The town, at the southern end of the Riviera Maya, has an appeal beyond North Brooklyn, of course (though New Yorkers make up more than two-thirds of the clientele at many hotels). Development is at a human scale, the sand is powder white, and the beaches are some of the most beguiling anywhere (even with the?mysterious seaweed blight that?s going on all around the Atlantic and Caribbean). Two hours? south of Cancun, Tulum draws the kind of traveler who understands that each leg of a journey pays off. There are the people head straight to the Senor Frog?s that?s closest to the Cancun airport. There are those who drive an hour for a beach-flop at an all-inclusive near Playa del Carmen. And then there are those who push on to Tulum and are rewarded by a singular destination.
But some people working in tourism here are starting to wonder if Tulum is at an inflection point. While every inch of beachfront on the coastal side is pretty much spoken for, there?s more development on the jungle side nearing the main population center of Tulum Pueblo.?The massive new Aldea Zama complex?will include?nearly 600 residential, multi-family and commercial lots. The main road can get choked with parked cars, bicyclists and traffic. Crowds surged this past holiday season?three times what some hoteliers anticipated?and despite restaurants? best efforts, some diners waited an hour for their meals. While they?re sure they?ll be prepared this year, the question is whether Tulum will become a victim of its own success.
I?m not saying don?t go. I?m not saying that at all. But maybe go soon. At any rate, go in the off season (i.e., now), when the place is as charming as ever and the crowds are thinner.
Because while the visitor numbers are increasing, the reasons people come haven?t changed. Tulum, at least its coastal stretch, is still off the grid, quite literally.?Electric power stops a few miles away. No one can build more than a couple stories high, and you still can?t flush toilet paper. While solar and wind power are being replaced, alas, by massive generators (which are, at least, out of sight and quiet), the off-the-gridness remains a selling point. Consider the runaway success of Hartwood, the restaurant of a couple of ex-Brooklynites where everything is cooked over an open fire. The?place?has become such a phenomenon that when I tried to go at 7pm on a recent off-season Sunday, I was told to forget about getting a table before it closed at 11.
Clearly, this is a food town. The latest contender: La Zebra, which last year redesigned the dining room?including gorgeous artwork by Mexican artist Enrique Diaz inspired by Mexican Loteria cards on the tabletops?and expanded the kitchen (now the largest and most sophisticated in Tulum, complete with sous vide machines). It?s now launching 6-, 10- and 12-course private tasting menus, showcasing the creative-Mexican cooking of a talented chef from central?Mexico, in a new chef?s-table dining room or, better, outside.
That?s one of many endeavors Colibri Hotels, the local owner of La Zebra, has made to raise the bar in a town where five hotels opened last year. Colibri was a pioneer in Tulum. It helped put the town on the map with the opening of the trendy Mezzanine hotel ten years ago (still home to an outstanding Thai restaurant, even if the Ibiza-style dance parties have ended); followed that with the quiet, nature-focused El Pez on one of the area?s most secluded beaches; and then added La Zebra, with its lively Sunday salsa nights, colorful bungalows and idyllic location on a long white beach.
The latest member of the collection is the romantic new Mi Amor hotel, which opened last December on the north end of the coastal?strip, an easy bike ride from the Mayan ruins. (There was indeed a lot of amor going on when I visited, as a guest of the hotel, last month.) Again, the standard is higher, with the public areas and 17 rooms designed by hip Mexico City firm Muro Rojo, the coolest infinity pool (which snakes along the edge of the open-air restaurant) in town, a bar concept conceived by a mixologist from New York?s trendsetting Mulberry Project, and a restaurant overseen by a Gramercy Tavern alum. (The food at all four hotels is outstanding, served in vibrant, relaxed outdoor dining areas.)
It?s stylish, filled with details like woven swings inspired by Mexican yo-yos suspended over that pool, and bedside lamps based on a traditional ball-and-paddle game. All those flourishes add up to a 21st-century tribute to Acapulco in its 1960s heyday, with a dash of Brazil?s coolest beach villages.
Cool (and amorous) as it is, Mi Amor is?a fine base for the activities that draw people to Tulum. You can rent a bike through the hotel to check out the ruins or cruise down to the main drag. The staff can recommend a primo yoga class (at Sanara) or set up an excursion to check out Tulum?s hallmarks, from the metaphysical (temazcal sweat lodges, spiritual tours of the ruins, ?water meditation? called Jantzu that?s done in a lagoon) to the gloriously physical.
Hotel partner Bob Manu Tours takes guests to swim in lesser-traffickedcenotes, the famous freshwater pools in stalactite-filled caves, with guides who are obsessively knowledgeable about the formations. (Book through the hotel or email [email protected]) The last stop on the tour is Soliman Bay for the area?s best, simplest ceviche, from a guy called Chamico?served feet-in-the-sand. It?s an experience not miss?and another reason to get to Tulum soon.
Tulum, Mexico, is changing fast. Just a few short years ago, the area consisted of a sleepy little inland town...