A Backpacker Guide to Tulum on a Budget
November 1, 2017
Tulum is a town in the Quintana Roo region of Mexico which attracts people from all over the world for its pristine beaches, Mayan ruins, as well as the unique Cenotes. The amazing landscape combined with friendly locals in a relatively safe area is undoubtedly the reason this area saw almost 10 million tourists in 2016 alone (as reported by the Yucatan Times here.) Large volumes of high-budget vacationers visiting have increased the price tag attached to travelling this area of Mexico. Luckily, Tulum is the backpacker hideaway with a central location to explore all nearby attractions while offering budget accommodation and food options everywhere! This is my detailed backpacker’s guide to Tulum on a budget so you too can see the beauty of the Mayan Riviera without breaking the bank.
Why Visit Tulum?
Tulum is about 3 hours driving from Cancun or about 1 hour from Playa del Carmen. It is the least touristic of the three while still being in the thick of all of the “must see” attractions of the Quintana Roo. Cancun is perfect for all-inclusive hotels and Las Vegas-style nightlife while Playa del Carmen is on a smaller scale but poses as a tourist shopping haven. When I was in Tulum I was surprised by the local charm still present there. While tourists were around (more so during the daytime due to day trippers) the town still had lots of local restaurants and shops.
For $5 USD you can get yourself a centrally located hostel with air conditioning and breakfast. Then for $2 USD you can get a collective to basically anywhere you would want to go around the area. A huge street food meal of tacos can be found for less than $3 USD and a beer goes for about $1 USD. Tulum is definitely the best choice for a place to stay while exploring the Quintana Roo while staying on budget (read further for my “Tulum on a Budget Tips”).
Getting to Tulum on a Budget
From Caye Caulker, Belize – After taking the ferry back to Belize City there are tourist buses going straight to Tulum at 11am and 1pm but they are VERY expensive(about $40 USD.) A cheaper option is to get the expensive bus to Chetmal, Mexico only. There, you can get the Mayab bus to Tulum for a fraction of the price. Doing the journey this way will cost about $20 USD total. It will take about 9 hours by bus to get from Belize City to Tulum including the border crossing.
From anywhere in Mexico – The more expensive bus is the ADO bus company which is also the quickest and most comfortable with a bathroom on board. Head to the ADO bus station and ask how much and how long to Tulum from wherever you are, these guys are helpful and many even speak English!
If you want to save a few dollars ask for the Mayab or Oriente buses (second class buses.) These will typically be 1/3 of the ADO bus price and also leave from the ADO bus station. Just be aware that sometimes the people selling the tickets only want to sell you the expensive ticket (because you’re a tourist) so be persistent or just ask a bus driver directly for information. These second class buses don’t have a bathroom on board and can sometimes fill up with more people than seats but overall they are decent buses (some even have air conditioning.)
Getting Around Tulum and Area
In terms of things to do in the actual town of Tulum it is pretty limited to eating and shopping. The point of Tulum is that it is a great central location to begin exploring the amazing attractions the area offers. When I arrived the first question I had was “how to I get to all of these places?” There are a couple ways to get around depending on your preferences. Taxi’s or organized tours are two options but these are the most expensive so for the sake of this guide I will focus on the budget friendly options.
Most Fun – Rent a car and drive anywhere your heart desires whenever you want. A car rental for 24 hours will cost about 40 USD. Keep in mind that you will pay for fuel on top of that and even a couple dollars here and there for parking. This is a decent budget option if you have a group of people splitting the costs.
Most Affordable – Catch the local “Collectivos” which are essentially just mini vans which run on direct routes and will stop for anybody anywhere along the route. They run regularly and the price depends on how far you go but it is usually just a couple of dollars. There are Collectivos which run along the main highway from Tulum all the way to Cancun. Most of the attractions I will mention below will be accessible by this Collectivo. Simply wave down the Collectivo on the correct side of the road (the direction in which you want to travel.) Jump on and tell the driver where you want to go. He will tell you when you are there and tell you the price (they have a set chart so don’t worry about getting ripped off.)
“Things to Do” Guide to Tulum
Go to the Beach
The town of Tulum isn’t right on the beach, the closest beach it is about one hour by walking or 20 minutes by bike (expect to pay about $4 USD for a bike for the day.) We didn’t actually check out this beach but we heard it was nice and easy to get to with not too many tourists around.
However, if you are looking to explore more iconic beaches there are two great options I would highly recommend. The first is Akamal beach which is famous for the turtles there which you can snorkel with! This beach is only about 20 minutes from Tulum and accessible by Collectivo. Akamel beach can be busy at peak season times but is well-worth a visit especially is you haven’t snorkeled with massive wild turtles before.
X-cacel is another beautiful beach and when we went there it was empty – we literally had the turquoise ocean all to ourselves! It is also accessible by Collectivo and has a $3 USD entrance fee. The cool thing about this beach is that there is also a Cenote only one minute walk from the ocean which you can explore for free! We spent half a day here and it was gorgeous and cheap, I would highly recommend this as a great day trip.
One of the most famous things to the Yucatan Penninsula is the Cenotes which are literally everywhere! There are just too many to see them all – so you must choose wisely which ones to check out. Definitely ask around for other peoples’ recommendations but I will tell you about the ones we chose to visit.
This Cenote is a complex underwater cave system. From land it actually seems like two different Cenotes as they connect underwater. These Cenotes entrance gates are easy to get to by Collectivo (only 20 minutes from Tulum.) Once at the entrance gate it is another 2 km walk or hitchhike to the actual cenotes. They cost 350 pesos entrance fee which is one of the pricier cenote fees. However, if you have never seen a cave with bright blue water before then definitely check this one out regardless of the price.
This Cenote is very different than Dos Ojos as it is less of cave and has much more greenery. Imagine mangroves and a massive fresh water swimming pool. This cenote is popular for snorkeling and the best part – it is accessible by a short bike ride from Tulum (or a couple dollar taxi ride.) The entrance fee for this one is 100 pesos per person.
This cenote would be my favorite! It is even on the way from Tulum to Gran Cenote. It is also 100 pesos entrance fee but is typically much less busy and is more of what people typically imagine when they think of Centoes – a big hole in the earth with a swimming pool.
There are dozens more cenotes to explore. For more details on the Cenotes around Tulum check out our friend’s article from Best Cenote Dives here.
Scuba Dive in Cenotes
If you are visiting Tulum on a budget then scuba diving is the one things you might have to skip – but if you can afford it and you like to scuba dive then you must do it! Diving in a couple of cenotes is a once in a lifetime experience. This was something I had been looking forward to for weeks! We have done a few ocean dives in the Caribbean already on this trip, but I was excited for something different – and it sure was different!
We first dove the Casa Cenote which was really neat because you literally dive underneath mangroves. When I looked up I could see all of the roots of the trees. This was a good dive to start with because although there was some covered areas there were many openings allowing lots of light in and easy access to the surface if needed.
The next cenote we dove was Calavera which was completely opposite of Casa Cenote. Here it was all cave diving around the large opening of the cenote. We saw lots of white rock formations. There was also a false surface affect that the water makes where the fresh water meets the salt water. This dive was a little bit more intimidating at first as we needed our flashlights the entire time and involved swimming in between some smaller spaces, but it made for a very exciting dive.
We went diving with the company called Best Cenote Dives and they were great! Our instructor, Dominic (also the owner), was friendly, spoke English as a first language, and was lots of fun. Not to mention the gear was in great shape and the day went smoothly from beginning to end. We like to support these smaller companies who truly take pride in their work and have a passion for scuba diving which is very apparent. You can book with Best Cenote Dives on their website here.
Visit the Coba Ruins
I have been to the Coba ruins a couple of years ago on a previous visit to Tulum so this time it was a miss. However, many backpackers are making the trip to check out these ruins especially since they are closer and cheaper than visiting the famous Chichen Itza. The entry fee is only 65 pesos. The Coba ruins are about 40 minutes away from Tulum by car or bus (ADO or Collectivos go there regularly.)
Eat Street Food
We found lots of great tasting, yet cheap, street food in Tulum. One of our favorites was also a local favorite called Pastors, which are essentially pork filled soft tacos. Uusally you get about 5 small tacos for 3 USD and it is more than enough for one person. Street food is the best way to eat in Tulum on a budget.
Tulum is also a common place for festivals and celebrations, which in Mexico, means food and lots of it! While we were in Tulum there was a celebration in the main square. There was everything from pizza to corn dogs to crepes to nachos available for sale for a couple of dollars. Talking to other travelers I have realized that these festivals are very common in Tulum. So, if you are there for a couple of nights it is likely you will find yourself one and be able to indulge in some celebratory street food.
There are also lots of local restaurants where large Mexican meals are prepared for only a couple of dollars. One that is very popular among locals is called La Picadita Jarocha. The meals range from $2-5 USD and include a massive natural fruit juice.
Tulum on a Budget Random Tips
-Stay in a hostel with a kitchen. Although street food is cheap, cooking for yourself is always cheaper.
-Carry your own snorkel gear. Snorkel gear can be rented at most beaches or cenotes. However, the rental fee will cost about the same as just buying your own set in the town of Tulum.
-Pack bagged lunches for your day trips as the restaurants near the attractions are expensive.
-Book a hostel that offers free water. With the humidity of Meixco you could easily drink $5 USD worth of water per day.
-Travel in low season. Prices can double (sometimes triple) in high season. High season usually is the months of November to February. Although the weather tends to be best in these months a strict budget is better suited to wet season travel.
Hopefully this guide to Tulum on a budget is useful and inspires you check out one of Mexico’s most beautiful regions! We had some really great times in and around Tulum. We would encourage anyone to check out Tulum on a budget – and when you do, let us know if you have any other tips to add below!