Earlier this year, my partner shared with me that he wanted to take me on a trip for my graduation. I had spent the first half of 2018 completely overworked – my full time job, a full time masters program, an internship and side hustles – all left me completely drained and totally exhausted. So the thought of a nice relaxing trip was music to my ears. When I began looking at the calendar for dates, I realized that it would be perfect to pair this trip celebrating my graduation with our anniversary (why not kill two birds with one stone, right?) And at that moment my heart lead me to my dreamland – Tulum.
The first time I visited Tulum, I was about 15 years old on a family trip throughout Yucatán with my parents and oldest brother. It was a beautiful trip all around, but Tulum stuck out to me as something magical. Back when I visited over 10 years ago, Tulum was little more than a tiny beach town. Only a few hotels were set up on the beach with no electricity and little huts set up in the jungle alongside the coast. I dreamed of one day getting married there, or maybe even a honeymoon. But at 27 with no plans of doing either in the near future, I decided that now was as good a time to go back as any.
Although the tiny beach town I remembered has changed significantly over the last decade, it has not lost its magic touch. While it has become a popular tourist destination, with many more boutique hotels lining the beach, it still has its charm. The beauty of Tulum has been well preserved, and the local environment and economy are still a main priority for the locals and foreigners alike who call this place their home.
Below, I will be highlighting the seven days my partner and I spent in this beautiful corner of the world, and all the adventures we had along the way. Briefly I should mention that while Tulum is famous for it’s white sandy beaches, we unfortunately did not spend much time at the beach due to the natural phenomena of red seaweed flooding the coast. However, this did not put any damper on our plans, as we found many other ways to enjoy Tulum and all of its beauty.
Day 1 – Travel
In order to get to Tulum, plan on flying to Cancun International Airport. My partner and I were able to fly on our favorite airlines – Southwest (by the way, I cannot be happier that they’ve started international flights), but most major airlines will offer flights to CUN.
From there, you can do the 2 hour trip straight to Tulum. There are buses (ADO) that will take you straight from the airport to Tulum for a reasonable price. Or you can take a collectivo – which are small vans that typically transport locals – from CUN to Playa Del Carmen, then transfer to one headed for Tulum.
Since we started our travel day at 7:00AM PST to get to LAX 2 hours before our 9:00AM flight, we were feeling like we wanted a break after the 5 hour flight before heading to Tulum. Therefore, we chose to spend one night in a local town – Puerto Morelos.
We took a taxi from the airport straight to our hotel in Puerto Morelos, which cost about $50 USD. (If we were to have done this again, we would’ve just taken a collectivo and saved some money) However, it was nice to take a taxi for the 40 minute drive straight to our hotel.
Puerto Morelos is a small fishing town just south of Cancun. It’s proximity to the airport makes it a great stop over if you don’t want to do the trip down to Tulum straight away and don’t want to spend a night in the chaos of Cancun. We spent the night in a cute little hotel called Hotel Arrecifes, right on the beach. It was a great first night.
Day 2 – Down to Tulum
We woke up the next morning ready to make the second half of the journey down to Tulum. This time, we would travel via the local collectivos. We took a taxi from our hotel with our luggage to the pick up area, where a van would take us from Puerto Morelos down to Playa Del Carmen – about a 40 minute drive. Our driver was friendly and let us know to take the van all the way to the final stop, where we would be able to transfer onto the next van. Sure enough, we arrived a few blocks away from the beach, where several collectivos lined up to take people in whichever direction they needed. We walked about a block to the vans heading to Tulum, and then embarked on the second leg of the journey, which was about another hour down. We got into town, then hoped in another taxi straight to our AirBnB.
Tulum has two major parts, the main city and the beach strip. There are great accommodations, food and shopping options in both parts, but I recommend staying on the beach strip. It’s peaceful and absolutely beautiful. Our AirBnb was located at the far end of the beach strip, right before the beginning of the Sian Kaan Nature Reserve. At first, I was a little nervous about staying so far away from the town, but once we got to our destination, I could not be happier with our choice.
We stayed at a super cute AirBnb called Casa Coyote, which lists itself as an eco suite. There was about 6 single rooms, each with their own bathroom. While the rooms themselves were small, it was a beautiful little space. We were comfortable in our rooms and loved the common areas. The hotel provided bikes for its guests, which made it easier to get around. Additionally, the AirBnB sat behind a restaurant “Loco Tulum” (same owner), that treated us to a free shot of Tequila upon our arrival. They also offer guests a 10% discount on meals, which was a nice little perk.
After two days of traveling in hot humid weather, we decided to take the night to just relax. We treated ourselves to our complementary shot of tequila, followed by a nice refreshing cocktail at the bar. Afterwards, we went on walk to the spot we had picked out for dinner. With full bellies, we were pleased to go to bed in paradise. Excited to officially start our adventures.
Day 3 – Exploring Tulum
On day 3, we woke up ready to explore Tulum! We began our day with a quick breakfast at “Loco Tulum”, and let me say, it was one of our favorite breakfast spots throughout the entire trip. The manager of the AirBnB, Patricia, let us know that there was a beautiful cenote just up the road. So as soon as we finished breakfast we walked up the road to Cenote Encantado.
If you are not familiar with cenotes, they are worth looking into, and part of what makes The Yucatan so unique. Cenotes are generally referred to as sinkholes and caves filled with fresh water that are linked by a system of underground rivers. Some research shows that these cenotes were formed by the heat of a meteor millions of years ago. They were seen as sacred bodies of water by the Mayan civilization that originally inhabited the peninsula, and may cities and holy sites were built around them. There are over 6,000 cenotes throughout the Yucatan peninsula – some completely underground, some with open roofs, and others completely above ground. Their variety is what makes each cenote so unique and memorable.
The first cenote we visited, Cenote Encantado, was about a 10 minute stroll from our AirBnb. We entered through a camp site, and paid $50 pesos (about $3USD) to enter. This particular cenote was open in the middle of a mangrove. It was so beautiful to walk through the dense trees and see them open up to fresh water that reflected the clear blue sky.
We spent about 2 hours at the cenote – swimming in the beautiful fresh water and jumping from decks built by the surrounding hotels. We even rented a small kayak that allowed to explore it’s grandness. Finally, after getting a bit pruney, we decided we were ready to leave and explore the small town.
We rented two bikes from our AirBnB and took off. We spent the day riding bikes and stopping along all the little boutiques that lined the road. Window shopping in Tulum was like heaven on earth for me – so many beautiful pieces, majority of which were made by Mayan artisans local to the area. After biking from one end of the strip and back, we were ready to turn in and get ready for the next day.
Day 4 – Tulum Ruins & Snorkeling
Day 4 was a Monday, and since the crowds of the weekend had died down, I decided that this would be the perfect day for us to head to the Tulum ruins. Long before it was a bustling tourist destination, Tulum was one of the most biggest port cities for the Mayan civilization. It’s accessibility by both land and sea made it a very important trade hub, and remain one of the last standing cities occupied by the Mayans.
It’s placement on a cliff overlooking the Caribbean makes it a particularly beautiful experience. These breath taking views has made it the third most visited archaeological sights in Mexico. Being in the presence of these grand temples is awe inspiring. I can only imagine the society and lifestyle that once inhabited this beautiful city.
After spending about two hours walking around the sight, taking photos, we were completely overwhelmed by the heat and humidity. We were ready to cool off in some water. We had planned on braving the red seaweed and spending the day on the beach, however on our way out, we were approached by a man offering snorkeling tours. Oscar and I had a quick debate deciding what we would do – with the amount of red seaweed on the beach, I was not sure how much we would enjoy laying out. We decided it would probably be best to take the man up on his offer to go snorkeling, and boy did it pay off.
Our snorkeling tour began with a quick 15 minute boat ride to get a picturesque view of the ruins from the water. From here, we were able to see the main structures- the Temple of the Descending God, the Castle, and the Temple of the Wind God. It was breath taking.
Once we snapped a few photos, the boat headed over the reef for snorkeling. We were told that on good days there is a chance to see sea turtles. Although it wasn’t guaranteed, I still held my breath and hoped we might be so lucky.
As soon as we jumped into the beautiful Caribbean waters, I was in heaven. The water was so warm and clear. There were so many beautiful fish, and to my surprise there were about a dozen stingrays! I have always loved stingrays majestic nature, so I was very pleased to be swimming alongside them. And not long after, we were joined by about five beautiful sea turtles! I could not believe how close they came to us, within inches!
Of all the beautiful things we did, swimming with the sea turtles was without a doubt the most memorable.
Day 5 – Isla Cozumel
After snorkeling in Tulum, I knew that I wanted to go snorkeling again. We had seen some signs advertising snorkeling at Isla Cozumel, and was told that it had great snorkeling. So, we made plans to take a day trip.
In order to get to Cozumel, you have to take a ferry from Playa Del Carmen. So the first leg of the journey was taking a collectivo to the beach city. Once we got there, we found a vendor who was selling packages for ferry tickets with a snorkeling tour. We paid about $50 USD each for both, and were excited to get our adventure started.
Once we got to Cozumel, I will be honest and say I was a little disappointed in how commercial it was – Hard Rock Hotel, Señor Frogs and Margaritaville all occupied it’s shore line. It felt like a mini Cancun. I knew that once our snorkeling adventure was over, we probably wouldn’t spend much more time on the island.
We took a small boat around the island to various reefs. The water was beautiful, warm and crystal clear. Unfortunately, there were no stingrays or sea turtles on this trip, however we did see a much bigger variety of tropical fish, and a few huge parrot fish.
After our snorkeling tour, we walked around the main part of the island. It was beautiful to see some of the old colonial building, walk through the little souvenir shops. We even walked through a group of kids practicing ballet folklorico in a courtyard. As the sun began to set, we were ready to get back on the ferry and head back to Tulum. We had an early morning with lots of adventures set for the following day.
Day 6 – Chichen Itza & Cobá
When visiting the Yucatan peninsula, visiting the ancient city of Chichen Itza is a must. Now a UNESCO world heritage site, Chichen Itza was once an urban center of Mayan civilization. The amazing compound is a testament to the Mayan’s skillful architecture and impeccable astronomical calculations.
As we were planning our trip, we knew we did not want to take a big tourist bus, so we decided to instead rent a private driver. Our host at Casa Coyote recommended a driver by the name of Rudy. He offered many different day packages, and event met with us in person to customize our perfect day trip. (Reach out to Rudy on Facebook) We decided to start the day at 6am, so we can get to Chichen Itza early – ahead of the swarms of tourists – then head to some centotes and another nearby ruin, Cobá.
After an hour and a half drive, we got to Chichen Itza right around 8:45am. This was the perfect time to arrive. Although there were some tourist at the park, it was not overwhelmingly crowded, and the heavy humidity had not yet settled in.
Upon entering the park, one of the very first building you will see is the great Castillo de Kukulkan – a temple honoring the feathered serpent deity. This great castle is prime example of Mayan architectural and scientific excellence – not only does it have 365 steps, representing the days in the year, it also aligns with the stars during the summer and winter solaces to create a shadow affect of the great serpent god.
Another notable structure within the compound is the Great Ball Court. This court, used for a Mesoamerican ball game where players tried to hit a rubber ball through small stone hoops, is one of the largest and best preserved courts found throughout Mesoamerica. There is even a great structure at the end of the field where leaders and distinguished guests would sit to watch games take place.
It took us about two hours to get through the entire compound and see all of the major historical structures – El Platforma de Águilas y Jaguares (Platform of Eagles and Jaguars), El Plataforma de los Cráneos (Skull Platform), Templo de los Guerreros (Temple of the Warriors) are just some of the breathtaking sights that had withstood the test of time. Once the sun began to settle on top of us, we were ready to leave. Upon our exit we came to realize what an advantage we had starting the day as early as we did, because on our way out there were buses dropping off thousands of tourists, ready to swarm the park.
We met back up with our driver, Rudy, who then took us to our next stop – one of the most famous cenotes in Yucatan – Ik Kil. Ik Kil is an open air cenote about 85ft below the ground, with vines and plant life covering it’s walls. Being that it is so popular, it has been commercialized quite a bit, and it is now located in the middle of a compound complete with cottages to rent, showers and restaurants. We had a beautiful time swimming in this pool, and again benefited from our early schedule as we had beat the usual crowds who arrive later in the day.
We headed out of Ik Kil after only about an hour, because we were starving. Rudy asked us if we would like to try some traditional Mayan food, and of course we eagerly replied. He took us to a small roadside restaurant, where a Mayan woman was cooking alongside her family, making homemade tortillas. They offered us a traditional pork dish called Pok Chuk. Now, I don’t normally eat meat (let alone pork for that matter) but, I must say, this was one of the most delicious meals I had on the trip. It was even better knowing that the ingredients were locally sourced, made by a loving family, with ancient, traditional recipes.
After we filled our bellies, we headed to our final stop of the day. Cobá is an ancient site believed to be another stronghold of the Mayan civilization during it’s height. Today, Cobá is a popular tourist attraction, with a surrounding town inhabited my many modern day Mayas. One reason I loved this site is because we were actually able to rent bikes and ride throughout the grounds, which made it more bearable in the heat which had already exhausted us. But by far the most memorable part of this trip was our climb up the Nohoch Mul pyramid.
Unlike the great Castillo de Kukulkan in Chichen Itza, visitors are still able to climb Cobá’s great pyramid. The 137-foot climb up the steep Nohoch Mul pyramid is daunting, but beyond worthwhile. Upon getting to the top you are treated to a spectacular view of the area’s beauty – the dense, green forest and a few lagoons off to the distance. It was truly a breath taking and humbling experience.
Although hiring a private driver was a bit pricey ($200USD for the entire day) there was no other way I would’ve rather have made this trip. Our driver, Rudy, was very knowledgeable and was more than happy to tailor the trip to exactly what we wanted. It allowed us to beat the crowds and be comfortable throughout the day. I would highly recommend ensuring that your trip to the Yucatan includes a trip to these beautiful and sacred places.
Day 7- Casa Malca
Our final day in Tulum called for pure relaxation. After such an adventurous day going to two historical sites, spending the day in the hot sun, and climbing ancient pyramids, we wanted nothing more than enjoy the beauty of Tulum and the stress-free paradise returning back to the real world.
We started our day with some shopping alongside the boutiques throughout the tourist corridor. I loved that most of these boutiques featured items made in Mexico, many from local Mayan artisans. I had my eyes on a few pieces, so I was happy to make all my purchases before the end of the trip. (I will be doing an additional post highlighting the great items I bought).
Once I had all my purchases in hand, we were ready for the final part of our trip – something we had been looking forward to the entire week, a day at Casa Malca.
This luxurious boutique hotel was once a mansion owned by notorious drug lord, Pablo Escobar, and was his hidden retreat right on the Mayan Riviera. The mansion was abandoned after Escobar’s death, and then bought by art collector Lio Malca in 2012, who converted the space into a hotel.
While we were unable to enjoy a night at this beautiful space (the $500 a night price tag was a bit out of our budget), we were able to enjoy some of the amenities. Casa Malca has one of the only pools right on the beach, where we were able to enjoy some delicious cocktails while savoring the beautiful ocean breeze. The pool also featured an underground cove, which was a pretty cool feature I had never seen before. The space was beautiful, and although we were not guests of the hotel, we felt as though we got to enjoy in the opulence.
Once we had finished at the pool, we got to check out some of the amazing art and architecture that are the hotel’s claim to fame. The original mansion now serves as the hotel lobby, and we were able to climb to the rooftop and see the breathtaking view of the ocean with lush greenery as far as the eye can see. It’s not hard to imagine this place as the perfect hideaway.
Day 8 – Back to Reality
After a beautiful week in paradise, it was time to head back to the real world. We woke up a little disheartened to return back to our busy lives. After a quick breakfast we had about a free hour before we had to begin the journey back to the airport. We decided to return to Cenote Encantado to enjoy it’s beauty just a bit more. The hour flew by and it was time to get going.
To return to Cancun airport, we decided to take an ADO bus, which had a terminal in the city. This bus was cost efficient (about $10 each), and after a quick pit stop in Playa Del Carmen, took us straight to our airport terminal.
Our week in Tulum was more than I could’ve ever dreamed – it was romantic, adventurous, and relaxing. Although we did go about $500 over our estimated budget, we didn’t mind splurging a bit to enjoy our much deserved vacation.
I think one of the hardest parts about being an avid traveler is returning to a place when there are so many unknown destinations to explore. But I have no doubt that I will be returning to Tulum in the future. I am looking forward to the day that happens.