Quintana Roo is full of world-famous tourism spots, and Tulum is one. When I used to picture it, I imagined white sand beaches, lined with ladies in long, flowing dresses, with their boyfriends snapping pictures. They are framed by a lush jungle and picturesque, white Mexican buildings. I imagined that the ancient Mayans had an equal (or greater appreciation) of the brilliant blue sea here. The buildings they left behind, clinging to the cliffs, now serve as a backdrop for photoshoots and group tours.

What I didn’t expect, was the bustling, real city behind all the big hotels. A city full of stressful traffic, construction, and tasty food. And I didn’t expect how stressful it would be to visit its famous landmarks. I had no idea that there were little, beautiful places off the side of the highway that spotlighted the exceptional beauty and history of this Pueblo Mágico. I had no idea what exploring some of the culture in Tulum would be like.

This guide is meant to give you some insight into Tulum as a traveler who might be looking for a bit more than a nice spot for the photoshoot. Or maybe you are looking for luscious photos AND windows into the things that make Tulum world class. Or maybe you just want to see some sides of Tulum that you might not often get from the internet. Whatever brings you, this guide is a reflection of my experience in Tulum. And my answer the question, is it worth visiting Tulum?

Is It Worth Visiting Tulum?

There’s never an easy answer to a question like this. Everyone is looking for something different in their travels. And people have different experiences in the same places.

But I think there are a few questions that you might ask yourself when considering Tulum as a destination.

culture in tulum

Tulum ruins (c) ABR 2023

Do you mind crowds?

If yes, Tulum might not be for you. Now, some of my favorite places for culture in Tulum aren’t super busy, but generally this is a very busy place. The main sites are crowded. The city itself is very busy and can be wild. The tourism area is also notably narrow and even a few cars can feel like too many.

Are you willing to wake up early for exceptional views?

If yes, Tulum Ruins should probably be on your to-see list. Here’s the thing, yes, the ruins get almost instantly crowded, and they can be challenging to get into. But it really is a magical place. There are some really special ruins there, unlike anything else I saw in Quintana Roo. And the cliffs hung over the crystalline, blue ocean are really spectacular.

culture in tulum

Muyil (c) ABR 2023

Are you put off by “made by tourism” places?

The famous parts of Tulum, that are in all those Instagram pictures of fabulous hotels, are a little escape from reality. And it isn’t what Tulum is really like, or at least, it isn’t the Tulum that the people who live there know. And if you are put off by places like that, you might not enjoy this particular Pueblo Mágico (consider Bacalar!).

Can you brave a busy city to find its gems?

Set back from the hotel strip on the beach is a bustling town that has some really good food, shops, and lesser-known ruins. If you can brave the traffic, the real Tulum has got some great things to experience. And it shouldn’t be forgotten.

What to Expect in Tulum

I would say that there are three distinct areas of Tulum that I experienced. And each has a different flavor and things to consider.

The Hotel Strip

culture in tulum

The kind of cool street in the hotel area (c) ABR 2023

As I mentioned above, this is the part of Tulum (besides the ruins with the same name) where many influencers are taking pictures. This is where the beaches are walled off by hotels will huge, white walls. Where little shops line the narrow dirt street, with thematic, natural aesthetics, and foods that cater to visitors from the US and beyond.

If you were to think of it charitably, it is a work of art, a creation of a world by companies that are buying into the dream of what Tulum is like. And there is something about it that is charming. It’s not necessarily easy to walk around here. But it’s still sort of fun to wander along the shaded, dirt street. It feels like something out of a theme park like Disney or Universal.

That being said… nothing about this is really indicative of the actual city and culture in Tulum. Dirt streets might be a thing here and there, but they aren’t the norm. And the jungles have been cut back to make room for people to live in the sun. The white walls and rough thatched lights aren’t found everywhere. Tulum is like many other towns in Mexico. A little messy, but alive, and colorful, and a little chaotic. So, this dreamy place is nothing more than a tourism escape.

And the walls between walkers and the beach were a reminder to me of what tourism can take from local folks. Furthermore, it is expensive to even be in this area. Parking costs are very high, and along with the price tags on everything else.

The Tulum Ruins

culture in tulum

Tulum (c) ABR 2023

Is it worth going to Tulum ruins – I still think so if you go early and prepared for what you will be dealing with.

Ok, so the ruins are a relatively small part of the town, but they kind of make up this tourism complex. If you are heading into the ruins, there is a big parking lot close to the highway. Yes, you need to pay here, but searching for free parking (in my opinion) isn’t worth it. This parking area is surrounded by restaurants and shops, particularly in the direction that you will need to walk to get to the ruins.

From there, you will walk down a road, past a sentry point, to the large entrance to the Tulum Ruins. Everything is pretty curated, and designed to capture your tourist funds. Once again, it reminds me of entering a big theme park, complete with a massive gate.

culture in tulum

Tulum beach (c) ABR 2023

There are several blog posts that there is free parking if you drive past all this and take the dirt road along the coast to a beach. However, I found that trying to find this was a waste of money. We had to pay to enter the park in our car. AND we could not find a place to park at the beach (by the way, should we visitors fill up the beach parking when we aren’t going to the beach?). And then we had to drive all the way back around (wasting about 20 minutes), and paid for parking anyway.

Just go early, and pay to park. It will be much less stressful and probably end up costing you less and you won’t need to pay to drive through the park.

Tulum Proper

Along-side these really curated spaces, there is the town of Tulum. And it really isn’t anything that the photos would have you expect, unless you have traveled through Mexico quite a bit and know what Mexican towns are like… And that’s because Tulum is a normal town, where normal people live their lives.

In this area, there are some really great things to uncover – mostly food related, in terms of what I found. But there is also a lot of shopping in town (likely cheaper than the beachside shops).

The one drawback of town is that the traffic is definitely stressful. We stayed on the inner edge of town (away from the beach), and by the time we left, there were just roads I avoided because the lights and traffic jams were just too much for me. Plus construction – I don’t care where you live, road construction is ALWAYS stressful (but appreciated and necessary). Anyway, drive careful (of course).

If you have car, try not to miss this part of town. At least go out for a nice, authentic dinner. There are some REALLY nice spots in town. In terms of culture in Tulum, this is where the true soul of the town lives.

Ancient Culture in Tulum

There is plenty to explore in this Pueblo Mágico when it comes to culture in Tulum. Much of what you will be looking for here is ancient history. Although, there are plenty of great places to experience the culinary genius of Mexico, as well as other elements of Mexican culture. But that isn’t what Tulum is known for.

The most famous site in town is the Mayan ruins of the same name, but there is a second set of ruins right outside of town that was my first introduction to Quintana Roo’s Mayan ruins. And while they aren’t quite as spectacular as Tulum, they are a very peaceful place to visit. So, I would highly suggest them to anyone who gets stressed out by crowds, like myself.

Tulum Ruins

I’ve spoken a bit above about the Tulum ruins – particularly when it comes to parking. If you didn’t bother reading that section above, the main take away is: (1) Get there early. (2) Don’t bother with the “free” parking that other blogs mention. It is hard to find, and not meant for people visiting the ruins. You will end up paying more if you try for it and can’t find it as well. So, just pay to park near the entrance.

For the ruins themselves, they get busy very early. And when I say busy – I mean, busloads of people-busy. So, if you’d like to catch a few moments to yourself, get there right when they open. That’s what we did, and while we never had the park to ourselves, it was comfortable for the first 20-30 min that we were there.

During this time, we got to look at some of the most spectacular ruins without getting in anyone’s way (or vice versa). And we got some great views of the coast without crowds as well.

Worth the Money and Crowds

Honestly, I think Tulum is popular, but not a tourist trap. It really is a very beautiful place that’s unlike anything else that I have ever seen. So is it worth visiting Tulum? If it fits your budget, and you can navigate the crowds, yes!

Some things to prepare for besides parking and crowds are the mosquitos. I got bit up real good while I was there. So, bring some hefty bug spray. The access to the beach was also closed when we visited, so plan on being adaptable to the changing conditions of the park.

Finally, if you are looking to get more history from the experience, you might budget a little more for a guide. We never paid to have a guide in any of the ruins we visited, because it was out of our budget. But there isn’t a lot of reading material on-site. If you are on the budget side of things and want to skip this, it is easier to skip in Tulum than some of the other sites we visited. They just asked us once at the beginning, when we entered, instead of constantly being asked while visiting.

Muyil

culture in tulum

Muyil (c) ABR 2023

The ruins outside of town that I mentioned earlier in this guide is the Archeological Zone of Muyil. This was my first introduction to ruins in Quintana Roo, and I am very happy about that. This smaller ruin is much quieter than many of the other sites that you might visit during your trip to this region. There is less pressure to purchase guiding services, and the crowding factor is much lower.

ADDITIONALLY, this was the best access that we got to La Reserva de la Biosfera Sian Ka’an. (This is an additional ticket, however).

For this site, you will get your visit started from a small, dirt parking lot. There is an official kiosk to buy tickets for the site and get situated. There is also a bathroom here for your use. From there, you will be free to explore via the established trails. While the temples here aren’t massive, I found them to be very impressive. These ancient Mayan buildings are elegant and beautiful.

When we visited, there was also active archeology work being done at Muyil. It was great to see discovery in the process while there. This is an important part of culture in Tulum – we are rediscovering many things about the Mayan people, and growing our appreciation of modern Mayan people through learning about their ancestors.

If you are looking for a short hike, you can also walk into Sian Ka’an from Muyil. It is an extra ticket to do so, but considering that the main part of Sian Ka’an is hard to access otherwise, I think it is well worth hiking here. The trail through the jungle isn’t long or difficult. But it takes you across wooden bridges and past a huge (and scary) lookout tower. It’s a great place to stop and take in the nature of Quintana Roo. 

Nature in Tulum

Reserva de la Biosfera Sian Ka’an

culture in tulum

Hiking in Sian Ka’an (c) ABR 2023

We entered Sian Ka’an from two different directions and had two very different experiences. From Muyil, (discussed above), I really loved the jungle hike, even though it was short.

But from the main hotel strip of Tulum, we felt that we were being taken advantage of and that we had paid for a useless ticket. That’s because we drove for nearly an hour down a busy dirt road (after the entry station), and we never even saw a beach access or any trailheads. Instead, we were hemmed by fenced, private property for most of the drive. There weren’t even good views of the ocean.

While there seem to have been things further down the road, we just didn’t think it was worth our time and gas to drive more than 2 hours in and out through a dirt road with nothing to see or do.

culture in tulum

Sian Ka’an tower (c) ABR 2023

In terms of what to expect in Tulum, I wish I had known this. Unless you have the time and gumption to make it all the way out to the lighthouse, I would not suggest trying to enter Sian Ka’an from the hotel strip in Tulum.

If you really want to explore this Biosphere Reserve, consider booking a tour. That is not something that we ended up doing, but I know there are options for ecotours there.

Planning Your Trip to Quintana Roo

Are you planning to explore the many wonders of Quintana Roo? If so, be sure to check out my Visitor’s Guide to Quintana Roo for all of my posts about visiting this history-rich, Mexican state.

My previous post covers the pueblo mágico – Bacalar and it’s beautiful lagoon!

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culture in tulum