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Vanabode Camp, Travel And Live Forever On $20 A Day
Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula is well-known for the resort hubs of Cancun and Playa del Carmen, aka all-inclusive destinations that cost you a pretty penny and are about as authentically Mexican as Taco Bell. A bit further south lies Tulum, a more budget-friendly option.
Tulum occupies a stretch of the same crystalline coastline as the expensive resorts, without the hefty price tag. Five or six years ago, Tulum was mostly unknown, like a secret Caribbean getaway for digital nomads and backpackers. Recently though, Tulum has experienced a commercial boom. Resort-style hotels line the beach strip now, and with them came a slew of shops, restaurants, and bars.
Still, Tulum is far from a mini Cancun.
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The cenotes, Mayan ruins, and regional cuisine alone are worth the trip. There’s also something charming about the artsy vibes of the shops and restaurants along the beach highway. So, if you’ve been thinking about visiting the Yucatan but are worried about the cost, follow this guide to enjoy Tulum on a budget.
Getting to Tulum
The easiest way to get to the Yucatan peninsula is by flying into Cancun International Airport. From there, there are several ways you can reach Tulum without blowing your budget.
Rent a Car
Renting a car in Mexico is usually inexpensive, although there are a few pitfalls to avoid, mostly to do with insurance. Insurance coverage is required to drive a rental car in Mexico, and it’s typically not covered under whatever domestic auto insurance policy you hold.
How to go about getting that required coverage then?
Well, the good news is that the cost of the rental includes the minimum coverage required. Having additional protection is always a good idea, though. The rental car provider will offer this at pick-up, usually doubling or tripling the price that you were quoted online for the rental.
While that’s often still a pretty good rate (I’ve seen week-long rentals with insurance quoted at about $25 USD), you might have similar coverage for less through your credit card. Something to keep in mind when deciding: if you refuse additional coverage at pick-up, the rental agency will put a hold on your credit card instead, up to $2,500 USD.
Related: How to Choose the Best Travel Credit Card
There are plenty of well-known, trusted rental providers that operate out of Cancun International, so booking online is easy. Do your research to find the best rate for when you’ll be visiting and enjoy the freedom of having your own ride.
Take a Bus or Shuttle
While renting a car is definitely the most independent way to get to and around Tulum, it’s not the right choice for every traveler. Maybe you’re uncomfortable driving in a foreign country or, like me, found out that your adorable Airbnb doesn’t have parking. Either way, there are other options.
The most budget-friendly way to get to Tulum is on the ADO bus. According to their website, there are several departures from Cancun International to Tulum and back, with prices starting at $262 MX (~$14 USD). It’s about an hour and a half bus ride. You can buy tickets online or at the airport.
Related: How to Get a Bus from Mexico to Belize
Another option that works well for groups who can split the cost is hiring a private shuttle. There are many shuttle companies that operate out of Cancun Airport, but Happy Shuttle has the best prices. $189 USD for a round trip fare isn’t bad if you’re splitting between five or six people.
Once you’re in Tulum, getting around without a car is simple. You can’t walk five feet without tripping over a bike rental and the taxis are plentiful and cheap, as well.
Tips for Visiting Tulum on a Budget
Cash is King
Paying with cash is the way to go in Tulum, and by cash, I mean Mexican pesos. If you’ve ever been to the resort strips of Cancun or Playa del Carmen, you’ll know that you can get by with US dollars or credit cards for almost everything. The same is not true of Tulum.
Most establishments only accept cash and prefer pesos. If you pay in US dollars, it’s likely that you’ll pay extra for the convenience, and I advise against it.
Apart from the obvious financial benefits, it’s our responsibility as travelers to be conscientious of the communities we visit. After all, you wouldn’t go to Spain and expect to pay with US dollars; you’d use euros. It’s the same thing in Tulum. The slight inconvenience means Tulum’s economy isn’t flooded with foreign currency and that’s a price worth paying, regardless of your budget.
My advice is to make the exchange from your own currency to pesos or find an ATM that works before you leave for Tulum. Airport currency exchange rates are outrageous and the ATMs in Tulum aren’t reliable (we tried five before we found one that worked, and the ATM fees were hefty).
Related: How to Set Up a Charles Schwab Bank Account and Avoid ATM Fees Anywhere
¿Se Habla Español?
Tulum might be more touristy now than it used to be, but you’ll still meet plenty of people who don’t speak much English. If you can’t speak Spanish, you’ll be able to get by, but try learning some basic Spanish before your trip if you have time.
Related: Why (and How) You Should Learn a Foreign Language
Speaking Spanish will come in handy when dealing with shop owners or taxi drivers, especially if you learn numbers. Prices are often rattled off quickly in Spanish, and that can get confusing. Knowing pleasantries like “gracias” or “buenos días” isn’t essential, but it is nice and people will appreciate that you’re making an effort.
Best Time to Visit Tulum
As with any destination, flights and accommodation will be cheaper during the off-season. High season for Tulum is mid-December to March. The weather is spectacular, but so are the crowds and the rates.
Related: 21 Budget Travel Tips that WILL Save You Money on the Road
Visiting Tulum on a budget is easier if you’re willing to put up with a little more heat and humidity. I visited in late April. It did get warm during the afternoons, but the cheap airfare was worth being a little hot and sticky. Besides, it’s Mexico, so hot weather is only expected. Otherwise, the weather was incredible. We enjoyed cool mornings and evenings, and there was only one brief rain shower on our first afternoon.
Speaking of rain, going during the rainy season (July through October) will get you the cheapest rates. Don’t be put off by the fact that it’s called the rainy season. A few years ago I stayed in Riviera Maya, just an hour north of Tulum, during late July. It didn’t rain once.
What to Do in Tulum
1. Go to the Beach
This is a great, free activity to do in Tulum. You might have read that the only public access beaches are Playa Paraiso and Las Palmas on the north shore. That’s not true. All of the beaches are public.
We didn’t discover this until our final day in Tulum. Don’t make the same mistake. The confusion comes because some of the hotels restrict access to their guests only. They’re in the minority, though. For the most part, you should be able to walk straight on through down to the beach. I know for sure that Ahau, Ziggies, OM, and La Zebra will let you down onto the beach without buying anything.
The caveat is that while the beaches themselves are free, the lounges and cabanas lined up invitingly along the shore are not. These belong to the beach clubs associated with the waterfront hotels. For a flat rate plus minimum food and drink order, you can rent one out, but the prices vary from reasonable to absurd.
Just bring a towel, a picnic, and plenty of sunscreen for a relaxing day at the beach.
2. Visit the Mayan Ruins at Tulum
If there’s one must-see on this list, it’s the ruins. While they might not have the towering grandeur of Chichen Itza, the Mayan ruins at Tulum are some of the best preserved and the only ones on the coast.
The ruins are open from 8 am to 5 pm, but it’s best to arrive as early as possible. Not only are the Tulum ruins ultra popular and tend to get crowded, but they’re mostly exposed, meaning it gets hot quickly. We were among the first 50 people through the gates when we visited, and by the time we left at 10 am, it was sweltering.
A nice way to cool off after marveling at the imposing stone ruins is to nip down to the little beach that’s only accessible through the archaeological zone. It’s the most visually stunning of the beaches I’ve seen in Tulum. Sheer cliffs drop down to meet the turquoise water and iguanas sun themselves on the rocks. If you get there early enough, you’ll have the beach mostly to yourself, as we did.
Arrive to the ruins by car or taxi and plan for at least two hours.
Cost: $65 MX/person (~$4 USD)
3. Cool Off in a Cenote
Cenotes are sinkholes formed when the layer of limestone below the surface collapses. Sometimes these sinkholes remain dry, but more often they open into an underground water source. In the case of the cenotes around Tulum, it’s an underground river.
There are over 6,000 cenotes in the Yucatan, all connected to this same river – the only natural source of fresh water on the peninsula. Many of those cenotes are inaccessible, being either on private property or in the literal middle of the jungle. However, there are several in Tulum that you can visit on a budget.
Best known and most easily reached from Tulum are Gran Cenote, Cenote Calavera, and Dos Ojos Cenote. Like the Tulum ruins, since they are so popular, it’s best to time your visit for when they’re not as crowded. That means early morning when they first open or late in the afternoon, when it’s too hot for most people.
The water is crystal clear and you can try a guided dive down into the connected underground river if you’re not squeamish about cave diving. For the less adventurous, you can just swim or snorkel in the cenotes, too.
Remember to pack a towel and if you bring sunscreen, it must be biodegradable. The cenote ecosystem is fragile and the harsh chemicals in regular sunscreens are incredibly harmful to it.
Cost: $100 – 200 MX/person, depending on the cenote (~$5 – $15 USD)
4. Where to Eat in Tulum
Mexican food is one of my favorite cuisines, and Tulum did not disappoint. You’ll find plenty of non-Mexican restaurants there as well, from Indian to Italian to Argentinian. But if you’re looking for authentic and delicious regional food, here are my recommendations for where to eat in Tulum on a budget:
If you’re in town for lunch or dinner, stop by Burrito Amor and Batey. Burrito Amor’s commitment to clean eating, less waste, and a menu that anyone can order from, regardless of dietary restrictions, makes you feel good about ordering there. Oh, and the burritos are amazing, so there’s that.
Batey is more of a bar than a restaurant – a mojito bar, to be exact. While you can order tapas, the real star of the show is the sugar cane press they’ve built into a hollowed out old VW bug. It’s crazy but awesome and the fresh sugar cane makes the most intense mojitos.
The restaurants along the beach strip tend to be pricier than those in town, but don’t worry. There are excellent budget options here, too. Naj Tacos and Tortas ended up being my favorite place – I came back three times! They serve great, cheap tacos as well as sandwiches and even breakfast (they make a mean omelet).
Other favorite spots are I Scream Bar for dinner or vegan ice cream and Raw Love Tulum for all raw vegan food, including smoothies, smoothie bowls, “baked” goods, and tea and coffee.
Cost: Nothing over $300 MX (~$15 USD)
Where to Stay in Tulum
If you’re looking to stay in Tulum on a budget, staying in the town itself is the best option. There are many hostels in Tulum Pueblo, which is unsurprising given its roots as a backpacker getaway. Rooms start around $10 USD/night.
Another inexpensive option is getting an Airbnb in town. When I was searching back in February, I had a list of 25 or more Airbnbs in the center of town that ranged between $30 and $50 USD/night. They were all adorable. If you’re going as a couple or with a group of friends, you can find a nicer, slightly more expensive place and split the cost.
Related: How to Stick to Your Budget When Traveling with Friends
If you want to stay along the beach as I did, you’ll end up spending more. My Airbnb was perfect: gorgeous, minutes away from the water, near the best restaurants, excellent hotel staff. But it was $192 USD/night.
For me, the extra money was worth it. I was splitting the cost and I knew I was saving money elsewhere. There are less expensive options, though. I just saw a listing for as low as $60 USD/night. To be fair, it’s a literal shipping container that’s been retrofitted as a studio apartment, but still.
Related: Great Budget Find: Hotel Kinbe in Playa del Carmen
Tourism and Tulum
Now that I’ve shared my budget tips for Tulum, I want to share my thoughts, too. There’s a lot of criticism of Tulum, the takeaway being that it’s lost what used to make it special. Now that I’ve been there, I can see how some might feel that way. Especially if they knew Tulum “before.” But I also think that’s a narrow-minded take on the situation.
Does Tulum sometimes feel overly curated and Instagram-y? It does. But some of that’s fun. Like this massive art piece that was installed while I was there. It’s gorgeous and speaks to the very best parts of Tulum – the parts that are a blend of the artsy Instagram aesthetic and the native, local culture.
And if tacos cost $1 now instead of $0.50, is that really such a deal-breaker? Tulum might be more expensive than some other parts of Mexico, but it’s still relatively cheap. As long as that extra $0.50 goes into boosting the local economy and not padding the pockets of a foreign corporation, it’s money well spent, in my opinion.
By Meghan Crawford