Tulum has become one of those legendary destinations that seemingly anyone heading to Mexico must visit.

While it definitely has its highlights and charm, it has been hyped up greatly in recent years, so is it really all that it’s cracked up to be? If you’re still on the fence, I’ll share the pros and cons of staying in Tulum.

In the Riviera Maya region (where Tulum is located) there are so many other memorable destinations such as Bacalar, Isla Mujeres, and Playa del Carmen. Each has its own particular vibe and attractions that also make them worthy considerations for a trip.

In this guide, I’ll cover Tulum itself and four alternatives to Tulum, the best things to do in each place, as well as some travel tips based on my own experience here.

Is Tulum Worth Visiting?

People swimming at Cenote Dos Ojos in Mexico

Nowadays Tulum tends to somewhat divide opinions, with some arguing that it’s lost its authenticity over the last decade or so as more high-end resorts targeting American tourists have sprung up.

While this town in the Yucatan Peninsula definitely feels like it’s more geared toward tourists’ eyes, there are still many timeless attractions that you’ll absolutely love here.

These include the Mayan Ruins of Tulum that are perched on a cliff overlooking the Caribbean Sea, as well as the various cenotes (limestone cave formations) such as those of Dos Ojos and Gran Cenote.

Can You Visit Tulum on a Budget?

The beachside resorts in Tulum are known for charging essentially US prices, so Tulum beach may not be the best place to go if you’re traveling on a tight budget.

If you’re able to splurge, then the Tulum resorts will definitely give you a premium experience infused with hipster and boho chic vibes, ranging from 100 USD a night all the way to 400 USD a night. Beach glamping options such as Serena Tulum charge around $200 per night for a tent.

The Tulum Beach in Mexico at sunrise

This may be reasonable by, say, New York standards but for Mexico, this is definitely rather pricey, which helps explain why some travelers question if Tulum is really worth it.

However, if you’re on a budget you can still visit Tulum! You can save costs by staying in Tulum Town, which is about 3 miles or 5km inland. From the town, you can take taxis to the beach, or rent bicycles or scooters.

In Tulum Town, you can find resort hotels with a pool for under 100 USD a night, or you can find backpacker hostels that truly let you keep your costs down. If you’re a backpacker, then be sure to stay at Mama’s Home where the eponymous mama cooks all the meals! Staying there will give you a wonderful communal traveler experience.

Some of the Tulum alternatives discussed later have received less hype than Tulum and make it more likely to find hotel deals with a view of the beach.

1 Day in Tulum Itinerary

If you have little time, you can easily make the most of Tulum in just one day.

Arriving early, you’ll first want to rent a bike (from any hostel or rental company along the main 307 highway) and explore the town.

This includes the Parque Dos Aguas with its Mayan Calendar statue, from where you can then take Highway 15 down towards Tulum Beach.

Depending on your fitness level and desire, you can head even further south towards the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, which is home to impressive birds such as the Jabiru Stork, as well as Spider Monkeys and Turtles.

Frigatebirds on a mangrove tree in Quintana Roo, Mexico

Heading back to Tulum, you can then visit the Tulum Archaeological Ruins to see one of the most scenic Mayan Ruins in Mexico.

Depending on how much time you have, you can also take a local colectivo to the Dos Ojos Cenote to enjoy some snorkeling in the bright blue waters before departing Tulum.

3 Best Things to Do in Tulum

Explore underwater marine wildlife

Say what you want about Tulum – the colors and transparency of the ocean here are truly incredible.

As well as the mesmerizing blue and green shades, there are many exotic species to snorkel with such as Manta Rays, Turtles, and Bull Sharks.

Whale Sharks also frequent these shores from April until September (during their annual migration towards warmer waters).

Visit the Ahau Sculpture Park

Now relocated inside the Ahau Hotel, here we’ll find the impressive Ven a la Luz sculpture, as well as many other thought-provoking creations.

People looking at the Ven a la Luz sculpture at Ahau Sculpture Park in Tulum, Mexico

You’ll want to come early though, given this iconic statue often draws long queues of tourists waiting to get their picture with it!

Head to Tulum Ruins

Built in the 13th century, these ruins were once an important, strategic site for the Mayan civilization. As well as having a picturesque view over the Caribbean coast, Tulum Ruins were once used to facilitate maritime trade with other cultures, given their close proximity to the sea.

After exploring the site, you can also enjoy the palm-fringed beach below for a nice cool-off from the hot Mexican sun.

Tulum Alternatives

While Tulum definitely has many things going for it, the Riviera Maya region itself is a really diverse area.

This means that there are many other destinations that may suit your personal style and trip requirements.

Let’s now take a look at 4 of the very best alternatives that you can head to instead of Tulum.


Why Visit Bacalar?

Located roughly 200 km south of Tulum, Bacalar is a much more relaxed town and is a better choice for those looking to take things at a slower pace.

Most notable here is the Bacalar Lagoon, which is next to the town and is known for its multicolored waters. Besides the lagoon, there are many other things to do in Bacalar.

The Laguna Bacalar in Mexico

As well as enjoying the more laid-back culture, Bacalar is also a great place to base yourself to explore some of the lesser-known gems found deeper within the Riviera Maya.

3 Things to Do in Bacalar

Enjoy the Bacalar Lagoon

With as many as 7 different shades of blue and green (on a good day that is), I have to admit that this is one of the most beautiful lakes I have ever seen.

The water is nice and warm for taking frequent dips, and visibility in some areas makes it an ideal place for snorkeling too.

It’s worth visiting the Canal de los Piratas which was once an infamous smuggling route, as well as the Isla de los Pájaros to see a variety of both endemic and migratory birds.

Explore the ruins of Kohunlich

Situated deep within the Mayan Jungle, these sprawling ruins are much less known about, yet give a more authentic look into the ancient civilization that once ruled these lands.

The Kohunlich Ruins in the Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico

There are many moss-laden temples here worth exploring such as the Temple of the Masks, as well as the 27 Steps Pyramid.

Given you’ll be exploring within the rainforest, you’ll see many wild animals and also hear the loud shrieks of the resident Howler Monkeys when walking around the site.

Head to the low-key Cenote Cocalitos

Cenotes are a big thing here in the Riviera Maya. However, many of them (such as Suytun and Ik Kil) are so rammed with tourist buses that it can make it difficult to fully appreciate them.

Enter Bacalar, where we now have some scenic cenotes – without the crowds!

Cenote Cocalitos in Laguna Bacalar, Mexico

Cenote Cocalitos is a classic which is an open dark blue cenote, surrounded by the lighter blues hues of the lagoon.

There are many ancient Stromatolites here that you can get up and close with, which are living rock-like formations that are as old as 3.5 billion years!


Why Visit Cozumel?

The Caribbean Sea that surrounds the Riviera Maya is home to many beautiful islands, with each offering something slightly different.

Chen Rio Beach in Mexico

Cozumel is the largest, however, is more relaxed and has a more wild feel to it.

The east coast is the best place to enjoy the beaches without crowds, while those who love exploring the underwater world will arguably be in the best place in Mexico to do so!

3 Best Things to Do in Cozumel

Relax on the scenic Caribbean beaches

When it comes to finding that perfect slice of sandy heaven, it doesn’t come any better than the Isla de Pasión.

Located in the north of Cozumel, here we’ll find bright white sands and turquoise waters which are perfect for swimming.

Whilst there’s still a bit of Sargassum here (a type of seaweed that affects the coasts along the Riviera Maya), it’s much less of an issue here when compared with Playa del Carmen or Tulum.

Those after a more remote beach (with an expansive coastline) will want to head to Playa Ixpalbarco on the east coast.

Enjoy tropical underwater wildlife

The waters in Cozumel are perfect for spotting wildlife, with some really impressive visibility conditions.

Playa el Cielo is the best for snorkelers, where you can swim in shallow waters and see various types of starfish, turtles, and the occasional Sting Ray.

Those into diving will want to head to Palancar Reef, which lies just off the southern shore of Cozumel.

Conditions here are crystal-clear, and you can spot everything from the colorful Sergeant Major and Damselfish to Nurse Sharks.

Try authentic Mayan cacao

Mexico is well-known for its beaches and ruins, however, what’s less known is the fact that it was actually the birthplace of Chocolate!

Its ancient roots go back several thousands of years, and here on the island, we can visit the Mayan Cacao Company to learn how the cacao bean has since taken the world by storm.

You can head on a tour around the plantation, watch the harvesting process and even get to try many of the different chocolate blends on offer here.

Isla Mujeres

Boats on the beach of Isla Mujeres, Mexico

Another island located just off Cancún, Isla Mujeres is a great option for those who are looking for that perfect mix of a tropical paradise along with a lively backpacking scene.

Isla Mujeres is also known for its incredible stretch of coast, which is arguably the most beautiful in the whole of the Mexican Caribbean.

From soaking up the sun on one of Latin America’s most scenic beaches to flying around on a golf cart, this island is often difficult to leave once you’ve got into the swing of things!

3 Best Things to Do in Isla Mujeres

Snorkel inside the MUSA museum

This is a must-visit for those who either love snorkeling or want to see a truly unorthodox site.

Located entirely underwater, to reach the MUSA Museum you’ll need to take the plunge to reach the stone statues on the sea floor.

Four human-size sculptures in the Museum of Underwater Art in Isla Mujeres, Mexico

There are over 500 sculptures in the area, which range from human figures to classic cars.

In these warmer waters, we can also spot everything from colorful fish to Turtles and Sharks around the site, given it’s located right next to a reef.

Hire your very own golf cart

Island life is a time for slowing down, and there’s no better way of getting into the swing of things than by renting a golf cart.

It takes around 20 minutes to drive from the north to south of the island, and having your own ride gives you much more freedom as well as keeping costs down (taxis can quickly add up here).

It’s also easier to visit other gems around the island such as Punta Sur, the Hacienda Mundaca as well as the more off-the-beaten-path beaches along the eastern coast.

There are plenty of good companies to choose from, and I personally recommend Capital Blue which is located just a few blocks north of the ferry dock.

Soak up the sun on Playa Norte

Often ranked within the top 10 beaches on the planet, Playa Norte is the reason travelers keep coming back to Isla Mujeres.

The multicolored waters and white sands here are unrivaled, with the calm conditions perfect for swimming and snorkeling.

People at the Playa del Norte in Isla Mujeres, Mexico

The atmosphere here is also great for meeting other travelers, enjoying cocktails in the sun as well as trying seafood in the numerous restaurants along the beachfront.

Just remember to keep reapplying sunscreen given how hot it can get here during the day!

Playa del Carmen

Arguably the most popular beach destination in all of Mexico, there’s no place quite like Playa.

Whilst only an hour south of Cancún, the vibe here is much less seedy and also feels more inclusive.

As well as enjoying your nights out at famous clubs such as Mandala and Cocobongo, there’s also a tonne of things to see during the day.

This includes exploring the various cenotes such as Aktun Chen and Cenote Azul, as well as watching the incredible sunsets from the lively Parque Fundadores.

The view above from underwater Cenote Azul in Mexico

3 Best Things to Do in Playa del Carmen

Walk along the legendary Quinta Avenida

Whilst not quite a malecón (as it’s another block inland from the sea), this 5 km walkway is by far one of the most memorable to stroll along in the whole of Mexico.

Starting from the Parque Fundadores, you’ll see many authentic Mexican restaurants worth eating at (as well as gringo chains – it’s all here in abundance!). It’s worth trying dishes such as Alhambra and Pescado Frito.

Those after Tacos will want to head to the local street vendors in the Parque Leona Vicario, which is just a couple of blocks north of the Quinta Avenida (you can thank me later!).

People walking on a busy street in Playa del Carmen, Mexico

Visit the Cenote of Aktun Chen

Although it’s just a 45-minute colectivo ride south of Playa, it’s definitely one of the more underrated cenotes you can head to in the Riviera Maya.

Here you’ll be heading deep into a limestone cave that is full of crystallized stalactites and stalagmites, as well as various open sinkholes from which you’ll be peering out from below.

The highlight here has to be the bright blue natural pools, which along with the white cave walls make for a truly memorable sight.

You’ll also see plenty of animals roaming around the site as they please, such as monkeys, tropical birds, and even deer.

Enjoy Playa’s incredible nightlife scenes

Those who want to let loose will be in perfect hands here, with Playa del Carmen’s famous nightlife scene often compared to those of Punta Cana, Cancún, and even Miami.

The Quinta Avenida will be our best friend again here, where we’ll find many pumping bars starting up as the sun goes down. Some of the best include Fusion, Be Roof, and Zenzi (the latter is located right on the beach and is great for cocktails).

As things start moving along you can then head to Mandala or La Vaquita to dance and enjoy some heavier scenes.

Those after a truly wild night will want to head to Cocobongo, which has everything from an open bar to dancers suspended high above the crowds!

Riviera Maya Travel Tips

Regardless if you’re basing yourself in Tulum or elsewhere, getting around the Riviera Maya is actually really easy.

Between bigger cities and destinations (such as Playa del Carmen and Bacalar), we can use the ADO buses which are extremely reliable.

As well as leaving at regular hourly intervals, they have very comfortable seats along with air conditioning on-board.

The other main alternative to get around is by using the colectivos (which look like small minivans). This is the local method of transport, which will be even cheaper than the bigger buses.

They also make stops along the highway to major sites too, such as Tulum Ruins, many Cenotes as well as towns like Akumal.

The ruins of a Mayan fortress by the beach in Mexico

Another way to further improve your experience here is to use day tours. Whilst I personally love independent travel and doing things myself, even I’ll admit that a day tour is logistically easier (and also saves more time).

Sometimes they’re also the only way to be able to enjoy some of the more unique experiences too, such as this action-packed day tour where you’ll ride an ATV through the thick Mayan Jungle.

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