Why You Must Visit Tulum
I could still hear the ocean, running parallel just a few feet away, as I peddled my rusty rented bicycle down the main road. Sand coated every stand of my hair and toes and my sun-kissed cheeks and nose were proof of a morning well-spent at the beach.
I pulled over into the Sanara Resort, where I grabbed a fresh sea-salt caramel from the jar on my way to the glass-walled yoga studio facing the ocean. I rolled out my mat and looked out over the bright blue waves of Tulum, just in time for sunset.
In February I spent twenty-five hours flying across the world to Bali, where I found a magical paradise of free-spirited hippies, health food, and harem pants. I arrived last week in Tulum feeling deja vu just a three hour trip from my Manhattan apartment. Bali is massive, spanning hundreds of miles and many cities. Tulum town is just one main road running next to the beach, lined with rustic bungalows, open-air restaurants, small boutiques, and eco-resorts; the whole place can be explored by foot or by bicycle. But the two share a population of makeup-less, tanned yogis, an abundance of gluten-free and vegan options, and a contagious laid-back spirit that has the power to calm even the most high-strung, stressed-out New Yorker.
Tulum also shares Bali’s unpretentious vibe. Heels, hairdryers, and be-dazzled beach bags should be left at home. You won’t find anywhere on the main road that requires you to be dressed up, and there are zero noisy bars with bogo margaritas or sombreros for spring-breakers. This is not the place to party, it's the place to chill out at night in an open-air restaurant with a spicy margarita and coconut ceviche.
You don't often hear about The Yucatan Peninsula being on anyone's bucket list place. But after my weekend in Tulum, I think it should be on the top of the list for anyone looking for culture, adventure. and a small, cool beach town. It's not anything like Cancun or Cabo. If you’re not interested in passing the day away in a hammock with a cold coconut and good book, extraordinary Mayan Ruins and several fresh-water cenotes are just a short drive from the main town. Every resort on the beach offers kite-surfing lessons, and yoga classes throughout the day, and the main road has shops full of unique goods from local designers. Best all of, you can walk or bike everywhere. You're never sitting in traffic or calling an uber, and you're not confined to your resort like a lot of places in Mexico.
Once the sun has set, the street is full of sun kissed people walking and bicycling to whatever heavenly place they are heading for dinner. Every menu I passed enticed me, since the food is all fresh caught, picked, and made to order. I even found a superfood ice cream shop, where I had no shame in ordering a triple scoop of coconut cookies & cream. To end each night, my husband and I crawled into the hammock on the patio of our ocean-front bungalow, watched the stars and listened to the ocean waves.
Tulum is the very definition of chill, and makes for the perfect weekend getaway from the East Coast. So pack your yoga mat and sunscreen, and get ready to live off gluten-free chips and guac!
Where To Stay
I’ve never seen a cooler hotel than this boutique beach-front estate in Tulum. The home once belonged to Pablo Esocabar. It was bought by a private owner, renovated into thirty bungalows, and passionately curated with his private art collection.
Un-marked gates off the main road will lead you to a palatial open-doorway. Framing the doorway are enormous satin curtains hanging velvet couches and chairs that float a few inches off the ground as if by magic. Multi-colored hammocks and straw huts dot the beach-front bungalows, and the pool has a secret grotto underneath it; Playboy mansion style. The back bar is curated with ripped and tattered velvet settees, and antique baby dolls onto on stacks of vintage luggage. It’s horror movie, meets MoMa, done with just enough restraint to be awesome instead of odd. One of the thirty private villas will cost you dearly, but it will be an experience unlike any other you can have in the world.
Where to Eat
When two friends I highly trust the options of recommended the same place, I knew it was worth a visit. A cobblestone path lined with lush plants, sea-washed wooden tables, and thousands of twinkle lights winds you to where one of the many handsome, Italian transplants will seat you in a cozy corner and pour you a generous glass of wine. The atmosphere here can only be described as magical. The haphazard table placement makes for several quiet corners and charming areas, and the ocean is visible in the distance. The smell of Italy is in the air; if I closed my eyes I would have thought I was in Capri. Our waiter, an extremely handsome native of Geneoa, actually pulled up a chair next to me and explained all seventeen of their original, unchanged menu items in detail while I started to drool (both at him, and the menu). The pastas here are rolled, cut, and cooked to order, the seafood is fresh from the ocean that day, and the Burata imported from Italy. A wooden tray of crispy, assorted focaccia and chunks of fresh parmesan comes before the meal, so arrive extra hungry and order as much as you can possibly can handle - it’s worth every calorie and dime.
(Cash only. 11% Discount given if you pay in MXP)
This eco-hotel has a few options for lodging, but the reason to come is for Mocondo, their holistic restaurant serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The first day I had a GF and vegan fiesta bowl and the freshest guac sprinkled with little edible flowers. I went back twice more for it! They have a list of superfood smoothies that are creamy and nutritious and even healthy deserts for people with a sweet tooth like me! You can also sit ocean-front at their seafood-inspired restaurant and order off either menu. This works out particularly great if you're with your with your husband who hates healthy food. He can get fish tacos - and you can get gluten free summer rolls with fresh seasonal vegetables and tofu! Win win.
The setting of this restaurant is reason enough to come. Entirely outdoors, with flaming tiki torches, tables in the sand, and a massive bar in the middle. While everything on their small menu is enticing, the highlight here is the chocolate tasting dessert for two!
This is the place for the gluten-free, vegan, health-nuts to have a hey-day. Coconut cheese, coconut tortilla chips, coconut pancakes, coconut everything! Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are served but the AM hours have the most inventive menu.
Owned and operated by a translate New Yorker, this is the hardest table to book on the island. I tried each night we were there, and had no luck. Contact them far in advance to secure a reservation and then enjoy your fresh, farm-to-table meal under the stars. If you can’t get a reservation they accept a few walk-ins but you won’t have much luck after 5pm.
What To Do
Dos Ojos Cenote
The hotel recommend the Grand Cenote, but we asked a local at the ruins and he warned us everyone who booked a group tour would be headed there. “It’s small, and crowded,” was all we needed to hear to deter us. Instead he sent us to his favorite, Dos Ojos, “the two eyes.” This is actually two pools, one covered completely by a cave and one partially opened. It was a little farther out, but we arrived and had the second “eye” completely to ourselves. Swimming in the cold, crystal water under stalagmites is absolute magic.
It does cost to enter the centote. Entrance fees range from - approx 200-350 MXP/ per person
Mayan Ruins at Tulum
To be this close to this site and not visit would be like going to Rome and skipping the Roman Forum. You can either book a guided tour, or go on your own. Several unofficial “guides” are outdoor to do a private tour as well, which I think is better than being on a motor-coach with a dozen other tourists. This village was built entirely on the coast, and so the already-stunning ruins are amplified by the dramatic cliffs and crashing waves. A tour takes about an hour and should not be missed.
Entry is 70 MXP per person. The ruins are open from 8am- 5pm.
Nearly every resort offers a few yoga classes a day. It’s a bit tricky to find the type of class you want, but if you look up the schedules of the places nearby your resort you can find a wide variety of classes and times. I took Vinyasa Flow at Sanara Resort, and Yaan Wellness. Both classes were $20/USD and fantastic.
Bring American cash with you, and exchange immediately for MXP. There are a lot of places that only take cash, or offer a discount if you pay in cash. ATM machines are all over the town, but have insanely high fees. So come prepared.
Bring a beach bag that zips. This area is WINDY. After laying out a few hours in a chair I found sand had blown into every crevice of my body, and that it was coating everything I owned. Make sure your phone, kindle, and wallet stay sand-free by zipping them safely away while you swim and suntan.
Rent a Bike. Taxis are reasonable, but bike rental is very cheap and you will be able to get everywhere you want to go in town on a bicycle. There’s bike parking everywhere, and then you’ll burn off that pina colada!