Tulum is perhaps Riviera Maya’s hidden gem. A Caribbean coastal town filled with history, culture, and a little bit of magic. The town isn’t as popular as Cancun or other Riviera Maya destinations but has now started to gain more attention.
Tulum is divided into three “zonas” or zones each with their own distinct identity and vibe. Here is a guide to Tulum’s zones and the things to do in them.
Tulum is a little Caribbean coastal town in the Yucatan peninsula. It is also one of Mexico’s Pueblos Magicos. Pueblo Magicos—which translates to Magic Town—is a designation given to select towns or “pueblos” with a rich history, tradition, culture, and symbolism. It aims to promote the preservation of these cultural and historic heritage through tourism.
During in-season, Tulum draws a significant number of tourists but the pueblo won’t feel crowded as most of the tourists are concentrated in the other zonas. It is the perfect time to explore the pueblo and interact with the locals.
Unlike other touristy towns, downtown Tulum is small and sleepy. There aren’t a lot of modern comforts that most are used too. But it more than makes up for it with it’s relaxed and rustic vibes, great food, and many unique shops. The shops sell various locally made handicrafts perfect for souvenirs and gifts to your loved ones.
Don’t let the calm and laid-back atmosphere fool you though as Tulum boasts a lively nightlife scene. Though there aren’t any big bars and clubs in town, there are many trendy places for party-goers anywhere.
A party you shouldn’t miss out on is the Full Moon Party at the Papaya Playa Project. The event happens on the weekend nearest the month’s full moon (hence the name) and draws the biggest crowd of all the beach parties in Tulum. If a great night spent partying is your thing, you should definitely not miss this.
Next up is the archaeological site. This significant historical zone is a major Mayan archaeological site. The complex dates back to the 13th century and served as a major trading hub in Mesoamerica. At its peak, the settlement had a population of about 1,500 that traded various items like jade, precious metals, and cocoa beans.
The sprawling complex is made up of several stone ruins mainly temples dedicated to various deities and other functions. The biggest of the bunch is El Castillo or The Castle. This tall pyramid looms over the complex and the sea below serving as a lighthouse for traders coming by boat.
Another notable structure is the Templo de Los Frescos or Temple of the Frescoes. Named after the colorful murals inside, this temple is the most well-preserved structure in the complex. The murals are so well preserved even the original colors are still clearly visible.
Finally, we have the House of Halach Uinic. This palace is the main dwelling of the Halach Uinic, the political and religious leader of this ancient Mayan city. Though parts of the walls and the roof have been lost through time, most of the structure still stands today.
Pro tip: the ruins are Tulum’s most visited zone and are jam-packed with tourists from midday onwards on peak seasons. If you want solitude, come in early in the morning or later in the afternoon. These are also the best times to visit as the early morning and the sunset gives the place an almost magical feel to it.
The second most important zona in Tulum is the Hotel zone. It is located along the coast a few kilometers south of the archeological zone and north of the Si’an Kian Biosphere. As the name suggests, the zone is lined with hotels and accommodations with various price ranges and amenities.
These boutique hotels cater to a host of guests from backpackers to wealthy businessmen on an extended vacation. The hotels themselves, especially the popular boutique ones, are destinations themselves with some having art installations. Some are even popular wedding venues among tourists.
If you are on the lookout for a great authentic experience without breaking the bank, you can stay at the various cabanas. These rustic and traditional accommodations are popular among backpackers and budget travelers.
Spending the day at the beach is the number one activity in the zone. The long stretch of white sand beach facing the Caribbean rivals that of any other coast in the region. Although it can get crowded especially during peak season, it isn’t as crowded as the more popular beaches in the region.
Here you will see mostly tourists and backpackers sunbathing or lounging at the beach. Other water sports are popular as well as swimming and snorkeling. If you are feeling adventurous, kitesurfing and SUP Surfing are great things to try too. It gets windy here making it ideal for the said extreme sports.
Other things to see and do
If you are done exploring the zonas but are still itching for more action then here are a few things you can try. Most of them won’t break the bank either.
Coba and Muyil ruins
If you are itching for more Mayan heritage then check out the ruins at Coba and Muyil. Though not as expansive as those in Tulum, these nearby ruins are still marvels in and of themselves. They are open to the public Monday to Sunday, and not that far from Tulum. Perfect for day trips.
Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve
This Nature Reserve is located in Maya Ka´an, just a few kilometers south of Tulum. It is a protected wildlife sanctuary and is home to a thousand species of plants and animals. You can go wildlife spotting and even snorkeling if you go on a guided tour of the area.
Support the local community cooperatives
If you want an authentic eco-tourism experience that directly impacts local Mayan communities then check out Community Tours, also located in Maya Ka´an. This local community cooperative holds bird-watching trips, cenote tours, and local immersion events. These are sustainable and non-destructive programs with profits directly going into the community