Tulum (130km from Cancún) is best known for its archaeological site, a walled Maya city of the post-Classic age perched dramatically on a rocky cliff overlooking the Caribbean. The coastline south of the site is packed with palapa hotels and upscale retreats for a well-heeled crowd seeking a rustic hideaway. This stretch of incredible white beaches has become the unofficial center of the Tulum Hotel Zone, a collection of about 30 small hotels stretching from the Tulum ruins south to the entrance to the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve. Hotels here rely on freshwater deliveries and rain tanks, and most generate their own electricity. Wi-Fi is available in public areas in many hotels and in some hotel rooms, and cell service is usually good.
The official town of Tulum is bisected by Highway 307, where it intersects the road to Cobá. The commercial center sprawls along both sides of Highway 307 for about 20 blocks jam-packed with gas stations, auto repair shops, pharmacies, banks, markets, tour offices, and eateries. Restaurants and hotels pop up along side streets around the plaza.
The main attractions in this area are Tulum’s archeological site and the biosphere reserve at Sian Ka’an, but there are enough other diversions to keep you busy for a week or more. Unlike its national parks, which focus on historical and aesthetic features, Mexico’s biosphere reserves were created purely to protect its last natural ecosystems. Recognition by UNESCO requires that the biosphere contain at least 10.000 hectares, at least one pristine area of biological diversity, and threatened or endangered endemic species. Mexico pioneered the zoning system that allows some carefully managed tourism. The core area, the heart of the reserve, is limited to scientific research and is surrounded by a buffer zone that allows only conservation-related activity. Biosphere reserves allow original residents to remain; local people, in fact, are recruited to research, monitor, and manage the ecosystem while developing sustainable activities such as ecotourism.
The diving and snorkeling are fabulous as well, with coral reefs and cenotes aplenty. Kiteboarding (also called kite-surfing) is hugely popular in Tulum, and the sea is dotted with bright kites when winds are blowing. Tulum’s eclectic mix of locals and expats operates coffee bars, gelato shops, produce markets, and souvenir shops along Avenida Tulum and the beach road. Shalom, a high-end clothing boutique and folk art shop, also has branches in downtown and on the beach.