Where It Is:
The tiny town of Tulum, Mexico, is two hours south and light years from crazy Cancun, and a four hour haul north of the Belize border (Xcalek is on the route -- shhh; no one knows about Xcalek yet). The Riviera Maya is the area of Mexico's Caribbean coast from Cancun to roughly Tulum, and Tulum is about a half hour south of gringo playground Playa del Carmen on the Riviera Maya. The coastline stretching from about 100 miles south of Tulum to Belize is called the Costa Maya.
Why You Should Visit:
Tulum, Mexico, is everything wonderful about the Mexican Caribbean. It's been.., discovered, but the sugar white beaches are still sweetly quiet, the ocean is as clear as gin and you can get a big meal by the bus station for two bucks. And you can sleep in Tulum
for pesos. If that's not enough, think open air bars and prehistoric ruins. Get here before the madding crowds find it and descend. Speaking of crowds, visit nearby ruins and parks early a.m. -- Cancun crowds are bussed in later.
What It's Like:
Tulum is quiet -- no clubs or nightlife to speak of except during Carnival season in February. The main part of town lies along either side of Highway 307, which traverses the Riviera Maya from Cancun south, and consists of some touristy-stuff stalls, local shops, and what seems like dozens of places to eat chicken. The town hosts some budget digs and internet cafes. The "Hotel Zone" lies one mile east on the beach, as do the famous Mayan Tulum ruins.
What the Hotel Zone is Like:
Tulum's "Hotel Zone"
, on a beach road parallel to the coast, is where what passes for action is, and that's a good thing. It's almost a seperate place from the town of Tulum. The three mile-long zone is populated by some deluxe digs these days, but hammocks under palapas are still to be had for $10/night. Generators supply electricity from 7:00-11:00 p.m.; otherwise, ice chills the cerveza. You're deep in Mexico; expect friendly locals and early-ish nights.
How to Get There:
Take a shuttle from the Cancun airport to the bus station in the city center ("Centro"). Look at the bus's front reader board to find the bus's destination. A bus south on Hiwghway 307 to Playa del Carmen will get you almost there; you can catch a bus to Tulum in "Playa." You can also rent a car at the Cancun airport, but you don't need a car unless you plan to pack days with sightseeing -- local buses take you everywhere ($2 Playa-Tulum).
Where to Stay:
Accommodations range from expensive ecolodges to palapa-roofed beach cabanas for $10. Consider the Hotel Zone's Piedra Escondida as a splurge -- stay upstairs in room six and watch the sun rise over the Caribbean through French doors leading to a hardwood mini-balcony. Thatched roofs. Tile floors. This is Tulum.
Tip: score some fresh fruit at the downtown market if your digs don't offer breakfast.
Where to Eat:
Mexico's pollo obsession is primo here with some spots devoted to chicken, and fresh fish is the order of the day (say "pescado al mojo" or "pescado con ajo") - try Don Cafeto downtown. Look for signs reading, "Aguas Frescas" for fruity cold drinks (bebidos). Try tepache - pineapple agua fresca with piloncillo (Mexican sugar) and canela (Mexican cinnamon). Splurge on dinner at Zamas in the Hotel Zone -- Cuban hip hop on the speakers, fresh fish and cold, cold beer on the table.
What to Do:
Laying on the beach gets oh so boring...
- Check out Tulum's prehistoric Mayan ruins -- $3.50 (free on Sunday) -- get a guide for $25.
- Underwater park Xel ha -- about $25 -- is theme-parkish but fun. Get there before the tour buses (opens at 8:00 a.m.).
- You must swim in a cenote (clear, fresh water sinkholes) -- see the Gran Cenote, west on the road to Coba.
- See Aktun Chen, above-ground cave park near Akumal (map to right). About $20.
- Tour nearby Sian Ka'an -- wowser nature reserve.
Mexico Travel FAQ:
An itinerary and budget for a week on the Riviera Maya:
...or how to spend a week on the Riviera Maya in seven lazy-dog days.
Days One and Two:
- Fly into Cancun; spend two nights in a breakfast-included hostel to save the bucks for Cancun clubs.
- Hop a bus to Playa del Carmen ($13).
- Take a ferry to Cozumel ($17) for the day.
Head for Tulum ($2 by bus).
- Check in at your lodging ($10).
- Dinner at Don Cafeto downtown ($15).
- Grab some fruit for tomorrow's breakfast ($1) -- grocery market downtown.
- Eat breakfast on the beach.
- Walk north on the Hotel Zone road to the ruins ($3.50 entry -- free on Sunday). Arrive at 8:00 to miss the tour bus crowds.
- See the Guatemalan "pole dancers" in the ruins parking lot (free; tip the guys, though).
- Lounge on the beach -- have a limonata (fresh lemons, sugar and water).
- Eat dinner in town at a chicken stand ($2-10).
- Eat breakfast at the sidewalk restaurant next to the downtown bus station.
Catch the bus to Sian Ka'an at Ana y Jose's -- spendy ($100 or more) or hitchike to the Gran Cenote sinkhole (free) for swimming and lounging.
- Splurge on dinner at Zamas in the Hotel Zone ($20).
Days Six and Seven
- Bus it back to Cancun ($10) -- now you know which hostel you like ($10). A last night of party 'til you drop and home again.
Total land budget for a week of student travel on the Mayan Riviera:
Buses - about $30
- Cozumel ferry - $17
- Hostels - $60 plus tax (varies by 10%)
- Breakfast - about $5-7 total
- Lunch - about $2-5 day (street food rules) -- $21
- Dinner - average $7 per night -- $42
- Tulum ruins - $3.50
About $181 plus tax -- doesn't include drinks or bottled water (you can buy bottled water at the convenience store on the inland side of the beach road -- turn right).
Remember that that you *can* spend a lot of $$ in Tulum -- use your pesos wisely.
*Prices from my 2003 visit.
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