Tulum may be best-known for its ancient Mayan ruins, which attract a steady stream of day-trippers, cruise passengers and tour buses. The complex of crumbling structures here is smaller and less impressive than some other Mayan sites like Chichen Itza, but its location atop seaside cliffs is one of the most scenic ruin sites on the Yucatan. The complex is surrounded by a wall (tulum means wall) and was inhabited for centuries before Spanish colonialists arrived in the early 1500s. Entrance to the park is $10, which also gives you access to a beach where you can swim beneath the ruins. Guided tours cost extra.
Last but not least, there's Tulum the beach. Stretching for roughly six miles, waterfront Tulum is lined with cabanas, "eco-chic" hotels, fancy restaurants and yoga spots, but it's less developed than some of Mexico's other resort areas, where the view of the beach often includes high-rise hotels.
There's only one main road and it does get crowded during the day. In spots, it barely accommodates the stream of cars, trucks, taxis, bicycles and pedestrians using it. Biking can be perilous; two women staying next to us fell off their bikes in the traffic, though fortunately they were not seriously injured.
We stayed in one of Contreras' seaside cabanas for $75 a night. It came with a shared bathroom, a fan and occasional insects common in tropical settings -- including some that bite. The cabana rooms are large, cleaned daily and are nicely decorated. There's Wi-Fi, if you must. People staying at the cabanas can use beach beds, lounge chairs and a bar from the Contreras' next-door property, which hosts cruise ship tours in the afternoons. We were just footsteps from the beach.
"I want to have a place for people who are independent travelers ... who can appreciate the little oasis we've built here," said Mimi Contreras.
Our $150 room was at Los Lirios Cabana Hotels. The room came with a huge bathroom, a balcony with a hammock and a view of the sea. Buffet breakfast was included.
The waves at Tulum were more soothing than daunting. The water was both refreshing and warm. Just watch out for kite surfers -- I was nearly hit by one while swimming.
We spent much of our stay at the beach, only getting up to grab drinks, food and evening walks. There are plenty of people on the beach, but it doesn't feel crowded. It offered premium people-watching; the lone nuisance was bohemian types selling their handmade bracelets and bikinis.
Most of all it was sunny and relaxing, which is, after all, what makes the beach the most important of the three Tulums.
Want to go?
TULUM: Nearest major airport, Cancun, about 90 miles from Tulum, reachable by rental car and shuttle bus. Websites with information about Tulum include www.todotulum.com/. Mimi and Richard Contreras' cabanas run about $75 a night, www.airbnb.com/users/show/150191. Los Lirios Cabanas Hotel, $150, www.loslirioshotel.com/. Rates may vary by season and type of room.