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Where to stay, what to do, see and eat in Mexico's Tulum

where to stay, what to do, see and eat in mexico's tulum
Tulum, Mexico travel guide: what to do, see, eatYinYang - Getty Images

The idyllic Mexican town has long lived in our collective cultural imagination: for its stunning white beaches, yoga retreats, and some of the best preserved archaeological sites in the world. It’s also been a celebrity fave (hello, Dua Lipa) and gained a reputation through the 70s to today as an artist’s haven and party destination. Walk along the stretch of warm, pale sand and you’ll come across a vinyasa flow, a seafood shack, and an EDM DJ fast approaching 160 BPM with equal chance.

Nestled on the Caribbean coastline of the Yucatán Peninsula, Tulum is transforming – and finally taking flight. The much-anticipated Tulum airport is set to see in and off its first international flights, and the Maya train project is already up and running. But it’s also about an hour and a half away from Cancun, and eight different UK cities fly there direct. There’s 11 flights a week from London.

With the expected influx of new tourists, Tulum has had investment that’s been articulated in its vibrant food scene and holistic offerings. To cut through the noise, here’s a guide to the must-dos on the Mexican coast: where to stay, what to do, eat, and see.

Where to stay in Tulum, Mexico

Motto by Hilton, Tulum

Motto by Hilton is a relatively new addition to Tulum’s ever-evolving hotel landscape, having just opened in 2022. The lifestyle brand is deft at setting up in prime global locations – from Rotterdam to New York and Cusco, Peru – offering authentic, local experiences. The Tulum addition is a lifestyle hotel that fits right in with the local community, sitting inside the Hunab lifestyle center which also houses restaurants, shops, and a jungle bar. Open your blinds, and you’ll be met with a staggeringly uninterrupted view of the jungle (keep your eyes peeled for panthers in the trees at night, it could happen!).

Motto is compact, chic, and eco-conscious in its design, and features neat guest rooms that really suit urban travellers that like to get out and about. A nifty, forward-thinking feature of the hotel is the 43 sets of connecting rooms, meaning guests can book up to five rooms and connect them up to coordinate with pals or family groups. After an entire day hiking and chilling at the cenotes, or partying to the wee hours at the formidable beach clubs, resting your head in a Motto room is dreamy. The white noise preferences on the room system were a personal lifesaver.

The location is optimal – it’s a short bike or scooter ride away from the beaches, and a stretch of town centre shops, bars and restaurants. Make use of the hotel’s e-bikes and e-scooters to zip about on. Motto. The hotel can also sort you out with two of Tulum’s biggest beach clubs – Bagatelle and Vagalume – to nab you some sunbeds. Its other amenities make it really special too – the fitness centre is impressive and wide-ranging, and I loved the morning yoga classes set against the breathtaking jungle backdrop and Jaguar National Park. The two rooftop pools are postcard-perfect, and the breakfast tacos from Bistro Coba were a recurrent feature of my stay.

Rooms at Motto by Hilton Tulum start from £110 per night.

motto by hilton tulum
Motto by Hilton Tulum© 2024 Hilton

What to do in Tulum, Mexico

Do the wellness side

I visited the Quinto Elemento Spa in the Hunab Lifestyle Center. The space is styled like a temple, and all of its treatments and rituals are inspired by the Air, Fire, Water, and Earth elements. I had their holistic massage, which was tailored to my personal achs and pains, and included aromatherapy and Tibetan bowls – bliss.

Visit the ruins and cenotes

Tulum’s original Maya name, Zamá, translates as “place of the dawning sun”, and the dramatic view from the clifftops where the ancient ruins sit articulates exactly why. The sprawling archaeological site sits on the coastline – look out and you’ll see an endless blue horizon, hordes of fishing boats, and some spiny-tailed iguanas chilling on the cliff face. I took a guided tour through the site and learned a lot about the Mayan civilizations, its once vibrant, trading seaside town, and all its enduring ways of life. There’s a temple for a honey bee god, and a temple for fertility that still retains 6,000-year-old bloody handprints on its walls. An altar for human sacrifice had survived centuries. One factoid that’s stayed stuck in my mind – when human sacrifice was banned, the now staple Mexican street food tamales became a substitute for human flesh in rituals.

The Temple of the Wind God is an incredible sight on the hill – an opening in its roof makes the wind whistle through, to warn locals of approaching storms. The ruins open at 8am and it's worth getting there early – by the time I was leaving, around noon, the queues were long. It's around £7 to visit, plus £25 for a guided tour.

A short journey away from the ruins is the Parque Nacional Tulum, a stunning, lush coastal area with mangroves, wetlands, unique local floral and cenotes (sinkholes filled with groundwater – you'll have seen them with their crystal clear waters and striking limestone-snarled walls on Instagram). The Yucatán Peninsula has around 10,000 cenotes, and dotted around Tulum are some of the most breathtaking. Cenote Calavera is a popular one, its name meaning 'skull' because of its three pits that resemble just that. Be brave, just the 13-foot in!

Cenote Angelita is a crystalline paradise, with an almost 200-foot deep pit that makes it a cool area for divers. Because of the water densite here, it looks like an underwater river flows through it from above. Cenote Sac Actun has the largest underwater cave system in the world, at 226 miles long and around 390 feet deep. You can choose to dive or float along.

Visit Xel-Há, a natural water and theme park

This was one of the highlights of my trip. You can spend the whole day here exploring cenotes, natural aquariums, and jungle trails. It’s a natural water and theme park that has just about anything you’d think. Walk any of the many routes around the park and you’ll find snorkeling, rock-climbing, cliff diving and ziplining. You can scuba dive in some of its many private cenotes to see a variety of colourful fish, which I found really magical. If that’s not your thing, take a lilo around the lazy river.

Xel-Há has retained a lot of its 80s, zany holiday charm, with Mariachi bands popping up amid dining tables, frozen marg dispensers and a completely unskippable, retro world buffet – it was very fun to peruse the ‘British’ section, though a Sunday roast wasn’t really hitting for me in the heat. The mini guava cheesecakes though, I had several. It’s all-inclusive, so why not! Carve out a whole day for this one. Xel-Há Park's all-inclusive tickets start at around £80.

cenote at xel ha in tulum, mexico
One of the mystical cenotes at Xel-HáXel-Há

Choose to chill or party in style at the beach clubs

Motto sorted me out with beach club access and a guaranteed bed at two of Tulum’s most popular clubs – Vagalume and Bagatelle – which in high season, is a great tip. By day, they’re sumptuous spots playing breezy house music to sway the palm trees. Yoga, sound healing, and luxe spa treatments are there to avail of. Order a cocktail and some seared octopus and nachos to your bedside, sigh smugly behind your sunglasses. By night, they transform with Tulum’s wildest nightlife and an eclectic mix of DJs. Expect sparklers, ABBA edits and bottles popping. Even when I was there in early December, pre peak season, the party vibes were high. New Year's Eve is meant to go wild.

Explore on an e-bike or e-scooter

The Motto hotel offers e-bikes and e-scooters for guests to zip around on, and you can choose to have a Motto host guide you or go it alone. My tour guide, Julio, is a born and bred – and very proud – Tulum resident (he told me as a kid, he saw the CIA pursuit of Pablo Escobar around the area). I learned some Mayan from Julio too (it’s a government-protected language, which 60% of people there still speak) and he gave me all the taco tips too (more on that later). Going solo, I explored the area around a Mayan church and cemetery, taking in the Christian and ancient Mayan influences that coalesce.

Go downtown and shop

Tulum Pueblo has a long stretch of shops, bars, restaurants and street food vans. Duck your head inside the shops with white cotton billowing outside to buy some textiles, dresses and beach cover ups. Take a break and seek out some churros and homemade ice lollies – I fixated on a coconut and passionfruit one that seems popular. I was lucky enough to visit over Day of The Dead, so I got to see the colourful traditional parades, shrines to lost loved ones (local delicacies are left out for the dead to enjoy the festivities too), and an incredible costume pageant. A voguing dragged up skull was my winner.

La Troupe is a stunning beach shack shop. that houses wares from local artisans, from wall hangings to blankets. For ceramics, head to the impressively stocked World By Hand and grab some trinkets, spice pots and clay pots with faces delicately carved into them.

Head to Mixik for locally crafted and authentic souvenirs, and La Madre Tierra for organic body and skincare products – I picked up a jade face roller and some beautiful natural honey soaps. Tulum Bazaar is a classic market with a buzzy atmosphere.

Where to eat in Tulum, Mexico

Taqueria Honorio is repped by locals and tourists alike as the best tacos in Tulum. It's simple and no frills, at around £1.50 a taco. Arrive before the lunch rush at noon to try their famous cochinita pibil tacos, with zippy, sharp citrus that cuts through the rich pork. I loved the carne asada, which is a charcoal roasted, bitter orange and spiced pork steak taco. Try every single one of the sauces on offer.

If you're out in downtown, look out for Aca Tacos de Canasta's yellow awning and bamboo set up. Their steamed tacos (known as tacos de canasta) with scrambled eggs are a great breakfast paired with orange juice. If you’re feeling sweet, grab an Argentine caramel gelato and a Veracruz bean coffee from Campanella Cremerie. If you wanna eat some XXL churros and towers of ceviche while you party with the pros, head to club kid central Rosanegra.

Alma Verde does a brilliant brunch, acai and pitaya bowls and baby blue pina coladas made with spirulina, while Motto’s Bistro Coba provides big salads, snacks and seafood. NÜ is a contemporary, imaginative Caribbean restaurant in an enchanting jungle space. Cesar Castañeda is a celebrated Mexican chef who leads NÜ, championing traditional cooking and local produce, with modern twists. Wood grilled prawns, chorizo spiced cauliflower, stuffed chili and fish crudo are stars of the menu, and the ice cream with barbecued fruits was really memorable.

On a balmy evening though, weaving through the vendors of downtown and leaving everything to your stomach's immediate whim sets you up to experience the best of Mexican street food. You'll find tacos al pastor, sweet rolled crepes called marquesitas, and elote – corn cobs grilled and slathered with crema, lime, and Mexican cheese like cotija.

taqueria honorio
Taqueria Honorioanna cafolla

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