Just got back from a week in Tulum and got a lot of info from these boards so I figured I'd return the favor by sharing our experiences. We are a couple in our early 30's from NYC who are well traveled and somewhat adventurous who went looking for some relaxation and some history without breaking the bank. Here's how it went:
We left Newark on 12/23 in the evening and arrived in Cancun late at night so we just grabbed our car from Blueway and went to the Airport Courtyard Marriott for the night. We were really concerned about the car rental after reading stories here, but fortunately had no trouble. We got up the next morning and drove to Tulum, stopping at Puerto Morelos for breakfast and Akumal to snorkel in Yalku Lagoon, which was fun. Next three nights we stayed in town at Secret Garden which we liked a lot. We always seem to like the hotels we choose which I think is a combination of our un-picky-ness and diligent research. We stayed in town because we wanted to use the first few days to explore the area. We spent xmas day doing Sian Kaan tour with Mexico Kan. It was pretty good (the snorkeling was excellent), but overall wouldn't do it again given cost ($128pp) and two hour bumpy ride each way. We saw a few dolphins and one sea turtle, which wasn't that exciting for us as we were lucky enough to be in Hawaii for whale season this year and saw tons more.
The next day we went to Chichen Itza. Hearing horror stories about crowds, we left Tulum a little after 6am and got to Chichen as it was opening at 8. SO glad we did it this way because there were thousands of people pouring in when we left at 11. It was amazing, but would not have been worth it for us unless going early. We then stopped at Ek Balam, which we loved, before heading back to Tulum.
Next morning we went to Coba before moving down to our cabana on the beach at Playa Mambo. Did Tulum ruins and Grand Cenote the next morning and the spent rest of afternoon and rest of the trip on the amazing beach. Playa Mambo was one of our favorite hotels we have ever stayed in- great cabanas, nice people, the best beach, and our best meal of the trip ($20USD for several beers, grilled veggies, rice, and three grilled lobsters each!). The price was reasonable at $120/night given the cost of other places and that it was super high season.
A few other notes
- pay attention to the part of the beach you stay. I thought our area was the nicest and it seems clear that the area further south down the road has the better beaches, but also some of the hotels don't clean their area.
- eat at El Camello, a seafood restaurant at the far end of town, a few blocks past subway. If you go for lunch with someone else, an order of guacamole, two beers, and a medium mixed ceviche (absolutely enormous!!) will set you back about $11USD and will leave you very happy. If you go for dinner, add a grilled fish plate or seafood stew full of huge shrimp, fish, octopus, etc. yum
- we tried to eat at local places most of the time and were glad we did. Being from NYC, we didn't want to spend a lot on a scene-y Italian or Thai meal that we could get home for the same cost. We went to some nicer places for drinks only and found a lot of style and not much substance, except for La Zebra where the drinks were really good and worth the extra $$$.
- we saw 4 ruins and enjoyed them all as they all had their own personality- Chichen for it's size and history, Coba for being in the jungle and being able to ride bikes to the sites, Tulum for the setting on the coast (though it was by far the least impressive) and Ek Balam for being to 'coolest'. It really is important to go to Tulum and Chichen before the tour buses arrive. Ek Balam seems off the radar and Coba is so spread out that it doesn't feel too crowded. If you're not really there for the ruins and don't want to make the trip to Chichen, try Coba.
- I hate topes.
- there were a lot of police officers, with big guns at check points, pulling people over, etc though appeared to be leaving tourists alone. Not sure if it was a coincidence or intentional.
- if you're going at this time of the year it can get quite cold at night. We did not bring enough warm clothes and had to get extra blankets.
- I love margaritas.
- I ate over 30 tacos in a week and can not look at another. Our favorites were at the al pastor place the southern end of town (7 pesos each) and fish tacos at Local Locale, across the street from Playa Mambo, though we had a bad experience there when we returned.
Overall, we had a great trip and found Tulum to be a good fit for our 'travel personalities' with the mix of ruins, cenotes, beaches, and laid back atmosphere.