The Tulum Budget Travel Guide
An Introduction to Tulum, Mexico
Tulum is a growing city along the Riviera Maya, about 60 miles away from the much larger tourist destination of Cancun. With roots stretching back to the Mayan Empire- and still boasting the ruins to prove it- Tulum offers a unique aesthetic mix of the old and the new, further juxtaposed by different entertainment and dining options geared towards the locals and tourists.
Though there are plenty of high-end restaurants, Tulum can be visited and explored by a budget traveler with ease. Plenty of eateries, including basically all that are locally owned, serve meals for only a few dollars. Taxis are fairly affordable, and collectivos are constantly traveling up the main drag between Cancun, Playa Del Carmen, Akumal, and Tulum. Collectivos and buses can even be taken to Coba to check out the ruins alone- no expensive tour guide needed.
Past the beauty and affordability, Tulum does present some challenges. Safety has been questionable over the last few years as the city contends with a rapidly growing tourist base that has attracted increasingly violent drug cartel skirmishes. The main street, usually completely safe, has seen some of this uptick in violence. Various scams are also common, usually based around giving incorrect change or overcharging for goods. These tricks are almost always attempted against tourists from local vendors, taxis, and collectivos. While a bit disconcerting, neither the risk of crime nor the possibility of scamming should deter a level-headed, safety conscious visitor.
How Safe is Tulum?
If you travel anywhere except to an all-inclusive, you’ll hear it- Mexico is unsafe and you’re putting your life in danger. For the majority of the tourist spots, this is simply not true. Mexico City, Merida, the entirety of the Riviera Maya- perfectly safe, with much lower crime rates than basically any US city. This is not to say that there are no dangerous spots around Mexico, because there certainly are, but most of the spots one would consider in the first place are fine to visit.
For Tulum specifically, safety should be of no more a concern as it would be exploring Miami, Florida– be careful, listen to your gut instincts, and avoid walking around drunk at night. Ironically, the police presence throughout Tulum can be a bit off-putting for American sensibilities. Officers walk or drive around armed to the teeth, holding assault-style weapons or machine gun mounts from a militarized Hilux. Frankly this is part and parcel for Caribbean and Central American travel, so I didn’t think anything of it, but quite a few people I talked to found it disconcerting. It’s important to understand the reason behind it- the government is trying to show you that you are well-protected.
Personally, I walked or biked to almost every location and never felt remotely unsafe. I made a point not to go out particularly late, but when I did (never later than 11pm or so) I never had reason to feel uneasy. While there has certainly been an uptick in gang-related violence, the incident rate is not particularly high and shouldn’t be cause to rethink a Tulum vacation.
How Expensive is a Tulum Vacation?
Though it has increased substantially in price over the last decade, Tulum still makes for a fairly great value vacation. Expenses for housing is relatively low, though still rapidly increasing and more pricey than similar rental units in West End, Roatan or Savaneta, Aruba. Meals are very affordable for fantastic local restaurants, though this value quickly disappears if you don’t do your due diligence. Foreign owned spots can be 2 or 3 times as expensive, often with much worse food (in my opinion, anyway). The value you get from these more expensive restaurants is simply an English menu- nothing more, nothing less.
Entertainment expenses are, unfortunately, quite high and only going up. There seems to be an all-encompassing culture of tourist exploitation that, frankly, made me sick by the end of the first week. As my girlfriend put it towards the end of our trip, “I’m just sick of getting scammed every time I try to do something.” Prices would regularly increase 20-30% from bogus extra fees, on top of already heavily inflated prices that rival US averages.
Restaurants and Grocery Stores
Dining in Tulum is easy if you know where to go. Do plenty of research on Google Maps first, as well as through my list of excellent local Tulum restaurants a bit further below. Some meals, like at Taqueria La Chiapaneca, are only a few dollars for a fantastic filling feast. Others, such as Burritos Street Tulum, are a bit more expensive but still completely worth it for the most delicious burrito you’ll ever eat for under $10 USD.
A few general rules should be considered when searching for meals in Tulum. If the menu is in English, you’re likely about to overpay. If the menu is in English and the prices are in USD, you are definitely about to overpay. While US dollars are widely accepted, pay in pesos for the best rates and accurate change- many tourists talk about service workers keeping 20 or more percent of change when converting from USD to pesos.
Grocery stores in Tulum are a great option for saving money if you don’t feel like eating out all the time. Like other areas in Central America, I recommend breaking your shopping trips up to different specialty locations. Go to a bakery for bread, go to a vegetable stall for fruits and vegetables, and then head to a grocery store for the rest of the essentials. The Super Aki Tulum was the most frequented and largest grocery store, but other smaller options existed in the West side of town and along the main stretch. Since I was in Tulum Town, I frequented the La Macarena Tiendas which was a short walk away from my apartment. Prices weren’t quite as low nor the selection quite as wide as at Super Aki, but for my purposes it worked perfectly fine.
Finding Cheap Apartments in Tulum
While Airbnb is one option for finding housing in Tulum- and it is what I used- I don’t believe it is your best bet. Housing is often inflated about 25-50% from local rates. To get the best deal, join Facebook groups like this one and inquire about availabilities for your dates. This will likely only work for longer-term rentals of a month or more, but can potentially save you big. Some travelers opted to pay on a day-by-day basis as they secured longer-term housing. This is far too adventurous for my tastes, but does hint at a much stronger rental market than Airbnb prices would lead one to believe.
If you do decide to go the Airbnb route, follow the usual best practices to get the best bang for your buck. Plan your trip at least a few months out, be willing to stay a bit off of the most ideal spots, and look for rentals that offer discounts for longer stays. The best deals can often be found with relatively new listings with only a handful of great reviews. Not only can you secure housing at a pretty hefty discount, you will probably be staying in a unit owned by a local that can provide you with actual advice- not the cookie cutter packet that large property managers provide. Not to mention, it’s better to support local property managers than Airbnb conglomerates. Rent from someone that lives nearby and has a vested interest in their community. If available, my recommendation is the small Bin Wayak apartment complex on the west side of Tulum.
Is English Spoken in Tulum?
It is, but don’t assume everyone speaks it. Most customer service workers have at least some understanding of English, with the highest concentration of English speakers along the beachfront properties and the downtown Tulum restaurants. Further off of the main drags, especially at restaurants and shops that don’t cater to tourists, and English proficiency drops considerably. If you don’t speak much Spanish, don’t worry- it really isn’t much of an issue. The people are welcoming and accommodating, working with you so you understand each other despite the language gap. My advice? Brush up on some Spanish basics and try your best. It’ll be appreciated.
Getting Around Tulum
The transportation system was one of the highlights of Mexico for me. Only Grenada and Aruba had a better built out public transportation system, and they were operating on a much smaller scale. Getting to Tulum is very simple and convenient, with options to fit any level of comfort and travel sensibilities. From Tulum, exploring the rest of the Riviera Maya can be completed from a series of buses, collectivos, and ferries, usually not costing much more than $10-15 for a fairly long journey. Though the system can be quite confusing at first and there seems to be a lot of contradictory information provided to you by the different companies involved, it won’t take long to find your footing.
Getting From Cancun to Tulum
If you’re headed to Tulum, you’re almost definitely flying into Cancun. Cancun offers fairly affordable flights from anywhere in the United States, making it a great budget destination. Unfortunately, Cancun kind of sucks and feels like a second-rate American beach city (in my opinion, at least). To get out of Cancun, you have a few main options.
If you’d like to explore for a day or two, book accommodations in Cancun. When you’re ready to continue on to Tulum, purchase tickets from the ADO bus website being sure to pick the bus terminal closest to you. Instead of taking the bus, you can hire a private shuttle which could be more affordable if you have a few people traveling with you. Both options are direct to Tulum, though the shuttle would drop you off right at your final destination while the bus would drop you off either near downtown Tulum or in the city center.
Traveling From Tulum Around the Riviera Maya
My plan when I booked a trip to Tulum was to rent a car and explore the Riviera Maya. Turns out, I could do all that without ever renting a car. Between the primary ADO bus routes, the secondary routes from their smaller brands, and the collectivos that travel constantly around the region, you’ll never have to wait long for a ride. Multiple ADO bus stops in Tulum take riders to Cancun, Playa del Carmen, Akumal, and even Coba. A smaller bus terminal along the main road in Tulum takes visitors to picturesque Bacalar far to the south. Sometimes, a combination of these routes work best. For example, I took an ADO bus from Tulum to Coba to explore the ruins without having to pay $50+ extra while dealing with time constraints. When leaving, I missed the return ADO bus and instead had to take a collectivo back to Tulum. No more than an extra 15 minute wait, and I was on my way back to Tulum.
The ADO Bus System for Tulum Travel
To make the most of the bus system, you have to fully understand it. ADO is the main high-end brand, with several different sub-brands operating under it. While some of these brands and the routes they provide are available on the ADO website, many are not, especially the smaller routes to less frequented destinations. For example, my route to Coba was only available by buying it in-person at the bus terminal, not so much as showing as an option online. Collectivos become even more complicated as their routes are heavily variable depending on where passengers want to be dropped off. No official map exists of their routes since they are all owner operated, but they generally follow the same basic routes as the other bus systems. A good rule of thumb is to ask before getting on to make sure you’re heading in the right direction, then remind them shortly before your stop of where you need to get off.
Understanding Collectivos in the Riviera Maya
When it comes to collectivos, be prepared to pay exact change- many will try and scam you into paying multiple times more for a trip than what it costs. I unfortunately fell victim to this when I only had large denominations left in my wallet. If you are in this situation, don’t give the bill until a price is established- and stand your ground if they try to bully you. I gave the bill first, losing my leverage, and had no option but to learn my lesson and move on.
If you are white, this will happen somewhat often. I was lucky to have it happen to me only once, but I saw it happen to others repeatedly, especially in the collectivos where pricing is largely hush-hush. My strategy was to watch what the people around me were paying and mirror that. If you look like you know what you’re doing and act confident, they usually won’t try to take advantage of you. One American tourist came on a collectivo visibly drunk and talking loudly. When he got off 5 minutes later, he paid 500 pesos (or twenty USD) for the ride. My ride was about 45 minutes, and I paid all of 75 pesos.
Taxi Availability and Rates
Taxis are widely available throughout the Riviera Maya, though the prices are wildly variable. Tulum has some of the highest taxi prices in all of Mexico, inflated by the absence of ridesharing services such as Uber or Lyft. Taxi prices are much more reasonable in Playa del Carmen and Cancun, with Uber available in Cancun away from the airport and in certain hotel areas.
I did not take a single taxi in the Riviera Maya because the buses and collectivos almost always dropped me off within walking distance of where I needed to go. The horror stories I heard from other tourists were a factor in this as well- it was not worth the risk. My previous cautious tales of collectivos are echoed in what I heard of Mexican taxis, but by orders of magnitude. While collectivos tried to get you to overpay, taxis would practically rob you. They had an organized, mob-like structure that threatened competitors such as Uber or Lyft into leaving certain cities. While I’m sure there are many great taxi drivers, it seemed like something safer to avoid. My experiences elsewhere in Central America predisposed me to be hesitant, especially a Chinese national paying about twelve times more for a short ride in Panama City. Tourists are seen as vulnerable, and vulnerability is meant to be exploited.
Tulum Biking and Walking
Getting around the region required a bus or collectivo. Getting around town was easy and convenient enough with just your feet. With the exception of the downtown hotel area, all areas of Tulum were walkable with easy bike access as well. The main street has extra wide sidewalks with built-in bike paths. If your apartment is along the main stretch, expect not to spend more than 15 minutes or so walking from place to place. For example, on my first day I walked from my apartment to the Tulum ruins in about 40 minutes. I did have to cross one major road, but otherwise was on separate walking paths the entire way.
Many of the destinations a bit further outside of Tulum are accessible by bike. Many of the main cenotes in the area, such as Gran Cenote to the north and Cenote Escondido to the west, are a short bike ride away on the main highway- which sounds way scarier than it turned out to be. The roads are wide and the drivers very courteous. The Tulum ruins are also easily accessible via a 10 or 15 minute bike ride. For the particularly adventurous, the Coba ruins can be biked to in about 2 and a half hours each way. Yes, it’s far, but it is also almost completely flat and can be completed easily by leaving early enough that the first leg is before the heat of the day. Admittedly, the return trip does sound like it would be dreadful, but there are at least plenty of parks, cenotes, and restaurants to stop at on the return trip to help break it up and provide some much-needed respite from the sun.
The Best Restaurants in Tulum
Like tacos and burritos? There are other options, of course, but these Mexican staples shine at practically all of the local spots. I was also surprised at the number of cafes, smoothie shops, and bakeries available throughout the city. Price point was sometimes a bit of an issue, but for some of the cuisine, it was still well-worth it.
Best Breakfast and Coffee Spots
Some guy’s home. This is literally just some guy’s home. Long Time Coffee opens their doors and invites in tourists and locals alike for carefully crafted coffees served in their own living space. Meet their dogs, talk with the owners, and savor your beverage. The prices are a bit higher than other cafes, but you won’t find anywhere else like this.
A small cafe with a nice open-air courtyard, fresh baked bread, and strong Wi-Fi. I happened here to get some work done and left amazed- the prices were much lower than I expected for food of outstanding quality. When I left I took a loaf of bread for the road, much higher quality than what you find in groceries at the same price.
A small local cafe off the beaten path. I lived next to this spot and never saw many tourists come in, but was welcomed just the same. The frozen coffees were particularly good, the highlight of a pretty standard cafe menu with some American standards around Mexican breakfast and lunch fare.
Similar to Long Time Coffee, a business that you won’t find elsewhere. MOCHIART is a bike coffee shop that has one guy making outstanding coffees on the street side. No storefront, just a dude on a bike. I crossed town to try it for the experience, and was pleasantly surprised. Four more visits followed.
Best Lunches and Dinners
Very nice owners serving delicious chinese fast-service cuisine in a minimalist outdoor setting. Wang Tulum is owned by the couple behind Long Time Coffee, opening this restaurant recently to expand their connection with the community- especially the locals. Wang Tulum is located off of the main strip but is still easily accessible, and very worth a lunch viist. Obviously, try the coffee, too!
Of the many, many tacos I had during my time in Mexico, these were the best- and the most affordable. Pro tip, don’t get the tacos. They come with less meat and little additional toppings. Instead, try the local options- salbutes, which are puffed corn tortillas topped with meat and vegetables, and panuchos, a refried tortilla stuffed with black beans and topped with cabbage and avocado.
Insanely delicious burritos with insanely delicious sauces. I must have been here 6 times during my stay, despite it being across town. The burritos were affordable and offered vegan options as well, with three sauces- spicy, chipotle, and avocado- that could be added on as needed. I still dream about this place quite regularly. Don’t forget the half liter pineapple water, it’s worth every penny!
A vegan taco shop, but one can easily be fooled. The meat substitutes are prepared excellently, tricking the most discerning of carnivorous palettes. I’m not vegan, but can appreciate a good taco. The location was interesting as well, sporting an eco-punk vibe with painted murals and walls of stickers to match. While it wasn’t my first pick, I did thoroughly enjoy it.
Not the cheapest, but likely the best pizza you can get in Tulum. The spot was an interesting open-air hut with a brick oven in the rear where you could watch them preparing your pizza. It came out as expected from a brick oven- thin crust, perfect crunch, light charring. I only came here once, but was pleasantly impressed by my meal.
You’re not living if you don’t hit up the local street food. You can find everything from deserts and finger foods to more hearty fare like quesadillas and burritos. My personal favorite and the most visited spot is the Al Pastor taco stand, serving up 5 tacos for 50 pesos (under 3 dollars). You can get them to go, but I hung out and enjoyed them on-site.
This took me back to when I felt safest and most alive. From college house parties with close friends to making new friends in a Honduran bat infested basement, this was the vibe I live for. La Guarida is a large house separated into a bunch of different rooms with unique themes. A staircase leads to the roof where you can hang out on a boat and take in the cityscape. Conversation and drinks flow freely for locals and tourists alike.
A fun craft beer and mezcal bar in the heart of the downtown area, with open walls so you have views of the bustling street. I tried my first few mezcals here and was pleasantly impressed, though it wasn’t a bumbing atmosphere- think laid back, do some reading, or chat with a friend. I enjoyed it and don’t think it was too overpriced, though definitely on the expensive side. For a cheaper and more communal experience, La Guarida is the move.
Things to do Near Tulum, Mexico
Tulum is a fantastic destination because of what it offers and what it is in close proximity to. Using Tulum as a home base, I was able to explore some of the coolest local spots- like the Tulum ruins and all of the local cenotes- before heading out to see some of the sights in Akumal, Coba, Playa del Carmen, and even Cozumel.
My list of recommendations is quite different from most other travelers. I really do try to avoid the tourist traps and attractions that are ecologically harmful- which, unfortunately, are numerous along the Riviera Maya. While I did participate in several group tour activities, none of them made this list. They simply weren’t worth doing compared to the more authentic alternatives.
Visit All of the Local Cenotes
A trip to Mexico isn’t complete until you visit the cenotes. This is somewhat unfortunate, as tour guides know it. Prices have jumped several times over, now costing upwards of $15 per person to check out a small cenote. Of the many around Tulum, here are some of my favorites.
It’s the most expensive, but it’s undoubtedly the best around. The facility makes a concerted effort to preserve the area, and the amenities offered are above and beyond what is offered elsewhere at around the same price. Generally speaking, this was my favorite in Tulum and the one most worth the money.
If you are interested in scuba diving a cenote- a surreal experience- The Cenote Guy is a popular cenote diving guide that offers tours to Gran Cenote, among many others.
Cenote Cristal and Cenote Escondido
Cenote Corazón del Paraíso
One of the most underrated cenotes in the Tulum area. Cenote Corazon is tucked off of the main western road away from Tulum, about twice the distance from Tulum town to Cenote Escondido. Still, to take in that level of beauty alone, it is more than worth the trip.
Explore the Tulum Ruins
An affordable day trip that can be completed by bike. While some opt to get a tour guide, I’d recommend going it alone earlier in the day and reading all of the plaques around the property. This method comes with a few upsides and a few downsides. On one hand, you miss out on a ton of info about the construction, use, and eventual abandonment of the buildings which I’m sure is incredibly interesting. On the other hand, you get an experience that is much more secluded as you have the option to go before the tour guides clog the facility up and can explore at your own pace.
Personally, I loved checking out the Tulum ruins by myself and having gone twice- once during the early morning and again during the middle of the day when the guides were in full force- I can say that the sheer density of tourists took a lot away from the experience for me. If you do better in crowds and would love the extra history lesson, I’m sure a tour is well worth the cost.
Scuba Dive in Cozumel
Note how I didn’t recommend scuba diving along the Tulum coast. While tours are still offered, the coral reef is almost completely dead. My girlfriend received her scuba certification in Tulum, and described the ocean dive as nothing short of horrific. Dead coral reef, no more than 3 or 4 wrasse spotted across an endless expanse of rubble. So, not great.
Cozumel, on the other hand, was spectacular. Massive coral formations that could best be described as underground cities, countless species of triggerfish, angelfish, parrotfish- even a few sharks and barracuda. For ocean scuba diving, Cozumel is the only real option along the Riviera Maya. Anywhere else you will be overpaying for a simply inferior product. While there are a ton of dive shops located in Cozumel, my recommendations would be Agua Clara Dive Center or Barefoot Cozumel.
Self-Guided Snorkel Tours in Cozumel
If you’re not quite fond of life in the water column, a snorkel tour may be more your speed. I created my own path along the east coast of the island and absolutely loved it. Starting from Money Beach Bar, get in the water and follow the current to the pier of the Fiesta Americana Cozumel. The current is strong, but this works in your favor; just chill out and let the current take you from place to place. Once at the pier, look around for the multitudes of fish that call the pilings home; dozens of chubs, grunts, sergeant majors, doctorfish, and even a massive barracuda. Exit the ocean using the ladder directly next to the dock.
The hotel located on this property, the Fiesta Americana, is a second rate all-inclusive with top notch snorkeling. I stayed here for two days and would absolutely visit again just for the near-shore access, though it turns out the area is currently open to all- the property did not renew their beachfront exclusivity, so all the infrastructure seems to be open to all. I went a few times and couldn’t find any evidence that one would get stopped for just showing up and using the ladders or steps. While this may be stopped in the future, right now is the perfect time to explore the area between the Money Bar and Fiesta Americana for practically nothing.
See The Best of Akumal
This is an unpopular opinion, but one I find extremely important to voice. Akumal is the site of one of the worst capitalist-driven natural disasters I’ve had the misfortune of bearing witness to. What was once a sanctuary for nesting sea turtles has been bought, segmented, and sold to tourists by the hundreds. Few sea turtles remain.
Cenote Puerta Maya
If you want to see sea turtles, join scuba diving trips and see one in the wild. The experience is so much more meaningful than participating in the disastrous state of Akumal eco-tourism. There are, however, other awesome activities to participate in while in Akumal. Starting from the oceanfront, cross the mural-lined bridges to the town of Akumal. Following this road all the way through the town, buildings fall away as wilderness envelopes the increasingly rustic road. A mile or so walk or ride leads to Cenote Puerta Maya, a small family-run cenote with very little visitation and spectacular views. I had the cenote to myself for a full hour and a half, a truly wonderful experience for only about $10 USD.
Uxuxubi Al Natural
For the truly adventurous with a four wheel drive vehicle. Uxuxubi Al Natural is a small community at the end of the road heading west through Akumal. From Cenote Puerta Maya, leave to the right to get back to the main road then take another right to go deeper into the jungle. After about 15 minutes, you’ll come across a small community of a few houses. The residents are happy to give tours, introducing travelers to the various fun creatures that inhabit their slice of paradise- tarantulas, crocodiles, monkeys, and countless species of birds. This isn’t a tourist trap, and should be considered as such- this is a real nature adventure, provided by a local community willing to open their homes and land to the few brave enough to brave the road less traveled.
Travel to the Coba Ruins
The Coba Ruins are older than Chichen Itza, and significantly less frequented by tourists. While you’ll see countless guides hawking group tours to visit Chichen Itza, you’ll rarely see more than a couple signs for Coba. While I’ve heard great things about Chichen Itza, it seems as if it has largely gone the way of Akumal- a beautiful, historic site destroyed by commercialization. Tchotchke merchants at every turn, trying to sell you on yet another poorly made item you don’t want or need.
Comparatively, Coba has none of these issues. Tourism hasn’t quite picked up at Coba to make it lucrative for such merchants, leaving the only sales pitch to be a brigade of bikers willing to ride lazy tourists around the 2 or so mile area. While the bikes are a fantastic option for the less mobile, I found the walk to be leisurely so long as you don’t go as part of a tour group. Many only seemed to have 45 minutes or so to spend exploring, not nearly enough time to visit all of the sites. Go on your own, and explore at your own pace.
To get to Coba, you can either rent a car, take a tour, or take the bus system there and back. My girlfriend and I opted for the buses, nabbing the ADO from the central Tulum terminal up to Coba and then having to take a collectivo back when the bus arrived way before we thought it would. Pro-tip, check with the ADO representative about the bus schedule and what times you can catch the return bus from your destination. From the drop-off point near Coba, we probably walked about a fourth of a mile to the entrance where we bought our tickets and started exploring. Getting the first bus of the morning meant beating all of the tour guides and most of the other independent tourists, leaving almost the entirety of the Coba Archaeological Zone to us and a few handfuls of other early risers.
About Baylen McCarthy
I’m a travel writer and marketing strategist based in Norfolk, Virginia. When I’m not busy hurting myself by walking unreasonable distances, I can be found reading in a hammock or watching Tottenham underperform.
Have a question about an upcoming trip you’re planning? Shoot it over to me, I’d love to help if I’m able.
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