If you read this blog regularly, you probably know that Mexico is one of my favorite countries. The beaches are a big reason why. And Tulum — best known for its Mayan ruins and eco-chic bungalows — may be the best of the best. As you might expect on such a gorgeous stretch of sand in such a touristy area, it’s easy to spend a fortune on a beach holiday in Tulum. But you don’t have to. In this post, I’ll cover how you can get the most out of Tulum on a budget.
- 1 Why Tulum?
- 2 Tulum’s best public beaches
- 3 Where to stay in Tulum on a budget
- 4 Where to eat in Tulum on a budget
- 5 Start your Tulum adventure now!
If you’re backpacking around Mexico, you have endless choices of beaches. After all, the country has nearly 1,000 kilometers of coastline — bordering the Pacific Ocean, the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea. You can surf in Puerto Escondido, whale-shark-watch in Baja California, and dive off the coast of Cozumel.
So what makes Tulum so special? Well, for one, the beach is absolutely perfect. Swaying palm trees, powdery sand, warm turquoise water. It’s quiet and low-key even in high season. You’ll never have to compete with others for towel space, and there’s no pressure to go to a beach club or rent a beach chair.
What’s more, Tulum is a great base for activities around the Yucatan Peninsula. When you get sick of the beach, you can visit the neighboring Mayan ruins — or go further afield to Chichen Itza or Coba. The town is surrounded by cenotes (sinkholes formed by underground rivers), and you can even go diving in the cenotes to get a taste of cavern diving. Or you can take a colectivo (informal public transportation) up the coast half an hour to snorkel with sea turtles in Akumal.
Finally, while Tulum is a major tourist destination — the ruins see more visitors than any other Mayan site in the country — it’s spread out enough that the town feels authentically Mexican. Locals eat at the same great seafood spots that tourists do. Folks come out to play music and dance in the streets on weekends. And if you’re visiting Tulum on a budget, you’re more likely to encounter the locals than if you stay on the beach in a luxury bungalow.
Tulum’s best public beaches
The beach area of Tulum spreads out for roughly 10 kilometers — from the Mayan ruins at the north end to nearly the entrance of the Sian Ka’an Biosphere at the south end. All along the coast are beach clubs, resort hotels and restaurants.
If you’re trying to save money in Tulum, you’ll probably want to avoid the southern beaches. They’re technically accessible to the public, and if you’re traveling alone and sufficiently inconspicuous you may be able to snag a spot on the sand. But the hotels, restaurants and bungalows that dominate this stretch of beach strongly encourage the purchase of a meal or the renting of a beach chair in order to use the beach that borders their property. And these aren’t cheap restaurants and hotels — a single meal or drink at one of the southern restaurants could blow your budget.
The good news is, the northern beaches are perfect for independent travelers visiting Tulum on a budget.
The best public beach is just north of the restaurant Mezzanine. You’ll find a 350-meter stretch of sand with no beach clubs, no restaurants, and no bars. Just people setting up their towels and beach umbrellas to enjoy the sand and sea. It’s rarely overcrowded, but its popularity with Mexican families and backpackers means there will always be someone nearby to watch your stuff while you go for a swim.
For a more unique experience, head to the beach just below the Mayan ruins. For the admission fee of 70 pesos (~$3.50), you’ll not only get the beach, but you’ll also be free to explore the archaeological park. These are among the most beautiful Mayan ruins in Mexico, and well worth the admission, even if you’re in Tulum on a budget. But they also get extremely crowded with tour buses from Cancun. So it’s best to arrive either first thing in the morning (they open at 8 am), or around 3:30 pm. The beach here is small, but it’s hard to beat sunbathing in the wake of an ancient castle.
You can get to the ruins either by walking/cycling on the back road along the coast, or by taking a colectivo along the main road toward Playa del Carmen. The colectivo drivers overcharge rampantly on this route, and you’ll be lucky to pay less than 40 pesos.
Where to stay in Tulum on a budget
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Which part of Tulum should you stay in?
Visiting Tulum on a budget requires one major trade-off — you probably won’t be able to afford staying on the beach.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Instead of being in a tourist bubble, you’ll be exposed to the town’s daily life. Staying in town is more convenient for taking day-trips to nearby historical sites, cenotes and other beaches. The food is better. Plus, it’s more environmentally responsible (many of the beach hotels are run on generators and have questionable sanitation systems).
The downside is the town is a full 6 km from the beach. But for about $4, you can rent a bicycle and ride to the beach on a (safe, separated from traffic) cycle path.
And the town is full of budget accommodation. Location doesn’t matter much — you can walk from one end of town to the other in less than 15 minutes. It’s more about what kind of atmosphere you’re looking for. Standards are uniformly pretty high; most places have ample outdoor space and hot-water showers.
The key to finding a place to stay in Tulum on a budget is to book in advance, especially in high season. The good places book up weeks, or even months, ahead.
Best places to stay
If you’re after a dorm bed, the best option is Mama’s Home. It’s nothing fancy, but the free breakfasts are great, they arrange new activities every night to help guests interact, and the management is incredibly helpful, warm and friendly.
The next step up is a private room in a hostel. These get very expensive very quickly, especially in high season, but you can find bargains. I had a great experience at Rancho Tranquilo. $35.00 a night bought me my own (tiny) bungalow in a pretty garden, with shared but very clean bathrooms and free breakfast.
If you’re traveling in a group, it’s worth looking at Tulum’s small guesthouses. These are typically family-run and the facilities are a little nicer than hostels. I recommend Villa Matisse.
Where to eat in Tulum on a budget
First, the bad news: finding cheap food on Tulum’s beaches is all but impossible.
Then, the good news: in town, you can get incredible value for money on food.
If you want to eat along the beach, budget $10-$25+ for each meal. A handful of slightly cheaper spots exist (like the restaurant at Pac-an Campground), but even there, you’ll pay $6 for three small and unspectacular fish tacos. If you don’t want to bike back to town for lunch, take a picnic to the beach to keep costs down. You can pick up supplies at Waldo’s (a mid-sized supermarket) in town.
The cheapest places to eat in town are the taco and antojito stands that come to life after dark. Antojitos la Chiapaneca is a favorite for spit-roasted tacos, but you’ll probably have to wait for a table. I’m also a big fan of Taqueria El Carboncito. You can get an “order” of tacos — enough for two people — for $3.
Tulum also has a handful of great and affordable restaurants. The standout among them is El Camello Jr., at the far southern end of town. The seafood is among the best I’ve ever had. A meal with a drink cost me $5, but large ceviche plates are even cheaper. You’ll have to wait for a table, often 30+ minutes.
Don Cafeto is a local favorite that often has live music at night. The chaya juices are super-refreshing. I’ve eaten there three times and never been blown away by the food, but it’s good enough for the price ($3-4 for a large meal).
The best breakfast spot is German-owned Azafran. Great bottomless Veracruz coffee, tasty omelettes, and every variation on bagels you could possibly be craving, all for $3-4.
Tulum is a gelato-lover’s paradise. Campanella Cremerie is the top pick, and it serves decent coffee too. Panna e Cioccolato is also delicious and a little cheaper.
For your coffee fix, head to Ki’bok Coffee Tulum. The iced Americano is the perfect antidote to a hot, tropical afternoon.
Start your Tulum adventure now!
Tulum is just two hours south of Cancun and three hours east of Merida. You can take a bus directly from Cancun’s airport or a colectivo from anywhere along the Riviera Maya.
Don’t let the images of swanky beach bungalows discourage you. It’s totally possible to have an amazing time in Tulum on a budget!
Have you been to Tulum? Do you have any other money-saving tips? Leave a comment!
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