Tulum, Mexico, is changing fast. Just a few short years ago, the area consisted of a sleepy little inland town ? or pueblo ? carved out of the dense Yucatan jungle and a handful of modest hammock-furnished cabanas up and down the nearby beach ? or playa.
Today, the town continues to expand, fueled by the growth in tourism throughout the whole of Riviera Maya. Still, Tulum maintains an identity and pace that is light years away from its touristy neighbors to the north in “Gringolandia,” Playa del Carmen and Cancun, which is what attracted off-the-beaten-path travelers to this pristine patch of the Caribbean in the first place.
Though the number (and cost) of hotels along the beach continues to rise, the scenery around them has not. Eco-conscious development is the guiding force here, where humble low-rise (or no-rise) accommodations rely on solar, wind or generators for what limited electricity they consume. And the beaches ? those spotless, coconut palm-dotted beaches that stretch for kilometers ? are as tranquil and restorative as ever.
There might be no better time to visit Tulum than right now thanks to a lopsided dollar-to-peso exchange rate, the region’s recent jump to Eastern Standard Time, which nets visitors another hour of sun, and what will very likely be one of the last remaining years visitors will be permitted to climb a Mayan ruin.
Here are a 12 good reasons to start packing.
Hit the beach
For many, the beaches are reason numero uno for visiting Tulum. Imagine the very best beaches that Florida has to offer. Now take away the rocks, seashells, jelly fish, screaming kids and blaring music. Oh, and swap out the sand for powdered sugar. Now we’re getting close. The public beaches up and down the Tulum beach road are laid-back, tranquil and bikini-top optional. Up north, the roomy beaches are easy to access and offer the same shallow, sandy-bottomed, turquoise-tinted water enjoyed elsewhere. Down south, the access gets tougher but the crowds grow smaller. Most beach clubs (like Ziggy’s, see below) allow access and a lounge chair to those simply willing to buy the occasional 65-cent cervesa. Tulum’s ever-present palms offer much-needed relief from the hot Mexican sun.
Drive the beach road
Tulum’s beach road is a slender, frenetic artery that serves as the only passageway for those traveling to and from the numerous shops, cabanas, restaurants and beaches along its 7-mile stretch. For those making the journey by car, it can be a white-knuckled expedition requiring all of a driver’s faculties. Though narrow and winding, the road is riddled with moving and parked cars, delivery trucks, zipping taxis, slow-moving bikes, patchouli-scented pedestrians, pedal carts and push carts. Countless speed bumps, called topes, send oblivious drivers clear to the roof. But the view ? dense jungle on one side, shimmery Caribbean on the other ? is one-of-a-kind.
Eat breakfast with your toes in the sand
Like many of the beach clubs and cabanas that sit along the beach road,?Ziggy’s is as low-key as they come. Grab a seat beneath the dappled shade of a palapa or coconut palm, kick off your flip-flops, and take in the view. The Caribbean is just 100 yards away and its steady breezes are all the air conditioning a diner needs. Start with a fresh-squeezed fruit juice like the Energetic, a refreshing mix of celery, orange, pineapple and Mayan honey. For breakfast (about $20 for two), dig into the chilaquiles, tortilla chips topped with salsa verde, black beans and sunny side-up eggs. When done, pay la cuenta, grab your flip-flops, and head straight toward the beach and one of the cushy sunbeds.
Aktun Chen Parque Natural
The word “otherworldly” is neither figurative nor hyperbolic when used to describe what awaits visitors at?Aktun Chen. This attraction was voted by National Geographic as one of the Top 10 underground walks of the world and it’s a great way to escape the oppressive midday heat. Sightseers don hardhats and venture below ground into a cool, supernatural environment filled with fossils, stalactites, stalagmites, crystal-clear cenotes and furry fruit bats. Knowledgeable guides explain the geology behind the formation of these underwater caverns and rivers that eventually lead out to sea. The hardhats protect participants from low-hanging and unforgiving rock formations. Skip the ziplines and stick to the quick one-hour tour ($33).
The Tulum ruins might just be the hottest place on earth, where the setting high on a beach-side bluff offers zero protection from the blazing sun. One way to beat the heat is to skip the place altogether and make the short drive into Cob?. The collection of Mayan ruins here dates back around 2,000 years, and the rambling arrangement of structures is situated in a densely wooded (read: shady) plot. Unlike the more famous ruins of Chichen Itza, which in 2005 banned visitors from ascending the mighty El Castillo after a fatal fall (not to mention years of tactless graffiti), Cob? still lets brave souls climb the 130 steps of the 140-foot-tall pyramid. Going up is scary; coming back down is petrifying. Informative guides are available throughout the park for those looking for more than just an interesting stroll.
Take a dip in a cenote
Throughout the Yucatan Peninsula there are 1,000s of cenotes, access points to a vast network of underground rivers. These subterranean pools are the ideal place to cool off after a long, hot day of sightseeing or lying on the sandy, salty beach. The water within is crystal-clear, bracingly cold, and often unfathomably deep. Scuba divers can travel for miles along these watery passageways. Just a couple bucks buys access to any cenote. If you are leaving Cob?, take a hard left and drive over to Tankach-Ha, one of three cenotes in the immediate area, where a spiral wooden staircase descends 20 meters underground and ends at an Olympic pool-sized lake. A pair of elevated platforms offer jumping-off points for courageous divers.
Eat seafood on a secret beach
Despite a recent New York Times travel feature that publicized the location of this hidden gem, Chamico’s remains, well, a hidden gem. Sure, there are a handful more folks these days requesting “polo tacos,” but by and large this makeshift restaurant on Soliman Bay is every bit as Mexi-chill as ever. Pull off Highway 307 around the 241 km marker ? just look for the big sign for Oscar?&?Lalo?restaurant and head east toward the beach ? and keep going, for about 2.5 bumpy kilometers, past the gatehouse and pricey villas. Park in the sandy lot and make your way toward the water, where rickety plastic tables and chairs are half buried in the sand beneath swaying palms. There are no menus here. Just ask what’s fresh, usually mixed seafood ceviche, whole fried fish, grilled shrimp, cold beers and frozen margaritas. Rinse yourself off in the warm bay and plop onto a hammock for an afternoon siesta. Expect to pay about $50 for lunch for two.
Take a cooking class
For a truly immersive travel experience, sign up for a cooking class from?Rivera’s Kitchen, where gracious host and instructor Lily Espinosa Rivera welcomes guests into her Tulum home for a lesson in traditional Mexican cooking. Sra. Rivera believes that “the time and energy you put into cooking makes all the difference.” Under her patient guidance, guests use a molcajete to hand-blend red and green salsas. A salad of just-shelled favas, red onion and garlic is enjoyed with refreshing lime and chia water. Corn tortillas are pressed, pan-fried, filled with chicken, and doused in sauce. Baby potatoes simmer in salsa verde. Perhaps the best part of the experience ? other than the delicious home-cooked food ? is hanging out with Rivera in her home. The door stays open, neighbors drift by, and before long you forget you’re not a local. The cost per person is $75.
Get a mud massage
They say that Mayan clay body massages detoxify the body’s organs and offer mystical healing powers. All I know is that they feel amazing and are much less strenuous than yoga. At the?Mayan Clay Studio on the beach road, guests by appointment tuck into a dark palapa, undress, and let the magic fingers of one of the therapists work their magic. Banish thoughts of rough, scratchy clay; the mud goes on like warm melted chocolate, rubbed deep into one’s muscles over a 90-minute span. It’s like a regular massage only dirtier. Afterwards, a warm shower dispatches some ? but hardly all ? of the caked-on clay. Don’t plan to go out to dinner immediately following; I’m still finding the stuff in various spots.
Eat tacos al pastor
Though playa and pueblo are a mere 5 kilometers apart, many visitors stick largely to the beach road. That’s not only a shame, it’s foolish. In town is where the best and least expensive food can be found, which makes sense given that that’s where the locals live and eat. Come nighttime, the slowly rotating towers of marinated pork known as al pastor beckon those looking for a quick, economical and delicious meal. Don’t expect them at lunchtime as tacos al pastor is an evenings-only affair. Like shawarma, the vertical spit cooks as it spins, its outer edges crisp from self-basting. The cook slices some onto warm corn tortillas, flicks off a sliver of pineapple, and tops the tacos with onion and cilantro. Diners add their own salsa. Some of the best in town can be found at El Carboncito (Av. Tulum at Acuario) and directly across the street at Antojitos la Chiapaneca. El Carboncito edges out Antojitos because, as the name implies, it cooks with real charcoal. Expect to pay about 50 cents per taco.
Eat Mexican street food
Everywhere you look, industrious entrepreneurs use pedal-powered carts to sell everything from breads and pastries to fresh fruit and ice cream. Some of the very best things to come off a Mexican mobile food dispensary are the marquesitas. Traditional Yucatan desserts, marquesitas are thin, sweet crepes made to order in a hot griddle press. The crepe is layered with freshly grated Edam cheese, some Nutella, maybe a squirt of caramel sauce. While still warm and pliable, the pastry is rolled up into a long and slender cigar-shaped tube. It quickly firms up to a crispy, brittle shell, inside of which is warm, melty cheese, sweet sauce and nutty goodness. All that for less than a buck. To avoid any risk of food poisoning, only buy food items that are cooked and served hot.
Enjoy happy hour overlooking the sea
Where we come from, Happy Hour is an after-work affair that spans the gap between day and evening. In Tulum, hora feliz customarily runs from 1 to 4 p.m., which is about the time beachgoers have had about all the sun their pasty frames can handle. One of the nicest places to while away an afternoon is at?Mezzanine, which is on the Beach Road about a kilometer north of the 109 split. The al fresco bar and patio sits high and proud above the Caribbean, offering magical views of sand and surf. The two-for-one margarita deal brings the price of the house classic down from a steep $8 ? hey, you’re paying for ambiance ? to a more manageable $4. Order a second round, take in the breathtaking scenery, and appreciate the fact that the closest snow drift is 1,500 miles away.