What No One Tells You About Tulum Mexico

We traveled to Tulum, Mexico on a greater expedition to the Yucatan Peninsula. It’s the somewhat lesser traveled tourist area on the east side of the Yucatan south of Cancun and Playa del Carmen. Yet it’s well explored by many Instagram travel influencers. I was super excited to reach this social media hotspot.

It’s not uncommon to open Instagram to see a pretty woman, perched on a rustic yet chic swing. She’s on the beach in Tulum, of course, looking out to the clear blue ocean as she sips a margarita in cutoff denim shorts and a flowy top.

Naturally, this makes you want to go there and be that person. It seems social media photos from Tulum are endless. The more they mounted in my feed the more excited I was to see what the fuss was about. Spoiler alert: we would go back. However we discovered a side of Tulum no one told us about. From ATMs that never dispensed money, to countless mosquito bites, my hope is this post will inform you of the things that surprised us most so your expectation can be better managed than ours was.

What No One Tells You About Tulum Mexico

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The Nearest Airport and Its Distance from Tulum 

The airport closest to Tulum is Cancun’s International Airport. (Airport code: CUN) It’s a good hour and a half drive to the main parts of Tulum. Expect to arrive at your destination, at best, between an hour and a half to two hours after landing, between taxiing to your gate, getting any checked luggage, clearing customs, finding your transportation company and getting into the car/van (or renting a car) and on your merry way.

Car or van service: 

I recommend Lomas Travel if you’re interested in a good car service you can pre-book to transfer from the airport to your hotel or home rental. We used them and were very happy with the service.

Car rental:

If you decide to rent a car simply beware the highways were a bit crazy (aggressive drivers, loads of traffic and random speed bumps along the way) and there are a few police checkpoints on the drive as well. (A commonality in many parts of Mexico).

Geographical View

Where in the World is Tulum? 

  • North of Belize and Guatemala
  • South of Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana and Florida (the states that border the Gulf of Mexico)
  • East of Mexico, particularly Mexico City
  • West of the Cayman Islands and Cuba

Within the Yucatan Peninsula, it is: 

  • East of Merida
  • South of Cancun and the area considered “Riviera Maya,” which includes Playa del Carmen

Tulum Mexico Travel Vacation Tips with helpful information no one tells you from where it is in the world, to go to the ruins to other activities and secrets of this romantic city. Click through to see detailed info! #TulumMexico #TulumTips

Bohemian, Instagram-Worthy Scenery Doesn’t {Necessarily} Abound

I was so confused when we arrived in Tulum. The main intersection revealed a gas station and billboards. Where were the Bohemian, Instagram-worthy scenes I was accustomed to seeing online? (I’m pretty well traveled, so I am not a stranger to things looking different in person than they do on social media – but I was still fairly shocked.) Our trip in the days before, to the west side of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, seemed to have more charm than the famed Tulum!

If you LOOK for them, or note exactly where those spots are within Instagram on the location tag or if it’s mentioned in the caption, you’ll find those picturesque places. But don’t expect to them be so apparent and front-and-center in your face from the moment you arrive.

I found most of the Instagram worthy areas were past the “gates” of posh resorts and hipster restaurants rather than visible to the general public from the streets. So, as far as what to know about Tulum, beware you have to go into many of the resorts to find what’s on the OTHER side of the road in order to find Instagram-worthy photo opportunities.

It’s a Bit of a Hipster Town but It’s Still in Mexico 

It seemed like a town divided. Many (or most, I should say) parts of it are what I have come to expect, know and love in any area of Mexico I’ve traveled, from Baja California, to Los Cabos and beyond. It’s a second-world country and cinderblock homes with bars on windows reinforce that point. Yet it’s like a part of the town is grasping for a hipster tomorrow; it’s certainly in the process of building that. American’s and other international expats seeking escape in this growing city are constantly building restaurants, bars and hotels. But make no mistake about it – it’s still in Mexico. (I love Mexico so that’s a-okay with me.) It’s expected the sidewalks are sometimes non-existent, or roads need more than a little repair, or you spot homeless dogs in the streets or pass plenty of abandoned and rundown buildings.

I was pleasantly surprised to see the blending of these opposing polarities on the structure below: a house adorned with a super cool mural on its facade.

Also, if this photo of a sign we passed while bike riding through town doesn’t scream Hipster Zone, I don’t know what does:

Tulum Mexico Travel Vacation Tips with helpful information no one tells you from times to go to the ruins to other activities and secrets of this romantic city. Click through to see detailed info! #TulumMexico #TulumTips

It’s Mexico….Yet it Isn’t Cheap

I think so much of what a lot of tourists enjoy about Mexico is its low prices. People travel to Mexico excited about a plethora of things, from ruins, to the food, to great coffee, to its oceans…and how far their dollar will go.

Because of the rise in popularity of this tourist destination, and the subsequent creation of restaurants and hotels in the area to accommodate the desires and needs of visitors, prices are…well, pricy. For instance, expect to pay at least $75 USD for dinner for two (with the exception of truly local Mexican joints, of course). Also, don’t forget you’ll need a taxi or Uber to get there unless you rented a car. (I wouldn’t recommend renting or driving a car if you’re there on vacation, drinking!) Luckily, we had breakfast included in our hotel reservation but if we wanted anything else, like a smoothie, it was going to cost about $10 USD. That’s more than I pay in America!

What is cheap? The beer! 🙂 Say it with me: “Un otro cerveza, por favor!” (Another beer, please!)

Tulum Mexico Travel Vacation Tips with helpful information no one tells you from times to go to the ruins to other activities and secrets of this romantic city. Click through to see detailed info! #TulumMexico #TulumTips

ATMS: They Didn’t Work or Dispensed American Dollars, Only

We checked into our hotel, hungry and tired. Naturally dinner was on our minds. We asked the woman at the front desk for her recommendation, which was followed by, “I recommend this restaurant…but they only accept cash.” Well, we didn’t have enough cash to cover the meal. (Again, we needed about $75 USD.) We had traveled to Mexico with about $200 USD worth of pesos and we were already on day five of our trip. The destination we were traveling to afterwards, where I was excited to photograph this wedding, almost entirely eliminated our need for cash. We had assumed we could simply use credit cards throughout Tulum. WRONG.

We learned that many restaurants didn’t rely on credit card machines because they often don’t work. (This is due to the unpredictable internet in the area, made so because of the weather.) Thus, many places don’t accept credit cards so you need cash. We were told not to worry – there were many ATMs within walking distance.

Well….after we hit up about SIX ATMs that either didn’t work or ONLY dispensed American dollars (which we didn’t want) we gave up and found, what seemed to be, the only restaurant open at 10:00pm that accepted credit cards.

My mistake in incorrectly rationing cash for our stop in Tulum was thinking everywhere would take credit cards. And ATMs in Tulum seemed unreliable and even a tad shady.

My point is, when it comes to what to know about Tulum in terms of money:

  • If you can stop at an ATM in another area before you arrive to Tulum, like the airport, I recommend doing so.
  • If Tulum is your first or only stop in Mexico simply order pesos to your home before you leave, which is what I always do when I need an international currency before a trip. This is available through many banks, online or in person.
  • Ration cash for Tulum if it’s part of a bigger trip to Mexico.

There Were SO MANY Mosquitoes

If you’re a person bugs L-O-V-E, I need to warn you: they are FIERCE in Tulum. I get a ton of bug bites in areas like this while my partner gets a fraction of my bite-count. I counted 42 bites on one leg the day after we arrived (that’s not an exaggeration, that was the actual count) and I didn’t even bother to tally up the other leg’s damage.

Word to the wise: BRING BUG SPRAY. If you forget it for some reason, ask your hotel if they have some you can borrow. We found most places did.

The high bug population is due to the city’s tropical climate and proximity to water. (Wind from the coastline is a good thing if this is an issue for you because the wind rids the air of some of the mosquitoes.)

The Tourists at the Ruins is Tenfold

One of the top attractions in Tulum is the Mayan ruins. “Tulum” literally means fence or trench in Mayan. Here lies the ruins of one of the last known cities of Mayan culture. Its roots date back to the 6th century, with its height as a trade route and walled city experienced between the 13-15th centuries. It’s unique because not many Mayan cities were surrounded by a protective wall.

It felt like we didn’t really see many tourists around Tulum overall…but the morning we went to the ruins they were suddenly EVERYWHERE. We were there off season, on a grey and rainy morning. Where did all these tourists suddenly come from? I can only imagine how busy it gets on a nice day during peak time.

If you want a better chance of having the ruins to yourself, go FIRST thing in the morning. By 11:00am it’s already packed!

The photo below has tourists in the distance. Luckily you’re only able to view some areas from a pedestrian pathway, and are unable to walk through the grass so there is still hope for limited images without tourists in them if you go at peak times.

Tulum Mexico Travel Vacation Tips with helpful information no one tells you from times to go to the ruins to other activities and secrets of this romantic city. Click through to see detailed info! #TulumMexico #TulumTips

Expect to Take Advantage of Bicycle Rentals (and Be Realistic About the Ride)

There is a bountiful amount of bicycles in Tulum. They’re often the most effective mode of transportation regardless of whether or not you rent a car. We rented bicycles for $12 USD each for the day (yes, United States Dollars, not pesos – as many things in Tulum are in USD) and rode them to the ruins and around town.

Why do I mention “be realistic?” For a few reasons:

  1. We tried to ride our rented bicycles from our hotel to, what looked like, a nearby restaurant on a map. After thirty minutes we still hadn’t arrived at our destination. Yet we were definitely sweating our asses off on a dirt road with cars whizzing by. We decided to turn around in favor of spending the time we had left a little more comfortable, relaxing on the beach.
  2. If you’re not used to riding a bike beware your groin will, very quickly, begin to get sore. Even if you are accustomed to riding your bike the rentals may not provide the comfortable, cushioned seat you are perhaps used to. The pain was exacerbated by uneven terrain and a lot of speed bumps!
  3. It’s really hot. Tulum is below the Tropic of Cancer, north of the equator. It’s quite literally in the tropics! As the sun beats down and you constantly wipe sweat from your brow, you wonder why you didn’t take more stops along your route to get water, not even alcohol. (Tip: take water, sunscreen and bug spray!)

Here we are, taking a break from the ride so I could give my groin a rest by snapping a photo of the scenery. (That’s Dan, my partner, on the right.)

Tulum Mexico Travel Vacation Tips with helpful information no one tells you from times to go to the ruins to other activities and secrets of this romantic city. Click through to see detailed info! #TulumMexico #TulumTips

Would I Go Again? 

Absolutely! I would go for perhaps three or four days next time and perhaps with girlfriends. For some reason it just had “girlfriend trip” written all over it. Next time I’ll be equipped with this vital knowledge of what to know about Tulum, which you’re luckily already privy to from reading this article!

Craving more knowledge about the Yucatan Peninsula area? Check out:

Would you visit Tulum? Or have you? Post your comments below!

Tulum Mexico Travel Vacation Tips with helpful information no one tells you from times to go to the ruins to other activities and secrets of this romantic city. Click through to see detailed info! #TulumMexico #TulumTips

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