Let me set the scene for you: The sun has just set and the sky is turning from pink to ink. I’m sitting in Hartwood, an open-air restaurant seasoned by an outdoor kitchen that looks like a cross between a chic cookout and an upscale market with the evening’s bounty arranged in produce pyramids. As I’m about to order my locally sourced cactus salad and pesca del dia from a life-sized chalkboard menu, I overhear someone two tables over muse, “We love Tulum so much, we’ve stopped going to Hawaii.”
While you won’t find me saying adios to the Hawaiian Islands (the aloha spirit refreshes my soul), after spending five days in Mexico’s eco-chic getaway at the South end of the Riviera Maya, I’m not surprised to hear my fellow diner’s ode to Tulum. I, too, am smitten by the jungle-meets-beach locale cultured with a dash of wellness, a smidgeon of boho, and glamping-style hotels reminiscent of Swiss Family Robinson abodes.
Hanging at the top of every “it list” in the fashion and design circles, Tulum is gathering a large clan of converts ranging from fashion bloggers to health gurus to European families. The result? A fetching fusion of gorgeous, groovy, and granola neatly wrapped into one package. So you don’t waste any time settling in—the beach is beckoning!—here’s how to do Tulum as if you’ve been going your whole life.
All flights land at the Cancun International Airport (CUN), about 1 hour and 40 minutes from Tulum along a straight-as-an-arrow, well-maintained highway. Cabs cost approximately US$120 on the way there, and US$80 on the way back (the return trip is cheaper because the drivers don’t have to pay an airport fee).
If you want to save mucho pesos on the journey, catch an air-conditioned colectivo. Think of colectivos as public transport micro-buses with basic stations in major towns, and informal pick-ups and drop-offs where you need it along the route. The journey from the airport to Tulum costs about 100 pesos (approximately US$8) and takes three hours when you factor in the cab you’ll need to get outside the airport, the multi-station colectivo ride, and the final taxi you’ll take into Tulum from the nearby town of Tulum Pueblo, known by locals as, simply, El Pueblo.
Stretching from the Tulum Ruins down to the Sian Ka’an arch along Boca Paila Road, most hotels, restaurants, and shops dotting the beachfront sit within three miles of each other along a narrow thoroughfare following the shore. If you stay mid-strip, the area is very walkable. Alternatively, catching a cab up or down the road costs between 50 and 70 pesos per trip. (Avoid hailing a cab in front of Hartwood restaurant as it will set you back a minimum of US$10. Walk up or down the road and flag down a cab to avoid the surcharge).
Miles away from Mexico’s margarita-toting, all-inclusive enthusiasts, Tulum’s brand of boutique hotels range from thatched-roof beachfront bungalows to whitewashed concrete digs. Whatever hotel style floats your boat, make sure your stay comes with air conditioning. As romantic as it might seem to have your patio doors open to the sound of lapping waves, air conditioning is sleep savior in the humidity. Shorefront hotels I recommend are: Be Tulum and The Beach Tulum for style seekers, Papaya Playa Project for the glampers, and Coqui Coqui for the spa lovers.
Easily the most recommended restaurant in Tulum, Hartwood wows with every glance, every texture, every bite, every sip. Shaded by palm fronds and lit by the stars, servers deliver local food outfitted in jeans, white t-shirts, and canvas aprons, making you wonder if you’re suspended in a food nirvana somewhere between Brooklyn and Mexico.
At Gitano, another restaurant, strings of lights hung from marine rope light the open-air space setting the jungle aglow. The hub, an A-frame bar made of reclaimed wood, is inspiring enough to say “I’ll have another.” Add in the Mexican minimalist food—tortilla soup served in a clay bowl or fish tacos neatly placed atop a wooden board—and you’ll be sticking around until the disco ball starts turning.
Finally, Casa Jaguar is an intimate eatery with enough private quadrants to kiss between every course. It’s look, hovering somewhere between the pages of DWELL Magazine and House Beautiful, creates a country-meets-modern take on jungle dining, serving up fresh Mexican dishes with an Italian disposition.
Visit the Tulum Ruins and BYO bathing suit to cool off at the on-site beach. Sip fresh juice at shacks lining the street. Learn to kitesurf over the ocean blue. Join a yoga class at one of the dozen-or-so retreats along the shore. Of course another option is to very purposely do nothing at all and opt to savor the sand under the shade of a palapa (viva Mexico!).
Viewfinder Tip: Many return visitors to Tulum use bike rentals (US$8 per day) as their main mode of transport. Bring a set of front and back lights for your bike to safely ride at night.
The jungle life
Adding to the away-from-it-all allure, Tulum is planted where the Yucatan jungle meets the Caribbean Sea. This means you MUST bring bug repellant. Mosquitos don’t bother bathers at the beach, though many of Tulum’s top restaurants are alfresco outposts on the ‘green’ side of Boca Paila Road, so it’s wise to wear pants or a long dress in the evening (especially after a rainfall).
Because most of Tulum’s power is created by generators or solar panels, there are no major banking institutions along the beach—only private cash machines—and credit card terminals are few and far between. Moral of the story: Ensure you bring enough cash for every vacation expense aside from your hotel bill. Replenish your pesos in the nearby town of El Pueblo at Scotiabank or HSBC.
When to visit
Mexico’s Caribbean Coast is postcard-perfect most of the year. While hurricane season puts a slight damper on the area’s endless summer from June through November, historically, August and September are the most tumultuous months (and they still enjoy a hefty dose of sun).
What Mexican beach destinations satisfy your vacation “it” list?