Tuluminating – The Top 10 Nature-Based Activities In Tulum & The Yucatan


I first heard of Tulum when I went to Cancun in 2002 on the back of a rowdy spring break, when Cancun was all the rage. I was 22. We rented a car and drove out to see the ruins.  That was our singular goal. At that time, there really wasn’t anything to draw us away from the plush hotels and nightlife of Cancun. But Tulum has changed a lot in the two decades since I laid eyes on that incredible ocean water. 

About 18 years later, during COVID, a friend and his wife decided to leave the U.S. and move to Tulum (they had bought a house there in 2017 but they felt this was the time to really take advantage of their home). Around the same time, another friend and his wife took a trip to Tulum for a vacation. They came back and couldn’t stop raving about the number of different things to do that had little to do with partying. Don’t get me wrong. Tulum still has parties. Like some awesome beach parties with great music, and chalked full of hipster Hollywood types – you know the ones who wear the beach bohemian oatmeal colored linens, sport the wide brim fedora, and avoid shoes at all cost.  

When I got there, I immediately understood why my friends and their spouses loved it. There is something to be said about what the locals did to Tulum.  The architecture blends symbiotically with the nature around it, the ocean/sand is simply incredible, the weather capricious and warm,  and that’s just the ocean side.  The Jungle side is a whole other world. 

So what started off as a ten days escape with my partner, became a one month sojourn, which was the highlight of my 2020.  One year later, I returned back for more adventure with my friend who lived there.  So this blog is about those trips, with a focus on some select adventures and experiences I had in Tulum and around the Yucatan. Truly a natural utopia! 

trip prep

FLIGHTS & COVID PROTOCOLS: Flights from the U.S. to Cancun (Tulum is planning to develop its own airport in the not so distant future), are quite frequent. There are direct flights now on a number of airlines like United or Southwest and unless it’s a public holiday in the U.S. flights are still reasonable. In terms of COVID, getting into Mexico so far (as of Dec 2021) has been straightforward for U.S. citizens. Get a PCR test before arriving and voila you are home free, Once in Mexico you have to show in some instances your vax card to register at hotels. Also getting the test in Tulum is super straightforward. They have mobile clinics on nearly every major intersection. 

RENTING CARS: The taxi from Cancun to Tulum can cost you a small fortune, and buses can be infrequent but always an option. So I usually rent a car at the airport and they are SUPER reasonable. Only issue is the car insurance which they nail you with as its required in Mexico. But again it’s worth it to use a credit card that provides additional insurance to the one that the rental car companies require. I usually rent the cars on Orbitz.com so I can price shop. It’s also worth it to get a SUV if its within your budget if you anticipate going to some of the more rural destinations with poor road conditions. 

ACCOMMODATIONS: While there is a plethora of super nice (and super expensive) hotels in Tulum – Azulik, Nomade or Casa Malca to name just a few, you can really find some amazing alternatives through Airbnb. We stayed in a number of great options to explore all aspects of the area and I would highly recommend doing that (see Travel Hacks below).  

journey journal


Instead of providing the usual format for my Journey Journal, I felt the best way to capture my experience in Tulum was by providing my TOP 10 list of nature related activities and adventures.  

A few things to note before we get started: Some of the activities below are seasonal so it may not be available year round. Also, this is NOT an exhaustive list, for real there is a TON more you can do in Tulum and the Yucatan in general, so definitely do your own research of activities that suit your interest. Finally, while this is in order of what I liked most, it really is driven by the most unique experience and memorable experience.  

 1. Floating down the Lazy River in Sian Ka’an 

2. Snorkeling with Whale Sharks & Manta Rays 

3. Experiencing Holbox Island 

4. Tracking Birthing Turtles 

5. Splashing into Oxman & Sac Actun Cenotes 

6. Diving in Dos Ojos Cenote 

7. Sailing from Isla Mujeres to Puerto Moralos 

8. Beaching & Nightlif’ing 

9. Exploring jungle ruins at Ek Balam, Chichen Itza, Tulum 

10. Basking in the Pink Lake at Las Colorados


1. Floating down the Lazy River in Sian Ka’an 

According to the UNESCO World Heritage Site: “In the language of the Mayan peoples who once inhabited this region, Sian Ka’an means ‘Origin of the Sky’. Located on the east coast of the Yucatán peninsula, this biosphere reserve contains tropical forests, mangroves and marshes, as well as a large marine section intersected by a barrier reef.”  

Now that you have the basics down, let me tell you, floating down the lazy river was one of the most unique experiences of my life! After you travel to the natural river, you wear your lifejacket like a diaper and literally float down for 30mins (maybe half a mile). The water is 75+ degrees.  Feels like something out of the Life of Pi. You are surrounded by mangroves and incredible flowers and even blue carbs chilling at the bottom! One of our friends went there hung over, strapped on two lifejackets and after floating for a while began to sober up. Don’t ask me!

Point is, it’s a MUST on a visit to Tulum. There are other things to do there too, like exploring ruins, checking out lagoons in a guided boat, climbing a bird watchtower and many other things. If you want a personal awesome guide, contact Mercedes at Gaia Expeditions Tulum Yucatan Peninsula! 

 2. Snorkeling with Whale Sharks & Manta Rays 

Ever since I traveled to Samana in the Dominican Republic, I had been fascinated by whales and watching them migrate. On that trip we tracked whales in a little fisherman boat, which was exhilarating given how majestic these mammals are in the wild. So when I learned that off the coast of Cancun (about 1.5 hours north of Tulum) they had the opportunity to swim with whales, in this case, whale sharks (don’t be alarmed, they only eat small fish, plankton etc since they are ‘filter feeders’), I could not resist. And I was NOT disappointed. Note these guys are there in the summer months, I went towards the end of August.  

Super early in the morning, I drove from Tulum to Cancun and boarded a small transport boat to a location where the whales had been spotted (probably about 20 minutes offshore). We suited up in snorkel gear and a lifejacket and told we could only float near them but not dive down (buzz kill). But in all honesty what an INCREDIBLE experience.  

In addition to the majestic and docile whale sharks, we saw numerous manta rays and other fish all swimming symbiotically for over an hour.  

Mind-blowing experience and HIGHLY recommended.  Oh make sure to bring your GoPro or you can rent one when you are at the dock before departing. For the experience, I used these guys and they were affordable and solid: (Pinpon Isla, +529983221979). 

 3. Experiencing Holbox Island 

Seeking a different experience from Tulum and the hustle and bustle of Cancun, we decided to explore Holbox, a small island about 30 minutes by boat off the coast of Cancun. According to National Geographic, Holbox (pronounced hol-BOSH, meaning “black hole” in Mayan) began attracting tourists a decade ago, and locals have since fought to stave off mega-resorts.” Most of the hotels are small, salt of the earth boutiques, restaurants are mom and pop (make sure to have breakfast at Painapol, and say hi to the Italian manager there!).  

No joke, we rented bikes for three days and did not wear shoes the whole time we were there! How liberating! This place was simply awesome.  Now its known for whale shark snorkelling, but I would not just go there for that. Go to Holbox and prepare to shed the conveniences we are accustomed to on a vacation. There are no cars, no postal service, no banks, and no high-rises (buildings are not permitted to top 40 feet).  

While we were there, we went kayaking with flamingos in the wild.

Did yoga on a sandbar at low tide, got ($25) massages on the beach, watch mind-blowing sunsets. 

Rode horses to secluded lagoons, oh and got surprised by crocodiles in one of those lagoons!  

Look above all, Holbox has such an incredible vibe that allows you to reconnect with yourself through nature. Only drawback is the mosquitos, you’ve been warned! 

4.  Tracking Birthing Turtles 

One of the days I was taking a long walk down the main beach of Tulum (I usually walk everyday to hit 10K+ steps wherever I am in the world), I came upon some weird holes (about 3 x 3 feet) that were dug up haphazardly on the upper part of the shore. This is where the hotel zone ends and you start wandering into the more protected part of the beach. One after another I kept seeing these holes with tracks leading to the holes. What a mystery! 

When I asked a friend about it, he said that these were created by the sea turtles that come ashore at night and dig a hole to lay their eggs. They need to be clandestine so that birds don’t prey on their eggs until they hatch and then the little turtles run for their lives, literally, to get to the war to survive. 

Thankfully, the next night was a full moon and per the instruction of my friend, I put a red filter (in this case a red plastic plate) on my camera and light and went out searching for them (the red filter helps not to blind the turtle).  Holy crap! Low and behold as I kept walking on this desolate part of the beach, I saw a HUGE black shell slowly creep up on shore.  

I slowly followed it and voila, mystery solved. There she was digging a hole with her legs and arms and laying her eggs in the sand. If you happen to be in Tulum in the summer this is a must do, but above all, respect their space, don’t litter or loiter.    

5. Splashing into Oxman & Sac Actun Cenotes  

One of the most unique experiences in and near Tulum are the Cenotes. These Cenotes are  underground chambers or caves, which contain permanent fresh, almost drinkable water. The word pronounced “seh-no-tay”, is a Spanish conversion of the Yucatec Maya word “Ts’onot”. What’s amazing about these underground waterways is that they stretch for hundreds of miles across the Yucatan peninsula and are the main water source of the whole region.     

There are so many to choose from and they come in all different shapes and sizes and experiences. My two favorites were Sac-Actun, the longest of the cenotes (about 15 minutes from Tulum), which is not too crowded, has crystal clear waters, and cool water ways you can explore with a flashlight (you need a guide for this one so it’s not cheap).  

The other I really liked was Oxman, which is about 1.5 hours from Tulum outside the city of Valladolid. I loved this one in particular because it was not overcrowded, the vegetation leading into the cenote was unreal, there are far less mosquitos for some reason as compared to the cenotes around Tulum, and the swing makes it just that much more of a unique experience.  

Elane & David provide you with all the detailed info you need to get there and maximize that experience. Point is you MUST do a cenote or two while in Tulum. Super unique!

6. Diving in Dos Ojos Cenote

Diving off Cozumel is one of the main attractions of the Yucatan. But while I am advanced certified (did that a while back in Honduras off Utila) I am not a HUGE fan of diving because I always have trouble with my ear. So if I do it, it has to be a truly unique experience. When I learned that you can dive in a cenote, I was game!

There are few awesome cenotes to dive depending on your experience level. And while you have to be certified in cave diving you can still get a great experience, diving regularly into one of the many cenotes. We choose to do Dos Ojos because of the type of underwater caverns, the fact we could still see light most of the time, and how well demarcated and navigability for a novice.

So cool swimming between the stalactites and stalagmites but make sure you don’t knock your head, they can be sharp. Just stick to your guide and you will be fine. Truly breathtaking from down down under. Here is a great and experienced cave diver that can give you a phenomenal experience – Charly: +529841761340.

7. Sailing from Isla Mujeres to Puerto Moralos

I have always wanted to take up a hobby that would allow me to better experience my world travels.  So when I saw that scene from Thomas Crown Affair, where Pierce Brosnon is sailing a sailboat in the Caribbean and looked like a stud muffin, I was sold!  I wanted to muster my inner Sindabad and make it happen! So when I went to Tulum for a month, I thought what a great opportunity to start taking actual sailing classes (I had learned the basics at a sailing school in Boston but after an outing on the Charles River, I got spoked). 

I found a great guy, Fabian, in Puerto Moralos, about 30 minutes from Tulum (where incidentally they have an aquarium of sorts and I saw my first ever sea cow, and played with Dolphins, from shore!) who had a small 30 foot sailboat. We agreed to go out a few times in the ocean to learn the ropes. It was an incredible experience sailing in and around the port, working the sails and learning how to navigate the coastline, currents, and wind patterns etc.  

Fabian then approached me about a rare opportunity to pick up the sailboat of a client in Isla Mujeres (about 1.5 hours from the port), and navigate it back to the port. The task start at 7PM with an estimated arrival around 4AM or 5AM. He said it would be a great once in a lifetime experience that would help my training. So I pulled the trigger. Man, what a mistake lol. As soon as we pulled away from the small port in Isla Mujeres, we started seeing storms on the horizon. And within a few hours it slammed our little 40 foot sailboat, and for the next 7 hours we felt ever single wave. I must have thrown up like 10+ times. I swear when I rolled off the boat at the end of the trip I kissed the ground and swore I would never do it again!  

So why does this rank in the top 10? Because watching the storms in the distance, navigating those crazy waves, and seeing the incredible sunrise come out of the ocean was humbling and incredible.  All that being said, I hope I can still go sailing but the motion sickness I felt has become a PTSD.  Maybe in time I can overcome it. If you want to try sailing definitely hit up Fabian +529841087669 (Vientos Sailing Tulum Tours)  

8. Beaching & Nightlif’ing

Without a doubt one of the things I most remember during my first visit to Tulum was the ocean. WOW, white powder sand, warm water, incredible shoreline lined with palm trees and lush jungle. What more can you ask for.

So this time I rented a small airbnb towards the end of the hotel zone, fit with a hammock only inches from the beach.  The room on the top of a two floor condo unit, had no wifi, questionable electricity and cold showers but that view was killer and the breeze even nicer. Every morning I would walk up at dawn to catch the sun rise and each evening I would jump in the water (note during July – late August there is a lot of seaweed so be prepared for that), and just float watching storms in the distance and seeing all the stars.

Now no trip to Tulum would be right without a day party at one of the beach clubs. When I went back in 2021, we decided to check out Taboo. It definitely didn’t disappoint!  Something awesome about dancing to great music and then jumping into the ocean without missing a beat.  

Also its key to do some beach hotel sightseeing especially in Tulum. The architecture style of Tulum is super unique and takes into account the environment around it — wood, plants, stone, water — to form its only style known as ‘jungle chic’. Some of my favorite spots include: the glorious instagramable Azulik, the jungly Be Tulum, the bohemian Nomade Hotel, and the over the top Casa Malca (former residence of Pablo Escobar). Oh and Holistika for awesome yoga and a jungle experience.  

And of course, the food on the hotel area may be expensive but the experience is really great (we went to Ilios Restaurant which had an acrobatic fire show and plate breaking which was super cool!). Note restaurants in the main town are great too, more affordable and more authentic!  

9. Exploring jungle ruins at Ek Balam, Chichen Itza, Tulum

One should never forget the history of the Yucatan. It has been inhabited for thousands of years and one of its most recent occupants were the Mayans. While the Spanish conquerors wreaked havoc to the Aztecs to the north, by the time they got to the Yucatan the Mayans were on the way down, largely I was told because of overuse of water resources that slowly decimated crops and drove the people away.

That said there are some incredible ruins that are 100% worth visiting. While not technically nature, they do blend in with the surrounding environment. In 2004 I visited the Tulum ruins, which are stunning but the backdrop makes it magical. In fact, while I didn’t do this, rent a small boat and have a guide take you through this passage through the coral offshore directly to the front of the ruins from the sea, heard its amazing. In 2008, I visited Chichen Itza, a year after it was voted as a Modern Wonder of the World. I can’t speak enough about this place. The acoustics alone have defied scientists until today.

On this last trip, I went to Ek Balam “Black Jaguar”. The reason I went there was because it is one of the few ruins left where you can still climb to the top of the pyramid, is not overcrowded, the ruins are fairly intact, and there is a cenote nearby…what more can you ask for! Make sure to look out for the jaguar throne at the top, unreal how the jaws are so well preserved! 

10. Basking in the Pink Lake at Las Colorados

While it’s 3 hours from Tulum, I still want to include it in here since it’s so unique to the Yucatan. On that day we decided to drive up to see Valladolid, which is an awesome little Mexican pueblo with great food, jump in Oxlam Cenote (see point 5), the ruins at Ek Balam (see point 9) and finally the fabled pink lake in Las Colorados.  

The pink lake gets its color because the “surrounding environment is incredibly salty, which attracts brine shrimp, plankton and red-colored algae. As the water evaporates in the glimmering Mexican sunlight, these organisms become more concentrated and ultimately create the famous bright pink water!” 

Note, make sure to visit during the day.  While it may be super hot, the sun hitting the lake from directly above really brings out its best colors. We went at the end of the day and while it was incredibly serene, the color was not as bright. Again it’s a super unique experience so if you are near Cancun, then it’s worth a day visit.    


There is a lot of hype around Tulum. But this is one of those destinations that molds into what you want it to be: seen-be-seen, partying, meditation/yoga, nature-loving, adventure seeking, retreating, family getaway. Rarely can you find so many intentions in one single place. That’s what makes Tulum so unique and so worth visiting. So plan it right but be flexible, because once you’re in Tulum, you will know why the universe really brought you there…


1. Rent a car.  As I noted above, it’s fairly cheap from Cancun airport (except insurance tends to make it slightly more expensive) and will save you alot (the uber alone from the airport is more then one day to rent the car), especially if you want to get around and explore Tulum and the Yucatan (I mean you have no excuse given all the above!!). Roads are easy to navigate, google maps works super well, and signage is easy to follow.  


2. Get an Airbnb. Don’t just rely on hotels if you are there for more than a few days. I got 6 airbnbs over the time I was in Tulum so I could experience jungle, city, resort, island, and beach. They are fairly affordable and really well designed.  


3. Shop for Food. There are a lot of markets in Tulum including Chedraui, a large supermarket. Not only will you save a ton in cost but the produce is great so you can make some awesome meals at home, especially if you have an airbnb with a kitchen.