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Tulum, Mexico at Christmas / Riviera Maya


We are headed to the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico for 6 nights for the first time in December. We are staying 3 nights in Tulum on the beach in a little hut, and 3 nights near Akumal, in an affordable golf course condo. I am 37, husband 41, no kids.

  • We are renting a car.
  • We plan to visit several cenotes and obviously spend time on the beach (hopefully without seagrass).
  • I did book a tour of a stalactite cave "Rio Secreto".
  • I would like to do some shopping, as well.... Tulum town, and maybe in Playa del Carmen? Or..?
  • I would love to see animals, too. I bought snorkel gear in hopes to see some sea turtled, and..?
  • We will visit the Tulum archeological ruins, and likely the Coba ruins.

So, the questions I have are:

  1. Where is the best place to see animals (monkeys, possibly? dolphins not in captivity?), in either a wild setting, or in a setting that is not exploitative to the welfare of the animals? We looked at the Xcaret parks, and affiliates, and I am unsure about contributing to the containment of animals in a setting like that. For seeing monkeys and birds, we have seen jungle and sanctuary tours come up. Anything you recommend (or recommend avoiding)?

  2. Are we crazy for not visiting Chichen Itza? I am a history lover, and the site seems impressive, but it's a long drive for something that was not on our radar prior to planning.

  3. What other tips and tricks would you suggest, places to see, or places to avoid? Beaches, restaurants, shops, tours, (food tour?) cenotes, adventures, areas, etc. Other general suggestions?

  4. We fly home on Christmas Day. Will we be able to find something open (restaurant-wise) at the Cancun airport on Christmas?

  5. Are there any guidebooks you would suggest purchasing? I bought some maps, and have otherwise just been researching online so far.

Thank you!

Posted by
7021 posts

Are you crazy for not visiting Chichen Itza?
YES, it is far more impressive than Tulum.

You are staying in a hut? Explain. Is this within a secure area with toilet facilities?
Xcaret was nice, we enjoyed it.

Posted by
4072 posts

Chichen Itza is most impressive and is much more deserving a visit than Tulum. Can spend most of a day at Chichen Itza and just scratch the surface. Drop whatever you need to drop in order to go there.

Posted by
377 posts

Counterpoint to the others if you don’t especially care about the Mayan ruins, then maybe Chichen Itxa isn’t worth the drive. It is huge and quite impressive, and also busy and the pathways are lined with vendors. It sounds like you’re more interested in animals and the water. You’d be a little far from the boat tour to see flamingos that I’m familiar with in Rio Lagartos, but if you do decide to go to CI, there’s a really nice cenote a little to the west called Ykodzonot. It’s a pay one and can’t remember how much (probably not too much) but it was a locally established site and had nice facilities and a good restaurant too.

Posted by
6816 posts

Disclaimer, been a few years (4 or so) since I have been there, things change fast.

With six nights, trying to squeeze in Chichen Itza is probably too much. From Tulum, it is a long drive, probably not a day trip if you want to do it comfortably. Google maps says 2+ hours from Tulum, but lots of topes and slow going, probably closer to 3 hours. You can get a good sense of things from Tulum and Coba, save Chichen Itza when you have more time, and can spend some time in Valladolid and Merida. Coba maybe still allows you to climb one of the temple pyramids.

You might see some monkeys at Coba, we didn't, heard them, but did not see them, there are also some crocodiles in the lakes. Not many Dolphins outside the captive venues. In Akumel you likely will see turtles. Akumel is probably your best bet for snorkeling, they have tours in the bay, and then there is a lagoon, Yal Ku, where you can pay a small fee and snorkel for as long as you like. A bit more costly would be Xel-Ha, the water/snorkel park. A bit commercial, but it is good snorkeling.

For shopping, there is some shopping in Tulum, much more in Playa del Carmen, but also lots of tourist shops there as well.

I hesitate to recommend any restaurants, like I said, things change so fast, but in Tulum, we did enjoy Mateos out on the beach road, and in town El Camello Jr.. Lots of other places we liked, but not sure what ones are still there. For restaurants, blogs and review sites are probably your best up-to-date information.

Posted by
80 posts

Yes, our Tulum lodging is secure and comfortable. Like a concrete hut with thatched roof. Maybe not fancy, but comfortable (hopefully).

I was thinking with only 6 nights, Chichén Itza felt like a lot. I would want to stay in Valladolid, but we started thinking it started feeling busy with an overnight there, and maybe not enough time elsewhere. We did really busy trips our last two trips, and we decided slowing down a bit sounds nice.

Posted by
1934 posts

I was there last March and Coba was closed and had been for awhile. Not sure why so check that out. I’ve driven from Tulum to Chi Chen Itza many times. There is a turn off to chi Chen Itza as you head out to Coba. It is a pretty drive and is very doable in my opinion. The traffic speed bumps ( AKA “ sleeping policemen”) in the road are only when you enter and exit the tiny towns and there aren’t that many towns.
Cenote Azul is pretty. Look it up. It used to be a quiet place but last March it was overrun with hoards of people. I’ve been many times and only saw three or four people there in the past 20 years. Entrance fee is cheap. Akuchen is nearby with an underground cave which is really a dry cenote. It’s a nice place to visit. It has an underground lake too. There is also a zoo there in the jungle. It’s part of the tour you buy when you visit the cenote. We saw lots of monkeys in the trees so hang on to your hat a glasses. We also saw monkeys along the ocean road in Akumal.
Just south of Tulum is a ruin called Muyil. It is not fully developed but it is beautiful to walk on the nice paths amongst the buildings. The jungle there is beautiful.

Posted by
7021 posts

We did Chicken Itza from Cancun on a day trip and it wasn't a long drive. In fact, we took a tour and were on a bus.

You picked Tulum for some reason, likely it had to do with Mayan Ruins.

On a scale of 1-10, Tulum was a 2.5 and Chicken Itza was a 9.5.

Posted by
80 posts

We picked Tulum and Akumal because those areas seemed slower-paced than Cancun and Playa del Carmen. Hoping to find quieter beaches, less commercialized. I heard the food improved the further you get away from Cancun. We are not interested in night-clubbing, or pool-floating, and we prefer to be off the beaten path a bit. If I am mistaken on choosing this destination, please advise.

The closeness of so many cenotes was of huge interest, and yes, cultural aspects like the ruins were an added bonus, but not our initial focus (our last trip was very architectural/history-centric, and both of our last trips involved a lot of pre-planned traveling from A to B to C to D in order to see everything). We love history, but we try to keep a good balance between getting into nature (often our primary focus) and exploring history. I wanted something that didn't involve planning every single day out... where we could stay in one central area and decide what to do based on the weather, so to speak. The Tulum area seemed to offer a good variety of things to see, all within a one hour drive.

Thanks for the advice so far about Chichen Itza. A lot of what I read was complaining about how busy it was, that the quieter ruins were more enjoyable in that sense. Given that we will have a car, we can decide on a whim if it's something we'd like to drive out to do.
- From what I've read, it sounds like you can just pick up an English-speaking tour guide once you arrive at Chichen Itza...?

Posted by
557 posts

Although I've only stayed in Merida and Playa del Carmen, from what I've read Tulum and Akumal are great escapes, with beautiful beaches and less crowding. Chichen Itza is wonderful, so it all depends on how interested you are in Mayan ruins (we spent two nights there, with a short stop in Valladolid on our way, which was charming). It doesn't have the gorgeous setting of Tulum. As you say, you can decide when you get there if you want to make the drive.

Posted by
80 posts

Thanks, @Barbara N! From my research, Merida sounds like a wonderful place to visit, as well! I am looking forward to visiting an area with so many great options.

Posted by
11 posts

We spent Thanksgiving last year in Tulum and the Riveria and LOVED it.
2. In the past we had also been to Chichen Itza. It is amazing but unless you really love ruins, seeing Tulum and Coba will be plenty.
3. We loved all the cenotes, tips would be to have enough cash for entrances. We actually never drove into Tulum town (south of Hwy 15) because the traffic was so terrible.
5. We also did research online, there are tons of blog posts from influencers (oh well) about the area.

Here is what we did, I would love to answer any specific questions:
Sunday - snorkel in Puerto Morales, drive south, Cenote Zacil Ha, arrive hotel
Monday - Gran Cenote, Lunch & Dive from Playa del Carmen, walk around town center
Tuesday - Tulum Ruins, beach, Cenote Calavera
Wednesday - Xel-Ha 8:30-6pm
Thursday - Akumal Bay beach & Yal-ku lagoon & Dos Ojos Cenote

Posted by
6816 posts

We picked Tulum and Akumal because those areas seemed slower-paced than Cancun and Playa del Carmen. Hoping to find quieter beaches, less commercialized. I heard the food improved the further you get away from Cancun. We are not interested in night-clubbing, or pool-floating, and we prefer to be off the beaten path a bit. If I am mistaken on choosing this destination, please advise.

I think you are fine with Tulum and Akumel. As I said, things change fast down there, Tulum is not the sleepy place it was even 15 years ago, the beach has gone way upscale, back in the day we could find places for $20-30 a night, now virtually the same places are $100-200/night, the nice places up from there. We have always enjoyed the food, there are now some haute cuisine restaurants there, but lots of options from budget to "too high priced". The beaches are some of the best anywhere. South of the ruins are wide, fine white sand beaches, with shallow sandy swimming...only the recurring seaweed detracts.

Akumel has its own history, the story is people from the States and other places bought up the land and basically moved the locals to a new town on the other side of the highway. So it certainly is an ex-pat/vacation community, not a local town, but pleasant enough, and the reef, bays, and lagoons are top notch.

Someone mentioned Puerto Morales, that is my other favorite "chill" town, probably more so now than Tulum. Just a nice laid back town, a hefty ex-pat vibe, but still a local community (though economically, over time, the locals dwindle). The beach is not as nice, but still good, there is a protected reef offshore, with cheap guided snorkeling to the reef.

I guess I can add a bit more:

Playa del Carmen has grown to a good size tourist town, surrounded by a local working city. It is a bit grimy, very touristy, can get crowded, but can be fun for a couple nights. Beaches are OK, but crowded.

Cancun, I can't really say anything, except in 6 to 8 trips to the area, we have never been there, always avoided it, getting as close as the airport, we do not think we missed much.

I have sort of implied, but we do not stay at resorts, always small local hotels, eat on the town.

Posted by
4 posts

We’re headed to Tulum in January for a week. The main focus is cenotes- especially ones with diving allowed as my son is a diver. Can you update me after your trip with recommendations for ruins, food and cenotes?

Thank you!

Posted by
80 posts

deborahkiely -- We had to adjust our plans a bit, as my husband slammed his foot into a sharp, skinny piece of metal rebar, sticking up from the ground, that punctured his foot on our first night, trying to walk to dinner in the dark, down the beach road in Tulum!

We initially planned to visit at least one cenote, but my husband was nervous about walking on wet, unsteady rocks, so the only cenote we toured was the dry cave at Aktun Chen. I think Gran Cenote and Dos Ojos are both good for diving, if I remember correctly? We initially planned to relax and snorkel only, so not 100% sure on that, but the internet can give you some pointers, for sure.

Tulum is interesting. We have been learning a lot about squatters since our visit. You'll see guard towers along the highway -- they are guarding the vacant land. Get off the main street in downtown Tulum, and check out the squatters village behind the hotels, shops and boutiques. We watched fishermen arrive at 6:30 AM every morning on the beach where we stayed, and I wondered where they could afford to live nearby, until we finally ventured into town, down a potholed road that Google maps had avoided routing us onto (it will put the potholes on the Tulum beach road to shame). Hidden behind the hotels & shops is a squatters village.

Places we liked for food: Mateo's had yummy chicken tacos and a fun beachy "Tulum" vibe, aside from the Americans blabbing about football (why can't we ever get away from football? haha). Fish bites were decent, burrito and taco salad were nothing exciting.
Honorio's Taqueria -- we tried poc chuc tacos for the first time and we liked it better than their cochinita. Our hotel front desk worker said they are decent, but not true Yucatan.
The best cochinita we had was a street tacos spot in downtown Playa del Carmen, called La Cochi Loka. You'll see a line in the street. Pink pig. I think you can sit at the spot next door if you buy a drink... we opted for a street seat and walked to the beach for a drink afterward. Long wait, but worth it.
For breakfast, we ate smoothie bowls at Lief's, a yummy vegan spot in Tulum, outside tables perfect for a sunny morning. Mostly European/American tourists dining. We also enjoyed Turtle Bay in Akumal (our second location) for breakfast (just typical breakfast, but great if you plan to snorkel with the turtles). We also ate at Imelda's in Akumal, more traditional.
The only underwhelming place we ate was Capitan's. Since we had a car, we prioritized places where we could park easily and not have to walk far with hubby's injured foot. No food we had was bad. Best food trip we've ever had.

Are you driving? If so, read up on the gas station scams, and I can tell you more about what we learned.

Tulum Ruins: Beautiful, all in hot sun after you pay to enter. If driving, ignore the folks yelling on the corner, saying you can't drive down the street and you must park in their lot by 7Eleven for $200 pesos... There is $100 peso parking down the street, on the left.
Follow the herds of folks walking down the street. Admission was $85 pesos a person, sign on the window said no change, cash only. We lucked out with exact change. You can pay for a guide, but it was our first outing post foot-injury, we opted to go solo, take things at our pace. We spent close to 2 hours there, from parking, walking, then back to the car. It was really busy by 11:30AM.

Coba Ruins: Less scammy-feeling, more simple & straightforward than Tulum. $50 or 60 pesos for parking (they should be able to give you change). I think $100 pesos each for entry. Once inside, you can rent bikes, or get a pedi-cab. We paid $150 pesos for a pedi-cab to drive us around (had we not had an injury, a walk or bike in the shaded jungle would have been nice). He gave us some information about the ruins, too. Super nice guy, and we tipped him well. Keep lots of small bills for frequent tips. Have fun! Let me know if you have more Q's!

Posted by
3016 posts

Thanks for posting. We have visited Akumal twice, but the last time was over 30 years ago! We went to Tulum on the last day of one of those trips, and I was too tired and "funned out" to really appreciate what I was seeing.

We never made it to Chichen Itza either.

Posted by
80 posts

deborahkiely -- I forgot to mention (also ran out of room, haha) that the Coba pyramid is NOT able to be climbed anymore (they must have realized that tourists will still come, and it's what best for the preservation long-term). If you want to take your time to walk around the big structures more, I would suggest getting walking or renting bikes there instead of a pedi-cab. We felt a little pressured to look quickly and head back to not keep our driver waiting too long (though I'm sure he appreciated the breaks in between each stop). We were grateful to save my hubby some steps.

Also, there are choices to grab a bite after Coba Ruins. We ate at Cocodrilo, across from the lagoon. The food was taqueria prices, and very decent, accepted a card for 5% extra charge. We had a veggie skewer and cochinita panuchos, thought we were ordering 2 panuchos, and it was 2 plates of 3 panuchos, haha. Luckily they were pretty decent, and small (we are used to larger panuchos here at home). I know there are other places, too... That was just the one my husband picked while I drove :)

Good luck, and again, let me know if there's other things you're wondering about!

Posted by
6816 posts

Are you driving? If so, read up on the gas station scams

I failed to mention that, not sure how prevalent it is anymore. But the biggest one is the money switch, tell them to fill up, comes to 300 or 400 Pesos, you give them a 500 peso note, they turn around and give you the old "sorry senor, you only gave me a 50 peso note", when you protest, they speak no English any more, you pay, you leave.'

I always held up a 200 peso note, said to put in 200 Pesos, gave them the note, saying "here is 200 pesos" and left. I actually had a young kid try to switch out for a 20 Peso note (very different, no confusion); I laughed at him, got in my car and left. You do not want to rely on change from a large note.

I did run into the scam in Tulum never in Playa Del Carmen.

Posted by
4 posts

Thanks so much for all of the helpful information. I’ll update after our trip starting next week. I didn’t realize so much was cash only so we’ll be sure to get a bunch at the airport I guess?

I hope your husband’s foot has healed - what a bummer to happen but I could totally see one of my sons doing something similar- especially one who loves to walk barefoot everywhere. Good cautionary tale.

We love to meander so we’ll probably walk everywhere.

We have been looking at lots of YouTube videos about diving in cenotes but I thought I’d ask since you were just there. Things can change quickly!

Posted by
80 posts

@deborahkiely —

We were able to get $200 worth of pesos each transaction at the Super Aki grocery in Tulum. There’s banks in town, too, but we didn’t go into town much. I go to my local bank before I travel and request a few hundred dollars worth of foreign currency a week or two before my trip. It takes them 3-5 days to order it for you. The exchange rate isn’t too bad, and I don’t pay a $5 ATM fee.

Do look up how to get around to the cenotes and to the beach without a car, if you’re not planning to rent one. We didn’t use one, but I read taxis in Tulum are not cheap (it could easily be $10 (200 pesos), to get just from town to the beach, one way), and you need to negotiate a price BEFORE you get in.
Are you staying in Tulum town, or on the beach? Both areas have restaurants, as I’m guessing you saw, and they intersect, but they don’t run parallel, more like perpendicular, and it would be a bit of walking to get around.

You can also travel by colectivo, which is how many of the local workers travel, and some brave tourists, as well. It was too adventurous a way to travel for me, given how I saw people driving on the highway (passing in the shoulder, fast, and drunk), I would not want to stand on the highway to catch a ride.

The beach road can also be very narrow, and the reason my husband became injured is because there’s no sidewalk there.
He’s still healing, almost two weeks later. It will be another couple weeks until he’s close to normal, I’m sure.

Be careful, read a lot of tips on blogs, and most importantly, have fun!