Two hours south of Cancun lies the laid back beach town of Tulum, a destination that has become increasingly popular in recent years. Here you’ll find a wide range of activities in Tulum making the town well worth your visit.
In fact, it’s so desirable that even famous celebrities such as Leonardo Dicaprio, Drew Barrymore, and Reese Witherspoon have been spotted vacationing in this picturesque Caribbean destination.
If it’s good enough for Leo, is it good enough for you?
In this article I’m going to discuss why Tulum has recently become the more popular alternative to Cancun. I’ll also give recommendations on my favorite activities in Tulum so that you can become inspired to plan your own tropical vacation in southern Mexico.
Note: You’ll find affiliate links in this post which allow me to continue to improve Traveling Nine to Fiver. I hope this article is useful for you.
Getting to Know Tulum
Tulum is located along Mexico’s Riviera Maya, a beautiful stretch of coastline situated to the south of Cancun.
So what makes these two destinations different?
Well, Cancun is a huge city, a tourist metropolis if you will. While it may boast sandy white beaches, it’s also packed with tourists and mega-resorts.
Tulum, on the other hand, is like a smaller and quieter version of Cancun. It has boutique hotels instead of mega-resorts, intimate restaurants instead of raucous bars, and a sophisticated clientele instead of disorderly spring breakers.
Think about it: When you’re on vacation somewhere, do you want to get lost in the crowds or do you want to avoid the crowds?
The latter of course! This is the allure of Tulum. You still get stunning Caribbean beaches, which is Cancun’s main claim to fame, but in a tranquil and eco-friendly environment.
Now let’s jump into my favorite activities to do in and around Tulum.
Exploring Tulum’s Ruins
While Tulum is home to numerous hotels and restaurants, it’s also home to the ancient Mayan city of Tulum, which is now referred to as the Tulum ruins. These ruins are located somewhat close to the hotel zone and can be easily accessed by bike or car.
What makes these Mayan ruins so impressive is that they’re positioned directly next to the beach. The views are stunning and can provide you with fantastic photos of ancient Mesoamerican structures overlooking cerulean-blue water. Check and check.
The city also has a fascinating history. Tulum was one of the last inhabited Mayan cities before the Spanish conquest of the Americas decimated much of the indigenous population. In contrast, most ancient Mayan cities fell into decline and were abandoned long before Spaniards made contact.
If you plan on visiting the ruins as one of your activities in Tulum, you’ll want to get there as early as humanly possible. This is because it tends to get very hot and crowded as the day progresses.
Sian Ka’an is a protected biosphere directly south of Tulum. To add to the intrigue, it’s also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The thing that makes Sian Ka’an one of the best activities in Tulum is the incredible diversity of marine life that can be found within its borders. There are various companies that offer full-day boat tours of this biosphere. My recommendation would be to use Mexico Kan Tours, an eco-friendly company that focuses on sustainable tourism. Aside from Sian Ka’an, they also offer tours to various Mayan ruins along with other fascinating destinations near Tulum.
Tours of Sian Ka’an start with a boat ride through the biosphere and end with a leisurely lunch in the small fishing village of Punta Allen. During the course of the tour, you may be able to spot manatees, dolphins, crocodiles, turtles, and more species of birds than you could possibly count.
Chichen Itza is one of the seven modern wonders of the world and may well be one of the most famous historical sites in the entire world. Making it a must add for your list of activities in Tulum. This ancient Mayan city features a range of influences that help to distinguish it from other ruins located within Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.
Although the city comprises numerous groups of structures, the El Castillo temple has become synonymous with Chichen Itza and is the most recognized sight within the ruins. Also of interest are astrological observation towers and a court used to play the ancient Mayan ballgame of Pok-Ta-Pok.
If you go as a part of a guided tour (I did Mexico Kan Tours), you’ll no doubt gain a greater understanding of the history of Chichen Itza and the lasting impact that the site has had on the modern-day Mayan culture in Mexico.
Playa del Carmen
The beach town of Playa del Carmen is located an hour north of Tulum. Playa, as it’s commonly abbreviated, is much smaller than Cancun yet larger than Tulum. Because of this, it’s the perfect spot for a day trip if you want a little more action than what Tulum has to offer.
There’s one main street called Fifth Avenue, or La Quinta Avenida in Spanish, that features a seemingly endless supply of shopping and dining options. You can also find street vendors selling local art and other handmade items along this street. Some salespeople are a bit pushy here so I recommend ignoring anyone who’s trying to grab your attention from afar.
If Fifth Avenue isn’t enough, you can take a thirty-minute ferry ride from Playa del Carmen over to the nearby island of Cozumel. This small Caribbean island is famous for its snorkeling and scuba diving, among other things. You can also rent a car or a scooter and drive it around the entire island in an hour or two. It’s really that small!
The Coba ruins are a great alternative to the more popular archaeological sites of Tulum and Chichen Itza. This ancient Mayan city is hidden deep in the forest and features a diverse arrangement of historic structures.
One thing that makes Coba unique is the distance between each temple. While it’s definitely possible to walk from one structure to another, most people opt to either rent a bike for themselves or they pay an employee to do the biking for them. Imagine having a personal chauffeur that guides you through the forest on a bike!
The most famous structure in Coba is called Nohoch Mul, which is supposedly the tallest Mayan pyramid in the entire Yucatan Peninsula. Visitors are allowed to climb to the top of this incredibly steep pyramid and from the summit, you can obtain panoramic views of the forest surrounding Coba.
The steps leading up to the summit are so steep that the government has installed a rope for people to hold onto while ascending or descending Nohoch Mul. This is probably for the best as almost everyone seemed to use the rope at some point or another. There’s talk that visitors may not be allowed to climb this structure in the future so you’d better go sooner rather than later if you want to reach the summit of Nohoch Mul.
Get the Most Out of the Activities in Tulum
And there you have it! I sincerely hope that you’ve enjoyed reading about my favorite activities in Tulum. As you can see, there are many exciting options for a vacation in southern Mexico.
Although some of these activities are rather action-packed, just remember that you can spend as much time as you want relaxing on Tulum’s beautiful beaches.
So now that you know about this tropical Caribbean paradise, what’s holding you back?
About the Author
Michael is a 25-year-old who loves to find adventure in foreign countries and explore fascinating cultures. He runs the website Passport Explored, a blog that focuses on culture, adventure and solo travel. Connect with Michael on his travel website, Facebook, Instagram or Twitter.