Tulum has sat high on my bucket list for the last few years, so I was ecstatic when I found last minute tickets to ring in the new year on the very beach that I had spent years pining over photos of. I booked my ticket Christmas morning, and departed the very next day.
Enthusiasm quickly turned to worry as I started to plan my spur of the moment trip. I knew that Tulum would not be the cheapest destination, but every other article I read seemed to gasp at how inflated the prices had become. Would I have to put a sizable dent in my wallet in exchange for a week in paradise, especially the week of New Years Eve? I’ve always prided myself in my ability to maximize experiences while spending less- but would Tulum win this round?
After a week in what truly was Paradise, I’m happy to report that it is absolutely possible (and easy) to enjoy Tulum without breaking the bank.
Where to sleep
Tulum is divided into three distinct areas- Downtown, The Hotel Zone (a strip along the beach), and the public beach/ ruins (the other side of the Hotel Zone strip).
Downtown: About a ten minute drive from the beach, this area has plenty of budget friendly options- from airbnb’s (which is what I chose) to well rated hostels.
The area isn’t exactly the prettiest, but it’s filled with bars, restaurants and shops- most of which line the main road, with several cozier side streets. There’s also some seriously impressive street art strewn throughout the area.
The Hotel Zone: It’s fraught with expensive (and mega-dreamy) boutique hotels, as well some more affordable options. The area is an easy sell as you wake up to paradise right outside your window. Unfortunately, I was unable to find any place with availability when I went- but this will be my first choice on my next visit.
Camping: Another great option if you want to wake up (literally) on the beach, and definitely the most budget friendly. We actually ended up spending NYE at the Pancho Villa campground which looked awesome, though I can’t personally vouch for it. There are a few campgrounds along the beach- all of which look pretty dreamy.
Things to Know:
Get some wheels: Tulum’s layout is really spread out compared to most beach towns I’ve been to. Downtown is basically one long, busy road, and the beach sits along the other main street- to the left is the public beach with a few accommodation options, to the right is the hotel zone with more hotels, as well as shops and restaurants. None of this is within easy walking distance.
Since we were doing a mini Yucatan road trip, we had already rented a car in Cancun (the best deal we found was through Sky Rental, though EasyWay is another great option).
There are also plenty of places in town or near the beach to rent bikes and scooters, and cab prices aren’t nearly as bad as I expected.
Where to Eat:
Downtown is hands down your best bet for finding cheap, delicious food. Twenty cent tacos and mouthwatering guacamole are on every other block, as well as a myriad of restaurants serving up fresh octopus and ceviche for far less than any of the Hotel Zone options we saw.
Of course the same goes for drinks. One night of dinner and drinks near the hotel zone cost us the same as it would have at a trendy spot in Manhattan. Both downtown and the bars on the public beach were far more reasonable.
Camello’s: Towards the end of downtown’s main road, this was one of my favorites. Get the seafood soup and ceviche (and a little bit of everything else- it was all so good)!
Where to Wander
Chichen Itza: Whether you have a car or you take the shuttle bus, the 2 hour drive to Chichen Itza is definitely a worthwhile daytrip. This was our “splurge” activity of the trip, so we hired a wonderful guide to teach us more about these ancient Mayan ruins, and it was well worth it. However, if you’d rather go it alone, the entrance fee is $13 to explore the world famous ancient city on your own.
The Tulum Ruins: Tulum’s crystal sea acts as a backdrop for these stunning ruins, and at an entrance fee of less than $2, it really can’t be missed. I went early to beat the crowds and discovered my favorite beach in Tulum.
Pro tip: The entrance fee is cheap, but parking isn’t. Park at the very end of the public beach, for free, and then walk a few extra feet to the ruin’s entrance.
day week at the beach: If you plan on doing anything else- like cenote hopping or canvassing the ruins- I recommend doing all those activities before going to the beach. Because- and I say this from first hand experience- once you dip your feet in that water, it will be impossible to do anything else. Yes, it really is as beautiful as Instagram makes it seem.
Visit a Cenote: One of the Yucatan’s biggest highlights is it’s plethora of Cenotes- or natural sinkholes. They truly are stunning, and I regret not exploring more of them during my week in Mexico (see above shameful reference to my inability to leave the beach). The only cenote I went to was in Valladolid, on my way back from Chichen Itza.
Most will cost $2-$5 to enter, and they truly are a magical experience and a great way to spend the afternoon swimming, snorkeling and marveling at an otherworldly environment.
Snorkel: Tulum is home to the second largest barrier reef in the world, and allows for some wonderful snorkeling! We took a tour from Playa Paraiso (no matter where you are on the beach, you’ll find plenty of tour companies) for $25/ 2 people. The snorkeling was great- and I saw plenty of turtles, stingrays and colorful fish, but it all felt quite rushed. In this case I would say it’s worth it to splurge for a longer tour.
Akumal: Only a 30 minute drive away, you can swim with turtles for free! Just go early in the morning before packs of tourists arrive to do the same. Unfortunately the weather was not on our side the morning we planned to do this- but I guess it’s another reason to return soon!
Shopping: Shopping in Tulum is expensive, but seashells are free 🙂
While these shops are beautiful, I preferred to drop my pesos at the many artisanal markets we spotted while driving around.
Get up Early, Stay up Late: All the luxurious shops and hotels that encompass Tulum are nothing in comparison to its natural beauty. Get up early to watch the sunrise from the beach (which happens around 7:30 am- so it’s really not so painful). There’s truly nothing like it, and all you need to enjoy this spectacle is a light beach towel and perhaps a cardigan- no pesos necessary.
Star gazing from the same spot is an equally miraculous experience, and was how we spent out last few moments of 2016. The sky overflowed with glimmering lights, their reflection dancing softly on the ocean waves as they calmly rolled in.
And just as we said goodnight to the flickering sky and decided to retreat back inside, we were greeted with one last stunning moment: a shooting star swept over the sky, granting us all one wish to start the year. But what more did any of us need?