Tulum city is perhaps the most popular place in all of Mexico. This destination has everything you’re looking for in Mexico: from ancient Mayan ruins to beautiful sandy beaches and from bustling downtown Tulum to the most instagrammable places. Backpacking Tulum should be on everyone’s Mexico bucket list. After spending many, many days in Tulum, we created this city guide for backpacking Tulum with the best places to go, top things to do and a map explaining you the difference between luxury Tulum beach and downtown Tulum Pueblo.
Because we were robbed in our hotel room in Tulum, we unfortunately no longer have our favorite photos. They are stolen along with our camera and everything else of value we had. We wrote a blog about this unpleasant experience, in which we also tell you in which hotel you really should not sleep.
Good to know: the two faces of Tulum
Before you go to Tulum and delve yourself into where to go and what to do, it’s good to know the two sides of Tulum. The city consists of two parts and they are still quite far apart.
We conveniently call the city center downtown Tulum. Here you have the most facilities and it is bustling and cozy on the street. Then you also have the part that is on the beach. Beachside Tulum stretches from the Mayan ruins in the north to the ‘Instragram Street’ more to the south. In between you will find the most beautiful beaches and most luxurious resorts.
A straight, busy road leads to beachside from downtown Tulum. At a certain point it spilts, so you can turn left there for the public beaches and the ruins. If you go to the right, you will come to the kilometers long instagram street.
Downtown Tulum is the classic city center. Although this is more of a city than beachside Tulum, this is not very much. Downtown consists of a major thoroughfare with a few side streets. On that main road you will find most restaurants and bursting with souvenir shops and super hip boutiques.
Tip: do not buy your souvenirs in Tulum, you will pay top price.
Downtown Tulum is a lot more affordable than the beachside. Here you also have fancy hotels, but they are still much cheaper than the expensive beachside. This is therefore a really good place to choose as a base. There are countless nice hotels in every price range without costing half your travel budget.
Downtown Tulum is also full of nice eateries. Recommendations include Burrito Amor for great burritos, Aguacate Limon for vegan food, Uno for Japanese ramen, Ki’bok for the best coffee and Del Cielo for breakfast.
Don’t miss the street art in the city center. There is not a specific place or route, you will encounter the murals everywhere. Because Tulum is a beach city, marine life is often the theme. One of our favorites is a cool turtle.
For the tropical beaches you have to go to beachside Tulum. On maps this often becomes ‘Zona Hotelera Tulum’, because it is no longer about local Mexico, but only about tourists.
On the beach here are the most beautiful hotels, the most luxurious resorts and instagrammable spots. Most beaches are therefore occupied by beautiful beach clubs and resorts. So you can only go into the water and have a beach day if you are a guest there. There is also a considerable price tag. The most luxurious, expensive and beautiful is hotel Azulik. Instagram is full of it, but here too you have a hefty price tag.
Fortunately, not everything is expensive and priceless at beachside Tulum. The beachside runs roughly from the Mayan ruins to miles away at the latest boutiques and hotels. Near the historic ruins you have a number of free public beaches. There you can have a wonderful beach day, if luxury hotels and beach clubs are not your thing. You also have a public beach along the more southern ‘instragram street’. This is a very narrow strip
For example, you have a free museum next to Azulik: SFER Ik. This art gallery shows no other art than the special building itself. It is built entirely from wood and cement from the area and has a special organic shape. You have to take off your shoes to feel the wooden floor pieces and become one with SFER Ik.
Just around the corner you have to go for fun street art and along the ‘instagram street‘ it is full of instagrammable spots. For example, Raw Love, a vegan hotspot on the beach, has that impressive entrance gate. It is an impressive wooden work of art in the shape of a person. Further down the road you will find a beautiful viewpoint over the water, you’ll pass our favorite coffee spot Coati Café and (at store Lolita Lolita) the famous ‘follow that dream’ sign that you see so much on Instagram.
Which eateries can we recommend at beachside Tulum? We can’t call our favorite coffee spot Coati Café often enough. For breakfast you have to go to Raw Love or Matcha Mama for smoothie bowls and for a more extensive breakfast at Tunich. Also very nice is the food market with some food trucks and picnic tables.
Best day trips from Tulum
If you like a fixed base and undertake day trips from there, then Tulum is the place to be. It’s not far from many of our favorite places in Yucatán. From impressive Mayan sights to deep blue or pink lakes.
# 1 Visit the Tulum cenotes
Not far from Tulum, even within cycling distance, you have countless cenotes. The most famous is the Gran Cenote, which is therefore within cycling distance. In our cenote blog you will find an overview map of all cenotes in Mexico.
# 2 Wander through colorful Valladolid
When we thought of Mexico before our trip, bright blue cenotes, colorful towns and Mayan ruins envisioned us. So we were actually talking about the town of Valladolid, but we didn’t know that yet. This town is less than an hour and a half’s drive from popular Tulum or and just under two hours from Cancun. It has everything you want to see in this country and is a must on your trip through Mexico!
Read more: we made an extensive city guide for Valladolid in which we actually recommend you to spend more than just a day here.
# 3 Climb the Coba pyramids
Cycle through an ancient Mayan city, climb a huge pyramid, dive into an underground cenote and visit a Mayan priest. That’s pretty much a summary of our time in the tiny town of Coba. We also stayed overnight at a small jungle resort to get to the bustle of the old Maya city as early as possible. In the afternoon we dove into cenotes that we had all to ourselves. We wrote another detailed blog about Coba with all our top tips.
# 4 Check out the pink lakes and flamingos
In the far north of Yucatán you have pink and orange lakes at Las Coloradas. A bizarre beautiful landscape! We think that is a very tough trip from Tulum and recommend Valladolid as a base, but it is offered as a day trip from Tulum. For all our tips you should read this blog about the pink lakes!
# 5 Behold the world-famous Chichén Itzá pyramids
A little beyond Valladolid are the most famous pyramids in Mexico: those of Chichén Itzá. It is called one of the wonders of the world today. Unfortunately you are not allowed to climb the pyramids and it can get quite busy. Famous are especially El Castillo, the largest pyramid, and El Caracol, the ancient observatory. We skipped this Mayan city ourselves and chose lesser known places, such as Coba, Palenque and the jungle empire Calakmul.
# 6 Sail at Laguna Bacalar
Lake Bacalar is also called Lake of the Seven Clothes Blue. The water of the lake is dazzling blue, a wonderful place to add to your Yucatan itinerary. Take a sailing trip or canoe trip to experience the lake in all its glory. Staying overnight is highly recommended, then you can also see the magically beautiful sunrises. We wrote down all our tips in this mini travel guide for Laguna Bacalar.
Practical: how to get to Tulum city and how to get around?
We think a rental car in Mexico is the best way to get around. This way you can get to the most remote, special places and you are not dependent on bus times. But Mexico is also known for ADO’s comfortable and affordable buses. There is a bus connection to almost every place and there are numerous to Tulum.
If you want to take day trips from Tulum, we would recommend a rental car. Otherwise, you have little time left at the place you want to visit. Tulum is full of car rentals, so they offer cars for competitive prices. On our map we have marked a place where you have several car rentals together. This way you can inquire about prices everywhere and have them bid against each other. Read our blog about a rental car in Mexico for all our tips.
But you don’t need a car in Tulum itself. It’s quite far from downtown Tulum to beachside. The Mayan ruins are also a bit far from downtown and most hotels on the beachside. How did you get there? By bike! Everywhere in Tulum bicycles are offered for rent, probably also in your hotel or hostel. That is definitely a must, if you want to explore all sides of Tulum. You can even cycle to the cenotes near Tulum.