TULUM, Q. Roo — Tulum is changing fast. Just a few short years ago, the area consisted of the Maya archeological site, a sleepy little inland town – or “pueblo” – carved out of the dense Yucatan jungle and a handful of modest hammock-furnished cabanas up and down the nearby beach – or “playa”.
Today, the town continues to expand, fueled by the growth in tourism throughout the whole of Riviera Maya. Still, Tulum maintains an identity and pace that is light years away from its touristy neighbors to the north in Playa del Carmen and Cancun, which is what attracted off-the-beaten-path travelers to this pristine patch of the Caribbean in the first place.
Located about 75 miles south of Cancún International Airport, it’s an easy drive down a modern highway, but expect the trip to take at least an hour and a half thanks to security checkpoints, speed bumps and passage through towns along the way. Some hotel shuttles make multiple resort stops, greatly increasing the travel time, and public transportation via buses takes even longer.
For those visitors who will be spending all of their time lounging on the beach or exploring the nearby pueblo, a car is not necessary. Public transportation, luxury bus services, and hotel shuttles all will get you from the Cancun airport to Tulum. Once there, plentiful taxis or rented bicycles and scooters will move you between the hotel zone and the town.
But for travelers eager to explore the greater region, which is flush with archeological sites, world-class snorkeling spots, entertaining ecotourism activities, and historic colonial towns, a rental car is a natural choice. Reserve a car from one of the many rental agencies at the airport, but know that those advertised low prices don’t include mandatory personal liability insurance and steep sales taxes, which will double or triple the daily rate. And no, your credit card does not offer insurance protection in this instance. All told, our basic VW rental car can cost $325 for a full week, not counting gas.
Hit the beach
For many, the beaches are reason numero uno for visiting Tulum. Imagine the very best beaches that Florida has to offer. Now take away the rocks, seashells, jelly fish, screaming kids and blaring music. Oh, and swap out the sand for powdered sugar. Now we’re getting close. The public beaches up and down the Tulum beach road are laid-back, tranquil and bikini-top optional. Up north, the roomy beaches are easy to access and offer the same shallow, sandy-bottomed, turquoise-tinted water enjoyed elsewhere. Down south, the access gets tougher but the crowds grow smaller.
Aktun Chen Parque Natural
The word “otherworldly” is neither figurative nor hyperbolic when used to describe what awaits visitors at Aktun Chen. This attraction was voted by National Geographic as one of the Top 10 underground walks of the world and it’s a great way to escape the oppressive midday heat. Sightseers don hardhats and venture below ground into a cool, supernatural environment filled with fossils, stalactites, stalagmites, crystal-clear cenotes and furry fruit bats. Knowledgeable guides explain the geology behind the formation of these underwater caverns and rivers that eventually lead out to sea.
Take a dip in a cenote
Throughout the Yucatan Peninsula there are thousands of cenotes, access points to a vast network of underground rivers. These subterranean pools are the ideal place to cool off after a long, hot day of sightseeing or lying on the sandy, salty beach. The water within is crystal-clear, bracingly cold, and often unfathomably deep. Scuba divers can travel for miles along these watery passageways. Just a couple bucks buys access to any cenote.
Where to Stay
“Playa or pueblo”, that’s the question. For a true beach vacation, you’ll want to book a room or cabana in one of the many hotels dotting the beach road. But don’t discount staying in town, where prices are cheaper and conveniences closer by.
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