A Photographer's Guide to Tulum, Mexico

Photographer Gina Spinelli shares her tips on where to explore, eat, drink, and shop in Tulum.

Published on
December 12, 2019

What was once a major trading hub and quiet religious center on the Yucatan Peninsula is now a laid back beach town attracting upwards of 300,000 visitors per year. This is partly due to its blissfully relentless bohemian spirit, pristine Caribbean coastline, and historical attractions. Its charm has not gone unnoticed, and has resulted in a massive rise in popularity. Still, with it drawing in as much tourism as it does, it feels authentic. The locals are welcoming, the food is simple and traditional, and the scenery is arguably the most beautiful on the entire peninsula. It's also a particularly special place to travel with camera in hand. Outlined below are my top tips for visiting Tulum, including what to do and see, where to eat, and how to get the perfect instagram shot in Tulum, MX.

Top Tips for travelling in Tulum, Mexico

  • Tulum is located just a little over 70 miles south of Cancun and belongs to the Mexican state of Quintana Roo.
  • To get to Tulum, you’ll fly into Cancun. From there you have the option of taking the ADO bus which will bring you directly into town for about $20 USD roundtrip. You can also organize private transportation, but that will run you upwards of $100 USD roundtrip. There are also shared airport shuttles for around $84 USD roundtrip. Should you choose to rent a car, be prepared to also pay for the legally required liability insurance.
  • Be mindful of which ATMs you withdraw cash from. You’ll want to avoid the standalone ATMs on the beach road, as they’re owned by the mafia and riddled with fraud. Consider withdrawing cash at the airport, downtown, or in one of the large supermarkets. Know that many businesses do not accept cards, but they will likely accept USD.
  • Bring mosquito repellent. Mosquitos can be ruthless here, particularly during sunrise and sunset.
  • The majority of visitors stay either in town or along the beach road. It’s about a 25-minute ride between the two and they both have their perks. Hotels in town are generally more affordable than those by the beach. Additionally, downtown has a leg up on authentic (and affordable) Mexican food. On the beach road, you'll find hotels to be more expensive for obvious reasons, but they also come with the element of luxury, they’re located in a safer area, and boast easy access to the beach.
  • While Uber and Lyft are not active in Tulum, taxis are plentiful. And though they’re convenient, costs can add up quickly. A more cost-effective way of getting around Tulum is via colectivos. These shuttles are reserved mostly for locals, and serve as a cheap way to get around Tulum. Hop in a colectivo and you'll notice they tend to squeeze as many people as possible inside and make their way throughout the city. For example, as opposed to paying $13 USD for a cab ride from downtown to the beach (or vice versa) a colectivo will cost less than a dollar.
  • Many restaurants include gratuity in their check, but fail to point it out. Be sure to double-check your bill before leaving.

Best Instagram and most Photogenic Places in Tulum

  • Ven a La Luz -  A 2018 arts and culture festival brought South African artist, Daniel Popper’s massive wooden sculpture to Tulum. Steel, wood, rope, and greenery make up the figure of a woman titled Ven a la Luz (come into the light). The intention behind the sculpture is to communicate the connection between humankind and nature. It currently serves as the entrance to Raw Love as well as a perfect Instagram opportunity for passersby.
  • Jungle Art Walk - Together, Holistika and the Tulum Art Club collaborated to create an interactive art walk through the jungle. Free and open to the public, you’ll find paths behind Holistika leading to surrealist and naturalist art pieces by renowned artists around the world.
  • Matcha Mama - You've probably seen this very cute, very instagrammable cafe in your feed before. There are two locations: one is on the beach road, about a ten-minute walk from Outsite, and the other (the significantly more photogenic one) is downtown. If you’re looking to get ‘the shot’ here, you likely won’t be the only one. Try to visit early with that in mind.
  • Downtown Tulum - This is a great place to wander around with your camera. You'll find its colorful and bustling energy to be completely different from the beach road. Downtown feels real and raw, less like you’re on vacation and more like you’re stepping into the spirit of a place. Tulum’s culture is showcased here through its bright colors, friendly locals, and street food.
  • Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve - A photographer’s dream, this UNESCO World Heritage site protects thousands of species of plants and animals (think: dolphins, crocodiles, turtles, rays and manatees). They offer multiple tours and activities such as snorkeling, bird watching, and fly fishing.
  • Follow that Dream sign - It's cute, It's inspirational, it's all over Instagram. Find the sign near the boutique Lolita Lolita, about a 5-minute walk from Outsite Tulum Playa.
  • Kaan Luum Lagoon The contrast of lush green vegetation, stunning turquoise water and the traditional wooden boardwalk make the Kaan Luum Lagoon an incredible Instagram spot. The lagoon is also amazing for swimming and paddle boarding photos.
  • Tulum Ruins - A visit to the Tulum ruins is one of the unmissable things to do in Tulum and they make for a spectacular landscape shot. The ruins are perched on a cliffside overlooking a white sand beach and turquoise Caribbean Waters
  • The beach - Within Tulum, there are three different beaches. Each is beautiful and worth a visit.
  • Cenotes - There's a large collection of cenotes scattered throughout the Mayan Riviera. Some of them are certainly more photogenic than others. Check out the list below for some of the best and most beautiful cenotes in Tulum.

Best Cenotes in Tulum

Cenotes are natural sinkholes that resulted in the collapse of limestone bedrock. They’re considered to be extremely sacred to the Mayans, as they believed the cenotes served as entryways to the underworld. While the Yucatan peninsula is home to over 6,000 cenotes, they’re still considered sacred by the Mayan people and only a few are open to the public. Here are a few of the best:

  • Gran Cenote
    Unlike the name suggests, Gran Cenote is actually made up of multiple cenotes connected by wooden walkways. A popular spot to snorkel, Gran Cenote is home to multiple species of wildlife. You might even find yourself swimming with some turtles! Located along the highway to Coba. Admission is $25 USD.
  • Dos Ojos
    Located between Playa del Carmen and Tulum is Dos Ojos, named for the two cenotes that are connected by an underwater passageway. One of the “eyes” is a cave with stairs leading down. The other gets more light. You’ll find plenty of amenities offered such as snorkeling and diving tours, massages, scuba rentals, and locker rooms. Admission is $30 USD, pay in cash upon arrival, or purchase your ticket online.
  • Casa Tortuga
    Comprised of four different cenotes, Casa Tortuga is as beautiful as it is large. Offering the best of both worlds, part of the experience is discovering its two caves where you can see bats and blind cavefish. The two other cenotes are open-air, one with a 13-foot cliff that you’re free to jump off if you’re so inclined. It’s located just 10 miles north of Tulum. Admission is $18 USD.
  • Cenote Yokdzonot
    In the midst of the jungle, not far from Chichén Itza is Cenote Yokdzonot. An open-air cenote with deep crystal clear water (perfect for scuba diving), ledges to jump in from, and more privacy than you might find at some of the more popular cenotes. Located roughly 11 miles west of Chichén Itza, admission is $4 USD.

Best Ruins to Visit in Tulum

  • Coba Ruins
    Perhaps the Yucatan’s most impressive ruin site, and just far enough off the beaten path that it attracts significantly fewer tourists than the other ruins within the Yucatan, are the Coba Ruins. What was once the most powerful Mayan site in the Yucatan, these ruins date back to 50 AD. Today, they offer historical and archaeological insight into the Maya. Some quick tips if you plan to visit: While they’re not nearly as busy as Chichen Itza or The Ruins of Tulum, there are still crowds. Consider arriving when they open at 8 AM. The parking lot is about a mile away from the pyramid, and you’ll have the option of walking, renting bicycles, or hiring a bicycle taxi. Unlike the other ruin sites, visitors are welcome to climb Coba’s tallest pyramid, Ixmoja for a view of the jungle. It’s a steep climb up, and a steeper climb down, but well worth this view.
  • Ruins of Tulum
    Spanning the Riviera Maya are close to 4,000 Mayan ruin sites, and Tulum’s are some of the best-preserved. The site is about a 30-minute drive from Outsite. You’ll want to arrive early (right when it opens at 8am) to beat the crowds. The entrance fee is around $4 USD. Guides are available to take you through the site for an additional $30 USD.
  • Chichen Itza
    About a 2-hour drive west of Tulum is Chichen Itza. Formerly one of the largest Mayan cities, this archaeological site is now one of the seven wonders in the world. Admission is about $13 USD for adults (232 pesos) and they don’t accept dollars. It’s recommended to opt for a guide upon entry. Bring: sunscreen, a hat, sneakers and plenty of water.
  • Sound baths  
    With Tulum being the healing center that it is, sound bath meditations are plentiful around the city. Two of my favorites are Yaan Wellness and Sanara.
  • Temazcals
    In an effort to purify themselves after battle, or heal themselves from illness, the Mayans would practice this ancient ritual. Temacazals are ceremonial steam baths led by Shamans and hosted in dome structures (a direct reference to a mother’s womb). They’re thought to offer a feeling of physical and mental rebirth. Check out Espíritu Wellness for one of the best Temazcal experiences in Tulum.
  • Azulik Resort
    This treehouse hotel rightfully attracts many people with camera in hand looking to get the perfect shot, which, in turn, has led to them laying down (and seriously sticking to) some ground rules i.e. if you’re not staying with them, they’ll only let you in to photograph the space if you do at least one of the following:
    1. Eat/drink at one of their three restaurants, Kin Toh, Tseen Ja, or Cenote
    2. Visit their museum, Sfer Ik. The admission is free, and while they won’t let you bring your bags in (or cameras) you can take photos with your phone
    3. Book a sunset experience
    4. Visit their boutique

Best Restaurants and Bars in Tulum

  • Antojitos La Chiapaneca
    A very authentic hole in the wall restaurant with tacos so good I could cry just thinking about them. Known for their shawarma spit-grilled al pastor tacos which are about 8 pesos ($0.40 USD) each. Take a moment to watch them shave the shawarma outside.
  • Raw Love
    Head here to counter all the tacos. Enter Ven a la Luz and you’ll find Raw Love split off into two locations. The first spot you’ll come upon is Raw Love’s cafe, nestled in the jungle and serving an entirely raw, vegan and gluten-free menu. Walk a little further and you’ll see their beach bar. Grab a hammock or one of their beach chairs, order a smoothie bowl, and enjoy. Check out their locations in town and also on the beach.
  • Chamico’s
    You didn’t hear it from me, but if you exit the highway onto a narrow dirt road (keep your eyes peeled for a sign that reads “Jashita Hotel”) and head towards Soliman Bay. Make your way down the road and continue past palatial villas until the road ends. Choose between ceviche, fried fish, or whatever fresh fish they caught that day.
  • Batey
    Located on Centauro Sur (where Wednesday nights kick off Tulum’s nightlife scene) is Batey, a mojito bar. Known for their mojitos with sugarcane and fresh-squeezed juice, featuring local flavors.
  • Burrito Amor
    The setting is laid back and relaxed, the menu is simple and communicates their ethos of clean, conscious eating. Inclusive of vegans, vegetarians, and those with food allergies, their menu is thoughtful and consists of more than just burritos (though you should 100% order a burrito). They’re also a sustainable restaurant, using only bamboo straws and participating in a plastic consumption reduction campaign, as well as an initiative to introduce recycling to Tulum.
  • Taqueria Honorio
    This no-frills restaurant serving what locals have told me are the “best tacos in Tulum”. Try the cochinita and asada (but also all of them). Open for breakfast and lunch, 7 days a week.
  • Casa Pueblo
    With two locations, one in town and one by the beach, Casa Pueblo has to be one of the trendiest hotel brands in the city. Both locations equipped with a welcoming and attentive staff, a minimalist island aesthetic, and rave-worthy pizza. I feel like I needn’t say more. But, okay, one last thing: Some of my favorite photos from Tulum were taken at their beach location, and also I kind of wish I could live there, and also Casa Pueblo is the aesthetic of my dreams. Okay. Now I’m done.
  • El Camello Jr.
    Serving the freshest seafood. Come hungry (portion sizes are very generous) grab a seat outside, and order the ceviche.
  • Hartwood
    Located on the beach road is this high end restaurant. Their food is so fresh that their menu changes daily and is wholly dependent on what’s available in the area. The entire restaurant operates sustainably, with its one and only electrical appliance being a single blender. Closed Monday and Tuesday, reservations highly recommended.
  • Gitano
    If NYC’s nightlife and Tulum’s jungle had a baby, it would be Gitano. It’s a beautifully designed restaurant and bar serving great food and drool-worthy mezcal cocktails. It feels tropical and trendy with dreamy ambiance and a fun vibe (especially on Friday nights!).
  • The Real Coconut - Sanara Hotel’s beachside restaurant serves up healthy plates using strictly sustainably sourced ingredients. Come for the food, stay for the views.
  • Italdo Pasteleria
    Last year, top Roman pastry chef, Fabrizio Pellegrini opened this European pastry shop. It’s since taken off and considered to be Tulum’s best bakery and coffee shop by many.

Interested in checking it out for yourself? We have spaces by the beach and in town. Book your stay today at Outsite Tulum Playa or Tulum Centro today.


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