Through the past few years, Tulum, Mexico, has become the place to visit. With its swanky boutique hotels and world-renowned restaurants, Tulum has become quite the hot bed, and for good reason. But if you, like we, have noticed that almost every travel guide makes it sound a little, well, hipstery, that concern is not unfounded. Indeed, most articles point to fabulous 20-somethings, jetsetting to-and-fro with little care. That’s so adorable! But what about those of us with kids? Well, after several trips, I can confirm that Tulum is not only great for families, I’d argue it’s better than Cancun, Playa del Carmen or Akumal. Yep.
Tulum at a Glance
Tulum, located an hour-and-a-half south of Cancun, is a tiny town located near the Mayan ruins of Tulum. The resort area is the stretch of beach that extends down from the ruins, for several miles. The area is an eco-preserve, which means that hotel size and height limits are strictly enforced. It also means you’re running on solar and generator power, which is not nearly as scary as it sounds. It does, however, mean that most hotels either lack A/C, or reserve it until the late night hours, so be warned about that.
But A/C woes aside, it does mean the strip is nothing but tiny, boutique hotels that all have their own style and feel, but are all equally laid back and chill. Usually I hate using that word to describe a place, but it’s the best adjective I can think of. People are friendly, have a “come-as-you-are” attitude, and it’s just lovely.
- There are very few beach peddlers/vendors. This also goes for hair-braiders. If you’re into that sort of thing, you’ll have to travel up the beach, several miles, to Playa del Carmen.
Getting to Tulum
You can, of course, take a taxi or a shuttle (we’ve taken Happy Shuttle, which I recommend) from the airport to Tulum. It’s an hour-and-a-half drive, though the first time we went, our driver made it in 45 minutes. The problem is that because of Tulum’s location, unless you’re planning on spending all day, every day, on the beach, I highly recommend renting a car. Most hotels have a parking lot, and if they don’t there are several affordable parking lots on the jungle side of the road.
- Don’t rent at the airport. Try one of the rental locations just outside of the airport. The prices are much more reasonable.
- They will try to talk you into extra insurance. Don’t fall for it. Get the base, cheap insurance, and call it a day.
- The cars are varying degrees of questionable, but they get the job done.
- Most Pemex stations are full-service.
Where to stay
Our favorite hotel, above and beyond the rest, is Ahau Tulum. Not only are they super laid back, everyone on site is super friendly, and the hotel feels like a dream. It’s on the pricer end if you stay in their rooms (which include a bathroom in-room), but they have a cheaper alternative called a Bali hut, which is a bed, inside a small round room. If you’re traveling with 1-2 kids, you can rent both levels of the Bali hut, and put the kid(s) on one level, and you on the other.
We have also stayed at Posada Margherita, which is also nice, and laid back, but not quite as nice as Ahau. Both are super family friendly, which is a plus. When looking at resorts, please note that several along the Tulum coast are adults only.
- There are no all-inclusives on the Tulum strip. If you’re looking for all inclusive, the closest one to Tulum is Dreams Tulum, which is about 15-20 minutes north of the ruins.
Where to eat
Food in Tulum is a mixed blessing. On one hand, some of the best meals we’ve ever eaten were in Tulum, on the other, the food is very expensive, for Mexico. Most restaurants along the resort strip are on par with a nice restaurant in the states. Below are our favorites:
Hartwood — The hype is real. You have to show up at 3pm to get a reservation, and reservations go fast. The menu changes daily, but everything we’ve eaten here has been amazing. They generally have something kid-friendly, though your kids do need to be into seafood.
Casa Banana — An Argentinian steak house in the middle of a jungle in Quintana Roo? Why the hell not? This restaurant is legit, and while the prices may seem high, you get a lot of bang for your buck. A steak the size of what we ordered would easily be double the price here, in Denver. Also, they have a lot of chicken dishes which are kid-friendly.
Cenzontle — Right next door to Hartwood, Cenzontle is a little easier to get into, a little more affordable, and easy to gauge how picky eaters might enjoy their menu. They have fantastic cocktails and are very accommodating to kids.
Juanita Diavola — Sometimes, even when you’re in tropical paradise, you just want a damn pizza. Juanita Diavola has wood-fire pizza that is sure to please any palate. They also have a generous-size ceviche appetizer, and a Dirty Monkey (alcoholic) drink that is fantastic. Pizza leaves over, well, too, so you can bring it back to your room and munch on it later, if needed.
Mateo’s — This is the closest thing to an American sports bar that you can find in Tulum. They have burgers and burritos, and chicken fingers, in a great outdoor setting. They have TVs, too, and often broadcast major sporting events (like the Super Bowl).
Choose your own meal…
Just up the street, outside of the resort strip, is a Chedraui, which is the Mexico-equivalent of a Walmart, and I recommend stocking up on breakfast supplies. If you’re very brave, you can buy a cheap styrofoam cooler, some ice, and attempt to keep milk and such on hand. Personally, I’d suggest granola bars, and other “cold” breakfast foods.
- Because of the cost of food, we tend to eat large breakfasts and early dinners in Tulum, and skip lunch entirely.
- If your kids are prone to getting hangry (as mine is), go for the egg dishes and skip the pancakes.
- Our favorite breakfasts are at Ziggy’s and Ahau.
- You can save a bundle on food by planning days at parks, see below.
What to do
If your kids are high energy, there are so many water-based activities to do, they’ll be in heaven. First, the beaches down in Tulum are just amazingly beautiful. The water is, generally, crystal clear turquoise, and not too rocky. The beaches seem to stretch forever, and most of the hotels have great seating/lounging areas for parents. You can easily kill large parts of time just wandering up and down the beach. But, that eventually gets old for most kiddos, which is why there are water parks and cenotes in the area.
Xel-Ha — If you’re into snorkeling, Xel-Ha is your E-ticket. The price of admission may seem steep, but it includes an all-you-can eat breakfast and lunch buffet, plus unlimited drinks (yes, including alcohol) all day. That’s the type of “old Mexico” value that’s hard to find in Quintana Roo anymore. But, while Xel-Ha does have some other activities (a lot of which are pay-as-you-go add-ons), their bread and butter is snorkeling. The daughter and I are not huge on snorkeling, so while we like this park, it’s not our favorite.
Xcaret — Xcaret is much more to our speed. They have snorkeling, but they also have three large rivers that you can leisurely swim through. With the life jackets and fins they give you, they’re just a step away from a lazy river, and kids go nuts over them. They also have animal attractions and, like Xel-Ha, include all-you-can-eat lunch and dinner buffets. Alcohol is extra, but the food and drink is still a helluva deal.
Xenotes — I can’t recommend this tour enough. They start early in the morning and take you to four different cenotes, each with a different look and feel. The underground cenote, into which you are lowered via assisted repel, is worth it alone. This includes breakfast and lunch, and is so very worth it.
Grand Cenote — As one of the largest cenotes in the area, Grand is worth hitting. Admission is $10 and you can spend as long as you want in the crystal clear water. If you’re able to scuba, you can explore down into the depths, but we spent a couple of hours just swimming back and forth, enjoying the cool soak. There are also tons of bats to be seen near the water, as an added bonus.
Cenote Dos Ojos & Calavera — These are two separate, smaller cenotes, but also worth a trip. It’s fun to explain a little of the history behind them, and yes, Calavera is famous for having a skull at the bottom. It’s a little morbid, but, hey, you’re on vacation.
- You literally cannot pack enough sun screen. Getting in and out of the water means re-applying often.
- The cenotes and Xenotes tour ask that you use natural sunscreens, our favorites brands are Badger and Kiss My Face. They last a good long time and don’t smell terrible.
- All of the parks have lockers for you to leave your stuff, so feel free to pack snacks, sun screen and other necessities.
- While all of the Xcaret properties offer “hotel pick up,” none of them pick up in Tulum proper, so be prepared to drive.
What to see
The ruins of Tulum are straight up the street and definitely something to see. The buildings are largely in great shape, and the walkway down to the beach is really cool. Literally, which is nice, given that because of how Tulum is laid out, after about 30-45 minutes of exploring the ruins, you’ll feel like you’re standing in an oven. Bring lots of water and your swimsuits so you can take advantage of the water.
The Coba ruins are about an hour dead West of Tulum, and worth the drive out. They are, arguably, in the biggest state of disrepair, but the ruin itself is huge, and you can easily spend an hour-and-a-half to two hours hiking around inside. They are also home to the last pyramid that you are able to climb, which is worth seeing.
Chichen Itza, is, of course, unmissable. It’s one of the modern wonders of the world, and while it’s a hefty two-hour drive away, it’s totally worth going to for a few reasons. For one, you can say you’ve seen it, and it’s really impressive to see, in-person. But most importantly, there are vendors for days inside the park, selling the cheap, kitschy souvenirs that make perfect gifts for your kids’ friends and teachers. And, if we’re being honest, you know you want some gaudy tchotchke, too. (We bought a Predator vs. Alien statue because what the hell else do you buy in Chichen Itza?)
When to go
Now that you have a plan, when do you go? We’ve been both in the winter and in the dead of summer, and I’m not sure there’s a bad time to go to Tulum. For a family of Colorado natives, we much enjoyed Tulum in February; we left a snow storm in Denver for temperatures in the high-70s and low-80s. However, it is a little more crowded this time of year. In the summer months, the temperatures are much warmer (mid-80s to high-90s) and the humidity is insane. For people from dry climates, that struggle was very, very real.
Now, start watching the airlines for deals on flights. Shopping in the middle of the week (Wednesdays) seems to offer better deals, and leaving on off-days (Thursday, as opposed to Saturday) can save you upwards for $60/ticket. Then grab your family and head down to tropical bliss. If you go in the next few months, have a Dirty Monkey for me at Juanita Diavola!