About Tulum Riviera Maya
What most folks really need to know, and only manage to figure out once there, is the fact that there are really three different areas all referred to as Tulum only minutes away from each other, not close enough though to walk to and from. You need a scooter or car, bicycles won't really work to get around because everything looks closer on Google Maps but in reality, is farther than it looks and travel is often on bumpy unpaved roads.
Tulum Pueblo sits split by highway 307 running South-North. "El Pueblo", as referred to by locals, is home to most workers of the tourist industry and where many of the stores, supermarkets, two bus stations, inns, hostels and small hotels are found. This section of town has a definite feel of existing mostly to cater to the Tulum ruins. Tulum pueblo is indeed a destination for shopping, great restaurants, a modest night life, studying the language at Instituto Chac-Mool Spanish School, booking tours, banking, shopping for food, local vegetables, fruits, cafes, and local flavor. Do not miss it. From Pueblo to Playa is around 3-5 miles (5-8 km) and takes between 15-45 minutes depending on traffic on the 2 lane road.
Tulum Playa nests along the coastline that leads into the Sian Ka'an Biosphere [Ecological Reserve], the Caribbean white sandy beaches to the east, an impressive mangrove & wetland reserve to the south. Tulum Playa embraces many of the fancier, ecological, boutique and spa hotels, and it has a decent selection of restaurants and night spots. There are also a number of affordable beach front cabana-type lodging locations. Walk the beach and simply step in and inquire about accommodations and rates. Always ask to see the available room(s) before committing: cabanas generally look better from outside than inside; bathrooms in particular are often in sad disrepair. It should be noted most of these establishments are Eco-friendly and do not provide electricity past midnight. Toilet paper can not be flushed and it is asked that water and other resources be used sparingly. The hotels in Tulum aim to keep Tulum as it is and stop the ecological problems that have already taken hold in Cancun and Playa del Carmen.
If you are staying on the beach and trying to save money, it is wise to stock up on food and drinks in the pueblo. There are not too many restaurant options on the beach, and the ones that are operational are comparatively quite expensive.
Taxis have a near monopoly on transport to and from the Playa (expect to pay around $10 - $20 USD for the 10 minute trip) There is no Uber in Tulum (Dec 2020). Buses come from time to time, but hitchhiking can also get you where you need to go. There are typically police check points at nights out of the Playa area so if you plan to drink, take a taxi.
The beach area hotel zone sees considerable trade in and use of illicit substances. Keep in mind that for some visitors this is the area's main attraction, so if you choose to attend a bonfire or rumba party use common sense. The street running parallel to the coast where most of the cabanas are is unlit and curvy. Exercise extra caution after dark. There are no sidewalks.
Tulum Ruinas is the archaeological site where the Maya ruins of Tulum stand. It is conformed by a-mile-long road leading into the ruins from highway 307. The road is flanked by several restaurants, a commercial area geared to one-day visitors, a huge parking lot, a small bus station that operates part-time and a handful of middle range hotels.