[Tulum] The Jungle Outside the Concrete Jungle

Casa Malca

Casa Malca

If Instagram was an island, it’d be Tulum. It is your entire vacation vision board IRL and the kind of getaway every hustling busybee needs once in a while to escape the fast-pace, turbulent nature of the city and simply indulge in the carefree, mindless relaxation of it all. You’ve most likely seen all the photos on your newsfeeds and it’s without a doubt, a beautiful and popular hotspot for celebrities and big influencers (some of whom you might just run into there). But let me also just preface with my own, honest, unbiased opinion of the place: Tulum is pretty, yes, but it is 100% an aesthetic vibe and culture. If that’s what you’re looking for, then it’s a great place to travel to! However, if you’re looking for more adventure, grand exploration, and foreignness, then it’s not quite that. It will be a mini getaway that fulfills your dreamy escapes, which sometimes is all the medicine you need.

I was perfectly satisfied with our short weekend trip. Maybe an extra day to visit outside of Tulum itself, but other than that, I think we did all we could as far as beaching, relaxing, and doing a whole lot of nothing. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I definitely needed that and it’s important to decompress away from your daily stresses back home, but I won’t say it’s one of my favorite travel destinations. Then again, this is all in my own opinion and dependent on my personal circumstances. I still enjoyed my time very much there and do plan on going back, possibly in sometime in the future (it’s a great romantic destination!), to explore more since there will surely be new additions. Until then, let me share my Tulum experience with you all:

Our balcony view from our hotel room

Our balcony view from our hotel room

Where We Stayed

Rosa del Viento

This was the perfect boutique hotel that made our happy little wallets feel a tad bit full. Though it is one of the furthest down the beach and towards the end of the road (and quite the trek from the main area), this hotel was the right balance of views, accommodations (free breakfast!), and tropical vibes. We treated ourselves to an oceanfront room with ample space and high ceilings, topped off with a full private balcony overlooking the beach (photo on the right).

Speaking of beach, the hotel’s beach had the comfiest beds and tons of lounge chairs with straw umbrellas so highly recommend ordering yourself a cocktail or two because you will be spending a good amount of time under the sun. We also took it upon ourselves to beach hop to other hotels’ lounges since they’re all walking distance from each other and along the same beach. Not sure if it was particularly allowed, but of course, we didn’t make it overly apparent we weren’t their guests (aka don’t order anything).

Tip: Definitely take advantage of bike rentals early on as they get rented out quickly in the mornings. I forget how much it was but it was extremely reasonably priced for a full day rental.

Open view of the chefs at Casa Jaguar

Open view of the chefs at Casa Jaguar

FOOD & Drinks

  • Casa Jaguar

    So we stumbled upon this hidden, highly chic and edgy restaurant after we gave up on trying to eat at Kin Toh (another popular spot we didn’t get to because of reservations). But it turned out we liked this place so much that after having our nightcap cocktails here (which were so good!), we decided to have dinner here the next day. It has such a low-key ambient vibe and the food was well-worth it. I highly recommend their octopus dish, and not to mention their portions were a decent size for the price. Okay, but it also helped that the waiters here were pretty good-looking…but that’s besides the point (I think).

  • Charly’s Vegan Tacos

    This was a happy little accident. Actually, it was more of a hangry-heat-induced little accident on our way back to our hotel. And let me just say, tacos are not as frequent and abundant as one would hope for in Tulum. After quite some time, and a couple of expensive meals, we were seriously craving for some cheap, authentic, hefty tacos. This was as close as we could get but was also surprisingly really good for an entirely vegan spot. Loved the outdoor seating and the staff was so nice!

  • Raw Love Cafe

    Loved this spot! The absolute perfect lunch spot, especially after our early morning yoga. We biked over to this place and just wanted to something healthy and cooling. This cafe is tucked inside Ahau Tulum hotel and it is a cute colorful escape of natural wooden tables and chairs. The entire menu is vegan and the food was refreshing and different from the normal vegan spots I’ve tried. I highly recommend the smoothies! They have so many varieties and we definitely left feeling satisfied but not too heavy and full, which is the last thing you want to feel in the heat and biking back to your hotel.

  • Hartwood

    I really wanted to like this. Yes, mostly because it was on every single Tulum list I looked into but also because we had to make reservations ahead of time and even then, the only time available was 5:20pm (and we still waited 20 minutes). Not to say the food wasn’t good or the restaurant itself wasn’t particularly unique, but I personally didn’t feel like it was exceptional or the must-eat place it was hyped up to be. Yes, it’s good and sure, make a reservation if you can fit it in. But I promise you won’t be missing out if you don’t eat here.


Morning yoga at Azulik

Morning yoga at Azulik

  • Morning yoga at Azulik

    As soon as you enter Tulum, you’ll immediately notice all the zen, wellness, and yoga signs for the ultimate urban escape. Though I did have an idea of the hippie-like vibe of the place, I didn’t realize that every single hotel offers some sort of yoga or wellness class to take part in. But I particularly wanted to take the one at Azulik because of the gorgeous dome (photo on the right). It was so beautiful and extremely spacious, and of course, well-air conditioned. We did want to explore the hotel more but the staff didn’t let us because we weren’t guests. Annoying. Anyways, I’d personally email them to ask about reserving a spot. The classes are mostly everyday at 8am and would cost about $18.

  • Bike ride all throughout the main street

    If your hotel offers bike rentals, do it!! Not only is it just so much easier to get around (the roads are tight so it’s difficult for cars to weave in and out), but it also offers a better way to explore up and down the main road, while stopping every now and then for photos or to explore the little shops. Which brings me to the next recommendation….

  • Check out all the boutiques

    Though it may be hard not to want to drop a crap ton of money and splurge on something cute and locally made, definitely check out the boutiques anyways because you never know if you end up learning more about the area or get recommendations from the employees. Plus, most of these boutiques are outdoors so it’s easy to stop on the side and just take a quick glance.

  • Visit Gran Cenote

    Visiting and swimming in any cenote in Mexico is a must! These swimming holes are naturally made and deeply gorgeous with its clear, turquoise waters and adorable sea life (we saw turtles!). Gran Cenote is the most well-known one and it does get crowded with tourists, however, it’s big enough that you will have plenty of space to swim around without hitting anyone. Tip: go to the smaller section to the right. It’ll be emptier and and shallow enough to stand and walk around. You can also spend the entire afternoon here since there is an open green area for you to lay out, have a picnic, take a nap. Also, bring eco-friendly, nontoxic sunblock so it doesn’t hurt the coral reefs and other natural sea life!

Gran Cenote

Gran Cenote

  • Late night live music

    Nightlife in Tulum isn’t as wild and crazy as one would think for bars in Mexico but there is a good amount of live music performances. Whether it’s part of a hotel or restaurant or you just so happen to walk by it, then check it out! Grab yourself a drink, simply sit there and take it all in. Right after our dinner at Casa Jaguar, we walked next door to an outdoor live music performance. I can’t even remember the name of it but it was a nice ending to our night. The music was eclectic and different, and there was even an entire tribal performance afterwards.

  • Photos everywhere!

    I think this is quite self-explanatory. But just in case I didn’t emphasize it enough, here it is :)


Some tips

  • Please go with a hefty wallet. This is not the place to find cheap eats and money-saving hacks. And bring cash! Places like Hartwood only accepted cash and there aren’t a lot of ATM’s around or many that even worked.

  • Don’t expect greasy, next-day-regret, drunk munchies (maybe other than snacks from that one bodega). Everything you’ll eat in Tulum will be some version of healthy, natural, or vegetarian/pescatarian/vegan, which is actually pretty nice for a vacation when you expect to go on a health binge the week after.

  • Visit Yucatan! We didn’t have time since we were only there for a few days but I hear it’s a great day visit if you’re itching for some vibrant Mexican culture.

  • Just wing it. I wish I had known ahead of time that even though there are the popular spots and photo ops that you want to get, at some point, the laidback and carefree vibe of the place will make you feel less stressed and equally as free from following a rigid itinerary or checklist. Tulum is beautiful in all its parts so don’t worry about “getting the shot” because above all else, this is a vacation to relax and be present.

  • Warning: every. one. is. beautiful. Now, I say this as a tip because being a mental health advocate and all, I am very aware of the discomforting moments when my anxiety kicks in and on this trip, it definitely did when I couldn’t help but just compare myself to everyone out there with their picture-perfect bodies, smooth tan skin, and effortless bohemian style of people who look like they don’t have 9-5’s waiting back home. It took time to readjust this mindset and remind myself that this is a vacation for myself, not for my insecurities. I already deal with these internal conflicts back home so they did not have to come with me on vacation, too. Just remember: you’re treating yourself to good vibes, beautiful surroundings, and perfect company. And that’s plenthy enough.

Sometimes there are vacations you didn’t want, but actually needed after all. I appreciate Tulum for teaching me to relax, which I learned on this trip that I’m very bad at. It was quite the challenge but once I got home, I realized it was the kind of escape, both physically and mentally, that I didn’t know I desperately needed. Most of my travels are packed with places to see, foods to eat, lots of transportation, but it was actually refreshing to not have to worry about any of it on this trip.

We get so caught up in the whirlwind of routine and always being on top of everything that we forget escapes are an essential part of the hard work, too. You come back refreshed, recharged, and ready to take on the everyday challenges of getting shit done.

So take your vacation days. You deserve it.

Mai Nguyentravels, tulum