Our First Trip to Tulum, Mexico

Wednesday, May 24, 2023


Alan and I first heard about Tulum back in the early 2000s when some friends of ours visited, staying in a tiny sandy-floored hut on the beach with shared bathrooms and tacos for every meal. While it sounded exactly like the type of place we'd love, we kept foregoing trips there in favor of our beloved Hawaii as it was so much easier for direct flights and time changes from the Bay Area. Then, once we moved to Ireland, our travel profile changed dramatically and we weren't taking beach vacations at all. Back in the U.S., we did some exploring around the Caribbean until COVID hit and put a damper on all travel. 

For our 21st wedding anniversary this year, we decided to finally bite the bullet and take that trip to Tulum. Research was ... interesting. It turns out A LOT has changed from when we first said, "We should go!" to now. In fact, sending our friends who'd first ventured there videos and pics of the beach road, it was practically unrecognizable from the low key beach sanctuary they'd first discovered all those years before. 

Getting there

We flew Delta on a nonstop flight from Boston to Cancun. Arriving at Logan Airport in the pre-dawn hours, our terminal was practically deserted. It was so empty, in fact, we were the only people going through security. I joked with the TSA agents they'd opened specially for us. Eventually, more people began arriving and it was time to go. Easy peasy, lemon squeezy.

Arriving in Cancun was ... not. 

I'd read prior to our trip the airport was a mad house, but I simply wasn't prepared. We pre-booked transportation to our hotel, and based on the information they supplied beforehand, I thought I knew where we were supposed to go. Because the information wasn't entirely correct, we were shuffling around - obviously lost - hoping to find someone holding a placard with our name on it. This resulted in every tour and transportation company in our vicinity trying to get our attention. It was ... a lot. We eventually located a representative from the company, only to be told our car would be there "soon." which turned out to be a 20 minute wait in the midday sun with no shade. Finally climbing into the vehicle, we were on our way! I knew it was a 2+ hour journey to Tulum, but what I hadn't anticipated was 30 minutes of it being stop-and-go traffic from one end of Tulum to our hotel. The upside to this was we got a really good feel for what shops and restaurants were there and where they were located in relation to our hotel at the far south end of the beach.

Our hotel

When it came time to pick where we were going to stay, I spent hours researching. In general, I knew what I wanted but was overwhelmed with the amount of choices available. Our wish list included a chill vibe, restaurants available on-site, a white sandy beach, and a room with a private pool in case of bad weather or a beach inundated with sargassum. Eventually, I narrowed it down to about 10 options and then did another deep dive using YouTube reviews. That helped me cull those 10 down to three option. It was around this time that Alan forwarded an email I'd sent him in 2010 that included one of those three.  At that point, it seemed pretty clear we were meant to book a room at BeTulum Hotel

And what a room it was!

This was the path right outside our room to the restaurant and the beach. Definitely convenient, but also louder than I would have liked.

We had both an indoor *and* an outdoor shower, our own private plunge pool, a separate water closet, and a ton of space for relaxing and hanging out. The only slight downside to this room was it's location near the restaurant and directly behind the pool, making privacy a thing I was concerned with. There was plenty of jungle between our area and the pool -- and no one ever really used the pool -- but we could hear the restaurant prepping for and cleaning up from service. They had similar rooms further back in the jungle and while those were technically a downgrade, I would have preferred the more private location. That said, our stay here was absolutely magical, and we definitely put the pool to use when one of our days was a complete wash out with storms.

Our room was directly behind this hedge.

The beach at BeTulum is every bit as magical as you'd expect a Tulum beach to be. We had white sand as far as the eye could see, and the group that owns the hotel and the one next door had hired a service to keep the early sargassum bloom from the beach as much as possible. While I didn't spend much time in the water, I did spend several hours on the beach beds with a jalapeno margarita in my hand. It turns out I love spicy drinks and have become a tequila and mezcal convert. In addition to the truly excellent cocktails (and mocktails!), the food at the beach club was really freaking delicious.

Speaking of food ...

Days before we left, I was diagnosed with a whole host of unbeknownst food allergies that made me worried about how I was going to eat while in Tulum. In going there, all I really wanted was to eat tacos for every meal, and based on our friends' previous visit, I thought that was going to be the case. Alas, it was not. While there are a few taco chains on the beach road, gorging yourself on street tacos isn't really the done thing. This was where we found ourselves a bit lost. Most of the restaurants on the beach are huge, loud, party spots, and the ones that aren't, were incredibly difficult to get into. While BeTulum is not an all inclusive hotel (an amazing breakfast came free every day with our room rate, however), we ate the vast majority of our meals there. The food at both Mareisias and Occumare was EXCELLENT and abundant. The service at Mareisias, in particular, was outstanding. The wait staff went above and beyond dealing with my allergies.

Our breakfast view every day.

When heading to the Caribbean, one of my biggest worries is sargassum. It's my travel nemesis. We were there the last week of January, which is typically a sargassum-free time of year, but with a super bloom happening this year, we had a couple of days where the beach was getting hit pretty hard. Ours never sat for long so we didn't experience the extreme sulfur smell it typically emits, but down the beach several hotels had seemingly given up. I was so happy to have chosen BeTulum for this reason alone.

A few other things about BeTulum before I wrap up this portion of my recap.

Drugs & the cartel

There's a lot of talk right now about how Mexico isn't safe and how the cartels are out of control. Tulum, especially, has become known as a party town with a lot of illicit drug use with people going there to party under the influence. If you listen to news reports, it sounds like there are scarily armed men roaming the streets harassing tourists. That was not our experience (though we did see armed Federalis in town and one of our tour groups was harassed by the local police). That said, there were drug dealers (and buyers) at our hotel, but it didn't really affect us. I was offered weed en route to the public restroom, and Alan was discreetly offered cocaine, but obviously we turned both down. There was a Romanian foursome sitting in front of us who were not staying at our hotel but had paid for access to the beach club, and they were definitely buying from the dealer we saw at the beach club every day we were there. He was generally unobtrusive and I didn't feel unsafe with his presence, but just know that even high end luxury hotels have a cartel presence (despite their claims to the contrary). 

Is BeTulum a party hotel?

The other thing I want to call out is this is definitely a hotel for "pretty people." Many of the couples were older men and young, perfectly polished women. There were fashion shows on the beach every day from gorgeous young people hawking their clothing wares. A small handful of Instagram girls were taking pictures (but not nearly as obtrusively as when we stayed in Miami). As a woman of a certain age and size with bright pink hair (at the time), I definitely felt like we were the odd people out in terms of clientele. That said, we were also eating and drinking a lot on the property and I think the staff could tell where there bread was buttered (so to speak) so even though we weren't ever going to show up on the hotel's Instagram feed, we were treated incredibly well by the staff. I have a sneaking suspicion my pink hair made me stand out, and since everyone knew about my allergies, I always felt like we were being personally seen to. When we had a problem with water intrusion into our room, the manager was extremely attentive and apologetic (we chose not to move and didn't make a stink, but did let them know so they could fix it when we left). If you follow the hotel on their website, you might think this is a party hotel, and maybe at times it is, but when we were there it wasn't. They have DJs a few days and evenings, but it's not horrible music. Very chill vibey stuff. I'm normally really against music being played at the pool and whatnot because when I'm on vacation, I'm there to relax, but the DJ they had the one day seemed to understand he was part of the background and it was just really mellow.

You can get a feel for what it was like below or by clicking here.


Prior to heading to Tulum, we discussed what we wanted to do while there outside of relaxing at the beach. The three "must do" items on our list was a Tulum food tour, a visit to the cenotes, and a trip to Chichen Itza. 

Food Tour

The food tour was a great way to see Tulum the town and we got to have one of the best tamales we'd ever tasted. Because I grew up in a Mexican household, and we are both native Californians, we've eaten a lot of Mexican food over the years, but none of it really Yucatan in style. The tour guide was somewhat arrogant in that regard, and I think he was a bit dismissive of my experience with Mexican cuisine because I'm white, but overall, it was a great, informative way to spend the morning. I really wish some of the food we tasted had been available at the beach, but can understand why it wouldn't be. Still, a $70 round trip taxi fee made it somewhat difficult to go into town to eat, so we really only did it on this tour.

Frankly, I think my carnitas were better than this place's, but I kept that opinion to myself.

These tacos, however, were excellent.

Tamales in California are much dryer and fuller than their Yucatan counterpart. We absolutely loved these.

Being allergic to nuts meant I couldn't partake of the mole (I make mine with roasted pepitas instead of peanuts), but they found a replacement for me. This combo red/green sauce is referred to as divorce sauce.

Small-Group Cenote Adventure with Mexico Kan Tours

I won't be coy: cenotes were my favorite part of visiting this part of Mexico. From photos alone, I assumed I was going to enjoy the experience, but I didn't know just how much I'd be smiling from ear to ear the entire day.

Our first stop of the day was Gran Cenote, a few miles outside of Tulum. We got there early before the crowds descended and entered on the far side where the cave ceiling had small bats scattered about. From there, you move to an open air portion that is filled with turtles and small fish. If we'd only been exposed to this one cenote, I still would have thought it was a lovely excursion, but of all the cenotes we visited, this was the least interesting (while still being incredibly lovely).

Our next stop was an underground cenote, Cenote Taak Bi Ha, and this is where my mind was officially blown. We arrived to the location where we quickly realized we would be descending into a SMALL HOLE IN THE GROUND. I have claustrophobia. I was very dubious, but oh my god. What wonders ensued! Once underground, our group split into two: those who were brave and were willing to go into tight spaces and those that are cowards and wanted to stay the eff away from potential death. One of us went spelunking, the other one hung out by herself waiting to see if her husband survived. While waiting, I was kind of dismayed to see a big tourist group hanging out by the steps down into the water instead of out exploring. You could tell they didn't really understand there was anything to see below the water and no one had bothered to tell them. They were also kind of in the way and generally acting like they were at a low end hotel pool, but whatever. They eventually left and we nearly had the place to ourselves. Our tour provided goggles and a flashlight and holy wow. I really wish I'd brought a waterproof iPhone sleeve so I could show you everything, but trust me when I say it was magical. Like being on another planet, but in the water. At one point, there were divers hundreds of feet below us.

Our third and final stop of this particular day was Cenote Santa Cruz, which is only open if you book a tour with certain companies. Let me say straight away that if this was offered as a standalone excursion, based on the description of what we'd be doing, I would not have been excited. In fact, even as we were pulling up and our guide Pablo was describing what we'd be doing, I was meh on it. How wrong I was! This portion of our day (for me) ranks right up there with one of the best things we've ever done on vacation. 

After a quick lunch of vegetarian burritos, we descended into an even smaller hole in the ground than the one before it. Since the plan was to move through the cave instead of stay in one location, we didn't bring our phones. Alas, I have no pictures. The next hour or so was spent going from one part of the cave to another, starting at ankle deep water and moving through spots that were up to our chests. We had to wear life jackets and water shoes were encouraged (I wore my Keens all day). At one point, we dropped into complete and utter darkness and silence. We explored stalagmites and stalagtites and covered about a mile underground. Seriously an amazing way to end this adventure. I'll never forget it. Thank you Mexico Kan Tours.

World Wonder Discovery Tour with Mexico Kan Tours

Our next adventure was a day trip to Chichen Itza, Valladolid, and another cenote with Mexico Kan Tours. This one started off a bit interesting. First, the van was late picking us up at our hotel. Then, when we were picking up additional guests at the office in town, our group was harassed and detained by the police for about 30 minutes. We also had a passenger who didn't speak English so the tour was given in two languages which meant a constant barrage of chatter so that by the time we got to Chichen Itza a few hours after leaving, I had a headache. (This happened to us in New Orleans years ago when our plantation tour was conducted in French and English.)  While the cenotes were my big ask for this trip, CI was for Alan, and even though it was a really long day, I'm so glad we booked. The ruins really are something else. 

I'm not going to give you a run down on the history of this ancient wonder because I could never do it justice, and as we learned, a lot of the information is here say anyhow since there's no one chain of ancestry to confirm the tales. When a civilization just up and disappears, you can't ever really know, can you?

In addition to Chichen Itza, we also made our way down the beach road in a taxi to the Tulum ruins to see those. Tulum is on a much different scale than Chichen Itza, but is still very fascinating. The following information was pulled from the official Tulum tourism site.

  • Tulum was previously known as Zama, meaning City of Dawn. Its current name means fence or trench in Mayan.
  • Being both on a sea and land route, it had major historical importance as a centre of trading.
  • The city flourished between the 13th and the 15th centuries, fading only 70 years after the Spanish army started conquering today’s Mexico.
  • Although there is no specific data about its population at its height, estimates put it between 1,000 and 1,600.
  • The site was inhabited as early as the 6th century.
  • Tulum is a rare city built by the Mayans because it is one of the few walled cities.

Final Thoughts

We had a really good time in Tulum and enjoyed our vacation, but I'm torn on whether I'd prioritize a return visit over checking out a different destination. Firstly, it was expensive. There are cheaper hotels to be had going toward the north end of the beach road, but the beach itself wasn't as nice and the food offerings weren't as plentiful. Taking taxis is plain highway robbery as there is not standard for what a driver can charge. They are another type of cartel in that they get away with scamming tourists all day every day. It wears on you when you constantly feel like you're being taken advantage of. I think, rather than returning to Tulum, I'd want to visit Isla Mujeres and Isla Holbox first. I'm still looking for a vacation where I can have tacos for every meal, and unless you're staying in town, that's simply not on offer in Tulum in its current set up. Maybe a new party zone will crop up somewhere and all the Instagrammers, influencers, and fake mystics will find a new place to congregate, leaving everything that's good about Tulum to people who don't need any of that to have a good time.

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