Quintana Roo, Riviera Maya, Mexico
Unspoilt. Unhurried. Unplugged. Laid-back. Bohemian. Eco-friendly.
Tulum has become Mexico’s hippest holiday destination and an icon of the Riviera Maya. And rightly so. Long stretches of uninterrupted beach, soft white sand that is even finer than elsewhere along the coast, turquoise waters and a relaxed vibe. I don't know anybody who does not like Tulum beach.
The beaches are quieter than in Playa del Carmen or Cancún, and a lot more casual. Nobody will push tour sales or beach lounge rentals in your face. On a windy day there are admittedly waves. The calmer and shallower part of the beach is, in my experience, on the north side. The only negative is that if the beach gets seaweed, it will not get cleaned by the staff from the bars and hotels. They leave it to nature. A real eco approach…
Tulum beach also hosts the archaeological site, which is visible when you are on the north side of the beach. Most Tulum ruin visitors remain on the northern beaches, located right by the Tulum Ruins (Ruins). There is a 3km stretch of beach on this side. If you want to put your towel down, this is the best area to do so. If you want to rent a lounger, on average the price along the north beach is 150-200 pesos for a pair, with an umbrella.. This can get costly if you have a family of four with you as the cost multiplies. If you rent the club deck chairs, you won't be allowed to consume your own food and drinks. Although the beaches here have a low-key vibe, that doesn't mean Tulum is cheap. Because it is also trendy.
If you go further south, the 'hotel zone' stretch is 9km long, all the way down to the entrance to the Sian Ka'an reserve. You will find the beaches are even quieter there. It is actually a hotel zone with a few beach clubs. Beach clubs are your best bet. Needless to say there are no public toilets so there is no other option. You can use their parking, restaurant and beach chairs, either for a set rental price or you have to consume.
To reach the beaches, if you're coming south from Playa del Carmen on Federal route 307, turn left at the traffic lights towards Boca Paila (on the 109; the Cobá road but the opposite direction) for two miles. You will come to a fork and here you will have two options. Turn left to the beaches near the ruins or turn right for the eco hotel/beach clubs. If you are visiting the ruins first, walk a couple of minutes from the Tulum ruinsexit gate to the public Santa Fe Beach (first turning left). You can't walk along the beach from the ruins to Tulum beach, as there are rocks that get in your way (plus, if you could, everyone would do it and avoid paying the entry fee at the ruins!).
Although the beaches are all public, there aren’t many access points (due to all the private property along the coastline). The entry points are by the beach clubs and here I am listing the ones where I had the best experience so far. I am starting nearest the ruins (as I always come to the beach after visiting the ruins with friends). There are basically three beach bar options here.
Zazil Kin is the nearest to the Mayan ruins, a five-minute walk from there. Otherwise, it's at 2.5km, if you turn left from the road fork. From here you can see the Mayan ruins sitting on the cliffs, which makes for stunning photos. Locals say this is a nudist beach although I have not experienced it myself. There is a small hotel and cabañas and they offer fishing, diving and snorkelling services. I find that the waters are calmer here, as the reef is nearby. This is certainly the coolest place to put your towel down.
Playa Maya is next, just south of Zazil Kin (2km from the other side, the road fork). It is also a quiet stretch of beach, with palm trees. There is a bar with plastic chairs. It is basically a beach with a local flavour. Simple, tranquil. One of my favourites.
El Paraiso Beach Club is next, about 500m from the ruins. It is certainly posher, with umbrellas with lounge chairs, tables and chairs under palm trees and the on-site restaurant. The water is shallow here; this applies to the whole length of the northern beach.
On the south side, if you turn right at the fork, there are a lot of eco-boutique hotels, both rustic and upscale. Here you will need to use a beach club if you want to use the beach facilities.
Papaya Playa Project is the first club after you turn right at the fork. I came here only once and the crowd was young and cool. A local DJ was playing; at weekends the club hosts live events and gigs.
There is an on-site restaurant. It is actually a hotel with raw-chic palapa style villas.
Ziggy Beach Bar is on km 7.5 on the Boca Paila road (south) and it has an on-site restaurant. The beach area is divided in two sections; one is for hotel guests only and the other section is for day visitors. That at least makes it clear for the visitors. Minimum consumption is USD25 per person.
Coco Tulum is on Km 8. It is a hotel, like the rest of them on the south beach but for a charge you can use the facilities. The restaurant has good music, otherwise the hotel offers kite-surfing, yoga and meditation areas.
La Zebra on km 8.2 is probably my favourite on this side of the beach. It is a shipwreck-themed bar. Apparently at some point in the past a ship from Africa was shipwrecked here. A few survivors swam ashore, including a zebra. Not sure if this legend is true but the hotel is certainly named after this African animal. The hotel burnt down in 2016 but is restored again. I like it because of its 'chic' look. The meals are of course pricier than, say, at Playa Maya on the other side, so I come here on special occasions with friends.
On a different note, while Tulum is a paradise, I must say that it does not exist in a vacuum and had recently experienced problems so common in Mexico: corruption, inconsistent government regulation and an opaque legal system. In 2016, private security guards with machetes in their hands, and Tulum municipal police officers arrived in the town's Punta Piedra zone to carry out evictions of 16 hotels and restaurants. Small hotels were sacked and guests kicked out (just like that!). Will similar incidents happen here again? Hard to tell. It's complicated. Mexican law does not allow foreigners to own oceanfront property outright (a third party is required to be landlord). Business owners who have been evicted say they are being robbed of their property through a system of fraud.
At the end of the day, before you head home, you can stop in the town proper, a busy little city of about 18,000 people. There is no public transport between the town and the beach but you can catch a taxi. The main street is situated on the main highway (a pretty busy road) which may deter you. But, like the beaches with their funky hotels, the town has a hippie and Bohemian vibe. If you are after a snack or a Mexican meal, my favourite place is Don Cafeto. They have the best coffee in town! You could also try their Aztec soup, they serve a wonderful extra vegetable plate for you to mix your own ingredients
How to get to Tulum:
Tulum is located on the southern part of the Riviera Maya, about 40 miles (65km) south of Playa del Carmen and 130km south of Cancún. All the group minibuses (known locally as colectivos) and ADO buses that travel non-stop along federal route 307 stop in this city. Once in town, take a taxi to the beach. If you are driving yourself, turn left at the first traffic lights as you enter the city (Coba Avenue).
If you choose the public beach by the ruins, the bus driver will stop at Tulum ruins on the highway and then you will need to walk about 10 minutes towards the ruins themselves (you will pass a cluster of shops). At the ruins, turn right along the fence around the site and it is another five-minute walk to the nearest public beach entry. To all other beaches you will need to take a taxi from town.