Tulum travel guide for first-timers: tips on some of the best experiences

Tulum is probably one of my favourite destinations to date. For someone who’s from the city, the jungle and nature is breathtaking. However, Tulum is not just about nature, it’s also extremely trendy, and this is definitely one of the other reasons why I love it too.

I went to Tulum with my boyfriend and a group of friends. Since Mexico was a country we had never been to before, we did a lot of research leading up to the trip, we were also very fortunate that our hotel villa manager at 16Tulum helped us a lot.

In this guide, I’ll rank some of the activities I did in Tulum and the reasons why I thought they were great. I have included some tips I learnt about each of the experience too, I think they will be useful for anyone who’s going to Tulum for the first time. For accommodation, restaurants recommendation and general logistics, I will include them in a separate post.

In the order of the ranking, my favourite experiences in Tulum are:

  1. Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve- lazy river floating experience + Muyil ruins
  2. Cenote private tour
  3. Snorkelling at Playa Paraiso
  4. Cycling in Tulum

In addition, here are some activities which I wish we did, with reasons why we didn’t:

  1. Chill by the beach for a whole day
  2. Visit Laguna Kaan Luum
  3. Visit Chichen Itza
  4. Visit the other side of Sian Ka’an for dolphins and sea turtles watching

Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve- lazy river floating experience + Muyil ruins

We started our tour here which we took a boat across this massive lagoon.

There are three sides to the Sian Ka’an Biosphere. This World Heritage Site consists of tropical forests; mangroves and marshes; coastal lagoons and reefs. In addition to its exceptional biodiversity, the site is also famous for its special Mayan archeological elements.

We only had time to visit one side of the reserve so we decided to go for the wetland because we had heard about how unique the experience was, and it was 100% true.

We started the tour by taking a boat near the Muyil ruins, the boat took us across the crystal clear lagoon into the Mayan river where we began our lazy river floating experience. Built by the Mayans many years ago as a trading route and surrounded by mangroves, this river system is connected to the ocean and runs at a speed of approximately 4km/hr. While we drifted along the tranquil water, all we heard was birds, the sound of the water, and wind. It was easily one of the most extraordinary experiences I had ever had, so peaceful and therapeutic.

The wildlife around inside the biosphere
Floating along the river

After the floating experience, we continued our adventure at the Muyil ruins inside of the jungle. We went onto a treehouse tower to see the view of Sian Ka’an from above, then continued wandering deeper into the jungle before the Mayan ruins appeared in front of us. Obviously, this ruin was not as magnificent as Chichen Itza, but it was good enough for me.

The Muyil ruins

Top tip 1: You must book a tour with an operator in order to travel into the Mayan river for the experience. Sian Ka’an is highly protected and the government restricts the number of people who can enter the site each day. We used a private independent tour guide called Mehdi for this, he was so passionate about the nature and such a good story teller. I highly recommend him to anyone who wants to visit Sian Ka’an or any other places around Tulum!

Top tip 2: And another important point for those who are not a fan of getting a tan- you’re not allowed to wear any sunscreens if you are to swim in the water. Bring protective clothing to fend your skin from the sun.

A tour at a private cenote

The Yucatan Peninsula, where Tulum was, was home to a powerful asteroid impact many years ago, leaving behind numerous cenotes scattered around the region. Cenotes mean holes in the ground with water, it’s part of a submerged underground water system that connects to the ocean.

Researching which cenote to go to before our trip was a big headache for us. Some of them were better for diving, some of them were so famous it would be crowded all the time, and some even reportedly had crocodiles!

For this reason, I did not regret following our tour guide Mehdi to one of the private cenotes called EcoRanchoMayamar in the region. This cenote was only accessible through several operators, and they had a few slots for tourists each day so that no single group will bump into another group during their tour.

Entering the cave, the water was cold!
Swimming inside the cenote was a lot of fun

Visiting a cenote was definitely way more than just taking Instagram worthy photos. It was quite something walking through the cave in the water, surrounded by beautiful limestone formations, catfishes, (several) bats. When we looked up, we saw tree branches from the ground above growing into the caves seeking for water. And down underneath the water, we would occasionally see stone sculptures that looked like what the Mayans would have done million years ago. 30 minutes into the cave, a ray of sunlight appeared in front of us from a hallow cave ceiling, and there we arrived at deep water part of the cenote.

Top tip: Bring diving shoes if you have sensitive feet! We walked in the water in our flip flops the whole time and it was totally fine though. The water gets quite deep at one point too, so definitely get a life jacket if you’re not a good swimmer.

Snorkelling at Playa Paraiso

Next to the Tulum Archeological site were a few public beaches which you could find small boats parking there that offered snorkelling tours.

The tour lasted for about an hour with a group of 10 people. It must have costed us about 300 pesos per person only, we didn’t even book in advance. I would have loved to do a proper snorkelling tour but this one was actually not bad! Our guide took us to see some interesting reefs and we managed to spot schools of fish swimming near us and a stingray.

Taking the boat out from Playa Paraiso
Snorkelling around sunset time

I did really like this experience because it allowed us to be flexible without any time constraint. Highly recommend it to anyone who is looking for something to do after visiting the archeological site! Find out more about Playa Paraiso here.

Top tip: Bring a wet bag to keep all your belongings dry on the boat!

Cycling in Tulum

I love cycling but in a foreign country it is dangerous, especially without helmets.

We enjoyed cycling in Tulum towards the Archeological site as our villa manager told us about a route that was not that busy. However, we enjoyed our snorkelling trip so much that we lost track of time and only started making our way back when the sun was setting. Little did we knew that it was also going to rain that day… so, cycling in the dark, in a foreign country, and during a heavy downpour was not fun. We made it back to our villa completely drenched. Since we survived the trip without dying, this was one of my most memorable experience. Though I wouldn’t wish it upon anyone else!

Top tip: Use Ola bike! They can deliver the bikes to where you stay and they can send people to your location in case your bike has any problems. Their bikes only have pedal brakes by the way.

Experiences I wish I tried….

Chill by the beach for the whole day

I was quite gutted we only spent 4 days in Tulum which wasn’t a lot at all. If we had enough time I would spend at least two days by the beach! The shades of blue of the sea water was simply out of this world.

Apart from the public beaches, along the beach road of Tulum there are also a lot of beach clubs which offer daybeds by the beach for people to enjoy. Reservations are required, but most of these beach clubs have good music and good food. It’s not cheap though, everything along the beach road is expensive unfortunately. I found this blog which offers some good insights into the beach clubs.

Visit Laguna Kaan Luum

This smaller lagoon is apparently part of Sian Ka’an but it’s open to public only for 100 pesos entry fee each! I really wanted to go but getting there was incredibly difficult. We had to either hire a car or a driver, or bike there. Taking a taxi was not feasible as it would be difficult to hail a taxi for our way back. It was only a 30 min bike ride from where we stayed, but the road to Laguna Kaan Luum was a highway with lots of huge trucks so it would be dangerous.

The lagoon is kind of like a gigantic swimming pool surround by a jungle, but it looks like a beach at the same time. This is definitely on my list for my next visit. See more details on its TripAdvisor page.

Visit Chichen Itza

Chichen Itza is actually closer to Cancun, it is a two hour drive from Tulum so we would have to spend a whole day for this activity. In my mind, Muyil kind of made up for it, although I would have wanted to see the more magnificent version of it. Because after all, Chichen Itza is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Visit the other side of Sian Ka’an to see dolphins and sea turtles

We made a decision to visit the wetland only because we could probably see dolphins and sea turtles elsewhere in the world, but I was still gutted about it! Perhaps we could come back during the sea turtles nesting season next time, but it also overlaps with the rain season. Or maybe we could just go to Akumal beach to see it, though apparently it became hugely commercialised in recent years, so any tours to go see the turtles has become very pricey… if I do come back to Tulum again, I think I will be willing to pay a premium to see the animals though! You can find a list of tours from TripAdvisor here.

So this is the end of my blog, I hope you guys find some of it useful. Tulum really has so much to offer, but it is also crucial to know how to plan for it. We were so lucky because our hosts at our hotel, 16Tulum, were super helpful. If you are going to Tulum and have questions on how to plan for it, feel free to leave me a comment here, I will try my best to answer them 🙂

Kathy xxx

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