Tulum, Mexico, located in the state of Quintana Roo on the Yucatan Peninsula, is a lesser-known Mexican destination attractive to yoga gurus, environmentalists and, to put it bluntly, the wealthy worldly traveler. Just short of two hours south of Cancún, Tulum is rife with swimming holes called cenotes, teeny tiny, side-by-side hotels lining the beach and well-preserved Mayan ruins frequented by about 2 million visitors a year.
Tulum’s downtown (the locals refer to it as the “puebla”) is small, with one main road and reportedly cheaper lodging; the Beach Road, meanwhile, a coastline strip that contains dozens upon dozens of boutique hotels on one end and the ruins on the other, is a hotspot for retreats that advertise yoga poses and promise sanctuary. And if you’re not on the water or in the town, you’re on the freeway, a straight shot back to Cancún and the rest of the Riviera Maya.
When most people think of Tulum, though, they’re thinking about Beach Road, where I stayed for a quick trip and was able to survey the livelihood of the tourists that visit Tulum. This section of the town is largely off the grid, focusing instead on making guests feel like they’re plopped in the jungle, settled by the beach, not to be bothered.
But Tulum is largely manufactured, it seems; the key phrase there is “making guests feel.” The town knows what kinds of tourists it attracts (i.e. the ones that are purposely spending money to do nothing), and it’s main purpose is to maintain that air of stress-free, paradise life -- even in a particularly underprivileged part of the world.
After the most extensive research, though, Tulum ended up bypassing all expectations, whether it was for better or worse. What you read about Tulum will usually coincide with this blissful, low-key agenda, and who knows, maybe I didn’t spend enough time there to appreciate the town for what it is. Regardless, a number of elements probably won’t be exactly what you expect.
Expectation: Clear, Caribbean water
Reality: It’s Caribbean, sure. And flying into the country, you can tell it’s supposed to be clear. But coming off of the rainy season (June through October) must have its drawbacks. The ocean was rough, preventing any kind of swimming in the 75-degree water, and filled to the brim with seaweed. Is this the norm? I can’t speak on that, but pick your timeframe strategically.
Expectation: Pricey cabana and lounge chair rentals
Reality: An advantage of Tulum’s attempts to keep visitors feeling like they don’t have a care in the world while there comes in the form of no-cost lounge chairs. There’s no laying on a sandy towel on the strip of beach -- just plop down on what are essentially beach couches and covered cabanas. I will say, taking a nap in a patch of shade that still allows a warm ocean breeze in was one of the finer hours I’ve experienced.
Expectation: Cheap food and drinks
Reality: Not on Beach Road. Like I said, the hotel and restaurant owners on this strip know what kind of clientele they’re getting. Even with the decent exchange rate between the peso and U.S. dollar, cocktails still ran $10-15 and dinners were more expensive than the average meal out in Boston. According to travel blogs, downtown prices are more what you expect out of Mexico, but I was wishing I’d ordered more pesos from the bank by the second day.
Expectation: Beach bars and beach bars only
Reality: I figured since Tulum promotes relaxation and paradise, and it was a beach town in Mexico, that their primary form of pub would be walk-up beach bars. But there’s also a number of restaurants, bars and even clubs on Beach Road that will have long lines of people waiting to get in as of 10 p.m. One of them, Gitano, took credit cards, charged $16 per cocktail and was covered in Insta-bait. Sensing the vibe yet? It even had a roped-off VIP room that made the place feel very American -- which was fine, just not what I went to Mexico for.
Expectation: Refreshing weather
Reality: A stifling humidity that was only curbed inches from the ocean. Heat and sun? Yes, please. A stickiness that infiltrated every part of my body and mind? Thank u, next.
Expectation: Too-strong tequila
Reality: My opinion is skewed here. It’s difficult to tell if the drinks in Tulum are just so well made that they’re tasty and tolerable even for the most tequila-adverse drinkers or if the overpriced cocktails were lacking enough liquor. Without a single buzz to my name during my stay in Tulum, I can’t say the cocktails were at their best. Every margarita I had was yummy though, so we’ll table this one.