In just 15 years, the tiny Mexican village of Tulum has turned from a cheap and chilled-out backpackers’ paradise to the ultimate in barefoot chic, populated by bearded hipsters and tattooed girls in carefully mis-matched bikinis.
Cara Delevingne and Michelle Rodriguez smooched in the surf there on vacation in March, while Demi Moore, Jared Leto, Reese Witherspoon and Cameron Diaz have all blissed out on its powdery beaches.
Situated on the strip of silvery sand which separates the jungle from Mexico?s only Caribbean coastline, it’s an easy hour and a half away from Cancun, home of mega-resorts, sweaty superclubs and the nearest airport.
Beautiful Tulum: Where the jungle meets the Caribbean
Tulum has, for now, remained Cancun’s antithesis: everything there is low-rise and low-fi. No building is taller than the loftiest palm tree; phone reception and wifi is patchy.
Palm trees heavy with coconuts fringe sand that is finely-milled as flour; hungry pelicans dive-bomb the sea hunting for juicy fish.
And, one long-term resident declared proudly, the place?s one and only nightclub closed within a month. No one was interested.
There’s a really strong eco ethic in Tulum: some places are entirely self-sufficient, such as the idyllic Casa de las Olas (of which more later), which has its own solar power and a leave-no-trace vibe.
Here it’s all yoga mats at dawn, massages, Mayan sweat lodges and secluded candle-lit cabanas.
Oh ? and $100 (?60) bikinis, $500 (?300) a night hotels and absurdly sceney restaurants run by bearded ex-Brooklynites.
It?s an interesting paradox: Tulum feels like a laid-back hippy haven – awash with yoga instructors and reiki food ? but it?s one that only the very comfortably off can afford.
Deep sea: Model Cara Delevingne went snorkeling underwater on the Mayan coastline in March
However, if you do manage to swallow guacamole at $10 (?6) a pop, then you?ll have the time of your life.
I certainly did. I arrived wound tight as a spring, edgily convinced I wouldn?t sleep a wink because of the roaring of the cars by our beachside cabana.
I did sleep ? for 10 hours a night, every night: lulled by the surf – not cars at all; just the waves breaking on the shore, right under our window.
Everything in Tulum is easy: we hired a car but you could get by without, using the plentiful local taxis.
On arrival, we zipped straight out of the airport, turned right – no need for a map – and were at our hotel within 90 minutes. Having a car also meant we could easily explore the cenotes ? the area’s famous freshwater sinkholes ? and less crowded beaches away from the main beach strip.
But that?s not to say the beaches were crowded: the 10km strip of beach is long and wide enough for you to always have your own private patch of sand.
The only place we found that felt really packed was restaurant Hartwood.
The in crowd: Sundowners and guac at Papaya Playa
Mention Tulum to someone who?s been and their next words are invariably: ‘You must go to Hartwood.’ So we went. It was worth the wait for a table.
It’s as close as Tulum beach gets to a night-time scene, buzzing with stylish yet self-consciously dressed-down New Yorkers clad in wafty linen and complicated gladiator sandals.
We ordered the costillas al agave: huge meaty racks of ribs, marinated for days, the flesh falling off the bone. The portions were huge, enough for two meals; we devoured the leftovers on the beach the next day. Somehow the ribs – with crunchy slaw, roast beets and sweet potatoes – tasted even better eaten with fingers on the sand.
If you do want to stay out after dinner, venture into the ‘pueblo’, on the highway, about a five-minute drive away.
It consists of a main drag, lined with bars and restaurants and tat shops. A bit more run-down, lively and dusty, it feels like a place where people might actually live – there are even restaurants which aren’t entirely filled with tourists.
Worth a pitstop is cocktail bar Batey, just off the strip, with a sugar cane grinder housed in a vintage Mini parked outside.
There, we worked our way through the mojito menu: Mediterranean, with cucumber and basil, highly recommended.
You’ll also find basic food joints nearby, where you can fill yourself with guacamole, tacos, tostadas with pulled pork, enchiladas swimming in mole and fresh juices for a couple of pounds each.
Day and night: White sand and blue skies at Jashita (l) and the menu at Hartwood (r) which is as close to a night-time scene as Tulum gets
More expensive but worth a visit is Cetli, where the chef Claudia specialises in authentic Yucutan ingredients. I ate shrimp the size of langoustine doused in a black fungus sauce.
Slightly bitter and a bit woody, it tasted like nothing I’ve eaten before. Cetli’s tamarind margarita was the finest cocktail I tried over the whole two weeks: the perfect balance of sweet, sour and boozy.
Although we occasionally attempted to stay out past 11pm, most of our adventuring was done before sunset. The days were too bright and beautiful to waste sleeping late.
The Tulum ruins are the best-known of the local attractions: the former Mayan trading hub is perched on the cliff edge overlooking the sea, guarded by huge, stately iguanas. The place is overrun by coach parties, so go early to avoid hordes of fanny-pack toting tourists.
Eager to explore further, on the advice of friends we checked out the Adventure Tour Centre, just beside bar Mateo’s (one of only two places you can see the sun set) on the beach road.
History buff: Writer Olivia takes in the sights at the Tulum ruins
We booked in for a tour of the ancient city of Coba, a 45-minute drive away. The ruins there are more extensive – and unlike those at Tulum and Chitchen Itza, you can still climb to the top of one of the pyramids, giving you an endless view of thick jungle on all sides. Hurry, though – they’re going to close to the public this year.
Jeff and Kate run the centre: friendly and enthusiastic, they gave us great insider’s tips on where to eat and what to see, as well as taking us on some memorable days out.
Jeff was our guide to the underwater world of the cenotes, the startlingly beautiful freshwater sinkholes that pepper the Yucatan. Some resemble ponds or even lakes, fresh water bubbling up from underground; others take the form of huge caves with hanging stalactites and stalagmites rising up from the depths.
They were formed when a huge asteroid crashed into the sea near Tulum 65 million years ago, which caused the extinction of more than 70 per cent of the living species on the planet, including the dinosaurs.
One theory is that the impact threw up so much dust into the atmosphere than it obscured the Sun and stopped plants from growing.
Another is that the sulfur released by the impact lead to suffocating clouds that blocked the Sun and fell as acid rain. Global wild fires triggered by the atmospheric reentry of red-hot debris from the impact are another possibility.
To the Maya these were holy sites, used for worship and burial of the dead.
Making friends: At least the turtles don’t care where your trunks are from
The entrances to the half-covered cenotes are spectacular: sunlight slants through foliage and into the caves makes the transparent water luminous. Then, once you swim further in, they become more forbidding: their depths gloomy and impenetrable.
Luckily we had Jeff, and his underwater torches, to lead us into tiny air-pockets and half-submerged caves. It would have been utterly terrifying without someone who knew exactly what they were doing, but we felt in very safe hands.
Jeff encouraged us to plunge into dark holes, launch ourselves off 10-metre platforms and freedive down into the dark depths of the cenotes until our ears popped.
Another of Tulum’s unmissable natural wonders is the Sian Ki’an Biosphere, declared a World Heritage Site by the UNESCO in 1987. It remains the largest protected area in the Mexican Caribbean.
You can take a guided tour of its swamps and rivers by kayak, or simply drive in for a sunset drink at Cesiak, an eco-resort set within the reserve, where we spent our final night.
Make your way up to the top floor – stopping to pick up a Pacifico beer on the way – and drink in the most breathtaking view in Tulum: on one side an endless white sand, on the other mangroves, lagoon and water stretching to the horizon.
We clinked frosty bottles and watched the sun turn blush pink and sink over the jungle. Tulum may be brimming with hipsters and celebrities, but the place is the star.