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Tulum Is The Worst Tourist Trap On The Planet

If you like brown water beaches, extortionately priced taxis, and crappy restaurants more pricey than New York City, you’d love Tulum.

Tulum beach
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My wife turned to me while sitting on the couch in our apartment in Astoria. “Tulum sucks,” she said out of nowhere.

It really does.

Tulum is without a doubt one of the worst tourist traps on the planet.

Tourist trap: A place that suck that draws a high frequency of tourists and charges them elevated prices for subpar amenities, services, and experiences based on its reputation.

My wife and I visited Tulum together in 2011 The water was apatite blue, the ruins were a relaxing, undeveloped place to walk around, and the weather was sunny and warm. Beyond that, I found the place underwhelming, but well worth the stop … I remember Tulum being a whole lot of nothing then — a place that had bulldozed its traditional charm in exchange for grey concrete boxes — but this was part of its appeal: it was kind of a normal, run down, Mexican highway town near a beach. I wrote a blog post about the hurricane coming in but nothing more.

I didn’t think about Tulum for nearly a decade until I started seeing pics and raving reviews of the place being delivered by influencers in various places. I became a little curious, as the Tulum I knew wasn’t a place where the money people would bother going. In fact, the position that I could garner on the place was that it was beautiful, hip, and fun … and I automatically concluded that it must have changed.

I became a little curious. So as part of a broader trip we decided to go back to Tulum, 11 years later.

I was expecting the place to have developed and to have been pretty nice — the kind of place I would have scorned as a backpacker but today don’t really mind so much. When your aim is to collect information and write, how nice a place is is irrelevant, but when your aim is to enjoy the moments of the day how nice a place is is what it’s all about.

But what I found surprised me.

The bus ride there took three or four hours from Cancun — three or four hours to go 90 kilometers. The traffic was beyond the carrying capacity of the highway, and if it wasn’t for it being strewn with potholes and errant vehicles I’d say that you could probably get there faster on a bicycle.

We eventually rolled in we were dropped off at a crammed and dingy bus station that was as unceremonious as they get. I let a cab driver rip me off $2 (this is not worth the time haggling over anymore) and began our ride to out hotel. It looked like Mexico out there. Not the charming traditional, village-life Mexico and not the developed, jet-setty Mexico, but the in between, indistinct, cinder-blocky Mexico. It actually didn’t look much different than it did last time.

Besides all the new resorts …

The contrast of luxury hotels in otherwise under-developed places has always piqued my interest. During my ghost cities project in China I would often marvel at the 5-star hotels that were fully functioning in the middle of barren expanses of ex-farmland or popping up out of literal villages. Here in Tulum it was kind of like an acid burn victim applying lipstick … we have nice resorts, who needs paved roads? I chuckled as I walked through through the door and into the other world within, but couldn’t complain. The place was nice …

Plus I knew that once I got to the beach the water would be glistening greenish blue and I’d be able to sit on the beach drinking pina coladas out of hallowed out pineapples with little umbrellas sticking out the top like every other asshole from New York City.

But about that …

While we were near the road that lead to the beach it was still around an hour’s walk or ten minute drive away. The receptionist asked if I’d like a taxi on our way out. I asked about the price. She called someone. $40. I laughed — you could get a rush hour Uber in NYC for less than that. No thanks.

We began walking. The road to the beach was narrow, pot hole strewn, and packed with traffic. Massive dump trucks and other construction vehicles going to and from construction sites birthing new resorts dominated, covering everything they rumbled by with brown dust — dust that stuck to our sweat moistened arms and faces. The edges of the road were battlegrounds for bicycles, motorcycles, and pedestrians. There was no sidewalk.

I gave up and flagged a taxi who agreed to do the ride for $20. He smiled and acted like he was doing us a charity. The narrow road was flanked on both sides by massive resorts at various stages of completion, and it was clear that the was a remarkable and ever increasing imbalance between tourism offerings and infrastructural carrying capacity. The place was growing beyond its ability to civically handle it. Build first, worry about things like traffic, electricity, and plumbing manana … someday … maybe never. Development at its worst.

Tulum brown water beach seaweed

When we got to the beach it was time for the taxi driver to reveal the practical joke of Tulum: “The water looks like chocolate!”

It did. It was brown. I laughed as I imagined all the people who were lured in by the social media cartel’s photos of stunning blue water here only to find a beach that looks more like a communal toilet at an ayahuasca retreat.

But the water was not brown due to the fact that 80% of the hotels in Tulum dump their raw sewage directly into the ocean but because of sargassum, i.e. seaweed. Apparently, there’s a mass of this stuff floating in the mid-Atlantic, and each year from March until the end of summer it moves over to the coast of Mexico, clogging up beaches with piles of the stuff that’s literally feet deep while turning the water the color of English tea and wrecking additional environmental havoc. But as far as I’m concerned, blame is irrelevant, who the fuck wants to go to a beach with brown water?

Apparently, not many people besides us. We walked on the empty beach for a while, clodhopping through the piles of seaweed before calling it quits. Let’s go get drunk.

We walked up to the road that lead to the main tourist area on the beach and found myself unable to fully comprehend what I found there: luxury restaurants and hotels and tourist bars crammed along a road that appeared to have been extracted from some backwater Guatemalan village. It was narrow, full of potholes, didn’t have a sidewalk, and was full of traffic. Taxis brushed my sleeves on one side and on the other touts fought for my attention on the other. I soon realized that all I wanted to do was escaped this shitty town … which is a little ironic as people come here on vacation to temporarily escape wherever they came from.

It was almost comical. All the tourism money that must be pouring in from all the resorts and hotels and restaurants and they can’t even fix the fucking road or build a sidewalk so tourists aren’t being run down in between their bouts of overpaying for subpar services? The place clearly not only sucked, but was corrupt …

Pina colada

We grabbed a decent meal in an empty restaurant and watched the sun set over the sea. It actually wasn’t too bad. As the light dimmed you could hardly tell that it was the color of chocolate milk. I drank my stupid pina colada from a coconut and thought about a conversation that I had while eating US$15 hamburgers in town the night before.

Sitting near us were a black couple from Brooklyn who spoke glowingly about Tulum and its prospects for the future. They said they were investing in property and told us that we should too.

Did they not know that hardly five years ago a private army seized 31 properties, including entire hotels, on the beach, kicked out the tourists, and evicted the owners, many of whom were foreigners? Apparently, someone with the means to hire a couple hundred armed thugs and pay off the police and courts wanted what these foreigners had, so they just took it. The former owners dumb enough to try to fight it unceremoniously lost in court. Or maybe they never heard the story of a couple of “laborers” who claimed that four hotels didn’t pay them for their work so the courts just gave them the hotels? Or maybe the one about the lawyer who represented those who were evicted who was shot to death in his office? A crime that authorities, you guessed it, have yet to solve.

We then tried to get a taxi back to our hotel that was ten minutes away we realized we’d been had. If we thought it was expensive getting to the beach it was even more so leaving it. The drivers knew we had to use their service to get back, and none were doing it for less than a premium. I believe we were first quoted $60 before finding someone who would do it for $40. I’m no longer one to haggle too much over taxi prices — I just can’t be bothered anymore, the time input just isn’t worth the savings output. If I overpay by $2, who cares? But overpaying by $35 is a kick to the balls that can only be responded to with two words: “Fuck Tulum.”

Filed under: Mexico, Tourism

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3654 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

Support VBJ’s writing on this blog:

VBJ is currently in: Astoria, New York

10 comments… add one

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  • Rob October 18, 2022, 8:41 am

    It’s good to see you writing again.

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    • VBJ October 21, 2022, 10:26 am

      Thanks for staying with me!

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  • Rebecca October 20, 2022, 10:18 pm

    Excellent piece, and sadly accurate. Spent the last 7 months in the Yucatan and the onslaught of folks claiming that Tulum was ‘the place’ to visit, to buy property, to *be* made absolutely no sense to me. Place is a madhouse. Glad I stumbled on your blog.

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    • VBJ October 21, 2022, 10:30 am

      Yes, this was so strange to me too. The people there were acting like they were in the coolest place ever but all I saw was an overpriced, shitty bar along the Mexican equivalent of a strip mall. It was like we were living in alternate realities. Sometimes you go to places that you don’t really like but you can see the appeal for other people. In Tulum I couldn’t detect of modicum of appeal. It was truly one of the worst places I’ve ever been in 20 years of travel through 90 countries.

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  • Jack October 22, 2022, 2:11 am

    The Gringos must think that pothole strewn streets is real Mexico…..

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    • VBJ October 24, 2022, 12:04 pm

      I think you may be on to something. We often confuse the shitty for the authentic. There is nothing authentic about Tulum (the place didn’t really even exist before tourism began a few decades ago) and there is no reason for the place to be shitty with all the money coming in. There are many really nice places in Mexico that bring in far less revenue than Tulum. But I think that the shittyness of the place makes some people feel as if they’re on the edge, exploring the fringes of a foreign land. They don’t know the roads are full of potholes and raw sewage is being dumped into the water they swim in because the authorities know that foreigners are so dumb they will keep coming no matter what. So why waste good spending money?

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  • Dave Ladely November 2, 2022, 4:57 pm

    Wow, Tulum has really changed since about 1985!!!!
    My trip: I flew to Cancun, and was not impressed – a typical high rise stretch of modern “domino” buildings along the beach, with typical tourist type restaurants and shops. I stayed one night, then rented a VW beetle and headed south. NO ONE else was on the highway, so I drove about as fast as the “bug” could do. First stop: Xcaret – beautiful, unspoiled (but not for long, I hear). Next stop was a lagoon, don’t recall the name, not impressive. Then Playa Del Carmen, a small village with a ferry to Cozumel. I left the bug, took the boat to Cozumel. Not at all crowded, stayed the night ($8.00US) took the scuba “class”, about 1/2 hour,then enjoyed the huge reef. Wonderful, not to be missed! Had dinner with a young Mexican beauty, stayed the night, returned to Playa del Carmen. Drove to Tulum, no cars on the road. Only about three people on Tulum,wonderful, picturesque ruin, great views! Left Tulum, drove to Punta Allen, a lovely, skinny peninsula. Had a hage lobster for dinner at the small restaurant at the small village near the end of Punta Allen, cost $2.00US. Wow! Lovely. No tourists in sight. Drove over to Coba. Only one pyramid had been uncovered. Stayed at the hotel, Club Med, there for $20.00. From there, I drove back to Cancun, stayed one night,then drove to Chichen Itza on March 21st (solstic), Few tourists. Saw the phenomenon of the shadow of the stairs of the pyramid joining the snake’s head at the bottom. Headed back to Cancun, at about 90mph, no other car on the road. Endured a time share promotion, received a free deep sea fishing trip, very enjoyable. Got a free week end in a time share,which was on the lagoon (not impressed), had a marble tub but the water heater was 5 gallons, NOT impressed. Left early to avoid time share promoters, flew back home. Looks like I escaped the crowds and enjoyed it at the very best time.
    OK, now I can describe the place in Mexico that I found to be near pristine, cultural, beautiful, with very few tourists – so far. That is the beautiful Oaxacan coast, along hwy 200, from Puerto Escondido (the surfing spot) to Huatulco (a large resort). My choice is between those two. That is Puerto Angel and the villages a few miles northwesterly. Hwy 175, a 2 lane road, very curvy western part, joins Oaxaca City to Puerto Angel on the coast about a 6 hour drive. A new, 4 lane highway is being built between Oaxaca City and Puerto Escondido, which replaces hwy 175, and take only about 2 1/2 hours after completion (about 2023). That will bring many tourists, so go there before that highway is completed, while the area is still low key and has very few tourists. Oaxaca City is well worth visiting, especially Oaxaca Valley, where each village has artisans who specialized in certain crafts, painted wooden animals (not the tourist kitch), quality rugs, black pottery, etc. Best to hire a cab (inexpensive), not the tour van. A pyramid is close to the city. We stayed at a very nice hostel for $38.00/night for a bungalow. Puerto Angel is a fishing village. Cordelia’s Hotel is very nice, Mexican style beachfront, large room, balcony with view, A/C, for about $50.00 night. The nearby coastal villages (Zipolite, Mazunta, etc) are interesting, as is the sea turtle museum and crocodile lagoon. Coffee plantations are nearby, near hwy 175 in the Sierra Madre Mountain. So is San Jose del Pacifica (has Magic Mushoom Festival). Oaxaca Pluma is the same coffee variety as Blue Mountain, Jamaica and Hawaiian Kona coffee ($2.00/kilo). Puerto Escondido has a US population and is somewhat touristy, but is still uncrowded (until the new highway replacement of hwy 175 is completed. If you send me an email,I can send you some photos. My email: DaveLadely@aol.com You will NOT be disappointed!!! I bought a lot in Puerto Angel, that’s how great a find it is!

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    • VBJ November 25, 2022, 9:36 am

      I agree. The Oaxaca coast is incredible. We spent a good amount of time there around 2010 and always talk about going back.

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  • Ted November 17, 2022, 2:46 pm

    Seems like it’s trying to catch up with London price wise, but they do have a beach 😉

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    • VBJ November 17, 2022, 4:06 pm

      Haha that is true! They don’t seem to get that people have a choice. They go there once, they get ripped off, they never go back and tells everyone not to go to that brown water shithole of a place. However, I didn’t really acknowledge in this post that the businesses charging crazy prices are probably being extorted on rent. Corruption is a chain where the end consumer — the tourist — pays the ultimate price. Mexico is full of incredible places. Go there. Don’t waste your time and money in Tulum.

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