Once upon a time, travelers in Mexico who wanted to avoid the package resort areas of Cancun headed to the small hotels of Playa del Carmen or the rustic beach huts of Tulum. Now Playa del Carmen is a full-fledged tourist trap town, kind of fun if you’re on a vacation budget, but out of the range of most backpackers unless they stay and eat a few blocks away from where the cruise ship crowds are wandering along the pedestrian thoroughfare. Nice that’s it’s a walkable city, but you know it’s always a bad sign when shops and some restaurant are posting prices in U.S. dollars.
Tulum beach, unfortunately, is also now nothing close to being a budget destination. Sure, many of the huts are still rustic and the room I just spent a few nights in broght back memories of similar huts in Southeast Asia—especially the cool and salty shower water, the mosquitoes, and the noisy generators supplying electricity. The thing is, a similar place in Indonesia would be $15 to $30 a night (less in parts of Bali and Sumatra), but in Tulum it’s $60 after bargaining for a low-season deal in the heat of summer. Something basic can easily top $100 in high season and some are, incredibly, hitting $300 a night.
I spent more on meals at the beach restaurants of Tulum than I would for something similar at home, in contrast to many similar places around the world where lunch by the beach will only set you back a few dollars. Plus the bus and combi options are infrequent and there is only one convenience store on about a 10-mile stretch of hotels, so you end up spending a fair bit on taxis to pick up supplies there or in town.
Tulum town is therefore where many budget travelers end up, a typical ugly jumble of concrete and asphalt where the hotels are still way overpriced, but at least you get electricity all day and you can spring for air conditioning. There are far more cheap eats options and a big grocery store with normal prices. It’s a hike out to the beach though, then you have to return from paradise to the grubby town after your day trip in the waves.
The reason the crowds keep coming, however, is that Tulum beach is one of the loveliest ones around in a country that’s filled with great beaches. For one thing there has been very little erosion here. The low building density, the tendency to leave the vegetation instead of clearing it, and the fact that most (though not all) hotels had the sense to build far in from the sand has meant that this beach is still long, wide, and beautiful. You could walk for a couple hours south during low tide probably and not get to the end of it. It definitely is in the running for all those “top 10 most romantic beaches” lists too, though with my daughter along on this trip I’m probably not the best person to ask about that.
If you’re on a budget and heading to this popular vacation region, here’s my advice. Spend a couple days in Playa del Carmen, staying a few Avenidas back from the tourist zone and eating where the locals eat, still enjoying the ample public beaches, hitting the good happy hours, and enjoying the vibe. During low season anyway, there are plenty of bargains around and mid-range hotels are actually a better deal here than in Tulum.
Splurge for a night or two on Tulum beach, bargaining hard if you’re there outside of the November through April high season. Bring plenty of water from the supermarket as you don’t want to drink what’s there—even with a purifier as it’s salty. Then head further south to less famous places, such as Lake Bacalar and Mahahual beach. Most tourists find it enough of a hike to get down to Tulum. They’re not going to venture any further than that, so the areas south of there attract longer-term travelers and expats.
As for me, after six weeks of trying to speak Spanish, I’m heading down to Belize—the one English-speaking country in Central America. If you’re planning a trip to Mexico, Belize, or another country in Central America and this is your first major trip, pick up the book Traveler’s Tool Kit: Mexico and Central America.