When planning our trip to Mexico, one of the destinations we were determined to visit was the ruins of Chichen Itza. The pyramid there is listed among the 7 Modern Wonders of the World. However, as the pyramid and ruins are more than a 17 hour drive away from Mexico City, we needed to plan an alternative base for us to stay.
The Yucatan Peninsula is the Easternmost point of Mexico and made up of the states of Yucatan and Quintana Roo. They are home to the resort towns of Cancun and Playa Del Carmen which I am sure many people will be aware of. However we prefer a road less travelled where possible and decided to stay in Tulum, a town an hour’s drive away from Cancun airport along the Caribbean coast. Tulum has a reputation of being an environmentally friendly resort, being on the edge of the Sian-Ka’an Biosphere. All the bars, restaurants and hotels are independent boutique affairs and hasn’t been developed in the same fashion as the more well known resorts. However Tulum is still conveniently placed for trips to Chichen Itza and the other destinations in the Peninsula (and if you wanted a trip to the more vibrant towns for the nightlife that would still be an option).
Tulum is split into 2 parts. There is the “old town” which is set around the main highway and the beach road which forks off from the main road and will take you through the Sian-Ka’an biosphere and eventually into Belize. The beach is stunning. Miles of gorgeous soft white sand and palm trees. As an eco-resort, the hotels, bars and restaurants that are set on the beach are respectfully modest and almost complement the setting.
The contrast between our stay in Tulum and Mexico City could hardly have been more stark. The change of pace from the hustle and bustle of Mexico City to the laid back beach vibe of Tulum was dramatic and just what we needed after a week of dashing around to fit in all the sights. It was remarkable how quickly we relaxed into our surroundings. Every day in Mexico City involved an early rise in order to get to where we needed to be. In Tulum, the only time we got up before the clock hit double figures was when we wanted to get up and watch the sun rise.
If you are able to drag yourself away from the beach for a day, you must go and see the ruins of Chichen Itza. The journey is just under 2 hours from the centre of Tulum and well worth the trip. The Chichen Itza site is probably slightly smaller than the site at Teotihuacan but has more buildings and ruins to see and so will still take a good 4-5 hours in order to see everything. Like Teotihuacan, the main temple pyramid, the Temple of Kukulcan or “El Castillo”, is the first thing you see as you get onto the site. Although not as big as the Pyramid of the Sun we saw a week earlier, it is very impressive and you can understand why it was added to the list of the 7 Modern Wonders of the World. Two sides of the pyramid have been restored to show off the crisp lines of the classic stepped pyramid shape of the Maya. The other two sides have been left in a slightly ruinous state which still retains the character of the temple and feels a great deal more authentic for a structure built as early as the 9th Century.
We had a great day exploring the whole of the site. The jungle has started to encroach all over the site so you get the sense of what it was like to be an explorer finding the ruins, especially in the quieter areas and later in the day when the organised trips start to leave. It was more touristy than anywhere else we had visited on the holiday with many souvenir sellers encouraging you to visit their stalls. One of the impressive things about the stalls is you can see people chiselling and refining the wooden carvings they are selling. For the most part though the crowds congregated around El Castillo and the ancient ball game venue Gran Juego de Pelota so if you explore the far reaches of the site it will get quieter in terms of souvenir sellers and other tourists. There aren’t many options for food so you may want to make sure that you have a bit of a picnic and as always make sure that you have a bottle of water or two to stay hydrated. Entrance costs $224.00 pesos per person (roughly £9.0o per person).
Although not as large or prominent as the other ancient ruins we have visited in Mexico, the ruins in Tulum are worth a visit, especially if you are staying in the town. There aren’t any big pyramids and it won’t take any longer than an hour or so to see everything, but the setting on the cliffs above the white sandy beach and amongst the palm trees is spectacular. They were the least restored of the ruins but that only seemed to add to their charm. Before you enter the site there is a complex of shops. We would highly recommend a visit to the Balam art studio who sell feathers hand painted with animals and scenes from Mexico. Entrance costs $70.00 pesos per person (roughly about £2.80 per person).
The Yucatan Peninsula is famous for their Cenotes – natural sink holes filled with water. There are hundreds all around the area and are advertised on the road and there are plenty of organised trips available from hotels. We decided to go to the Cenotes X’keken and Samula just outside the town of Valladolid and near Chichen Itza. The two Cenotes are underground a few hundred yards apart. You can pay to either visit one or the other or you can pay to go to both. You descend into both of them down winding stairs cut into the rock. Once down at the bottom it is quite spectacular. Each has a small hole in the roof where sunlight streams through. The water is ice cold, it is an underground cave after all, but it is remarkable how quickly you get used to the temperature as you paddle and swim around. Also, don’t be afraid of the small fishes nibbling your toes if you stay still for long enough. Don’t forget your towel! Entrance costs $100 pesos per person (roughly £4.00 each).
Food & Drink:
La Eufemia – Beach hut that sells great soft tacos and cold beer. Great place to spend an afternoon with a laid-back vibe that’s perfect to relax. Brilliant condiment bar with various salsas and sauces to top off your tacos with. Free wifi. The owner’s mop-headed dog lounges around amongst the customers!
Posada Margarita – Amazing Italian restaurant set on the beach amongst the palm trees. Pasta was the best we’ve had outside of Italy. Menu was simplistic with only a few dishes available but the quality of the food shone through. Definitely the most romantic setting of the holiday. http://www.posadamargherita.com/index.php?lang=en
Juanita Diavola – Wood fired pizza restaurant on the road connected to the Coco Tulum hotel complex. Fresh pizzas on a thin and crispy base. A great lunch spot. https://cocotulum.com/en/restaurant/
El Tabano – A great, family vibe – it seemed that all the cooks, waiters and waitresses were family. The open kitchen is the centrepiece of the restaurant. Traditional home Mexican cooking. The coconut shrimp was to die for. http://www.eltabanorestaurant.com
Be Tulum – A great breakfast spot on the beach under the palm trees. The French toast was fab. A great spot to set yourself up for the day. http://betulum.com
Hartwood – THE place to eat to eat in Tulum. If you want to guarantee a table you will need to make a reservation weeks in advance. We got extremely lucky to get a table on the day. The menu constantly changes depending on what food is fresh that day and the flavours were unbelievable. Definitely worth the effort to get a table. This was our last meal in Tulum and was absolutely perfect. http://www.hartwoodtulum.com
We spent the first two nights in the Mexican jungle in an incredible hut that we found on Air BnB. This won’t be for everyone. You are literally in isolation, the noises from the animals in the jungle are quite loud and can be difficult to adjust to, the “windows” are net screens rather than glass and even though it is covered by a mosquito net the hut owner recommends checking the bed for spiders and scorpions before you get in for the night. However, you really feel you are part of the jungle and if you’re not particularly squeamish, it is a really unique experience. We didn’t come across any spiders or scorpions in the hut during our stay, although there was a huge spider and web outside the hut as we left for the second day. To reach the hut you will need to go down a bumpy dirt track off the main road so your own hire car will be essential to reach it. There is wifi, hot water, a really comfy bed, a hammock and a separate kitchen hut so there are plenty of creature comforts. https://www.airbnb.co.uk/rooms/9790711
Our last two nights were spent at Coco Tulum. Although technically a hotel complex, it is in fact a series of private cabanas on the beach. Our cabana was just 31 steps from our little patio to the sea. The gentle sound of the waves rolling onto the sand is instantly relaxing. It was a great balance of conveniences of a hotel and a private home. It is a small boutique complex so you get a sense of isolation but you get the convenience of a concierge who is able to provide great recommendations and a connected beach bar and restaurant that you can charge items to your room so you can paddle in the sea and lounge on the beach and leave your wallet safely locked in your cabana. https://cocotulum.com
Getting there: Cancun is the closest international airport to Tulum. As a popular tourist destination there are plenty of regular domestic services from around Mexico and international services. There is then a highway that will take you from Cancun, through Playa del Carmen and into Tulum. The drive to Tulum is under 90 minutes from the airport.
Tips: Be prepared for the price of things: If you come to Tulum from Mexico City like we did and were used to the incredibly cheap prices of food and drink of the capital, then the prices of Tulum bars and restaurants can be a bit of a shock. However, the prices are far more favourable than European and American cities and when you consider the quality of the food, it is an absolute bargain.
Have plenty of cash: The wifi strength can be spotty which means that many of the restaurants are cash only as they cannot rely on a connection with a card machine. Restaurants will accept both Mexican pesos and US dollars. There are cash machines along the beach road which dispense US dollars although don’t rely on these. We needed some cash on our last night and ended up walking about half a mile to find a machine that worked.
Hire a car: Having a hire car is a viable option in this part of Mexico and does give you independence from tour groups and schedules. There are plenty of international hire car companies based at Cancun airport. If you do decide to hire a car, beware the Mexican speed bumps. Some are huge. Some aren’t signposted. Most appear to be there to bring business to adjacent shops on the side of the street. If you are driving, be careful.
Beware of time zone differences: The state of Quintana Roo is on a different time zone to the the neighbouring state of Yucatan. Quintana Roo is in the same time zone as the American East Coast whereas Yucatan is an hour behind. It does mean that if you are travelling from Tulum to say Chichen Itza, you can afford to have an extra hour in bed and still get an early start.