A girl in a cheetah print dress, heels, and matching hat cruises elegantly on a bike down the small paved street backed up to a jungle. Tulum, Mexico is steamy in late May and it’s hard to not move without dripping in sweat. I wonder how she keeps her makeup on as she looks like she just stepped out of Vogue.
An older Mexican man with a kind wrinkly face walks toward me carrying two dangling buckets on his shoulders – one overflowing with dead crickets. I watch as he tries to sell them to tourists but successfully sells them to the store workers at the new bougie boutiques with items and prices you would expect to see in Los Angeles, New York City, or St. Tropez.
As we continue our stroll surrounded by palm fronds on this bustling street filled with taxis, cars, and bikers trying to share the road, a young hippy guy pops out and invites us to take a swim in his cenote (underground sinkhole) just a few feet from the main road behind a petite convenience store, then suggests “buy a beer later” for compensation.
Once almost a deserted area dominated by local fishermen just ten years ago, Tulum is now a destination retreat flanked with BoHo Chic hotels (many less than 20 rooms) on a 5-miles stretch of silky sands. But recently, beaches are piled high in most places with sargassum, the latest ecological threat that has not deterred tourists from flocking to the Riviera Maya. Some hotels have a plan for this brown seaweed and are able to haul away the stinky rotting seaweed invasion, but most seem to have given up due to manpower, an inability to keep up with the onslaught, and having nowhere to dispose of the rotting sludge. Bigger hotels north of Tulum (like Cancun) are finding ways to remove it, dry it, and use it as biofertilizer for food crops.
The charm of Tulum still exists, despite the algae growth and rapid expansion. Perhaps it is that most hotels feel like your own private villa. Excitedly, we flew back to Tulum for a third time after my husband proposed on a rock in the ocean at sunrise in 2017. We not only fell in love here but fell deeply in love with the area, so much so we contemplated naming our firstborn, Tulum. And it is not often that I want to return to a place, but Tulum is enchanting – with warm winds, an aquamarine sea, starry nights, fresh food, and exciting cultural and nature excursions. And where else can one go in the world today where there is no municipal water or power? When the sun goes down, liquid darkness sets in and there is a kind of magic to awakening with the sunrise and calming down with the earth, as the sunset dims.
Also, there are unlimited explorations in Tulum and the surrounding area – biking through the jungle and climbing Coba at sunset, watching the sunrise shadows cast aglow on the Mayan ruins, boating across Laguna Muyill to admire ruins before floating down an old Mayan canal, and snorkeling with colorful fish just off the beach on an unexpected day where the winds ceased.
This last trip we cooled off each morning after breakfast by swimming in a new and different refreshing cenote (some as big as a lake) just a short bike ride from our hotel. We felt like explorers discovering sacred lands as some of these natural underground limestone sinkholes were so private, we were the only ones in this Mayan underworld except fish or turtles and birds floating overhead. One cenote we found near Nest Hotel was the entrance to a recently discovered elaborate underground network some 7 km long connecting cenotes in a cave system.
But now the main artery to the beach town is congested on most weekends and the narrow road is teeming with wooden signs offering the latest wellness cure, yoga session, or 2 for 1 drink specials. This is the only road that separates this “beach sanctuary” from the jungle along the Yucatan Peninsula coast and sadly, like every paradise found, the area is starting to change drastically three years after our first visit.
Just a year after our second trip, we were astounded by the numerous new restaurants, bars, shops, and hotels – some that have branched from Mexico City (Nu) and as far away as Formentera Island off the coast of Spain (Beso). The growth is overwhelming, especially the strain the new development is putting on the area. While still rustic, many places are touting prices one would expect to find in Malibu, not Mexico.
City dwellers arrive from around the world due to weekly festivals which often bring the good, the bad and the ugly, in an effort to attract the fab, the chic and the wealthy. It’s not unusual to find a straw pig purse selling for $300 or kaftan dresses for more. Easily a dinner at Hartwood, Nu, or Arca could run $400 for two but thankfully it is still possible to find $2 tacos in the pueblo. Fresh food with local ingredients can still be found everywhere and most meals are prepared straight from the land and sea. Many restaurants don’t have refrigeration and thus food is quickly cooked on open wood fired grills.
Regardless of paradise being found, this trip we decided to spend a few days in the town center (Pueblo) to experience the local flavor before spending a week at the beach in the hotel zone.
Spend a few days in Tulum town before heading to the beach
CoCo Hacienda Tulum (not to be confused with its ultra-hip party scene sister property with a beach club called CoCo Tulum Hotel)is the perfect home base to explore the town on foot or by bike because the hotel oasis is just on the outskirts of the busy town.
The hotel, opened in a former plant nursery, made sure to keep the trees and flowers intact. Filled with lush gardens, airy lounge-y palapas, two pools, and a jacuzzi, intimate CoCo Hacienda Tulum feels like a retreat, especially after returning from the hectic nature of town. Our hacienda came with our own private deck and hammock along with an enormous bathroom with double sinks and a grand platform jacuzzi with easily enough room for two. Room service was impeccable as they arranged and organized our clothes and shoes.
CoCo Hacienda is a wonderful option because you are not far from many local spots, such as El Camello serving up whole fried sea bream fish ($7), big butterfly coconut shrimp, and generous plates of ceviche. Antojitos “La Chiapaneca” is a short walk across the street from the hotel. Late night, try to find a seat at this super cheap spot for tacos al pastor, chicken, or beef (10-15 pesos each or 50 cents) with handmade tortillas and salsa/toppings bar inside. Sip a cold beer ($1) and watch as the pork tacos are carved off a gyro spool.
Another no-frills taqueria not to miss is Taqueria Honorio on a side street in the North side of town. Arrive early as they often sell out of their top choices by noon – with ridiculously cheap prices – savor torta (homemade bread instead of a corn taco) filled with cochinita (pulled pork in annatto marinade), baby pork, carne asada, or marinated turkey. It is nearly impossible to not return for another meal.
Burrito Amor, also near the hotel, is more touristy but a worthy stop for stuffed shrimp burritos and Kahlua pork and pineapple burritos nicely packaged in a banana leaf. Wash the hefty filled burritos down with one of their strong margaritas. While walking around town, sample the $2 mango off the street cart presented on a stick and sliced like a flower. Make a stop to get out of the sweltering heat for homemade ice cream at Panna e Cioccolato where you can admire chocolate making skills in the back of the store through a window. Watch in awe as a Mexican duo expertly dips melted chocolate around homemade ice cream bars on sticks.
For a pricier and more sophisticated date night out in the pueblo, dine at Swoon Rooftop Tulum. Sit on the rooftop in a giant egg nest (or maybe it is a concrete hot air balloon) to watch the sunset while devouring beautifully plated shrimp tacos, tuna tostadas, fresh sushi, and seared tuna sashimi. Nearby, cap your night off at packed Batey Bar, a fun mojito bar with live entertainment where freshly crushed sugar cane juice is expertly twisted all night out of a converted VW Beetle to make $5 fresh margaritas in flavors like passionfruit, watermelon, ginger, and cucumber.
The best reason to stay in town is that the hotels are often less expensive and if you plan to be out all day and not taking full advantage of your hotel (or the beach), it may make sense to stay in town first. For my birthday week, my husband booked a Cenote Trail Bike Tour with Mexico Kan Tours. The off-road eco-friendly jungle bike tour had us pedaling through forests and making stops at three very different cenotes (with bats, turtles, fish, and stalactites) to admire and swim in these fascinating underground spaces. We left right from the center of town on well-equipped mountain bikes with about 6 other people. Midday, we biked to a jungle compound for a healthy lunch prepared by a French man who lived on site. Other highlights of our bike tour including seeing thousands of teaming blue butterflies flickering around little dirt puddles.
Where to stay and play at the beach
A looming bare-breasted art sculpture as tall as the palm trees greet guests at the entrance to Ahau Tulum. Instagram models budge each other out of the way to get the perfect shot under this towering wooden sculpture. Art with Me, an art, music, and sustainability festival, descended upon Tulum at the end of April, and we happened to have landed at its beginning to experience the monumental art installations along the beach.
To mix up your experience in Tulum, stay at several properties in different areas. Although we loved Mi Amor and Hotel Cabanas, two hotels we return to are El Pez (Colibri Boutique Hotel) and Nest Tulum. Both boutique hotels offer an intimate setting without pretension or a big party scene. If we decided one afternoon we wanted to be in the “mix,” we could walk to a nearby beach hotel that’s hosting a party.
The best part about these hotels is you wake up with tea or coffee outside your room or a fresh cooked multicourse made-to-order breakfast (included in the price) steps from the ocean or with your feet in the sand. Since the hotels are less than 20 rooms, it is easy to lounge away your day with privacy and contentment. You may choose to never leave a beach daybed with flowing Cervezas and shrimp tacos, except to take intermittent dips to cool off in the sea.
El Pez is located on a stunning secluded cove where pelicans and birds are in constant motion outside your room and local fishermen wade in the sea to catch fish in their nets. A beautifully decorated high ceiling-ed palapas-style lobby greets you. The hotel is casual but luxurious with all the amenities you expect from a high-end resort. Rooms hang over the nonstop pounding surf with private balconies and patios. The friendly hotel staff know you by name and deliver impeccable service. The privacy here is intoxicating as one night we dined solo under the stars with the whole place to ourselves, and daily we took a dip in the intimate pool behind the property with no one else but iguanas sunning themselves. Also, the long Tulum Beach is just .3 miles away if you want to eat and drink at other beach locations (many with DJ’s) like Beso Beach Club, right around the corner.
On Sundays, stay on a beachside lounger for El Pez’s raw bar and complimentary mimosas. The cocktail program is over the top with fresh specialty drinks created by their master mixologist. Mezcal concoctions like The Gambler, with a playing card attached or the Old Cuban, complete with a smoldering natural cinnamon stick brought out all kinds of laughs. It’s too easy to lounge away your days here.
Nearby, a French hotel proprietor at Puro Corazon Tulum has the highest new rooftop bar in town sitting above the jungle. Unnoticeable from the street, scale up the stairwell to a concrete hip bar reminiscent of our time in Cuba (with cats included), before scaling to the top with your drink and a skybox view of the sunset.
On the South end of beach row and with less than 14 rooms, Nest’s beachfront property creates beauty and simplicity with the natural environment. Located on the southern end of the hotel zone close to the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, each minimalist Bohemian chic room is carefully decorated with finds from local craftsmen. No need for shoes once here, as the sandy shared “living room” is situated beneath the palms past tropical jungle foliage leading you from your room via sandy paths to the beach. Romantic oil lit bottle torches in the sand guide your way home at night.
Dreamy beach beds await each day to keep you cool while your only decision is to choose between when you will go swimming and what food or drinks you will have delivered to your beach bliss sanctuary. When done lounging, complimentary bikes allow you to easily discover a new cenote through the mangroves or try out numerous bars or restaurants nearby. Their complimentary Happy Hour and amazing breakfast are included in the price. You’ll be so relaxed, it will be hard to leave this hedonism.
In Tulum near the beach, the food options rival most major cities with global cuisine blending traditional Mexican fare with Caribbean fresh seafood. Many chefs are using modern approaches thanks to the culinary creatives flocking this area. While popular Hartwood, Arca, Posada Margherita are more expensive options, other higher-priced restaurants worthy of your pesos (since most only take cash) include Kitchen Table across from Mi Amor serving dishes like whole octopus, short ribs, and the catch of the day in a magical dramatic jungle setting with an open kitchen; or Nu Tulum, coming from Mexico City with a 7-person chef team that has similar décor and ambiance to Hartwood and Arca but a slightly better price point and bigger restaurant space. Devour grilled shrimp and fish, tacos, and ceviches – all prepared in unexpected ways and don’t miss trying out some of their Mezcals not offered in the US.
Several months ago, a new romantic Argentinian restaurant dripping in palm fronds was on the cusp of opening, offering 15 or more beers on tap. And next door, an outdoor food hall concept was under construction, but its modern LA-Brooklyn vibe is something we didn’t expect to see so soon here in Tulum. To find a party scene, hit up Gitano, Papaya Playa, or Beso late night. For a more casual vibe and drink deals, ladies drink for free on certain nights at I Scream Bar, a makeshift Volkswagon bar in the middle of the beach road concocting drinks and liquors made of vegan ice cream. You’ll know it when you see the gaity – dancing and singing that often ensues.
For a healthy breakfast with fresh juices and outstanding coffee options, bike to the Real Coconut at Sanara Hotel on the beach or Fresco’s at Cabanas Hotel. The rustic and cheap taco joints are the best, including Taqueria La Eufemia on the beach with two for one drink specials, Charly’s Vegan Tacos, and Safari for slow cooked pork, shrimp, octopus, and fish tacos from a campfire style grill in front of an Airstream. Bring cash, preferably pesos! As I write this, I can only imagine what options may have popped up since April.
Welcome to Tulum, where simplicity and nature are the new luxury. Mix up your Tulum stay by venturing out beyond your normal comfort zone to experience the local Mexican flavor away from the waves. The lure of the Mayan Riviera has always been – a respite from daily life and a reminder of what it means to live.
All the while we can’t help wonder, is change inevitable? Can an area be preserved to keep its sacredness and beauty – or once the word gets out in this digital age, will the local charm and culture of the best places no longer remain? Does paradise come with a price?