Last Updated on May 11, 2023
Tulum has a long and interesting history as evidenced by the breathtaking nearby Mayan ruins, dating back to the 13th century. But skip ahead a few centuries from the Age of the Mayans and find yourself in the 1980s—more recent history.
Backpackers came across this idyllic place, stopping along the way to marvel at the ancient archaeological sites, swim in the cenotes (deep, freshwater sinkholes), and snorkel amid the breathtaking coral reefs that line the coast.
They did what backpackers do: camped out in the open, swam, fished, smoked weed, and enjoyed the peaceful isolation of the beach rent-free. There were almost no shops, no hotels, and not much going on. But they also spoke and wrote about the remarkable beauty and the spirituality of Tulum—then a few more people came to look and eventually, word got out.
Jump ahead three decades and it became one of the fastest-growing communities on the Riviera Maya with the exception of Playa del Carmen. It is now a global destination, a hub of eco-tourism, with several hotels charging upwards of $1,000 a night for “almost” open-air accommodation, palapas (open-sided shelters), outdoorsy showers, and of course, 1,500-thread Egyptian cotton sheets for sleeping under the stars.
As such, it has become a magnet for the young and the well-heeled to spend a few days enjoying the spirituality and the boho-chic experience that is Tulum. It is an astonishingly beautiful setting for eco-designed hotels, yoga on the beach, and an assortment of spas offering treatments to the hedonistic crowd who now populate the hotels. In short, it is the Mexican Caribbean and it does not disappoint.
The following are eight unique reasons that make Tulum special.
An essential part of visiting Tulum is a visit to the surrounding Cenotes. If you do not know what a Cenote is, simply speaking, it is a natural sinkhole where a cave has collapsed and filled with fresh underground water.
The land composition of the Yucatan is porous limestone bedrock, and an image of Swiss cheese best describes its nature. Over the centuries, rainwater has filtered down, creating underground rivers and caves. Cenotes happen when the limestone collapses creating a hole that fills up with fresh underground water. These become freshwater pools.
The Yucatan is fairly flat with no visible rivers or streams. Well, that’s somewhat true because all the rivers and streams are underground making up another eco-system. As verdant and gorgeous as the topography is, it is equally interesting underground.
Try not leaving Tulum until you have had the opportunity to explore the underground cenotes, caves, and rivers that were thousands of years in the making. For the inexperienced, there are tours to join where an experienced diver will accompany you on this journey of discovery.
Cenotes are all different sizes, some small and others large enough to be designated a lake. Immerse yourself in the crystal clear water and swim with fish, admire the colorful plant life that thrives in the mineral-rich waters of the cenotes. Some have stalagmites and stalactites while others are deep enough to dive.
Strap on a tank and mask for snorkeling to be able to explore underground connecting cave systems and tunnels.
The tropical jungle forms an overhead canopy that provides shade and one can spend hours swimming or picnicking in shaded tropical surroundings.
The cenotes are mapped out and are easily accessible from Tulum.
Great Mayan Reef
The Great Mayan Reef, also known as the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, is another of the attractions in this area, perhaps the most magnificent one. It is a complex ecosystem and the second largest barrier reef in the world, stretching 700 miles while passing through five countries including Mexico.
Here, it follows the Caribbean Coast passing within 600 to 1,000 feet of the beach in Tulum and draws snorkelers and divers from all over the world. Known for its multitude of dazzling coral colonies in exquisite colors, most of which have been ten thousand years in the making. In addition to the sixty-five species of stony coral and five hundred species of fish, there are mollusks and crustaceans, loggerhead and green turtles and the elegant queen conch.
Fortunately, the marine life in this reef system is healthy and relatively unharmed by pollution or the earth’s warming. It complements the shoreline ecosystem, which boasts the longest underground river system in the world, including the cenotes.
There are several companies in Tulum offering diving and snorkeling tours with accompanying divers to guide those less experienced.
The Mayan Ruins
Just off Federal Highway 307, look for the sign to the ruins.
The setting is dramatic, built on a 40-foot high promontory facing the ocean; there is a group of five Mayan ruins, relics of a weathered, ancient city, originally built in the 1300s. The most notable and the best preserved is the clifftop Castillo, which has become iconic as it has been reproduced many times over on postcards and advertising material of the area.
This was a pre-Colombian walled city and it is surmised that it was built to watch over and protect Tulum that in its heyday had been a busy port.
This is a very photogenic site and you will encounter people with selfie sticks and cameras who do not have much respect for the historic value or the vegetation. There are hordes of people visiting the ruins as well as tour buses from Cancun and the other resorts.
Be advised to go early before the crowds, as the tour buses arrive from about 10.00 a.m. onwards. Another benefit of an early start will be the sunrise over the water, which is spectacular.
There is ample parking if you go by car.
Entrance is $3, and there is an additional price of $2 if you have a camera.
Hours: 8.00 a.m. to 5.00 p.m. Be there before 8.00 a.m. as there is usually a line.
Architecture and Sustainability
Enjoy the unique architecture and environmentally sustainable, eco-designed hotels.
The hotels in the Hotel Zone of Tulum are designed to be in harmony with the vegetation. The vegetation forms a background canvas and the hotels become part of this canvas that stretches for about six miles along the oceanfront.
Tulum has its own distinct style—eco-friendly designed hotels that are sustainable and blend seamlessly into the jungle landscape. A great effort has been made to re-use materials that were cut down from the Mayan Jungle, which was partially cleared to make way for the hotels.
The architecture and use of materials are carefully thought out. Trees have been selectively cut down, then recycled into the new construction. The talented architects and designers, working together with the local artisans have re-used the plant materials, incorporating them into the design in a way that keeps the forest “present.” And sometimes, still alive.
Palm fronds can be woven into a herringbone design to create a passageway entrance, branches used to support roofs, and walls created using indigenous climbing plants.
The architecture at times seems to grow out of the forest and be a part of it.
The entire length of the oceanfront has been “dedicated” for hotels, and space is now almost built up. Miraculously, it has retained its organic feeling.
The Tulum Health and Wellness Vibe
There is a strong emphasis on health and wellness in Tulum. People are looking for spirituality and want to be surrounded by nature. Wellness also applies to the mind and Tulum is an ideal place to relax and reconnect with yourself and disconnect from one’s normal stressful life. It is known to be an ancient Mayan energy vortex and is very spiritual.
Every type of treatment is offered, many of them incorporating ancient Mayan techniques. Yoga is one of the most sought after activities and Tulum has several forms of yoga available, much of it practiced in the open air on the beach, sometimes on Moroccan rugs on the sand.
Massage is another sought after treatment and this too comes in many varieties and can include herbal treatments. Most of the boutique hotels have their own spas, offering facials, deep tissue therapy, crystal healing therapy that is said to rejuvenate the mind and body, energy healing, seaweed treatments, and bodywork.
There are gyms, exercise boot camps, soaking baths, and every type of known and unknown treatment for the millennials arriving who want it all.
Enjoy the miles and miles of beach with pristine white sand. The beach area around Tulum has white powdery sand that meets the translucent aquamarine ocean with endless white foamy waves washing up to its edge. The six-mile-long Hotel Zone follows the beach—all the hotels have a dedicated beach area that is reserved for its guests exclusively.
Many have their own spa and the hotels use the beach for beach yoga and other exercise groups. The remaining beach, beyond the hotel zone, continues further for several miles. It is free and mostly deserted and anyone can use it.
The restaurant scene is unique. It began with pop-up restaurants and beach shacks, but is now one of the most vibrant food scenes in the world, preparing the freshest food with an emphasis on seafood, in unique ways. There are tacos and tortillas, yes, but they too are special.
Tulum is in the Yucatan, a region known for its unique flavors. Appropriately, the food is colorful and embraces local spices that add coloring and flavor. To accompany the food, there are great bars with mixologists creating Instagram-worthy cocktails, incorporating local fresh flavors into the drinks.
The leading restaurant is Hartwood, a world-famous culinary destination—and good luck trying to get a reservation here. It was founded by Eric Werner and Mya Henry, who worked at Vinegar Hill and Peasant in NYC. Other big names include Chef Jose Luis Hinostroza, who worked at Noma in Copenhagen.
Here he has opened Alca, another restaurant that definitely needs a reservation—and several restaurant groups from Mexico City are following suit, seizing the opportunity to get into this exciting market. The food, as a result, is getting better and better.
It is mostly organic, fresh and uncomplicated with a lot of farm-to-table; several restaurants have their own organic vegetable gardens where they grow special varieties. The food is healthy and you can find vegan, gluten-free, and organic. Most establishments are casual and open-air, taking advantage of the beautiful climate.
Tulum has diverse and out-of-the-ordinary musical events, some offered by the Habitas Hotel Group, an establishment that has built up a large music following for their invitation-only events.
Contrary to the tranquil Tulum atmosphere of the past, it has become a place for massive electronic music festivals during the year, such as the BPM (beats per minute) that caters to music lovers looking for a rhythmical, mystical experience. Under the moon, on the beach, or in the jungle there have been EDM Festivals (Electronic Dance Music) which are a mix of deep house, techno electro, and other EDM genres
Another of the unique music events is the Day Zero Festival that takes place in the jungle at Cenote dos Palmas.
These huge festivals seem to go contrary to the eco-chic vibe from earlier times in Tulum and not everyone has welcomed their arrival.
With the ‘help’ of social media and the many articles being written about the magic of Tulum, the number of visitors has increased exponentially year over year. Many of these visitors do not respect the fragility of the ecosystem, the eco-chic vibe, the spirituality of the jungle, and the exquisite beaches.
In 2016, more than 16 million visitors were recorded in the province of Quintano Roo, who used a minimum of 88,000 plastic bottles per day, or more than 32 million plastic bottles per year!
Unfortunately, recycling in this area is not yet considered a priority and, as a result, at least a third (or more) have ended up somewhere in landfills, the ocean, cenotes, beaches, jungle, and streets!
This is why the local community of business owners and individuals in Quintana Roo have launched the “A Message in a Bottle” initiative with the common goal to help reduce the quantity of plastic bottle trash in this area and worldwide, and to raise awareness about protecting our ecosystems.
Tulum continues to have a unique style with an emphasis on sustainability, although it seems at odds with the hotel zone at times. To further protect the ecosystem from the onslaught of tourists, the first ZDTS award in Mexico was given to Tulum in 2018—translated into English, the ‘Sustainable Tourism Development Zone’ award. This includes funds and strict rules about development.
Tourism in Tulum has grown too rapidly, some might say creating a boomtown while infrastructure has lagged behind. To protect the natural environment, under the ZDTS, funds are being made available to establish a standard of sustainability criteria for new development.