Is Tulum Overrated?

I’m going to tell you this: I never thought I would go to Tulum. I had seen and heard too many things about it — good-vibes-only and Burning-Man-influencer kinds of things — that made me give it a pass that I thought would last forever. I’ve never been to Burning Man and I never will. My vibes are not often “good.” Tulum, frankly, sounded like my nightmare. But in late 2019, for the sake of my job, I boarded a plane to Mexico and visited several Tulum hotels. Is Tulum overrated? It turns out that the answer to that question is a bit more complicated than I thought — and has some surprising answers. Expert Guide to Tulum: Where to Eat, Drink, Sleep, Beach, and More

The Legend of Tulum

Tulum Beach/Oyster

Once upon a time, Tulum was nothing more than a few rustic bungalows without electricity or Wi-Fi, all peeking out of dense jungle onto an impossibly perfect beach. That beach is still there, and so is much of the jungle, but Tulum is no longer the unplugged secret it once was. These days, Tulum hotel’s come flush with everything from all-day electricity and air-conditioning to pools and beach clubs — all wrapped in a package that touts both extreme indulgence and new-age wellness mantras. That rapid transformation took less than a decade to accomplish. 

What’s So Great About Tulum?

Beach in Tulum Oyster
Playa Ruinas in Tulum/Oyster

Let’s start with the obvious: Tulum is gorgeous. There is no denying this at all. From the boutique hotels crafted with impeccably bohemian decor to the pristine white-sand beach and blazing turquoise waters offshore, Tulum is impossibly pretty. Everywhere you look, you’ll see towering coconut palms and — if you happen to get above it all — the jungle stretches for seemingly endless miles inland, hiding cenotes and ancient ruins. This is all to say that you certainly should feel like you’re away from it all here. Oh, and in the winter months especially, the weather is perfect with temps in the 80s and virtually no rain. 

On the ground, Tulum can be quite enchanting, so long as you aren’t coming here thinking that you’re getting off of the grid or experiencing authentic Mexico. Tulum is a great option for travelers who appreciate the finer things in life — albeit with a distinctly “Goop”-infused, locavore vibe. There are more yoga classes on offer than you could possibly attend, with hotels offering one-off morning sessions or full-blown yoga retreats accompanied by raw, organic meals. Boutiques selling handmade dresses and shirts are numerous, and honestly, I wanted to bring home more than one shirt that I found (though the $150 price tags made me think twice).

Alongside an impeccably cool shopping scene and a healthy selection of wellness and yoga offerings, Tulum also excels at food and drink. You’ll find numerous cool cafes along the main road through the Hotel Zone. One of my favorites was Brew Tulum, where the knowledgable barista served great local coffee. All across Tulum, you’ll find every kind of wholesome twist on raw food that you can imagine. Want green juice? It is, literally, everywhere. In all honesty, though, the food in Tulum is amazing.

The Best Restaurants in Tulum Really Are Exceptional

Exterior of CELIA tacos in Tulum
CELIA, in Tulum/Oyster

Having traveled to Mexico well over a dozen times now, I’ve sampled amazing regional cuisine and high-end restaurants from Baja California to Mexico City, Puebla, the Yucatan, and Oaxaca. And while Tulum’s Hotel Zone isn’t the place for local Yucatecan fare (that’s better found inland, in Tulum Pueblo), the restaurants in Tulum’s Hotel Zone absolutely live up to the hype.

The two most famous restaurants in Tulum are Hartwood and Arca — and they couldn’t be more different. Hartwood, in many ways, put Tulum on the foodie map. Legend goes that in the beginning, before Hartwood started taking reservations, devotees would line up in the morning to secure their table that night. What makes Hartwood special? The menu constantly changes, leaning exclusively on local produce, meats, and seafood, all given the high-end gastro touch. Open fires are used to cook everything, and the restaurant strives to leave no carbon footprint when processing its waste. You’ll need to make your reservation at Hartwood well in advance of your arrival in Tulum, or be subject to hours-long waits as a walk-in. The vibe is high-end, but casual — expect brusque, in-the-know service and high price tags.Arca is altogether different. Equal parts open-air jungle lounge and dimly lit romantic hideaway, it has a more upbeat vibe, with incredibly knowledgeable and friendly waiters that explain all of the complex dishes. The Arca menu also offers a huge array of vegetarian dishes, which is not the case at meat-heavy Hartwood. Additionally, Arca’s chef hails from the globally famous Noma restaurant in Copenhagen, and that gastro sensibility has a big influence on the amazing dishes here.

There are dozens of other exceptional restaurants up and down the coast in Tulum, as well as cool local joints in Tulum Pueblo. You’re never going to be hungry when you’re here, and you’ll honestly be hard-pressed to find a bad meal anywhere in town. If you’re after a more casual meal, drop into Acatiki Tulum, next to Delek Tulum. The menu has an awesome selection of amazing toasts topped with everything from homemade hummus to avocado, as well as perfect acai bowls and grain bowls.

Social Media Has Changed Tulum — And Not for The Better

Tulum Ruins/Oyster

While the beaches and hotels in Tulum are picture perfect — and the food is exceptional — it’s impossible to ignore the “look at me” vibe here. That’s especially true when you combine Tulum’s original wellness bent with today’s Instagram-focused good-vibes-only, “Goop”-influenced wellness trends. Everything seems meant to be documented and shared. You’ll be fighting crowds of influencers (real and aspiring) to get a picture in front of the various art installations in town — notably the monumental wood-and-rope sculpture of a woman created by Daniel Popper, “Ven a La Luz” (it’s found in front of Ahau Tulum). The same goes for the beach at the Tulum Ruins, and at the Tulum Ruins themselves. You’ll be dodging selfie sticks, tourists aping trendy poses they’ve seen on Instagram, and the like. Dreamcatchers make so very many appearances. In fact, all around town, it can feel like people are trying to capitalize on their Tulum vacation to become an influencer.

All of this posing and posturing reaches fever pitch during peak season, which starts at Christmas and runs straight into the New Year. This is when you’ll find huge crowds descending on Tulum. As one hotel manager put it to me, the demographic is something of a mix between Ibiza clubber and wealthy Burning Man devotee, with a dash of Coachella Instagrammer thrown in the mix. To be fair, you’ll get a bit of that vibe year round, though things are much calmer and less pretentious in the low season. Want a pro tip? Visit in the early weeks of December to enjoy that amazing Tulum winter weather and spare yourself the see-and-be-seen set.

Tulum Isn’t Quite as Peaceful As You Might Imagine

Cafe in Tulum
Cafe in Tulum/Oyster

 

As Tulum’s Hotel Zone has continued to fill with restaurants, bars, cafes, shops, and hotels, it’s unsurprisingly lost its away-from-it-all atmosphere. That starts with the traffic. As of late 2019, the entire road through the Hotel Zone was being dug up to install water and electricity infrastructure. While those improvements are welcome for the local community, it makes Tulum’s Hotel Zone a dusty, traffic-clogged nightmare. To be fair, the main road through this part of town is nothing more than a narrow strip anyway, and is never free of cars, buses, tourist vans, bikes, and pedestrians — even when construction isn’t happening.

By and large, you won’t find the rowdy Cancun and Playa del Carmen beach club scenes in Tulum. However, that too is starting to change. For starters, almost any hotel along the beach offers prime “beach club” seating. At these, you’ll be responsible for a fairly hefty minimum consumption bill to score a lounger. Generally, you can expect light lounge music and upbeat vibes. However, as of late 2019, louder full-blown beach clubs have started opening up along the beach — most notably, Taboo. You can hear Taboo before you see it — electro-pop remixes blare all afternoon until around sunset, and the loungers are full of tourists chugging Champagne and margaritas. Unfortunately, it’s unlikely that Taboo will be the last of its kind in Tulum.

Tulum Is Incredibly Expensive

Kin Toh at the Azulik
Kin Toh at the Azulik/Oyster

When you first start researching your Tulum trip, one thing will become immediately clear: It’s expensive. And while beach destinations that appeal to upscale and luxury travelers are rarely bargains, the price of hotels in Tulum can feel incredibly high relative to what you’re getting.

Don’t get me wrong: The independently-owned ethos of Tulum’s hotel scene is admirable. And many of those hotels are packed with incredibly cute boutique style. However, frills are generally few — you’ll (usually) get air-conditioning and Wi-Fi, a small terrace, and maybe an outdoor shower, but otherwise there’s not much extra to add value to your several-hundred-dollar-a-night price tag. Some hotels eschew this: Rooms are packed with perks at La Valise and the actual away-from-it-all setting is stunning; The Beach Tulum has private loungers and plunge pools (or rooftop whirlpools) for all of its rooms; and the overall vibe at some hotels can justify the cost. But you’d find similar hotels for less than half the price in beach towns in Oaxaca or Baja California.

Food doesn’t come cheaply either. Meals at restaurants like Arca and Hartwood can easily cost $75 per person for just two courses and one drink each — and the bill can certainly go much higher. You can find a few seriously touristy shops selling typical Mexican souvenirs, but it’s the luxe home goods and clothing stores that you’ll likely have your eye on most. The boutiques in Tulum are packed with beautiful handmade threads, but you’ll be paying NYC price tags for almost everything. You’ll also need to contend with the long and expensive drive to get here — even a rental car in the Riviera Maya isn’t a bargain, and on the ground you’ll find scant and expensive parking in Tulum’s Hotel Zone.

So, Is Tulum Overrated?

The Arena Suite at the Be Tulum Hotel/Oyster

The answer is: Yes and no. If you’re looking for the undiscovered gem of yore and expecting Mexico’s typical traveler bargains, you will be sorely disappointed. If you want to drop a few grand on eating well, posting up on a pretty beach, enjoying some Burner-style partying, and diving into the world of fresh-pressed juices and social media-ready wellness, then Tulum could definitely be for you. And travelers seeking only a few of those things can certainly pick and choose to what extent they indulge in Tulum’s more look-at-me side.

I have to admit that I was a hater — the Tulum I’d seen on social media was one where the universe of privilege provided detoxifying green juices and wide-brimmed floppy hats embroidered with beach puns, all in service of reconnecting with your true self through expensive yoga led by “Goop”-loving wellness gurus. In other words, it was my nightmare come to life. And while all of those elements are certainly alive and well in Tulum, it’s entirely possible to enjoy the amazing food, beautiful beach, and cute hotels for what they are. And that, really, is what a beach vacation is all about.

My Tulum Hotel Pick: The Beach Tulum

Pool at The Beach Tulum
Pool at The Beach Tulum/Oyster

 

It’s hard to argue with excellent on-site food (complimentary breakfasts are particularly wonderful), dedicated beach seating, attractive bohemian decor, and private plunge pools. The Beach Tulum is smack in the middle of the action in Tulum — within an easy walk of Hartwood and Arca — and stays incredibly quiet at night.

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