Long gone are the days where Tulum was a hidden gem frequented mostly by backpackers and long-term nomads. Tulum has rapidly become one of Mexico’s trendiest destinations, and as a result, one of the priciest. The laid-back beach vibes have been replaced by the high class clientele of the Zona Hotelera. It seems like every Insta-model and influencer decided to flock to Tulum during the pandemic. This boom in tourism has definitely changed the landscape of this once serene beach town.
However, it is still possible to enjoy Tulum as a backpacker on a budget. Backpacking Tulum might not be the same as it was a few years ago, but it still deserves to be on any backpacker’s itinerary. Tulum is a world-class beach destination that goes far beyond being just a beach. Mystical cenotes tucked away in the jungle, ancient ruins of civilizations past, and a sizzling nightlife scene round out Tulum as one of Mexico’s must-visit destinations.
How To Get to Tulum
If you are flying into Mexico, the best airport to fly into is Cancun. From there, you can catch a direct bus to Tulum from the airport. It costs about $15 US and takes about two hours. It is extremely convenient as for now, Tulum doesn’t have its own airport.
If you’ve already been traveling or backpacking through Mexico and need to get to Tulum, going by bus is a great option. In these parts of Mexico, the main bus line is ADO or OCC. Go to your local ADO station and catch a bus to Tulum if they have it. If not, catch one to Cancun and ride on down to Tulum.
You can also rent a car from Cancun or Cancun airport and drive down to Tulum. I’ve seen car rentals for as low as $9 a day in this part of Mexico. Usually though, you’ll be looking at closer to $30-40 after insurance and everything else.
Where To Stay in Tulum
Honestly, one of the most important factors about making Tulum fun as a backpacker is where you’re staying. Tulum attracts a ton of different crowds. If you are looking for the backpacker crowd, you’ll find them at hostels. However, with Tulum becoming more and more expensive, hostels are also becoming popular among shorter-term vacationers. If you’re looking to party, that should be perfect, though.
Best Hostels in Tulum
The resort game in Tulum is top-notch. Some of the world’s most incredible hotels can be found along Tulum’s Zona Hotelera. But hey, you’re ballin’ on a budget. One night at one of those hotels could be a month’s accommodation for a backpacker. Luckily, the once you stray away from the Zona Hotelera, accommodation in Tulum is much more backpacker-friendly. You can find hostels for less than $10 a night, and lower-end hotels for $25 or so. I stayed at a few different hostels in Tulum town, and even some along the beach. Here’s my low-down on the hostel sitch in Tulum.
Mayan Monkey is by far my favorite hostel in Tulum. The only problem is its location, where it’s not quite in town and not quite close enough to the beach. If you have a bike or a scooter, it is pretty perfect, though. The dorm beds all have curtains, plugs, and everything else you’ll need to feel at home in your small space. Outside of the dorms, you have a bar, restaurant, swimming pool, common kitchen, and plenty of common areas to meet people and chillax in.
The other most popular hostel in Tulum, if not all of Mexico, is Hostel Che. Conveniently located in the heart of Tulum town, this is the place to be if you want to party hard. This is the classic choice for most backpackers going to Tulum.
If you are looking for a quieter scene but still have the option to socialize, Oostel might be for you. It has the best Wi-Fi I’ve encountered in Tulum. On my work hard, play hard vibe, Oostel was by far the best option. They had plenty of common areas to buckle down and sit on your laptop and grind. They had two pools to unwind in afterwards, as well as a bar so you could socialize once the work day was done. They’ve got an amazing location right behind the ADO bus station, putting you right at the heart of Tulum town.
Holistika is one of the most impressive properties in all of Tulum. It boasts a luxurious resort, yoga studios, cafes, restaurants, and their famous art walk, among other things. They also offer shared dorms for backpackers willing to splurge on a little bit of luxury. The dorm is known as The Beehive Experience, and last I checked, would run you about $60 USD per night. Welcome to Tulum, but I honestly believe you get what you pay for. It’s worth it for a night or two. Holistika is located a little further out of town, so I’d recommend having a bike or scooter so you don’t have to take the pricy taxi to and from here all the time.
Ahh, Selina. I have a love/hate relationship with Selina. On one hand, I prefer supporting local, one-of-a-kind hostels. On the other hand, Selinas are just so freaking nice, and it’s hard to deny that its location is far and away the best of any of Tulum’s hostels. It is one of the only hostels located in the Zona Hotelera of Tulum, and the price point shows. If you’re just on a short vacation and don’t mind spending more money, then the $56 a night dorm beds might not bother you. But personally, catch me in town at $7 a night Hostel Che.
I stayed here for three nights and hated it. I got a good deal on Booking when they dropped the price from $55 a night to about $23 a night, and I still kind of regretted it. The hostel doesn’t offer much besides a place to sleep and a mosquito net. However, the location is great, and it’s the most budget-friendly deal you’ll find in the Zona Hotelera.
Airbnbs are always an option, as well, if you’re looking for something more private and unique.
The Best Things To Do in Tulum
I’m so used to Tulum being presented as a fancy resort town that I almost forget just how much cool stuff there is to do in the area. The ruins of Tulum, Mujil, and Coba are all within 30 minutes of the downtown area. There are too many cenotes to even count. I can’t even remember the names of all the ones that I visited, and there are still dozens more that I need to dive into. Snorkeling and scuba diving adventures are only a short drive away, as close as Akumal Bay just twenty minutes north. Sure, yacht parties and bamboo beach clubs are a big draw for many travelers, but Tulum goes far beyond just that.
The Beaches of Tulum
Despite all the issues that I have with Tulum, objectively, it is one hell of a beautiful place. The long strip of white sandy beach reminded me of my childhood beach of Boracay back in the Philippines. Say what you will about Tulum, but the beaches are stunning.
If you’re looking for beach days on a budget, Playa Paraiso is where it’s at. It’s the public beach. To get here, basically turn left at the roundabout when heading towards the Zona Hotelera. It’s a long strip of white sand and turquoise waters, and for now, much less developed than the Zona Hotelera. You’ll still find a few bars and hotels, but nowhere near as many as the boujee side. This is where you’ll find the normal people of Tulum.
The Zona Hotelera is great for partying and treating yourself. I stayed on this side for a few days, and honestly, it wasn’t too bad. I woke up at sunrise every day to go for a run, and found that I had the beach mostly to myself for a few hours. Sunset was a different story. At night, the lone road gets overwhelmed with traffic, and that’s when Tulum starts to lose its magic for me. It’s nice to stay here if you just like to party and don’t care too much for leaving and exploring the rest of Tulum.
The Cenotes of Tulum
Tulum has some otherworldly natural beauty. Some of its best offerings are cenotes, underground rivers and swimming holes, often with crystal clear waters and lush greenery surrounding it. Each cenote is different, and it’s worth checking out as many of them as you can while you’re in Tulum. Gran Cenote is the closest one to town, and therefore one of the most popular. It is absolutely stunning, but quite pricy to get in and often very crowded. If you get a sunny day, the turquoise waters will wow you. Another cenote close to town is Cenote Calaveras. It isn’t the prettiest cenote by any means, but it is one of the most fun. It’s the one with all those holes that you can jump into.
Here’s a bigger and better list of cenotes that you can visit while in Tulum.
About twenty minutes north of Tulum is the small village of Akumal. This is a popular destination for snorkeling, diving, and quieter beach days. One of the biggest draws to Akumal Bay is the high likelihood of swimming with sea turtles. Who doesn’t love sea turtles? If this sounds like your jam, a trip to Akumal Bay is a must.
Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve
If you want to escape the man-made wonders of Tulum, then you’re in luck. At the very end of the Zona Hotelera strip, you’ll find the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve. This protected area is yet another reason why Tulum goes far beyond being just a beach destination. With Tulum boasting a jungle ecosystem, one can imagine that many animals call this part of Mexico home. A trip to Sian Ka’an is a must for anyone coming to Tulum.
Ruins of Tulum
The most famous ruins of Tulum are none other than… Tulum. However, there are plenty more that you can explore while you’re here. The ruins of Coba are just 30 minutes outside of town towards Chichen-Itza. Coba truly felt like an adventure, with far less tourists and most of the site still buried deep in the jungle. Muyil is another one that most tourists don’t know about, and it’s just a short drive south of Tulum. And of course, the World Wonder of Chichen-Itza is worth a day trip. It is lengthier to go from Tulum, and I’d recommend staying in Valladolid for the night so you can go early before the crowds come.
If you like history, Tulum is chock full of it. This region of Mexico was controlled by the Mayans for centuries and centuries. Outside of Palenque in Chiapas, the region surrounding Tulum arguably has the best Mayan ruins you’ll find in Mexico. I enjoyed my visits to all the ruins here. Most people just visit Tulum and Chichen-Itza, but go off the beaten path and you’ll be rewarded well.
Nightlife in Tulum
Tulum’s nightlife scene is exploding. It might be the trendiest and most rapidly-growing party destination in all of Mexico. Cancun has come and gone as the go-to beach destination in Quintana Roo. There are many ways to party in Tulum. If you’re in vacation mode, you can honestly be partying all day and all night while you’re here. Cocktails by the beach, tropical vibes on beachside clubs, and then world-class house DJs to keep you grooving until well in the morning. Tulum has it all, and it’s quickly become a top destination for party-lovers.
There are basically two nightlife districts in Tulum. One is the Zona Hotelera, where you’ll be going to live the high life and party it up without a care about your bank account. The other is Tulum Pueblo, which will be easier on your wallet, but doesn’t have the same paradise feel to it. While I am a backpacker through and through, I’ll admit that it does feel pretty damn good sipping on a mojito by the beach while tropical house plays in the background. However, my reality was that I was partying more in Tulum town.
This is where you go if you want to be surrounded by some of the finest people the world has ever seen. When people come to Tulum to party, this area is what they imagine, and where they’ll flock to.
I Scream Bar
For my fellow backpackers, this might be your best option. This is where you’ll find the most normal crowd of people in the Zona Hotelera. People are just here to dance and have fun. You can’t miss it. The party literally spills out onto the streets. It’s hard not to want to join in when you walk past.
This place is more of a restaurant, but it is one hell of a fun experience. It is the liveliest dinner you’ll have, and it inevitably evolves into a club towards the end of the night.
Taboo is part of the classic Tulum experience. Everyone who comes to Tulum to party will inevitably end up at Taboo at some point. It’s right along the beach in the Zona Hotelera and usually boasts one of the liveliest parties going. While the rest of the Zona Hotelera is more of a chill vibe, usually with house music and light swaying, Taboo gets the party going with upbeat hip-hop, pop, and more.
Papaya Playa Project
Papaya Playa is the place to be. If you want to show out, ball out, and go all out on a fun time, Papaya Playa is your weekend hangout for sure.
I personally enjoyed partying more in Tulum Town. The crowd usually makes the party for me, and I found the people partying here to be much more down to earth and fun. Partying in Zona Hotelera often felt like people were there to show off and create content than to actually have fun. You’ll find some of those people in Tulum town, too, but definitely nowhere near as many. The parties in town are more low key, but there are a few bars and clubs.
The party in Tulum varies night by night, although there will be one every single night if you look for it. I liked this night by night guide on nightlife in Tulum. Since I was living in a hippie commune in the jungle without transportation of my own, I wasn’t able to go out as often as I wanted in Tulum, so this girl’s got you covered for me.
Other Budget Travel Tips for Tulum
One of the biggest things that deters backpackers from going to Tulum is the prices. However, Tulum doesn’t have to be expensive. Here are some budget travel tips for Tulum.
Visit Tulum During The Low Season
Like many other beach destinations in Mexico, prices can vary wildly between seasons. During low seasons, prices in Tulum are much more on par with what you’ll find throughout Mexico. During high seasons, hotels, hostels, and even bars and restaurants will jack up their prices. Sometimes, the price hike can be up to 400%. Seriously, I got a dorm room on the beach for $23 a night. I saw their price chart, and during high season, the same crappy dorm bed would cost $70. It’s insane. If you want to experience Tulum without spending crazy amounts of money, you’ll want to go outside of peak seasons.
Haggle with your taxis
Sometimes, taxis are unavoidable. The taxi drivers in Tulum often that people will mindlessly pay way more than they need to. Always ask how much the taxi costs beforehand, and negotiate a fair price. When I know a price is fair, I’ll tell the taxi right away how much I’m going to pay. State it with conviction and usually, they’ll agree. As a rule of thumb, getting anywhere within town should cost no more than 100 pesos max. It’s usually only 40-60 pesos for shorter rides. Getting to the beach from town during quieter hours can be as low as 180 pesos from my experience. However, they’ll usually start with 400 pesos before quickly going down to the 250-300 range, which is fair most of the time. There are some cheaper ways to get around, though.
This is my personal favorite way of getting around on a budget. Money’s a silly little thing, isn’t it? Why pay a taxi driver $20 when my thumb can get me where I need to go for free? Hitchhiking in Tulum is pretty easy, especially to and from the beach. There’s only one main road going to and from town, so posting up there and sticking your thumb out will get you where you need to go pretty easily. It might take a few minutes, but I’ve found that people visiting Tulum are quite happy. Lots of tourists rent cars and are always more than happy to pick up a fellow traveler.
To get from town to the beach and vice versa, there is no better option than to catch a colectivo or combi. It costs 10 pesos, or about $.50 USD to get from town to the Zona Hotelera. It cost 15 pesos to get from Zona Hotelera back to town. You can try and catch the colectivos from the side of the road, and that usually works. However, if you find that they’re all full, you might have to go to the designated colectivo spot in town about two blocks from Tulum’s mercado. Colectivos are reliable and inexpensive. If you don’t feel like hitchhiking and don’t want to pay for a taxi, just hop in a colectivo.
Rent a bicycle
Bicycles are the way to go in Tulum. Almost everyone owns or rents a bike in Tulum. It’s just part of the aesthetic, too, you feel? Renting a bike usually goes for around $5 a day. However, if you plan on renting one long-term, it’s usually a lot cheaper. Some Airbnbs and hotels include bike rentals in their prices, as well, so make sure to take advantage of that. If you plan on staying in Tulum for the long haul, buying a decent bike usually costs around $80.
Now, you’re ready to take on Tulum.
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