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It's no news flash to report that Tulum is exquisite. Yet despite all the media attention (sorry!) this tropical oasis on Mexico's Yucatán peninsula still feels remote and disarmingly in tune with the sprawling jungle that pushes up against its dazzling Caribbean beaches. Who knows how long this will last—recent years have seen more hotels built (and some inscrutable issues with the local government) but the new properties are still boutique, even if they are increasingly luxurious. Blessedly, Tulum still retains the vibe of a laid-back beach destination, with pristine beaches and those fresh ocean breezes that seem to whisper in your ear, "Uhhhh why go home?"
I visited Tulum with my wife for the first time last year, in mid-May, which turns out to be an ideal time—highs in the low 80s, spring break is over, and family summer vacations not yet in play. (The peak tourist season is September through March.) Getting there is no hassle from New York City—fly direct to Cancun, where you can rent a car at the airport or arrange for ground transportation (our hotel had a driver pick us up for $150). It's about a ninety minute drive from the airport, and I fell asleep almost immediately as we plunged south down an ugly highway, only waking up as we rumbled onto Tulum's one-road hotel zone, with jungle (and the restaurants) on the west side of the road, and the beachfront hotels on the east.
A friend had recommended The Beach Tulum, an adults-only boutique hotel with just twenty rooms and a pleasant beach restaurant/bar with swing seats called Ziggy's. I can't say with certainty that The Beach is the best hotel on Earth, but it is the best hotel I've ever stayed in. All of the simple-yet-elegant rooms at The Beach come with ocean views; ours was on the ground floor, with sliding doors opening onto a small patio with a hammock and chairs and ahhhh... that beach, beckoning relentlessly in all its aquamarine glory. Each room has a reserved day bed with pillows, so there's no need to play that desperate game where you rise at dawn to secure chairs. But I was rolling out to the beach at dawn anyway to watch the sunrise over the ocean. It all felt too sublime to sleep through, plus I live across from a delivery truck parking lot in Brooklyn.
The view from a room at The Beach Tulum (John Del Signore)
Much of Tulum is so off the grid that the hotels run on generators; if you need A.C. to sleep you'll want to make sure your hotel offers it. The Beach has A.C. but the ocean breeze was so powerful during our stay that we didn't need to turn it on. The breeze also did a great job keeping the mosquitoes at bay. They come out to feast at dawn and dusk, so get a pre-dinner drink at one of the beachfront bars before heading to one of the restaurants on the jungle side; they ate us alive one night when we left the beach during sunset.
You'll find the restaurants are generally excellent, with prices comparable to NYC dining. The most famous is Hartwood, which was opened in 2010 by NYC chef Eric Werner. Until recently the only way to make a reservation was to line up outside in the afternoon on the night you wanted to dine there. We did not have this problem, as Hartwood was closed for the exact length of our stay in Tulum, but we survived. Our favorite was Posada Margherita, about a twenty minute walk along the beach from, well, The Beach. This ridiculously charming open-air Italian restaurant overlooking the beach seems assembled out of weathered found objects and driftwood that Anthropologie might sell in exchange for your rent, and it all looks dazzling at night. (Get there early for the best ocean view.) Order the burrata appetizer and share a house-made pasta, because the gratis fresh focaccia is phenomenal.
Other restaurants to try: Hemingway, an older classic which has open-air dining on the beach and an appropriate number of cats slinking around. Great fresh seafood—try the outstanding tuna tartare appetizer. La Zebra, a big hotel restaurant with Sunday night salsa dancing on an elevated stage right on the beach. The Real Coconut, which makes exceptional smoothies and serves a fantastic healthy (but not too healthy) breakfast menu, with dining overlooking the beach. It's part of the small and expensive Sanará Hotel, which, like many Tulum hotels, offers yoga and other personal wellness activities. The open-air Casa Jaguar is on the jungle side, and is lovely at night, with lush vegetation seemingly creeping in during dinner to devour the restaurant whole. Order the catch of the day, cooked in their wood-fired oven, and/or enjoy mezcal cocktails at the bar. Ahua Tulum, also on the beach, serves over-the-top pina coladas in anthropomorphic pineapples, Mr. Potatohead-style, and superb salsa whipped up table-side. Ahua is a fun beach party by day, and a romantic dinner destination at night, with live music. Another fun beach party seems to always be unfolding at La Eufemia, which slings tasty tacos and buckets of beer to the tattooed weed-smoking folks who I probably sit next to on the L train back in Brooklyn. But who cares, I like Brooklyn.
When you want a break from loafing on the beach with your books and podcasts, rent a bike or take a cab up to the spectacular Tulum ruins on cliffs overlooking the sea. These ruins date back to the 13 century, and while you aren't allowed inside the main temple, it's still fascinating to take a tour and imagine the human sacrifices that took place there. Bring a swimsuit, because there's another beautiful beach down beneath the ruin where everyone goes for a dip after the history lesson. (While you're there, please don't pull a Bieber.)
(John Del Signore)
One day we rented a car and drove to Coba, a more expansive Mayan ruin about a half hour's drive from Tulum. We paid for a tour guide here as well, and it was worth it to learn about the culture and significance of the place, which was a major trading center, with Mayans traveling great distances along elevated roads paved with limestone so that they glowed in the moonlight. Visitors are still allowed to climb the steep, crumbling steps of the 137-feet high Nohoch Mul pyramid, which towers over the surrounding jungle. The view is breathtaking, but this is not for those prone to vertigo.
On our way out of Coba we bought inexpensive tickets that gave us access to three nearby cenotes, the subterranean fresh water caves that are abundant in the Yucatán. The most fun was Tamcach-Ha, which features a wooden tower with two high platforms from which you can jump into the pristine fresh waters. (There are showers on site, and visitors are asked to rinse off before entering.) Here's video of the jumping platforms from inside Tamcach-Ha. Honestly, why are you still reading this and not looking into airfare?
If you don't want to deal with renting a car, there are various tour groups that offer different expeditions to Coba, the cenotes around Tulum, and snorkeling with the tortugas (big sea turtles) in Akumal bay, a nature sanctuary. If you're in Akumal, you must go hang at the eclectic La Buena Vida bar and restaurant on Half Moon Bay in North Akumal. Here you can climb up into a tree house and order beers via a bucket, or drink margaritas on swing seats at the bar, or just sit at a normal table overlooking the bay, no pressure.
So after a few unparalleled days at The Beach we packed our bags and rotated over to the less expensive but still charming Nueva Vida de Ramiro hotel, also on the beach. This is one of the older properties in the hotel zone, and it radiates that hippie eco-conscious attitude that Tulum is famous for. Cabanas of various sizes (one made out of a retrofitted Airstream) are integrated seamlessly into the lush jungle environs, and they're all either on the beach or a few steps away. Like some parts of Tulum, you'll want a flashlight (or your cell phone) to navigate around the mysterious jungle paths at night—for a New Yorker the absence of light pollution and the explosion of stars are exhilarating.
Time passes both too quickly and deliciously slowly in Tulum. For me, it was an ideal place to unwind—devour books, forget your phone in the room, stare off contemplatively at the ocean's horizon, take some feline naps, meditate and take a yoga class, buy a straw hat from a roadside stand and a bottle of mezcal you'll never find back home, savor the marvelous food, and go to bed early with the sound of the surf rocking you to sleep. This is my kind of vacation. There is some nightlife if you want it, with various bars like La Eufemia and Casa Jaguar's lively Todos Santos bar in town, but for me the virtue of visiting Tulum is the opportunity to connect with the simple tranquility of the abundantly beautiful natural surroundings.
When the time came to rotate back to the world, we stalled for a few more nights at one of the big Riviera Maya resorts between Tulum and Cancun. We tell ourselves we're not "resort people" or "cruise people," because there does seem to be something grotesque about most all-inclusive resorts, with their mediocre (but plentiful!) food and their watered down (but unlimited!) well drinks and all the white people in cargo shorts letting their reptilian side run wild. But our brief stay at the sprawling oceanfront El Dorado Royale resort upended the stereotype with actually good food—something the Karisma hotel group, which owns the property, specializes in.
The property is vast, impeccably manicured, and beautiful in a merry old Land of Oz sort of way. Lush, but unreal. Stay in the Casitas section if you can; this is the adults-only area, and booking a room here enables you to make dinner reservations, which comes in handy on some nights when the restaurants are busy. (Disclosure: I accepted a media discount on the Casitas room during my stay.) All of the Casitas rooms are clustered around a hilarious artificial stream/pool, down which you drift to merge into main pool and all-important swim-up bar. It's a surreal, Hollywood soundstage environment, and a few days of this sort of sculpted luxury goes a long way. Here's a bird's eye view of the Casitas, with the pool in the middle:
(El Dorado Casitas Royale)
Again, the entire resort is massive, and if you don't enjoy walking there are shuttles that whisk you around the property at often deliriously high speeds. (There is also another connected Karisma resort called Generations, for kids and families, with a gigantic pool four football fields long and the sort of fantasy vacation activities I never experienced during my Dickensian childhood in Albany, New York.) The Casitas rooms are enormous, with an indoor shower, an outdoor shower, and a huge bathtub. What to do? Sink into a bath that's about a million times nicer than what awaits you back home? Float in the pool with a mudslide in one hand and a paperback in the other, or stretch out at the beach, where the grey tops of strange artificial reefs are slowly sinking into the sand? All of the above, until your brain begins to dissolve into the absurd decadence of the experience, and you suddenly remember that you need to check out in twenty minutes. Be sure to tip lavishly on your way out.