Tulum, Mexico: Mexico is a great country and you should travel here. I am here now as I write this and will publish as much as I can about the cave diving near Tulum and living in Mexico for an extended time period.
Tulum is a mixture of voices–Spanish, German, English, Italian– all of them immersed in Mexican culture. There is a heavy European influence in Tulum but underneath it all, Tulum is still true Mexico. The language challenged traveler will feel some tension here as one navigates the basic needs of living in a Foreign country.
But having challenges like this is what keeps you young and vibrant. And Tulum is a cool place and is just a couple miles from pristine white sandy beaches and boutique hotels and restaurants if that’s what you want.
One of the things that I like best about Tulum is that it still Mexico and hasn’t yet been transformed into a city where “everyone” speaks English so as a traveler you have to be willing to engage with the locals. I should add that my Spanish is not so good and sometimes I have to work pretty hard to communicate what I need or to understand what the locals need from me. Traveling to Tulum is safe and the town has an amazing charm and makes for a fabulous traveling experience.
Getting to Tulum
The best option is to fly nonstop into Cancun. Nonstop tickets are usually more expensive than tickets with multiple stops but flying nonstop reduces the total travel time, lessens the probability of finding yourself stranded in a hub city, and reduces the chances of losing luggage since the airline only must load the bags once.
You need a USA Passport to travel to Mexico.
Make sure to fill out the visa and customs paper work on the plane (bring a pen on the flight). If the flight attendant doesn’t bring the forms around to you, ask the attendant for the forms. There are two forms: 1) the Mexican Visa. Everyone in the group needs to fill one out. 2) Customs form. Only one person from each family unit fills out this form.
If the flight attendant tells you that they are out of the forms make sure to pick them up from the kiosks that you will pass when you get in line at immigration. Fill the forms out while standing in line before you reach the immigration officer otherwise they will make you step out of line to complete this task.
Expect long lines at immigration. Smart travelers fill out the paper work on the plane and have everything they need organized when they reach the lines at immigration. Remember to smile and be polite no matter how long you had to wait.
Currently the exchange rate is close to 18 pesos per 1 USD. I always check the exchange rate before I travel using the internet.
Do not use the money changer at the airport except to change a small amount such $100 or less–just get what you need to get where you are going. I was taken for $100 dollars by this kiosk when I changed a large sum. Don’t get sucked in to how secure and official the kiosk looks because they are skimming customers.
Tulum is not a border city and the local merchants expect to be paid in pesos. There are unique situations such as a diving operator or tour operator as examples that may accept USDs but don’t assume that you can use your USDs for purchases.
In Tulum you cannot count on using credit cards for purchases in shops, restaurants, gas, etc. Most established businesses accept credit cards but Tulum is a mixed cash/electronic economy. During the off season (summer) most restaurants will not accept cards because business isn’t good enough to offset the percentage that the credit card companies and the banks charge them for the service. Therefore you need to carry both cash and cards. A good way to operate is to use ATMs to pull out pesos as you go. This will also allow you to get the best exchange rate for dollars to pesos as the exchange on the street is usually shy of the maximum by 2-3 pesos.
Some of the hotels will cut you a better deal per night if you pay in cash.
A gentle warning that applies to restaurants and gas: You may ask in advance if they accept cards and the usual answer is yes. Then, once you hand off the card to pay the bill they come back and tell you that the card doesn’t work and that you will need to pay them in cash–I am speaking to this from several years of direct experience. This practice is common so if you plan to use your card make sure to have the cash in your pocket or things may get pretty awkward for you.
There are several money changers on the main street of Tulum but their hours vary so make sure you have the capability to use an ATM. The exchange rate is always posted so once you have decided how much you will exchange pre-calculate the amount in pesos you should get back before stepping to the window.
Count the money out in increments to the attendant so there is no disagreement about the total. And then count the pesos that they give you and check the receipt. If there is a long line at the money changer consider coming back later so you don’t have the pressure of several people waiting in line behind you. Be prepared for the money changer to not accept bills that are torn, have rough edges, ink writing, extremely worn, etc. I always make sure to bring clean bills to Mexico.
I don’t recommend using the banks to change money. My experience has been long lines, a need to see your passport, and then more waiting before changing your money. When you come back a few days later to change more money they refuse (after the long line, passport, waiting…etc.) unless you open an account. Don’t bother with the banks except to use their ATM machines.
Getting from Cancun Airport to Tulum
Tulum is two hours south of Cancun and one hour south of Playa del Carmen.
You don’t need a rental car in Tulum and I wouldn’t bother with the extra hassle unless you have a good reason to rent one. There are great taxis and buses, bicycle rental, scooter rental, and you can rent a car locally to go somewhere that is not convenient by taxis or bus.
If you are staying in a hotel on the ocean taxis service is 80 pesos for a ride into town and vice versa. Also, there is taxis service all along the ocean strip of hotels and restaurants. Bottom line, unless you have a special reason to have a car you can avoid the cost of renting one.
I usually prearrange USA Transfer from Cancun Airport to my hotel in Tulum. The cost is about $80.00 USD one way and about $185.00 round trip. USA is reliable and they show up when they say they will and I’ve never had any issues with them. You can also prepay for the transportation before the trip. Finding USA Transfer at the airport is easy. When you exit immigration and customs they have a kiosk on the left side of the hallway as you walk toward the exit doors. Check in and leave the rest to them.
You can also take a bus from the airport. The cost is around $24 USD. The kiosk can be found on the left side of the terminal after you exit immigration and customs. Purchase your ticket using cash or credit card and then proceed to the buses. You may have to purchase a ticket to Playa del Carmen and then catch a second bus to Tulum. In this case the overall cost is still $24 USD ($12 to Playa and $12 to Tulum) but you will exit the bus at Playa and purchase a new ticket to Tulum. If your Spanish is really bad like mine is bus travel can be an intimidating option but if I can do it anyone can so don’t be afraid and if you have the time try it.
To find the bus: exit the terminal and bear right walking past the outside bar–keep the bar on your right. At this point you are facing the bus parking area and should see them located there. Go to that area and ask around until you find the right bus.
We always make our reservations in advance. You can use Airbnb or any of the online hotel booking platforms or go to the hotel web site. Rates in town go from around $20 USD for a hostel to very expensive depending on your tastes.
On the ocean strip expect to pay considerably more with rates starting around $110 USD per night. My wife likes to book us for one or two nights in the city of Tulum and then visit various hotels along the ocean until she finds one that is interesting to her and then we we book into that establishment for the duration of our visit.
Our favorite boutique hotel on the ocean is Diamante K and I see that they have rooms right now in the off season (summer) for about $120 USD per night– although the last time we stayed with them in the summer the rate was $114 USD if you paid in cash.
There are two supermarkets as you enter Tulum. The first market, San Fransisco de Asis, is set back off the corner of the first traffic light as you come into Tulum. (see photos below). This market has everything you need but a smaller selection than the other store.
To find the second market get into the left lane as you come to the first light in Tulum. Take a left and proceed up the divided street approximately two blocks. Set back off the street on the left is a Chedraui.
The best prices for food and alcohol will be found at the two stores mentioned here. The Chedraui is a larger store with a wider variety of products–kind of like a mini Wal-Mart.