach’s southernmost plot. Your thatched-roof spot comes outfitted with Balinese hardwood beds, dark rafters, and little portholelike windows, and you might even be part of an impromptu shrimp roast using the owner’s charcoal-burning oven.
Enjoy luxury for less at Jashita (from $140), a boutique hotel with more refined décor than at other spots along the beach, plus an on-site spa and full concierge services. If you prefer pools to the sea, you’ll find one of the few in the area here.
Keep it simple at CoCo Tulum (from $45), where the fourteen beachfront palapas contain nothing more than a bed, a few shelves, and silky mosquito netting. Bathrooms down here are shared, but you can opt for more privacy at one of three lofty rooms in the tower building overlooking the ocean.
2. Where to Eat
Don’t miss dinner at Hartwood, where chef Eric Werner (formerly of Peasant) has been reinvigorating the locavore ethos in a region that had all but abandoned its farm-to-table beginnings. Thanks to alliances with farmers and fishermen, he sources the freshest ingredients for dishes like roast pork loin on white beans ($21) and whole fish with buttered young radishes ($19).
Dig into elevated street food at Dona Lordes (at the intersection of Calle Superior and Concha Maya), a family-run puesto (Mexican slang for “hole in the wall”) where corn for tortillas and tamales is ground daily in-house. Try tacos (75 cents each) made with truly free-range chicken—it hails from a small inland ranch owned by the clan’s patriarch.
Join the local crowd at the new El Camello Jr. (Avenida Tulum and Luna Sur), which serves seafood caught across the peninsula in the Gulf of Mexico’s Campeche region, best known for its sweet shrimp. Go during lunch, when the original, adjacent shop is open and you’ll find the owner cutting up the catch of the day, which is served whole and fried ($6) or turned into ceviche ($4–$9).
3. What to Do
Take home some new cooking skills after a four-hour lesson ($75 per person) at Altamar, where Chilean native Eric Fischer teaches groups of two to four the fundamentals of cooking in the Yucatan style using local ingredients. Learn the secrets to expertly made ceviches and tacos, plus how to make eight Mexican salsas including tamarind-chili and a tangy Mayan sauce called x´nipek. Stick around for a primer on tequilas and classic margaritas.
Spend Saturday afternoon choosing fresh, picnic-ready foods at the small organic market in the garden behind the hostel El Jardin de Frida. Pick up sturdy artisanal breads, watermelon, sprouts, roasted corn, and a super-food called chaya, a spinachlike green that could be the next acai berry. Don’t skip bottles of amber Mayan honey, which many consider the best in the world.
Practice catching your own meal by learning to fish with the experts at Boca Paila ($320 for two people for a half-day trip). They sail small flat-bottomed boats into the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve’s waters, straight to the best fly-fishing spots. Depending on the season, you might catch huge groupers, bonefish, or huachinango snapper. Don’t try to eat your haul here, though, as the area’s protected status requires catch and release.
4. Insider’s Tip
Most of the fruit you’ll find sold along the side of the road around Tulum is grown in the region, but keep an eye out for imposters, since produce is sometimes imported and passed off as local. (Note boxes, discarded or not, bearing signs of Californian origin.) Be sure to try the green-rinded, extremely juicy oranges that are native to the area, as well as chilled young coconuts, which contain sweet, refreshing nectar.
5. Oddball Day
Turn your focus away from food to get in some outdoor activity. Start the day with coffee and a crusty chocolate croissant (about $1.50) at Mot Mot Café (Avenida Tulum between Orion and Beta Sur) before driving fifteen minutes north on Route 307 to Dos Ojos Cenote, a constellation of flooded sinkholes filled with clear, temperate water. Grab a snorkel and check out the stalagmites and stalactites, or suit up in scuba gear ($130 for a two-tank dive) and explore the networks of underground caves and lakes. Then ride back to town and stop for a quick snack at Tacos al Pastor (Avenida Tulum near Luna, just past the Weary Traveler Hostel), where hunks of pork are sliced off a vertical spit kept moist with the juice of fresh pineapples. Follow it up with one of the 50 types of fresh fruit paletas (about 50 cents to $1) from Flor de Michoacan (Avenida Tulum, between Calles Alfa and Jupiter), where you’ll find unique flavors like mango with chili and lemon-pineapple-jicama. Once you’re full, cruise along the beach road toward the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, but watch out for potholes along the dusty road which becomes a bit rough past the gates. Once inside the site’s 1.3 million acres, embark on a three-hour, naturalist-led kayak tour ($50) to spot tropical birds and cross the Caapechen Lagoon. As an alternative, just hike along the lagoon to spot sea turtles at your own pace and stumble upon still-unexcavated Mayan ruins. End your adventure with a mound of tangy ceviche ($13) and a couple of Negra Modelos ($4) from the bar on the third floor of the ecological center (at km 4), a prime spot for watching the sun set over the tropical canopy.
Search Expats in Mexico for a look at Tulum from an American-in-paradise perspective.
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Use Tulum Maps to guide yourself, since most beach properties don’t have addresses and street names are not always marked downtown.