The Top Things You Must Do On Your First Trip to Tulum, Mexico
Because of Tulum’s fame and notoriety these days, it might go without saying to agree that Tulum is a tropical paradise. Of course, Tulum’s world-renowned beach and countless cenotes are each must-do activities in their own right, and I’ve included some of my favorite ways to best experience each below. But in addition to that, there’s so much more to see and do in Tulum and the surrounding areas that is worth your time, especially if it’s your first time visiting this part of Mexico!
When you’re in Tulum, you’ll want to get a good overview of the beach and the jungle, the ancient Mayan history, and the gastronomical and wellness scenes that make Tulum such a coveted destination for people from all over the world.
Here are 8 things you must do on your first trip to Tulum to really get a taste of what this part of Mexico has to offer those in search of relaxation, rejuvenation, inspiration, and adventure!
The Top Things You Must Do On Your First Trip to Tulum, Mexico
1. Spend Time (Lots of Time!) On Tulum’s Beach
The beach in Tulum is really spectacular, and it’s not hard to see why. Creamy white sand, turquoise calm waters, and pastel pink sunsets make the beach here truly unforgettable and immediately calming. For anyone visiting Tulum, especially for the first time, the beach is an undeniable must-do.
You can experience Tulum’s beach in three main ways:
By Staying in a Tulum Beach Hotel
The beachfront hotel zone in Tulum is dotted with hotels and resorts that offer “private” access to the ocean. I say “private” because technically, you can walk wherever you want once you’re actually on the sand, but getting onto the beach itself typically involves staying in a Tulum beach hotel or visiting a beach club for the day.
The hotels on Tulum’s beachfront are generally much pricier than the rest of the accommodations in town, but if you can swing it even if only for a night or two, it’s worth it to be able to wake up just steps from the water. If you want a full list of hotels I recommend, you can find them on this post!
By Visiting One of Tulum’s Beach Clubs
If you aren’t staying on a beachfront property, you can still visit a beach club for the day and lounge around near the water. Some beach clubs I visited or have heard good things about while I was in town include:
Generally, you can just show up and ask for a cabana or a table, but if it’s the weekend, or if there’s a big event or festival in town, you may want to make a reservation well in advance to guarantee yourself a spot.
By Heading to One of Tulum’s Public Beaches
To visit the beach without paying for beach club access or a cabana, you can bring your own towel and drinks and head to one of Tulum’s public-access beaches:
These hotels offer a wider stretch of sand, a more chill, laid-back vibe, and more parking than the hotel zone if you’re renting a car LINK while in town.
Parking in the hotel zone is practically impossible (or costly) unless you’re staying at one of the hotels.
2. Visit as Many Cenotes as Possible
Derived from the Mayan word “dzonot,” which means “sacred well,” cenotes are fascinating freshwater underworlds that dot the Yucatan Peninsula. The entire peninsula is made up of limestone rock, which characterizes everything about the unique environment here, from the cenotes to the thick jungle that spreads far, but not very high, in comparison to other jungles in this part of the world. A local guide explained to me that this is because the trees here have to search deeper underground for nutrients, which “stunts” their growth above ground.
Cenotes in the area can either be open, semi-open, or cavernous (entirely underground and accessible only by hole or tunnel). Many of them are connected by networks of subterranean cave systems, and were largely regarded in ancient Mayan culture as the gateway to communicating with the gods.
I could go on and on about cenotes, and how fascinatingly beautiful they are, but we’ll start with what will be close to you when you’re in Tulum. There are tons of gorgeous cenotes in this part of the peninsula alone, and I encourage you to visit at least one or two while you’re here! Some cenotes I visited or heard good things about while I was in town include:
Keep in mind that cenotes usually will charge you an entrance fee (usually between 50 - 300 pesos per person, cash only), and you can also expect to pay extra if you want to bring a DSLR camera or a drone.
Bring goggles and / or snorkel gear, because while cenotes are stunning from above, they are even more mind-blowing underwater!
3. Wander Around Ancient Mayan Ruins
Ancient Mayan civilizations throughout Mexico flourished in the years 250 - 900 A.D, and many of the structures the Maya people built have survived the test of time, making this one of the most unique and unmissable things you can do when visiting Tulum. Tulum is within driving distance of several impressive archeological sites, including one of the Seven New Wonders of the World, Chichen-Itza.
Here are some ancient ruins you can visit from Tulum:
Like many attractions in this part of Mexico, you can expect to pay an entrance fee per person and a separate fee for any camera and/or drone you’d like to use during your visit. Entrance costs vary depending on the site.
4. Take A Yoga Class (or Two)
Tulum is a haven for yogis, and it seems like the scene has only continued to grow and expand in recent years. You can find everything from more laidback studios to luxury beachfront shalas offering classes from vinyasa to breathing techniques.
If you’re staying in a hotel in Tulum, there’s a decent chance your hotel will offer yoga classes onsite for free or by donation. Otherwise, it’s not hard to find a studio near you to sweat it out in the jungle heat.
Some highly recommended places to practice yoga in Tulum include:
5. Experience a Temazcal Ceremony
Temazcales are essentially Mayan sweat lodges, and the ceremonies are led by a shaman and said to purify your mind and body. This ancient Mesoamerican ceremony can actually be found all over Tulum (in some cases, your hotel may even have a Temazcal onsite), and is a quite popular spiritual experience. The Temazcal kind of looks like a giant pizza oven, and in addition to sweating it out, you can expect chanting, singing, and intention-setting throughout the ritual.
I didn’t get to try a Temazcal myself while in Tulum, unfortunately. I’ve heard others be skeptical of their effectiveness, but I personally think that ceremonies like this have a lot to do with the mindset you have going into it. If you try a Temazcal ceremony, approach it with an open mind and who knows, you might walk away pleasantly surprised. And, if you do try it, let me know in the comments how it went!
6. Sample Tulum’s Multifaceted Foodie Scene
The food scene in Tulum is unique and exciting, whether you’re a foodie or not. I’ve been told countless times that the food in Tulum is not authentic at all, but offers up some of the best meals in the world, thanks to the international crowd it attracts. There is a number of fine dining restaurants in the Tulum hotel zone, with three or more dollar signs next to their names when you look them up online. I’ve paid more than a good meal in Los Angeles on more than one occasion while in Tulum, and most of these fancy meals weren’t even Mexican at all, but dang, were they good.
As a general rule of thumb, in the hotel zone, you’ll find great, exciting, and pricey restaurants that are “the place to be seen” while in Tulum. On the flip side, in Tulum town, you’ll find a more casual dining scene, with local joints and more affordable international fare – all of which will be significantly more affordable than anything on the beach.
When planning your trip, I recommend choosing at least one or two nice restaurants on the beach to enjoy the food, the cocktails, and what’s bound to be a fun night out. Mix this in with more affordable meals in town (or at home if you’re staying in an Airbnb in Tulum with a kitchen!), to give yourself the best of both worlds.
Some of my favorite meals on the beach (pricier, fancier) were at:
TIP: For a more affordable meal while staying in the hotel zone, look for La Taqueria. This spot, and the surrounding food trucks and bar, offered some of the cheapest food on the strip, and everything I tried was pretty good. At the bar, if you like passionfruit, be sure to order a passionfruit mojito. I’m pretty sure I had three entire servings of fruit with my rum, and I wasn’t mad about it.
Raw Love is a popular spot in the Ahau Tulum hotel for acai bowls, smoothies, and other healthy bites.
Another more affordable meal in the hotel zone is at Clan-Destino, a burger joint built above a cenote (so bizarre, but pretty cool!) tucked away behind a building, and easy to miss. I visited on a weekend, and was delighted to see that in addition to karaoke, salsa dancing is encouraged. Perfect way to practice your moves in between burger bites!
On the flip side, in town, some of my favorite meals can be found at:
TIP: If you see the paleta man at the entrance to Palma Central, STOP and get one (or three!!!). Forgo all your dinner plans and start with dessert, because these were the most delicious, refreshing paletas I’ve ever tasted, and they’ll only cost you 35 pesos a pop.
7. Go on a Sian Ka’an Biosphere Expedition
One of the most unique natural attractions in Tulum is the Sian Ka’an Biosphere, a 2,000+ square-mile reserve that protects a network of freshwater marshes, mangroves, lagoons, and barrier reef and serves as a home base for tons of wildlife.
Because of how massive this reserve is, you’ll need to choose between one of the two main areas that can be explored in Sian Ka’an: Punta Allen or Muyil.
Visiting Sian Ka’an via Punta Allen
Punta Allen is the area in Sian Ka’an that is closer to the ocean and saltwater lagoons, which is perfect for wildlife viewing and snorkeling. Here, you get to see tons of animal activity, but the trade-off is that Punta Allen is harder to access, due to really horrible road conditions.
To experience this part of the reserve, I was told that taking a tour was one of the least complicated ways to go about it, so I booked a day-long tour with Mexico Kan Tours (quick disclosure: I received a media discount in order to share my experience with you!). I chose Mexico Kan Tours because of their great reviews and commitment to nature conservation and responsible tourism, and truly found the experience to be one of the highlights of my entire month in Mexico. Our tour guides were lovely and passionate, and in just a span of a few short hours of cruising around mangroves and open ocean by private boat, we were able to see manatees, crocodiles, dolphins, turtles, manta rays, ospreys, and more. We weren’t able to snorkel unfortunately, because the overcast weather made the water visibility pretty much nonexistent, but everything else was just awesome, and being able to have lunch in the ultra-remote Punta Allen (what many say is an example of what Tulum might’ve been like 20+ years ago) was also pretty neat.
Day-long tours to Sian Ka'an via Punta Allen, like the one I took, will cost you $145 - $170 USD per person, and include lunch and round-trip private transportation from wherever you’re staying in Tulum, which is another huge selling point of taking a tour versus attempting the visit on your own.
Visiting Sian Ka’an via Muyil
For those looking to do a more accessible version of Sian Kaan, Muyil is a great choice. It’s the inland region of Sian Ka’an, and while you won’t get the ocean or as many wildlife sightings, you will get to see wetlands, mangroves, winding man-made canals that used to be used for trade in ancient times (which you can float along!), and Mayan temples.
You can drive to Muyil on your own, and I believe you can get a boat to take you out for the day if you show up early. Or, book a day tour to Sian Ka'an via Muyil here.
8. Rent a Car and Hit the Road
While it’s definitely not difficult to get to Tulum from the airport by ADO bus or private transportation, and you can certainly book tours to see different sites, I always recommend renting a car to visit this part of Mexico. In addition to being able to freely visit cenotes and Mayan ruins on your own schedule, having your own car means you can take day trips or weekend getaways to other cities while you’re here, and there is SO much to see beyond the hip, zen oasis of Tulum.
Some great places to visit include:
Cozumel: An island off the coast of Playa del Carmen, accessible by ferry and known for its world-class dining. It’s chill, charming, and fun for a day trip or overnight. Read my full weekend guide to visiting Cozumel here!
Valladolid: A colonial town known for its colorful, charming city center and good food scene. While many skip over Valladolid to head straight to Chichen-Itza, this city is well worth a stop in its own right.
Merida: Another colorful colonial city with beautiful streets to get lost in, plus incredible nightlife and lots to experience for the culture-seeking traveler. In fact, Merida is the culture capital of the Yucatán Peninsula!
Izamal: One of Mexico’s Pueblos Magicos, or “magic towns.” Izamal is a cultural immersion of its colonial, religious, and Mayan heritages, and the entire town center is bright ochre yellow. It’s a visual feast and so unlike anything else I’ve ever seen!
Isla Holbox: An island just two hours away from Cancun and accessible by ferry. This island is known for being ultra laidback and relaxed, and it’s also famous for those looking to see and swim with whale sharks.
There you have it! Which of these things are you most excited to do on your trip to Tulum? Tell me below!