Tulum conjures up images of white sand beaches and thatch-roofed bungalows, a place where art and nature meet the young and boho beautiful.
Tulum’s growing popularity, though, has made prices skyrocket – a tough reality when you’re on a tight budget. But free (and almost free) things can still be found here, and they’re sure to make your beach vacay that much more memorable.
Playa Las Palmas
As you head north along the beach road, just past Mezzanine hotel, you’ll pass a cluster of bicycles and cars parked alongside the road. This is Playa Las Palmas, and one of the only public access points to Tulum’s beaches – no need to sneak in through a chichi hotel or to hunker down at a pricey beach club. Glorious (and gloriously free), Playa Las Palmas is why you came to Tulum: a wide expanse of white sand beach and brilliant turquoise waters…and not much else.
Take an early morning walk along this beach. Fishers arrive in their red- and white-painted boats, the sterns filled with catch that will become ceviche platters later in the day. Not long after the fishers have gone, the indie travelers start to arrive, walking along a sandy path from the road, towels draped around their necks.
As the sun and sand grow hot, the music from beach clubs starts up – thumping, bumping – and nearby kiosks open their doors, offering boogie board rentals and snorkeling trips.
Vendors with mangos on a stick begin plying the beach, while the Tulum Ruins overlook it all. It’s picture-perfect, and a lot of fun too, and Playa Pescadores provides access to it all without spending a peso.
Biking the Beach Road
Enjoy the light breeze (and sense of satisfaction) as you pedal past the line of cars waiting to turn onto Tulum’s beach road. Exploring the beachfront on a bike, dense vegetation all around, sunlight glittering through the canopy of leaves – you’ll feel like you’re finally on vacation. If you turn left, you’ll ride north to the ruins, beach hopping along the way.
A right turn will take you past countless eco-chic hotels and a small commercial area with gelato shops, bars and boho boutiques. From there, the gorgeous southern beaches are accessible for the price of a drink at an oceanfront restaurant.
Or keep pedaling and stop for a dip in the cool waters of Cenote Encantado. If you ride further you’ll venture into the wild, and almost empty, Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve. Bike rentals are cheap in Tulum, and many hotels often offer them for free.
Music from inside leaks onto the street – a Latin jazz set with a driving trumpet and African drums in the background. People of all ages, locals and travelers, spill out with the melodies where a psychedelic-painted VW bug marks your arrival at El Batey, Tulum’s long-time fave for mojitos and live music.
Past the crowded bar, is an open-air courtyard jam-packed with people, some sitting at tables, others spinning in front of the stage. This is Tulum town nightlife at its best. Free cover and reasonably-priced drinks too.
Stand on a 40-ft cliff, overlooking the Caribbean with El Castillo, Tulum’s most imposing structure, looming like a sentinel behind you. Below the small beach is dotted with visitors playing in the waves.
Take a moment to envision the 50-ft canoes that arrived there centuries ago from throughout the Yucatan and Central America, laden with honey, salt, amber and other goods for trade at this cultural center. The Tulum Ruins are a small but dramatic sight and a must visit (and just US$3.25). Arrive first thing to avoid the masses. And don’t forget your bathing suit!
Taquería El Carboncíto
It’s exactly what we're all searching for: A no-frills, locals-only taco joint in Tulum town…a hidden gem. At 50 cents a taco, it’s a steal too. Hungry customers sit at plastic tables on the sidewalk, platefuls of pint-size tortillas topped with sizzling meat, onions and cilantro placed before them, the outdoor grill just feet away.
Order the house specialty – tacos al pastor – spit-roasted pork, bright red with achiote and other spices, topped with pineapple. Cash only.
Down a long jungle path lies steep wooden staircase nearly hidden by the foliage that leads deep into the earth. A cool breeze reaches up from the depths. At the bottom, the turquoise water extends far back into a cavern before disappearing into a dark tunnel and stalactites hang like icicles from the ceiling - it’s like a dream. Located just three miles west of Tulum, this is totally worth the admission fee (US$9) and quick colectivo (public shuttle) ride there.
A huge leafy courtyard on a gritty downtown block greets you as you step into Radio Tulum. Some nights you might find a stark stage in the center where a man with a guitar and Tibetan singing bowls chants. People sit in mismatched chairs listening intently while the aroma of Indian food fills the space.
Almost nightly, alt-art performances are broadcast live from here – music concerts and spoken word performances, soulful conversations and live DJ sets. A snapshot of Tulum’s boho heart. Cover is free or paired with a meal.
Muyil Ruins (aka Chunyaxché Ruins)
The Muyil ruins ($2.25), has a notable lack of visitors. If you venture here, all you’ll find is a handful of towering temples and the sound of birds. It’s perfect. Following the sacbé (ancient road) through the long-abandoned city, it becomes a boardwalk running through a mangrove forest to a teetering tower.
At the top, you’re met with a spectacular view of the site’s namesake lagoon – a vision of blues and greens – the lush Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve surrounding it, and the Caribbean in the distance.
Parque Dos Aguas
It’s not the prettiest of central plazas – lots of cement with some shade trees – but take a stroll through Parque Dos Aguas and you’ll quickly realize it doesn’t matter. This is the heart of town, a perfect place to people watch, to get a sense of local life.
Catch couples strolling arm in arm, a raucous game of pickup basketball, and if you’re lucky, a folkloric dance performance. At sundown, when the food carts magically appear, try the chocolatey marquesitas (crispy stuffed crepes) and steaming elote (corn on a cob) smothered in mayo, chile and parmesan cheese. All of it, a taste of Tulum.
You may also like: