Planning a Trip
To visit the Tulum area, get a rental car; it will make everything much easier. From the north, you'll pass the entrance to the ruins before you enter the town. After the ruins, you'll come to a highway intersection with a traffic light. To the right is the highway leading to the ruins of Cobá; to the left is the Tulum hotel zone, which begins about 2km (1 1/4 miles) away. The road sign reads BOCA PAILA. Take this road and you'll come to a T junction. There are hotels in both directions. If you turn left (north), you'll be heading toward the ruins. If you take a right, you'll pass a long line of more palapa hotels until you get to an entrance to Sian Ka'an. The road from here to the end of the Punta Allen peninsula can be really ugly and slow going.
The town of Tulum is growing quickly. It now extends for 3 or 4 blocks in either direction from the highway. The highway widens here and is called Avenida Tulum. It is lined with stores, restaurants, and what seems like a drug store on every corner. One place that I find handy is a travel agency/communications/package center called Savana (tel. 984/871-2081), on the east side of Avenida Tulum between calles Orion and Beta. Most of the staff speaks English and can answer questions about tours and calling home. There's also a good bicycle rental store: Iguana Bike (tel. 984/871-2357; firstname.lastname@example.org), on Calle Satélite Sur near the corner of Calle Andrómeda. The owner, Hugo Herrera, maintains his bikes well and organizes tours.
Getting to the Beach
If you're staying elsewhere but want some beach time in Tulum, the easiest thing to do is drive to El Paraíso Beach Club. It's about 1km (a half-mile) south of the ruins (take a left at the T junction). This is a great place -- there's a long, broad beach that is pure sand, and access is free. The owners make money by selling food and drink, so they ask you not to bring your own. If you want isolation, drive down the dirt road toward Punta Allen. After you pass the last of the beach hotels, there are a couple of places where the beach comes into view. You can pull over and spread out your beach towel.