A Photographer's Guide to Tulum, Mexico
Photographer Gina Spinelli shares her tips on where to explore, eat, drink, and shop in Tulum.
What was once a major trading hub and quiet religious center on the Yucatan Peninsula is now a laid back beach town attracting upwards of 300,000 visitors per year. This is, in part, due to its blissfully relentless bohemian spirit, pristine Caribbean coastline, and historical attractions.
This confluence is the driving force behind Tulum’s overwhelming charm: the real culprit of its rise in popularity. Still, with it drawing in as much tourism as it does, the charm feels authentic. The locals are welcoming, the food is simple and traditional, and the scenery is arguably the most beautiful on the entire peninsula. Truly, it’s everything one person could want in a vacation.
Tips for travelling in Tulum, Mexico
- Tulum is located just a little over 70 miles south of Cancun and belongs to the Mexican state of Quintana Roo.
- To get to Tulum, you’ll fly into Cancun. From there you have the option of taking the ADO bus which will bring you directly into town for about $20 USD roundtrip. You can also organize private transportation, but that will run you upwards of $100 USD roundtrip. There are also shared airport shuttles for around $84 USD roundtrip. Should you choose to rent a car, be prepared to also pay for the legally required liability insurance.
- Be mindful of which ATMs you withdraw cash from. You’ll want to avoid the standalone ATMs on the beach road, as they’re owned by the mafia and riddled with fraud. Consider withdrawing cash at the airport, downtown, or in one of the large supermarkets. Know that many businesses do not accept cards, but they will likely accept USD.
- Bring mosquito repellent. Normally I’m an advocate for natural products, but you’ll want the hard stuff. Mosquitos can be ruthless, particularly during sunrise and sunset.
- The majority of visitors stay either in town or along the beach road. It’s about a 25-minute ride between the two and they both have their perks. Hotels in town are generally more affordable than those by the beach. Additionally, downtown has, in my opinion, a leg up on authentic (and affordable) Mexican food. On the beach road, you'll find hotels to be more expensive for obvious reasons, but they also come with the element of luxury, they’re located in a safer area, and have, of course, easy access to the beach.
- While Uber and Lyft are not active in Tulum, taxis are plentiful. And while they’re convenient, costs can add up quickly. A more cost-effective way of getting around Tulum is via colectivos, which are, essentially, shuttles that squeeze as many people as possible inside and make their way throughout the city. For example, as opposed to paying $13 USD for a cab ride from downtown to the beach (or vice versa) a colectivo will cost less than a dollar.
- Many restaurants include gratuity in their check, but fail to point it out. Be sure to double-check your bill before leaving.
See & Do
- Visit the cenotes - (pronounced seh-note-eys) Cenotes are natural sinkholes that resulted in the collapse of limestone bedrock. They’re considered to be extremely sacred to the Mayans, as they believed the cenotes served as entryways to the underworld. While the Yucatan peninsula is home to over 6,000 cenotes, they’re still considered sacred by the Mayan people and only a few are open to the public.
Best Cenotes in Tulum
- Gran Cenote - Unlike the name suggests, Gran Cenote is actually made up of multiple cenotes connected by wooden walkways. A popular spot to snorkel, Gran Cenote is home to multiple species of wildlife. You might even find yourself swimming with some turtles! Located along the highway to Coba. Admission is $25 USD.
- Dos Ojos - Located between Playa del Carmen and Tulum is Dos Ojos, named for the two cenotes that are connected by an underwater passageway. One of the “eyes” is a cave with stairs leading down. The other gets more light. You’ll find plenty of amenities offered such as snorkeling and diving tours, massages, scuba rentals, and locker rooms. Admission is $30 USD, pay in cash upon arrival, or purchase your ticket online.
- Casa Tortuga - Comprised of four different cenotes, Casa Tortuga is as beautiful as it is large. Offering the best of both worlds, part of the experience is discovering it’s two caves where you can see bats and blind cavefish. The two other cenotes are open-air, one with a 13-foot cliff that you’re free to jump off if you’re so inclined. It’s located just 10 miles north of Tulum. Admission is $18 USD.
- Cenote Yokdzonot - In the midst of the jungle, not far from Chichén Itza is Cenote Yokdzonot. An open-air cenote with deep crystal clear water (perfect for scuba diving), ledges to jump in from, and more privacy than you might find at some of the more popular cenotes. Located roughly 11 miles west of Chichén Itza, admission is $4 USD
- Downtown Tulum - This is my personal favorite place in Tulum to wander around with my camera. It’s a totally different vibe than the beach area. Downtown feels real and raw, less like you’re on vacation and more like you’re stepping into the spirit of a place. Tulum’s culture is showcased here through their bright colors, friendly locals, and street food.
- Coba Ruins - Perhaps the Yucatan’s most impressive ruin site, and just far enough off the beaten path that it attracts significantly fewer tourists than the other ruins within the Yucatan, are the Coba Ruins. What was once the most powerful Mayan site in the Yucatan, these ruins date back to 50 AD. Today, they offer historical and archaeological insight into the Maya. Some quick tips if you plan to visit: While they’re not nearly as busy as Chichen Itza or The Ruins of Tulum, there are still crowds. Consider arriving when they open at 8 AM. The parking lot is about a mile away from the pyramid, and you’ll have the option of walking, renting bicycles, or hiring a bicycle taxi. Unlike the other ruin sites, visitors are welcome to climb Coba’s tallest pyramid, Ixmoja for a view of the jungle. It’s a steep climb up, and a steeper climb down, but well worth this view.
- Ruins of Tulum - Spanning the Riviera Maya are close to 4,000 Mayan ruin sites, and Tulum’s are some of the best-preserved. The site is about a 30-minute drive from Outsite. You’ll want to arrive early (right when it opens at 8am) to beat the crowds. The entrance fee is around $4 USD. Guides are available to take you through the site for an additional $30 USD.
- Chichen Itza - About a 2-hour drive west of Tulum is Chichen Itza. Formerly one of the largest Mayan cities, this archaeological site is now one of the seven wonders in the world. Admission is about $13 USD for adults (232 pesos) and they don’t accept dollars. It’s recommended to opt for a guide upon entry. Bring: sunscreen, a hat, sneakers and plenty of water.
- Yoga - Spiritual seekers and mindful explorers started making their way to Tulum in the 1960s. Their relaxed, new age lifestyle caught on and quickly became embedded in Tulum’s culture. It’s now a major hub for yoga retreats, and you’ll find plenty of classes advertised along the beach road. Some of the most impressive spaces that offer classes regularly are: Holistika, Sanara, Yoga Shala, and Yoga Dicha.
- Follow that Dream sign - She’s cute, she’s inspirational, she’s all over Instagram. Find the sign near the boutique Lolita Lolita, about a 5-minute walk from Outsite.
- Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve - A photographer’s dream, this UNESCO World Heritage site protects thousands of species of plants and animals (think: dolphins, crocodiles, turtles, rays and manatees). They offer multiple tours and activities such as snorkeling, bird watching, and fly fishing.
- Sound baths - With Tulum being the healing center that it is, sound bath meditations are plentiful around the city. Two of my favorites are Yaan Wellness and Sanara.
- Temacazals - In an effort to purify themselves after battle, or heal themselves from illness, the Mayans would practice this ancient ritual. Temacazals are ceremonial steam baths led by Shamans and hosted in dome structures (a direct reference to a mother’s womb). They’re thought to offer a feeling of physical and mental rebirth. For a few of the best in Tulum, check out Yaan Wellness.
- Azulik Resort - Think of the most luxurious treehouse hotel that could ever exist, multiply it by 10, add in an ocean view and you have Azulik. It rightfully attracts many people with camera in hand looking to get the perfect shot, which, in turn, has led to them laying down (and seriously sticking to) some ground rules i.e. if you’re not staying with them, they’ll only let you in to photograph the space if you: 1) Eat/drink at one of their three restaurants, Kin Toh, Tseen Ja, or Cenote,
2) Visit their museum, Sfer Ik Admission is free, and while they won’t let you bring your bags in (or cameras) you can take photos with your phone, 3) Book a sunset experience, or 4) Visit their boutique
Instagram Spots in Tulum
- Ven a La Luz - A 2018 arts and culture festival brought South African artist, Daniel Popper’s massive wooden sculpture to Tulum. Steel, wood, rope, and greenery make up the figure of a woman titled Ven a la Luz (come into the light). The intention behind the sculpture is to communicate the connection between humankind and nature. It currently serves as the entrance to Raw Love as well as a perfect Instagram opportunity for passersby.
- Jungle Art Walk - Together, Holistika and the Tulum Art Club collaborated to create an interactive art walk through the jungle. Free and open to the public, you’ll find paths behind Holistika leading to surrealist and naturalist art pieces by renowned artists around the world.
Eat & Drink
- Antojitos La Chiapaneca - A very authentic hole in the wall restaurant with tacos so good I could cry just thinking about them. Known for their shawarma spit-grilled al pastor tacos which are about 8 pesos ($0.40USD) each. Take a moment to watch them shave the shawarma outside.
- Raw Love - Head here to counter all the tacos. Enter Ven a la Luz and you’ll find Raw Love split off into two locations. The first spot you’ll come upon is Raw Love’s cafe, nestled in the jungle and serving an entirely raw, vegan and gluten-free menu. Walk a little further and you’ll see their beach bar. Grab a hammock or one of their beach chairs, order a smoothie bowl, and enjoy.
- Chamico’s - You didn’t hear it from me, but if you exit the highway onto a narrow dirt road (keep your eyes peeled for a sign that reads “Jashita Hotel”) and head towards Soliman Bay. Make your way down the road and continue past palatial villas until the road ends. Choose between ceviche, fried fish, or whatever fresh fish they caught that day.
- Batey - Located on Centauro Sur (where Wednesday nights kick off Tulum’s nightlife scene) is Batey, a mojito bar. Known for their mojitos with sugarcane and fresh-squeezed juice, featuring local flavors.
- Burrito Amor - The setting is laid back and relaxed, the menu is simple and communicates their ethos of clean, conscious eating. Inclusive of vegans, vegetarians, and those with food allergies, their menu is thoughtful and consists of more than just burritos (though you should 100% order a burrito). They’re also a sustainable restaurant, using only bamboo straws and participating in a plastic consumption reduction campaign, as well as an initiative to introduce recycling to Tulum.
- Matcha Mama - What I’m convinced must be the cutest little cafe/smoothie shop there ever has been. There are two locations: one is on the beach road, about a ten-minute walk from Outsite, and the other (the significantly more photogenic one) is downtown. If you’re looking to get ‘the shot’ here, you likely won’t be the only one. Try to visit early with that in mind.
- Taqueria Honorio - This no-frills restaurant serving what locals have told me are the “best tacos in Tulum”. Try the cochinita and asada (but also all of them). Open for breakfast and lunch, 7 days a week.
- Casa Pueblo - With two locations, one in town and one by the beach, Casa Pueblo has to be one of the trendiest hotel brands in the city. Both locations equipped with a welcoming and attentive staff, a minimalist island aesthetic, and rave-worthy pizza. I feel like I needn’t say more. But, okay, one last thing: Some of my favorite photos from Tulum were taken at their beach location, and also I kind of wish I could live there, and also Casa Pueblo is the aesthetic of my dreams. Okay. Now I’m done.
- El Camello Jr. - Serving the freshest seafood. Come hungry (portion sizes are very generous) grab a seat outside, and order the ceviche.
- Hartwood - Located on the beach road is this high end restaurant. Their food is so fresh that their menu changes daily and is wholly dependent on what’s available in the area. The entire restaurant operates sustainably, with its one and only electrical appliance being a single blender. Closed Monday and Tuesday, reservations highly recommended.
- Taqueria La Eufemia offers a very relaxed vibe, some of the best (authentic) tacos on the beach road (try the shrimp tempura). Tables are situated right on the beach where you’ll see dogs trying to dance with their owners to live music. Fun fact: This place was named after the owner’s dog, Eufemia, an old english sheepdog you’ll likely see roaming around.
- Gitano - If NYC’s nightlife and Tulum’s jungle had a baby, it would be Gitano. It’s a beautifully designed restaurant and bar serving great food and drool-worthy mezcal cocktails. It feels tropical and trendy with dreamy ambiance and a fun vibe (especially on Friday nights!).
- The Real Coconut - Sanara Hotel’s beachside restaurant serves up healthy plates using strictly sustainably sourced ingredients. Come for the food, stay for the views.
- I Scream Bar - Under the same ownership as Eufemia, I Scream Bar has a super fun vibe, great margaritas (happy hour is 2 for 1), and great (live!) music. Built around true innovation, a portion of their drinks are made with actual ice cream. They also serve regular (and vegan) ice cream.
- Italdo Pasteleria - Last year, top Roman pastry chef, Fabrizio Pellegrini opened this European pastry shop. It’s since taken off and considered to be Tulum’s best bakery and coffee shop by many.
- Deer Tulum - Next door to Italdo, you’ll find Deer Tulum, a concept store, curated with beautiful furniture pieces (or “spirited home goods” as they call them), and unique accessories. Inside you’ll also find a coffee bar and co-working space.
- Kaahal Home Tulum - Another concept store, located downtown and filled with beautifully designed handmade home decor made by local artists.
- Beach Road Boutiques - There is no shortage of boutiques on the beach road, each stocked full of beautiful linen clothing and swimsuits galore. Some of my favorites are Lolita Lolita, Wanderlust Tulum, and Hoki Poki Kana, and Yeva Don.
Book your stay at Outsite Tulum here.