What to Know Before Visiting Tulum: An Honest Review

Tulum may or may not be your dream destination. Here's what to know before visiting Tulum yourself.

What to Know Before Visiting Tulum: An Honest Review
Everything to Know Before Visiting Tulum: An Honest Review

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We just returned from a 5 day trip to Tulum, Mexico, home of the 2nd largest reef, the clearest turquoise waters, ancient ruins, and, more recently, the trendiest Instagram photo ops.

As this was my first time ever to Mexico, and Andrew’s first vacation outside the US (finally), we were excited to experience everything we’d heard so much about and make it a memorable vacation.

In all, we had a great time! The beaches are gorgeous and clean and the back-to-nature, architectural Tulum aesthetic is cool on a whole new level.

But Tulum may not be a dream destination for everyone.

The problem is, too many luxury influencers and sponsored bloggers have drummed up unrealistic expectations for Tulum.

These reviews rave it is an absolute paradise where you'll find the spiritual enlightenment you have been searching for. Their over-edited photos promise Tulum is a haven away from the crowds. Before you know it, you’re convinced a trip to Tulum will solve all your problems.

I’m not saying those folks are lying. But their emphatic gushes tend to skip over some truths.

In Tulum, you'll find burger and pasta joints. You'll be invited to participate in experimental drugs and hookah pipes at an otherwise ordinary restaurant. The EDM beats thump long into the morning like a college town (depending where you stay, more about that later).

If you can afford to spend a couple hundred or more per night at an all-inclusive resort and spend every day at a beach club, you might have the dreamy experience every influencer swears by. But you might also miss out on the local culture, too.

So when they say Tulum is anything and everything you want it to be, they are right in that sense.

Like anything, there are pros and cons to visiting this part of the Yucatan Peninsula. Despite our research and excitement, there were definitely some things we felt unprepared for. We really did enjoy Tulum! We just have a few travel tips to help you have an even better time.

Ladies and gentlemen: My honest review and insight into what to know before visiting Tulum yourself.

Brush Up on Your Spanish

Before we left, all my friends promised we’d have no trouble communicating with the locals, that Tulum was so touristy everyone spoke English.

While most did speak a few words of English, I was grateful we are both fairly familiar with Spanish and could speak “un poquito Espanol” at almost every encounter.

Hola, Por favor, Gracias, Buenos dias, Donde esta los banos, Yo no se, Cuesta, and other keywords like numbers were lifesavers.

We had no issue with this, as I believe speaking a few words in the native tongue can show a respect for the culture. I just hated not being able to respond as quickly as I should have. Reading it is so much easier for me, but speaking it confidently is another thing altogether.

Then again, charades can get you pretty far, too.

Andrew and I couldn’t remember the Spanish word for “toothpaste” when we popped into a tiny convenience store. He resorted to the ol’ finger along the broad smile trick, and it worked. But I will never forget pasta de dientes ever again!

Thus, refamiliarizing and practicing our Spanish beforehand would have been a good idea!

Bring Cash, Preferably Pesos

A week before we left, I deposited all the cash saved up in our travel bank and exchanged it for Mexican Pesos (MXN) at my Chase branch.

But after only a couple days, we still needed more cash in Tulum, contrary to my assumption that most places accepted card.

If you use your Costco Citi card or CapitalOne Venture card on trips to avoid foreign transaction fees and earn more points, you’ll be bummed to know every vendor charges a 4%-6% fee just to run your card. That is, if they even have the capability.

If you do get cash out while you’re in Tulum, there are several ATMs around town.

However, I attempted to pull out Pesos at an ATM MULTIVA, but it kept declining my transaction and later there were Out of Service signs on it.

I recommend using the ATMs at Chedraui, the supermarket down the street, instead. More importantly, you’ll want to pay close attention to which one spits out Pesos and which one gives you USD.

While you sometimes can pay with USD and receive Pesos in return as change, it still isn’t convenient for you or the cashier. Plus, even popular sites like the Gran Cenote, which is 500 MXN (or $25) per person, only accept Pesos.

Tulum is Expensive Compared to the Rest of Mexico

Since the US dollar is about 20 times more than a Mexican Peso, it’s easy to think that your money is going to go farther. But this tourist destination knows how to capitalize on foreigners.

Expect to pay about $12 to $25 per person for a mid-range meal at a sit-down restaurant. Also, if you eat anywhere in the hotel zone along the beach, you will likely pay twice as much for a normal meal as you would in Tulum’s downtown or an area like Aldea Zama, where we stayed.

A tip is still expected for restaurant service or taxis, but 10%-15% is considered more than fair. I gave 20 Pesos as a tip for our coffee and pastries one morning and the waiter’s eyes went wide with surprised gratitude, much to my confusion.

However, sometimes gratuity will already be included on a receipt as a “propina” so you will want to read it carefully when you go out, unless you just feel like being extra generous!

Car Rentals and Insurance Confusion

This topic is a big “know before you go” that I myself did oodles of research on.

Renting a car in Mexico can be super confusing. Although I won’t go as far as to agree with the reviews that label all Mexican car rental companies as “scammers,” I do understand the frustration.

Here’s the gist: Mexico requires rental car insurance to be purchased.

Since it is a third world country and you just never know what might happen, it is safe to get full coverage from a reputable company. Also, most US car insurance companies don’t cover foreign rental cars, so verify your insurance coverage beforehand.

We booked our car and purchased full coverage through Discover Cars. The prices are fair, but not too good to be true.

Fortunately, we never had to contact them, but they do have 24/7 customer support. Plus, I feel like it’s just one of those things you’re better off having and not using than needing and not having, you know?

Furthermore, like every rental company you choose to go with in Mexico, MexCar still required us to purchase the additional Collision and Damage Waiver from them specifically when we picked our car up at the Cancun airport.

This added about $120 to our $200 reservation. Additionally, they placed a security deposit on our credit card (about $70, compared to thousands that other companies sometimes require) that they removed when we brought the car back in the same condition.

Just like you would in the states, inspect your rental car fully when they bring it out. MexCar’s attendant did a thorough job when we walked around the car with him, but we still double checked for dings, scratches, and anything else before we headed out.

Funny story, though. The radio was blasting when we first got in and pulled out of the lot. Once we lowered the volume and got out onto rougher highway roads, however, we started hearing a rubbery squeak coming from our wheel well.

We made a pitstop to inspect but concluded that nothing was imminently wrong. Likely, the suspension system was worn due to the road conditions and was in dire need of grease. Still, we babied the car every time we drove it to avoid an accusation upon return!

Road Rules are Suggestions

Speaking of road conditions, the highway between Cancun and Tulum is reasonably smooth. But look out for “topes” AKA major speed bumps that come up without warning, especially if you’re driving at night when the highways are pitch black.

Potholes and uneven roads are also to be expected, due to constant construction.

Driving laws are similar to the States. Except, speed is measured in kilometers like the rest of the world. But along that note, no one really obeys the speed limit, or lines. You won’t see too many turning signals, either.

Half the time you won’t really know if the road has two lanes or one because people casually pass or cluster together, all the while passing within inches of bikers and people on foot while scooters zoom in and out of vehicle gaps.

Eventually, you’ll do as the locals do and get gutsy with traffic. You’ll find other drivers don’t get angry if you slowly inch out to cross the lanes in front of them and make a turn where there is no apparent sign or streetlight telling you when to do so.

Really, the only time we noticed traffic laws being upheld was along the beach road in restricted parking areas. They had no issue towing cars on the narrow La Costera road while both lanes of traffic backed up.

I mean it. If you see a no parking sign (a capital E crossed out), don't push your luck.

Rent Scooters, Not Bikes

Which leads me to my next Tulum travel tip.

If you do rent a car in Cancun for your Tulum trip instead of taking the bus or taxi, it does come in handy to have your own wheels. You'll also save cash big time not paying for a taxi ride everywhere in town.

However, the downside is it's a hassle to drive on the beach strip unless you arrive super early to snag parking.

There are several parking lots down along Hwy 15 that charge 100 to 200 MXN for the day, but even then you’ll still be walking for a few miles to see all the shops, Insta-spots, and restaurants. Even during the off season, there are too many people to navigate around and quite a few potholes to look out for.

On the flip side, while bike rentals are super cheap (anywhere from $10 to $15 for 24 hours), they can also be just as treacherous.

Trust me, I wanted that quintessential, sunny photo: me, riding a colorful beach cruiser along the dusty Tulum streets.

In reality, the beach, hotel strip, and nearby cenotes are all a 30 minute bike ride from downtown along a shoulder-less, narrow, and bumpy highway where cars are zooming past you.

Not only that, but as my husband pointed out, most bikes to rent are not high quality or made for an average sized man.

We used bikes for cruising from our apartment in Aldea Zama to the shops and restaurants nearby, but honestly wish we would have reserved scooters.

Scooters are a few bucks more but since you typically only need one per couple the cost isn’t significant.

They also tend to book up faster, and some companies require a 3 day minimum. I recommend looking into these ahead of time to see which companies are closer to your accommodation and if they deliver to you.

Gas Scams

I wish I could be nice and say that gas scams are only a misunderstanding, but unfortunately the one star reviews for all Tulum gas stations are for a reason.

Know your conversions.

Figure out how many liters your rental car’s gas tank holds, then calculate the cost for what you need to fill up. Then, hand the attendant exact cash and keep an eye on the pump (record if you want).

Note, do not use a credit card and do not tell them to fill up your tank.

Do Not Drink the Water

Have you heard the term Montezuma’s Revenge? If so, it isn’t a joke.

The tap water in Mexico is strictly not consumable. Besides pollutants from unsafe plumbing, Mexican tap water contains large amounts of harmful bacteria, parasites, e coli, chlorine, sewage residue and more.

Not only should you not drink it, sources warn not to brush your teeth or wash your food in it.

Of course, if you’re diving into street food and fresh juices, this restrictive practice can get tricky. As a rule of thumb, if the menu or staff can’t tell you how food and drinks are prepared, it probably isn’t worth the risk.

By risk I mean violent and persistent stomach pains and/or diarrhea during and after your vacation. Yes, even in luxurious, Scottsdale-of-Mexico Tulum, the local tap water is toxic.

Andrew and I took many safety measures, but I didn’t want to waste our precious bottled water just to brush my teeth. Whether it was from that or simply something we ate unknowingly, the entire day we traveled home was filled with the most debilitating stomach pains I’ve ever experienced.

Do yourself a favor and buy bottled water as soon as you arrive!

As another precaution, bring some activated charcoal and DoTerra essential oils like Fennel or Digestzen (see this post for other natural ways to boost your immune system). Better to be safe than sorry.

Where to Stay in Tulum

Where you decide to stay in Tulum is entirely up to your vacation preference.

Are you looking to meet new people and party long into the night? Would you rather let hotel staff take care of everything for you? Book an accommodation along the coastline.

Are you a budget traveler solely interested in good food and culture? Stay within walking distance of the Tulum town strip in a hostel or local's AirBnB.

If you're somewhere in between, but revel in peace and quiet, the up-and-coming areas of Aldea Zama and La Valeta are the perfect middle ground.

Although there aren't as many restaurants and shops and they close earlier than other areas, we found these neighborhoods cozy, well-maintained, and comforting.

Expect Construction

Like I mentioned regarding the roads, Tulum town has seen the largest growth in Mexico at a whopping 66% in just one year. Understandably, local resources struggle to keep up with the demand.

Surprisingly, even though we were the first and only guests in our entire building, we had great WIFI and power throughout our stay. However, it is common for both to go out in Tulum.

If this happens for a prolonged period during your trip, most restaurants offer complimentary WIFI if you dine with them.

Also, since Verizon is our cell phone provider, we had excellent service almost everywhere and did not have to pay roaming as the entire country is included in our plan. Definitely look into your own cell phone coverage to see what your provider offers.

Don’t Flush Toilet Paper

Like many Third World countries, plumbing in Mexico isn’t reliable.

Even the newer, higher-end buildings have signs up asking not to flush feminine products or toilet paper because it can cause a blockage.

No one wants to be that guy, so just don’t do it. Yes, from our First World privilege it feels super strange, but it’s a quick adjustment.

Oh, and don’t expect public restrooms to be as accessible, free, or even remotely sanitary. Carry a couple coins and some hand sanitizer and you’ll be grand.

View from the roof of our AirBnB in Aldea Zama, Tulum

Tulum Beaches are Beautiful but Not Private

If you are hoping for empty, quiet beaches during your Tulum trip, you will be quite disappointed. Although, we did luck out for an hour one morning at Dune and were virtually the only guests on the beach until lunch hour.

Among the masses, you will be greeted by fellow sunbathing tourists, locals attempting to sell you their wares, and women of all ages going completely topless.

Not that one could expect complete modesty at any beach. String bikinis and speedos definitely weren't a shock, and there isn't any law strictly prohibiting nudity in Tulum. Even if there was, I doubt anyone would abide by it.

Still, the lack of restraint is a theme throughout Tulum, as is narcissism.

I get it. Everyone wants a cute photo to show off on their social media.

But on our last day, I watched a girl pose on a beach swing while her husband snapped  50+ photos. She then inspected them, reinstructed him, and reposed two more times.

Just saying, travel doesn't always bring out the best in people. But, alas, you'll find that anywhere.

The beach is beautiful regardless how crowded it is. So, try to tune out the noise and relax.

Oh, and if you have a way to hide valuable items in your rental car's trunk, do it. You won't be able to relax and swim in the ocean if you're too worried about petty theft.

Enjoy the warm, cerulean ocean waves with caution as well. Pay attention to the flag colors posted on beach signs. If a red flag is flying, the undertow is severe and swimming is not advised.

Don’t Touch Sea Turtles or Coral

While we are on the topic of the beach and ocean, I will mention Tulum's ocean wildlife.

If you take a snorkel tour, and I highly recommend you do, you will undoubtedly see tropical fish, manta rays, turtles, and lively coral in the 2nd largest reef in the world.

You will be so tempted to reach out for these creatures. But not only is it ill-advised for your safety, the oils and chemicals from our touch are so damaging to sea turtle shells and coral that it is totally illegal to do so.

If you're approached by a curious sea creature, keep your hands back and try to avoid contact.

Supporting Local

Supporting local businesses in Tulum is harder than you'd imagine.

On one hand, there are all the restaurant stalls packed together in old town Tulum where the signs are difficult to read or Google Maps doesn't even recognize. On the other, there are hip and healthy places like Lief's, founded by Dutch expats who bought land in Tulum and started a farm and vegan restaurant. Technically, both options are local.

But when it comes to accommodations, activities, and tours, it's a little easier to differentiate. The big resorts along the coast might be all-inclusive, but you can't guarantee your funds are supporting the local economy.

For the most part, though, locals still run the rest of Tulum.

At the Tulum ruins, we spontaneously joined a local guide who got our small group to skip the line and was loaded with historical knowledge. We booked our snorkel tour and a day trip to the Chichen Itza ruins and a community run cenote through AirBnB experiences.

There are yoga classes, massage specials (starting around $35 USD for an hour), cooking classes in a local's home, and tons of nature activities to choose from, too.

Knowing how expensive Tulum is, these experiences are priced fairly and you can feel rewarded knowing you are directly supporting a local business.

Cenotes Require Showers

Did you know most known cenotes are community run? With over 70,000 cenotes in the Riviera Maya and no other fresh water source for the population, it is important these precious water sources are well-preserved.

Just like turtles and the coral reef, the locals who maintain the many cenotes know how harmful our artificial skin and hair products can be to the fragile ecosystems.

Before anyone is allowed in a cenote to swim, they must shower to get as much sunscreen and other contaminants off their skin as they can.

Please remember, you are a visitor in someone else's country. Respect the ecosystems and lifestyle just like you'd hope for your own city.

Leave these natural habitats as you found them, if not better!

What’s the Weather Like in Tulum? What Should I Pack?

I admit that I run a little bit warmer than the average human. I sweat easily and profusely. My body simply wasn’t made for humidity.

Even though we visited in February, one of the driest and warmest months, the average temperature is 82 degrees Fahrenheit with humidity ranging from 75%-85%. Closer to the ocean, of course, there is a constant breeze, which does help.

By the time the sun went down, I welcomed the cooler temps.

Every blog I read said to pack a light jacket for the evenings, but I didn’t use my denim jacket until I was in the Dallas airport on our return layover. I also never used the packable rain jacket shell I brought, either.

Before we left, Tulum’s weather forecast called for scattered showers every day. Once we were there, it only rained one time while we walked the Tulum Archeological Zone. At that point it was the refreshment we were longing for!

To each their own, but I would nix jackets and rain shells if you’re packing light.

Instead, bring summer dresses and wraps like the Adventure Dress (shown below), breathable tops and bottoms like Columbia Sportswear's UV protection line, supportive sandals or water shoes, a good pair of sneakers (I brought my BANGS), and your swimwear.

I packed two ModSportswear skirts as well as two one-piece bathing suits with zip tops and fluttery sleeves (link here). I’m so pleased with how these fit and looked! They were comfortable and suitable for walking around town and swimming in.

Similarly, my husband brought long compression pants and a rash guard swim shirt for our snorkeling and cenote adventures (see below).

I recommend packing a day bag for cruising around town.

My Rice Love bag doubled as my personal item on the plane, but it’s thin enough to fit in a carry-on, too. I carried our camera, water bottles, cash, snacks, and a change of clothes everywhere every day.

Lastly, toiletries are your discretion. Our AirBnB provided soap, conditioner, and shampoo so we saved room in our bag.

However, I do want to specifically highlight two other important packing list items.

Sunscreen is Essential

I don’t care if you think you tan well. Tulum is closer to the equator, which means intense and damaging sun rays.

While there is shade in town and along the roads, the beach and ruins are pretty exposed, and you’ll likely be spending a lot of your time outdoors in Tulum anyway.

Normally, we both tan easily, and we live in Arizona. But we both applied sunscreen one morning before roaming the ruins and forgot to reapply it after swimming in the ocean just a few hours later.

Guess what? Our arms are peeling this week. Not bad, but still, no one enjoys feeling like a snake. We ended up buying some aloe vera gel to lessen the sunburn on our necks and arms while we were there.

Thankfully, I brought a cheap sun hat, so my face and scalp were protected most days. You could also buy one as a potential souvenir in Tulum if you’d rather not pack something that bulky.

Amazon has this travel sized sunscreen two-pack on sale for $6. Best to come prepared so you don’t have to waste vacation time searching for this necessity.

Bug Spray is also a Must

Now, this one might vary from person to person. Insects don’t ever bother Andrew. But I make it up for the both of us. It’s almost flattering how every bug repelled by him instantly bounces over to me and thinks I’m the bomb.

By our third night in Tulum, I had about 5 bug bites on each leg. Don’t make the mistake I did and think that just because it’s the dry season you’ll be safe from the little jerks!

We saw mosquitoes flying around most nights and ant trails all over, especially in high constructions areas (which is basically everywhere in Tulum).

Bug spray was yet another thing we purchased on our shopping spree at Chedraui, then had to leave it in our AirBnB because it was too big for flight travel.

If you know your blood is a lure to tiny predators, bring travel-sized bug spray.

Professional Cameras will Cost You

To be honest, we hardly used my Canon DSLR while in Tulum.

For one, many sites either don't allow them or will charge a fee to take "professional" photos, which refers to anything besides a cell phone.

But the main reason is Andrew recently invested in a GoPro and gimble. And since we were always around water, we erred on the side of caution and kept the Canon safely buried.

If high quality photos are your end game, come prepared with extra pesos and get approval ahead of time.

These are just a few of the places that will require a fee for DSLR or GoPro's:

  • Casa Malca
  • Selina Tulum
  • Parque Nacional Tulum (Tulum Archeological Zone)
  • Chichen Itza (gimbles/stabilizers not allowed)

If you just want cool shots for the 'gram, your phone will do. Keep in mind, though, most Instagrammable spots are now so popular there are lines for visitors to take their turn at getting the perfect picture.

To get a photo with Escultura Ven a la Luz, for example, visitors have to pay $3 to stand and wait in the heat. It's one of those "When in Tulum" activities, and might only take 10-15 minutes of your time.

But now you know before you go!

COVID-19 Testing Facilities

As of this post, Mexico does not require US visitors to present a negative COVID test upon entry. However, anyone re-entering the States must show proof of a negative COVID test taken within the same day of return travel.

Not to fear, there are pop-up testing facilities on almost every street in Tulum.

The caveat is they only take cash, USD or MXN. Most signs advertised $35 for the basic brain-poke. You will also need your passport.

They all promised results in 30 minutes or less, delivered electronically. The one we visited the morning of our return flight held true to it.

Located at the entrance to Chedraui, the local supermarket, this trailer was accessible, had dirt parking right off the main road, and there was no line when we arrived around 9:30 AM.

Regarding masks, there were signs everywhere in Tulum asking customers to wear them, but hardly anyone bothered. This includes the Cancun airport!

We kept our face masks on hand and simply wore them when directly asked.

Overall Safety Rating in Tulum

Thanks to all the bad press surrounding Mexico and the cartel, there is constant concern about Tulum's crime rate. So, let's set the record straight.

According to recent statistics, there has been an increase in violent crime in the Riviera Maya. This is largely due to the influx of party tourists and rival gangs moving their lucrative drug trade to meet their needs.

Even still, these crimes are isolated. The problem is tourists tend to let their guard down on vacation. Normal precautions should be taken just as you would in your own city.

There were local police and the national guard everywhere roaming the streets and making their presence known.

Personally, Andrew and I never felt threatened or unsafe. Uncomfortable, maybe, in some of the less aesthetic, older parts of town. But when you realize life is simpler in Mexico, you get over it.

Tulum Travel Tips Concluded

There you have it! A thorough guide to everything you need to know before visiting Tulum.

I don't believe in sugar coating things. I'd rather tell you the good and the bad about a place and leave the rest up to you.

We really did enjoy our trip to Tulum. Even if there were some frustrations or stressors, we can look back now and laugh, and share them with you! Besides, is it really an international trip without some hiccups?

Next week I'll recap our 5-day Tulum itinerary in detail, pictures included. Until then, make it a great day!