First things first: the rustic hippy haven of Tulum you read about is the 10km or so swathe of beach that stretches from the Tulum ruins to the north and Sian Kaan reserve to the south - NOT the gritty inland town of Tulum which has its own share of local charm.
Bear this in mind when booking your accommodation, as one of the main reasons the beach paradise has undergone only moderate development, is the simple fact that electricity is not yet hard-wired past the dusty town. This means sea breeze and ceiling fans for AC and tepid, semi-desalinated showers are largely the norm (unless you stay at Be Tulum, below).
HOW TO GET HERE
The beaches of Tulum are 1 hr 40 mins south of Cancun - a private car is anywhere from $80-135, of $55/head for shared shuttle if you organize at airport. Car rental is $60-70/day, but if you can avoid flirting with local law enforcement, do.
Once in Tulum beach area, you just hail taxis that are cruising the main (and only) road, and cash fare will be $3-5 depending how far along the strip you're going. Tulum town is actually about 10-15 minutes inland from the beach hotel zone, depending where you're staying.
GETTING YOUR BEARINGS
As mentioned, the current posada and hotel development extends from Mayan ruins to the north, Sian Kaan bioreserve to the south. The beach tends to be rocky to the north (basically km 1-5 on the carreterra) and then soft, white powder to the south (from km 5-10). At popular stay Zamas, there's actually a break in the beach where the road passes right next to the water, but once you cross that moving south, you're in sandy beach territory again for miles.
The main road is just two lanes with a number of speed bumps, flanked by beach on one side and mosquito-infested jungle/swamp on the other...so make sure you bring repellent!
To get your bearings, this is the best map I’ve found:
WHERE TO STAY ("in" Tulum beach zone)
I would recommend staying anywhere that’s south of the Zamas 5km beach spit area, because any hotel you pick will have a great sandy beach in front of it. Then it’s all a matter of how much hot water and electricity you want to have. Pools are a rarity and the surf is strong, so if you're coming with kids, make sure you bear that in mind.
Beware of hotels that have "Tulum" in the name or address - Dreams Tulum is a good 25 mins away, and Hotel Jashita is about 20 mins.
At the southern of the beach (so a good 15 minute drive to Tulum town), it seems to still be the only place that has 24 hr electricity (ie A/C) and hot, desalinated water in the shower (though it's still slightly salty). This is the most posh place to stay by far, and you'll pay at least double than anywhere else (so don't tell any taxi drivers you are staying there!). Great rooms, awesome chillout and pool area, snazzy bar, good food (plus they serve food all day up until 11pm, unlike most places), breakfast is great (smoothie bar, nicely prepared food). This is adults only, which is nice not to hear any kids for a few nights! The hip girls at the front desk know all the great places to eat/drink.
This seems to be easily THE pick of the southern end posadas - everyone raves about the owners and the overall vibe, and the location is within spitting distance of popular eating and drinking spots like Hartwood, Casa Banana and Casa Jaguar.
The same place as the popular restaurant, this is pretty basic accommodation but it's clean and the staff are very friendly.
Known for its unique parfumeria and spa, it's also a chic place to stay, though it doesn't have mod cons like Be Tulum.
Ana y Jose
One of the best, well-known LOCAL hotel groups, Ana y Jose has a number of properties along the beach, starting with a day beach club and restaurant at km 5.9. But the main resort at km 7 (and also the main speed bump along the carre terra), is apparently family-friendly (a bit of a rarity here), with A/C (I’m told), and they also own Hip Hotel, which is at km8.7, right near Be Tulum.
If you're up for something just cheap and cheerful but in a good location with decent food, check out Casa Violeta, Las Ranitas, Le Pez, Maya Tulum and La Zebra.
*North end (north of 5km mark, where the road and beach basically meet).
The rocky beach is a non-starter for me, but these hotels are all walking distance to a small cluster of shops and popular Mateo’s taco bar.
This is a really good looking hotel (same group as Le Pez and La Zebra), but it's to the far north of the beach zone, which can be a little rocky. It's perched up on the rocks and is apparnenty great for drinks/dinner.
Papaya Playa Project
A rustic, design hotel, it's a popular late-night spot and is known for its full moon parties where DJ's spin house and electronica.
Another popular north-end hotel, which surprises me since the beach out front is rocky, rooms are small and no air conditioning, but it's popular for its live music samba and salsa dance parties and classes.
NEAR Tulum (20 minutes away)
Hotel Jashita (Soliman Bay)
I came across this property while researching hotels online and it really appealed (lovely beach, cool décor, very chill vibe), but then I realized it was really not in Tulum. But friends stayed here over New Years recently and, while they admit it was far from the action, it provided the perfect retreat from what was apparently quite chaotic down by Tulum’s beach zone.
THINGS TO DO
Cooking class ALTAMAR (4 HRS)
We can't recommend the class we took at Altamar more...Altamar is a restaurant in town, one of the more "polished" ones, and the 5-6 hours of learning cevices, handmade tortillas, cactus stuffed chilis, shrimp and fish tacos, pico de gallos and salsas followed by tequila and margarita tasting couldn't have been more delicious and fun!
We never got around to it, but apparently the best are Coqui Coqui (more upmarket and posh), and the Maya Spa (which is part of the Azulik hotel and Cabanas Copal). Sweat tents, chocolate treatments are some of the offerings.
We've all heard about those bikini yoga retreats, but there are lots of lower-key options available. Some recommended places are Maya Tulum (voted among best yoga resorts in the world), Ahau Tulum and Yoga Shala Tulum.
There are plenty of these freshwater caves to explore in this very porous geological area, but if you want to make a quick trip of it, I'd recommend Dos Ochos (two eyes). It's only 15 minutes from Tulum town and the caves are great for quick snorkel. You can organize to scuba diver deeper into the cave, but I can't say whether it's worth it or not. Ladies beware: the changing and bathroom facilities are extremely basic!
Other recommended cenotes nearby are Zazil Ha Car Wash/Aktun Ha, Gran Cenote, and Calavera Cenote (all west of Tulum on the road to Cobá).
Of course it's worth checking out the Mayan ruins in Tulum if you want to glimpse some crumbling buildings with beautiful ocean views. I would opt out of a tour - we went on our own, and while we may have missed some finer points, I felt sorry for the slow-moving groups of tourists sweating in the sun - at least there's a refreshing mid-tour swim to cool off.
If you really want to see some more elaborate ruins, you'll need to drive further afield to Coba (1 hr)or Chichen Itza (3hrs).
There are a number of kitesurfing rental and instruction operators in the area, at the very northern end of the Tulum beach zone around (entry point is El Paraiso Beach Club). Season runs from December through April, with the best winds in Jan/Feb, though the variable but generally light wave break can provide a challenge for beginners.
Stay & Play: Tulum
The main road at the northern end, by Mateo's tacos
View of the beach from Be Tulum
Beach bar hut at Be Tulum
Breakfast fruit salad at Be Tulum
Beach set up at Be Tulum
In the blue, at Dos Ochos cenote
Lizard's eye view of Tulum ruins beach
Lovely green welcome at Posada Margherita - just as charming by day as by night
Afternoon backgammon at Be Tulum
Cocktail time at Be Tulum
Kitesurfing beach near El Paraiso Beach Club