This January I spent five days in Tulum, Mexico with my boyfriend for a quick winter getaway. After what felt like an already long winter of final exams and law review assignments, we were ready for a warm-weather escape. With its boutique hotels, unique natural beauty, and amazing food (gourmet and street food alike), Tulum seemed like the perfect combo of adventurous and relaxing.
Although Tulum isn’t exactly “off the beaten track,” I ultimately decided that it struck the right balance of what we were looking for in this trip—a relaxing vibe, delicious food, and a chance to do a bit of exploring. Based on the amount of Tulum photos that constantly come up on my Instagram feed, part of me does feel that Tulum has become a bit too saturated—a tourist trap in its own way, and perhaps too focused on “seeing and being seen.” That being said, after being introduced to Tulum on my first visit with the Nomoon Travel crew, I was eager to see more of this stylish beach destination and excited to share the beauty of the place with my boyfriend. Despite its flaws, Tulum is undoubtedly endowed with incredible natural beauty—from the beaches to the cenotes—as well as delicious food, friendly locals, and an all-around “cool” vibe.
Of course, in my typical fashion, I ambitiously planned out a jam-packed itinerary for the five days / four nights (well it turned out to be five nights, but more on that later) of our trip. I’m used to often traveling solo, and when I’m on my own I love trying to see as much as possible wherever I am. However, traveling as a couple often means adjusting your typical travel style and sometimes making compromises. Also, travel is by nature unexpected, and in many ways that is the beauty of it. Let’s just say by the second day of our trip I had more or less thrown my intricately planned itinerary out the window. Instead, I’m sharing our actual itinerary of how we spent our five-day vacation in Tulum, speed bumps and all.
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The alarm went off at a painful 3:30am to get to the airport in time for our 6:50am flight from NYC. I’d found a great flight deal for about $300 on Skyscanner—Interjet on the way there, and Viva Aerobus on the way back. I’d never heard of either of these airlines, but for the price I figured what the heck, we’ll give it a go.
I was a bit nervous about flying an airline I’d never heard of, but surprisingly had a totally smooth and enjoyable experience on Interjet. The staff at check-in even changed our seats so my boyfriend and I could sit together (we didn’t even need to ask).
We landed in Tulum at about 11am. I recommend withdrawing pesos from an ATM rather than using a currency exchange at the airport—my boyfriend tried the latter and got a terrible deal. After confusedly wandering around looking for an ATM in the new Terminal 4 (turns out the ATM was at departures), we grabbed a ticket for the 12:25pm ADO Bus to Tulum, which cost 262 pesos (~$13-14 USD). This was much cheaper than taking a private transfer, and although the bus makes a quick stop in Playa del Carmen, it’s an efficient and comfortable way to get to Tulum.
We were ravenous by the time we made it to Tulum about 2 hours later. Luckily, the ADO Bus station is located in the Tulum town (pueblo) area right next to a delicious local taco joint, Antojitos La Chiapaneca. For 10 pesos (about 50 cents USD) each the tacos are cheap and delicious—we even came back for a second visit later on during our trip.
After finishing up our tacos, we grabbed a cab from Tulum pueblo to our hotel, Naay Boutique Hotel, located in Aldea Zama. Aldea Zama is a new development in between the beach and the town, and kind of feels like it’s in the middle of the jungle. It’s still up and coming with lots of new construction, and although we had to take transportation (usually taxi or bike) pretty much everywhere we wanted to go, we enjoyed staying in the relatively quiet area, loved our hotel, and got a pretty good deal compared to staying on the beach. Plus you can get $25 off your hotel stay on Booking.com by using this link!
Once we had checked in and freshened up, we hopped in a taxi to Kin Toh, a restaurant at the Instagram-infamous Azulik hotel on the beach to watch the sunset. To be completely honest I did not have a good experience here. After lining up for about 20 minutes outside the hotel, groups were slowly allowed up to the bar at Kin Toh. Although the architecture was certainly unique and stunning, I found the staff to be rather rude, and the whole experience to feel kind of like a theme park attraction. We had fun lounging on the giant nets, but without a dinner reservation, weren’t permitted to see very much else of the restaurant or property. I would, however, recommend visiting Ik Lab, Azulik’s gallery, for its stunning architecture. Ik Lab is free to visit and we were basically the only ones there when we looked around!
We decided to cut our visit short and headed to the more laid-back Zamas down the road for some guac and sunset drinks—I think we made the right choice. After the painfully early morning we’d had, we decided to call it an early night.
After a delicious breakfast on Hotel Naay’s rooftop, we borrowed some complimentary bikes and made our way to the beach. With the paved bike path along road heading toward the beach, biking ended up being one of our favorite activities in Tulum. I loved that biking gave us a chance to explore at our own pace and to stop along the beach road whenever something caught our eyes.
Our first stop was the smoothie bar Matcha Mama. After dropping 50 pesos down a crack in the floorboards in the process, my boyfriend and I ended up getting an acai bowl to share, a delicious and refreshing treat after our morning bike ride. I snapped a few photos and we were back on our way down the beach road.
After seeing photos online, I had hoped to spend the day lounging around at one of the restaurants at Nomade, a hotel on the beach. However, when we arrived we were told the minimum spend to sit at the restaurant was $100 USD each, and to even set foot on their beach was $200 USD each. This seemed a bit off to me considering there was literally not a single person at the restaurant or the beach at this point, but the staff at least let us take a look around before we decided to head elsewhere. Foiled again!
Luckily I had a plan B lined up. A few hotels down was the lovely Nest, which for a minimum spend of $50 USD each, let us have our own beach bed to chill out on for the whole day. With lunch and a few drinks, it wasn’t hard to meet the minimum spend, and for the amount of time we spent enjoying the beach and atmosphere of Nest, we felt it was decent value. I loved Nest’s boutique feel and friendly staff, and was honestly so glad we ended up there.
After a leisurely day at Nest, we took a walk down the beach and ended up taking a look around Casa Malca, supposedly Pablo Escobar’s former residence now turned hotel. We had heard the staff were quite stringent about letting looky-loos like ourselves check the place out, but I guess because we had entered from the beach side rather than the road, nobody seemed to notice us.
We then picked our bikes up from Nest and headed back to our hotel before it got dark. Once back at Hotel Naay, we enjoyed a lovely sunset from the rooftop pool, complete with complimentary happy hour drinks.
Tonight was the culinary experience we had been waiting for: our dinner reservation at Hartwood, probably the most hyped-up restaurant in all of Tulum. Because I am incredibly extra, I had made the reservation more than a month in advance on December 1st when the reservations had opened up for January. I had heard it was nearly impossible to get a table at Hartwood during high season. In fact, I had emailed the restaurant from two different email accounts just to be safe—which to my chagrin resulted in two reservations, one of which I had to cancel. My takeaway from this: do email for a reservation on the first of the prior month for a reservation to avoid lining up outside the restaurant at 3pm the day of, but don’t be crazy like me, only send one.
Tip: keep in mind that Hartwood only accepts pesos, so make sure you have sufficient cash on hand, especially as the ATMs on the beach road are not the most secure.
Don’t be surprised if you do have to wait a bit for your table, even with a reservation. With its open-air setup backing onto the jungle, candles everywhere, chalkboard menus, and great classic rock playlist, we didn’t mind hanging around for a while. The food did not disappoint—I went for the ceviche Yucatán and grilled octopus, and Alex went for the prawns and robalo. I thought my drink was a bit overpriced and mediocre, but that didn’t put a damper on the overall positive experience.
Through Kelsey’s Lens