Tulum: Beach or Town?

The picture was conveniently taken directly between the beach and the town.

The picture was conveniently taken directly between the beach and the town.

For some reason, Mexico has inadvertently earned itself a reputation as an unsafe place to visit. Don’t get me wrong — there are certainly places in the country that you’d be wise to explore with caution. But you could say the same thing for any country. Still, the rumours and fear among tourists considering Mexico as a vacation location are quite prevalent. It has become a common misconception that you should just avoid it altogether. 

But then again, you can’t deny the incredible beaches and paradisiacal weather that Mexico offers all year-round.

So it’s no coincidence that Mexico has also become synonymous with the term ‘all inclusive resort’. These convenient accommodations allow you to enjoy your pleasant vacation inside a gated fence; unscathed by the evil dangers that lurk outside those walls. 

How wonderful! You can fly in, hop in a van and exit straight to your beach lounger; having only viewed the streets of Mexico through the window of your hotel-provided van.

Whenever I mention my time in Mexico, one of the first questions I get is “which resort did you stay at?” It’s as if they don’t recognize Mexico as anything more than Pina Coladas and sunshine. 

But I’m here to tell you that there is another way! A better way — one that will correct this skewed perception of what Mexico really has to offer.  

Break free of the resorts and stay in the humble town of Tulum. Here’s why.

It’s a tourist town.

Not to worry. I’m not sending you out into the wild with a few pesos and some swimming shorts. Tulum is very tourist-friendly. This is a great way to dip your toes into a local Mexican experience without having to sweat any missteps.

If you stick to the main streets, you’ll find various souvenir shops mingled between restaurants and bars of all sorts. A lot of the folks working here speak some level of English (most are well-versed) so you’ll have no trouble getting what you need. 

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Observe the locals.

But if you walk a few streets away from the main area you will start to get a glimpse of the local environment in Tulum. As the happy hour bars fade out, the tiny shops and restaurants begin to fade in. You’ll be greeted with friendly smiles and feel a sense of warmth when you see how community-oriented everyone is. Families huddled together in their shops watching TV; groups of people relaxing at the town square; children all over the place playing games and running around. 

In my experience, there is no shortage of love floating around in Tulum. Take a moment to just sit on a bench and people-watch for a while. Maybe it was the laid back bohemian vibe of Tulum that got to me but I’m grateful that I got to experience and observe the kindness amongst the local community here. 

The locals seemed less interested in observing me.

The locals seemed less interested in observing me.

Everything is cheaper.

It should come as no surprise that restaurants and shops surrounding the fancy beach resorts have inflated prices. Unless you enjoy getting ripped off, you have to get away from the hotel zone if you want to buy anything. 

But if you stay in Tulum, you have everything you need within steps of your room — at a fraction of the price.

Want souvenirs? There are plenty of shops on the main street and no sticker price is final. They are expecting you to haggle with them. You can get your hand painted sugar skull at about a third of the price.

Want to drink? The happy hours here are ridiculous! Two Coronas for 35 pesos (roughly $2 or so). Two mojitos for 80 pesos. If you’re looking to drink on a budget, look no further. Alternatively, you’re looking at 120+ pesos for a single drink by the beach.  

Want adventures? In the hotel zone, they assume you’ve got money to blow so the tours and attractions cost more out there as well. Take a quick ride into town and you’ll see a reduction in these prices as well.

Need a place to stay? Hotels on the beach are no less than $150/night for an standard room. If you want a nice hotel, you’re looking at more than $200 per night. But if you look at Tulum, particularly through Airbnb, you can find really nice places as low as $40/night. The nicer places ranging around $120/night.  

But most importantly?

Better food at a better price.

There are so many incredible options in Tulum. We had a hard time choosing on most days. The flavours are exceptional and don’t seem to be catered to anyone but locals. This is important!

Story time! Everything we read told us that the food by the beach is great and worth the extra cost. So we saved a special evening to dine at a restaurant by the beach. We rented a scooter and decided on a lovely beachside restaurant. The vibe was incredible. We fell in love with the chill music, the open air concept and the nearly-off-the-grid setup they had created. The menu sounded great too. 

But after having spent previous days eating to our hearts desire at restaurants in town, we found everything here to be so bland! It was all just lacking flavour and did not live up to how beautiful the restaurant itself was. And it certainly missed the mark compared to the hype.

We begrudgingly paid the inflated bill and went back to town looking for food to satisfy our cravings.

We won't name any names.

We won't name any names.

Now, I recognize that all taste buds will vary from person to person so these restaurants might be your thing. But just know that your food budget could potentially double or triple if you choose to dine in the hotel zone exclusively. 

Do yourself a favour and dine in town! You’ll get a true taste for local fare and avoid eating meals that are so obviously catered to the people that are staying at the hotels nearby. 

Go on a beach adventures.

I’m sure that by now your only remaining thought is the beach. The convenience of having the beach right outside your hotel room is pretty awesome. Honestly, you can’t beat that. But you have to ask yourself if it’s worth the cost. 

Here’s the alternative, which we actually ended up enjoying far more. If you stay in Tulum, you can rent a bike for 80 pesos/day. You can get one with a cute little basket on the front to stow away your beach goodies

By bike, Tulum is about 20 minutes to the public beach, via a beautiful bike path that runs alongside the highway. It’s such a beautiful and easy ride that takes you right past the Tulum Ruins (so you could knock out both in one day if you wish). 

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Or you could take a taxi. But that's just silly.

Seek only what you find valuable.

If you value sleeping five steps from the ocean then by all means take advantage of that option! But for us, we found far more value in immersing ourselves into the life of the locals in town, saving money and taking the scenic route everyday. Having a beachside hotel would have been lovely but we wouldn’t have enjoyed Tulum nearly as much had we settled in elsewhere.

I encourage you to step outside the walls of the resorts and see the irony in how little ‘all inclusive’ really gets you.