It used to be that Tulum was simply known as a Mayan archaeological site and dusty little town with a few palapa huts scattered along a 7-mile stretch of luscious beach. No longer. Discovered by the international eco-set, Tulum now has whitewashed, solar-powered bungalow hotels that line the spectacular powdery white beach 2 km (1 mile) east of town. Chichi boutiques and organic jungle restaurants quickly followed. In the last few years, tourist dollars have opened a new hospital, a giant supermarket, and the town's first luxury resort, an anomaly in a protected beach town that still generates its own electricity. Locals speak of a battle for the town's bohemian soul, and although first-time visitors may not notice the changes, it’s indisputable that Tulum's free-spirited hippie days are over.
Tulum is divided into three main areas: the downtown pueblo, south from the shore along Carretera 307 (here known as Avenida Tulum); the Mayan ruins to the north on the coast; and the beach (Zona Hotelera), which stretches from the ruins down along the Carretera Tulum-Boca Paila to the Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve.
The spectacular ruins here are the town's original attraction, and Tulum, which means "wall" in Mayan, is still the Yucatán Peninsula's most-visited Mayan site, attracting more than 2 million people annually. Even if you couldn't care less about the Maya, the site's location—above a sugar-white beach on an emerald cove—elevates it to the sublime.
The pueblo is an authentic jumble of food stalls, souvenir shops, budget hotels, and cheap restaurants, some catering to tourists, some to locals, and some to both. Although it’s more appealing to stay at the beach, the town offers an authentic slice of Mexico, as well as some good bargain hotels for those on the strictest of budgets and restaurants. From here, walk the 2 km (1 mile) to the archaeological site entrance, rent a bike, or catch one of the shuttles that pass every few minutes. If you stay in town, you'll need a car or taxi to get to the beach.
A mile east of downtown on the Boca Paila road, Tulum's irresistible beach begins. (Technically there's beach all the way from the ruins down to Sian Ka'an, but the coast by the ruins, and south to Zamas restaurant, is a series of rocky coves. The endless powder-sand beach you came for is south of the bridge and police checkpoint after Zamas.) Miles of magnificent white sand sparkles before the aquamarine waves, backed by Robinson Crusoe–balconied eco-hotels on one side of the narrow road, and tropical hipster restaurants, yoga centers, and the odd spa on the other.
Tulum's ongoing transformation has brought new services to the pueblo and the beach area, and now there's a 24-hour hospital in town and a new Pemex gas station, OXXO convenience store, and Chedraui supermarket at the beginning of the beach road. There's no community power supply here, so eco-resorts rustic and chic make their own, with wind turbines, solar renewable energy, recycled water, and generators and/or candlelight—come prepared for low lighting and low water pressure. Some hotels draw water from nearby cenotes, which might result in a salty shower.