Mahahual is better than Tulum. There. I said it.
Let’s be clear: Tulum’s beach is a magical place. In addition to endless white sand and turquoise water, there’s a spiritual feeling many people experience just south of the famous Maya ruins. I’ve heard Tulum described as a spiritual vortex – similar to the vortexes in Sedona, Arizona. That description feels right to me. I will always love Tulum.
But Mahahual is still better.
(*This first few paragraphs were updated in May 2022 for style reasons. For updated travel information on Mahahual and the Costa Maya region of Mexico, join the Earth Vagabonds Facebook group -some members live in Mahahual.)
I can easily think of five great reasons why Mahahual is better than Tulum for early retired budget travelers. (The Spanish spelling is Majahual, and it’s pronounced ‘mah-HA-wall’.)
Why Mahahual is better than Tulum – top 5 reasons
I lived in both places: Tulum for five months; Mahaual more than three months.
Here are five reasons I personally like living in Mahahual more than I liked living in Tulum.
1. Mahahual is more affordable to live on the beach, or close to it
There are many options for short visits to Tulum. There are hostels and hotel rooms in town, which some miles away from the beach. Or, stay in boutique hotels right on the beach for tidy sums of money.
In Mahahual, stay across the street from the beach for much less money. Google hotel prices, and you’ll see what I mean.
For apartment living, in Tulum you can find monthly places right on the beach, but there is no way I could afford that. So, I paid about $320 in town – miles away from the beach.
I lived in a one room studio with a bed, small table, basic kitchen, good sized porch, with water and wifi included. For Tulum, that was a decent deal. I had a good landlord and I would rent there again.
In Mahahual, it was a totally different scene, with less demand. We paid roughly $500 a month for a one-bedroom, split-level apartment with bed, dresser, full kitchen, couch, coffee table, water, wifi, TV and cable included, with an amazing rooftop, ocean view deck, across from the beach. (Note, this rental was in 2016, and prices have gone up a bit since then.)
Stars and sunrises on the Caribbean Sea. Oh, heck yes. We could never have had this view for three months in Tulum for that price.
There are other rentals down the road from the beach, but those neighborhoods still are closer to the water than in Tulum.
2. Mahahual has a malecon
A malecon is a walkway on or along a beach. Mahahual has a gorgeous one. Tulum has none. This is a major reason why Mahahual is better than Tulum.
Tulum has a beach road that is congested with speeding taxis and tourists in a rush. Several times, I was nearly hit by cars speeding by me on my bike once I left the bike path from town. There are no speed bumps on the beach road to the north, and cars speed. Some drivers are texting. It’s not cool. At the few spots where you can see the beach from the road, you can’t enjoy it because of all the traffic.
In Mahahual, I jogged along the malecon – along the beach – along the ocean.
I stopped running while I lived in Tulum because I got too hot without an ocean breeze, and I didn’t feel comfortable running with music on the beach road with all of that traffic.
3. Mahahual is an authentic small town
You won’t find Starbucks in the village. There are only mom-and-pop convenience stores, no Oxxos. No Chedraui, no Walmart or Bodega Aurrera. When you buy something at a store, that money goes to a family’s small business. Not a giant corporation. I. love. that. And it’s another reason Mahahual is better than Tulum.
If you need something you cannot find in town, or need to see a doctor, Chetumal is the state capitol and it’s 90 minutes or two hours away by car, bus or colectivo (colectivo is a shared taxi van, and I’m pictured in one below).
4. Mahahual is better than Tulum for snorkeling, swimming
You can walk to the reef in Mahahaul- it’s very close to the shore in most spots. It runs along the beach through the center of town. If you’re a decent swimmer, you can get to a few spots south of town without a guide boat for awesome snorkeling. There are more fish and coral closer to the beach than in Tulum – it’s not even a competition. (Although, of course, Tulum’s beaches are stunning.) In Mahahual, the water doesn’t get choppy or go over six feet until you’re on the ocean side of the reef.
Plus, Banco Chichorro is accessible by boat from Mahahual, if you’re in the market for an incredible dive.
If you love snorkeling and calm water for swimming, this is a great reason why Mahahual is better than Tulum.
During the time I lived in Mahahual, I swam from the Happy Turtle restaurant to Sulumar Restaurant along the reef. Tedly would walk the malecon down and meet me. It was fantastic for swimming! Where else can you say, I’ll meet you at the restaurant, and then swim there?
5. Mahahual is more laid back – people seem happier
The vibe in Mahahual overall is so casual, it’s contagious. You can’t help but feel happy there. And it’s a big reason why Mahahual is better than Tulum.
Mahahual has the vibe Tulum had more than a decade ago, before the New York and Los Angeles crowds descended; before land and property was ‘repossessed’ by the government from business owners. Before overtourism was a word.
I’ve overheard visitors from the cruise ships say this is the best port they experienced on their trip.
Think about it: don’t you always feel better when you see the beach and the ocean? Because of the malecon, the Caribbean Sea is accessible to everyone in Mahahual – it’s right there. It’s not blocked by “private property” development for the wealthy who jet in for vacation. I believe easy beach access helps the collective happy vibe in Mahahual.
…only 1 drawback that has to be covered.
Those cruise ships are the only drawback to Mahahual. Thousands of tourists pour off boats and onto land several days a week. Sometimes there are several boats.
It’s how the village sustains itself. It’s large enough to provide basic services for thousands of people, briefly. The positive side to this drawback is that after a few hours, all the tourists get back on their ships and sail away.
Days with no ships were the ones I relished in Mahahual the most. It reminded me of the time when Tedly and I first discovered this sleepy little fishing village in the early 2000s, before Hurricane Dean hit the Costa Maya region.
Will it stay this way in Mahahual? Sleepy and quaint and happy? Or will it grow to be more like Tulum, or Playa del Carmen? Mahahual is better than Tulum primarily because of its basic layout — beach access cannot be blocked with the malecon where it is now. And that isn’t likely to change even if the big names show up.
Of all the places I’ve seen on the planet, so far, Mahahual, Mexico is one of my favorites, and I will go back… one day.
(Ellen’s note in May 2022: still true that Mahahual is a favorite spot, and she’s seen much more of the planet since 2016!)
Related to Tulum and Mahahual:
- The 5 neighborhoods of Mahahual
- Four “Tulums” — which one is the real one?
- Banco Chinchorro: beautiful coral so alive and colorful you just have to see it!
Other amazing beaches on Earth:
- Beautiful Boracay Island in the Philippines
- Exquisite scenery in Nusa Penida, Indonesia
- Vietnam’s Nha Trang – gorgeous beach city