Famous site south of Cancun boasts a legendary, if crowded, beach, ruins, boutiques, seafood restaurants, cenotes, snorkeling . . . well, plenty to see and do

Bathers taking refuge from the heat along the edge of the Tulum archaeological site.


Bathers taking refuge from the heat along the edge of the Tulum archaeological site.

The good news is that you still can?t flush the toilet paper in Tulum. The plumbing, like the balmy weather and a tenacious iguana population, is deeply rooted in the identity of this town an hour and a half south of Canc?n. But even a quasi-functional plumbing infrastructure can?t dissuade tourists. Which leads me to the less good news: If you haven?t been to Tulum in the last few years, a heads-up: It?s a whole lot bigger than you remember. Today?s Tulum has three things many never thought possible: traffic, crowds and restaurants with waiting lists. But don?t despair! In fact, the town ? it?s no longer a village, alas! ? is more exciting than ever. The beach is still stunning. The ruins are still there. The food is spicy and authentic. And for those willing, there are secret gems a long, dusty way from the beaten path.


5 p.m., Get in Line

Unless you travel here in a vacuum, you will be advised many times over to dine at Hartwood Tulum. The line to get in can hover around two hours long. If you didn?t know better, you would show up, scoff at the crowd and go elsewhere. My advice: Don?t! Instead, go early! Hartwood Tulum has no electrical appliances besides a single blender; almost all the food is mashed and blended by hand or thrown on the grill or in the wood-burning oven. That means the expat chef Eric Werner?s roasted whole fish with onions and herbs one evening; grilled octopus with roasted potatoes, chile and Mexican mustard greens the next. The dining area is as open-air as the kitchen, with citronella lanterns providing light and ambience. (Dinner for two without drinks is about 600 Mexican pesos, or about $45, at 13 pesos to the dollar.)


9 a.m., Local Colour

Zamas, a hotel, bar and restaurant, is the bright, Crayola-colored centre of Tulum. To be in Tulum means to eat at Zamas, stay at Zamas, drink at Zamas or just enjoy the pink, blue, yellow and teal tables and chairs at Zamas. The best time to go is morning, when the beach is freshly raked, the waves are gentle and the crowds are thin. Order a cappuccino and the huevos rancheros: fried eggs and black beans served on a crispy corn tortilla (breakfast for two, about 250 pesos). Once the shop-owners open their stands and the streets fill up with fashion editors on their way to yoga class, it?s your cue to move on.

11 a.m., Public Service

I don?t care how warm the water is in Corsica or how soft the sand is in Maui . . . as beaches go, the shores of Tulum will impress even the world?s most discerning snob. And the water is as clear as a fishbowl and gentle enough for a nursery school. Drive ? or better yet, bike ? away from the main drag and head toward the Mezzanine Hotel. On the far side of the hotel, drop your bike and head down the short path to the beach. There is a good chance you will have a wide stretch of sand to yourself. Bring plenty of water and sunscreen; with the dearth of crowds comes a dearth of places to buy either.

1 p.m., Secret Beach

Every tropical tourist destination has a secret beach joint that locals don?t want you to know about. In Tulum, that place is Chamico?s, a beachside caf? so laid back and charming you will swear you?ve seen it in a movie. (You haven?t). Naturally, Chamico?s has no phone, website or address. To get there, turn off the highway onto a small dirt road (look for the sign for the Jashita Hotel) and drive down to Soliman Bay. Give the guard at the makeshift gate a look that says you know what you?re doing. Then drive past palatial villas until the road ends. Claim one of the rickety plastic tables in a thicket of palm trees and settle in. Your menu choices are fried fish or ceviche of whatever was caught that morning, followed by icy Sol beer. (Expect to pay about 300 pesos.) There are only two rules at Chamico?s: cash only and don?t tell your friends! (Open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., or whenever the owner feels like it.)

4 p.m., Fashion Break

With an upswell of fashion editors and stylists in Tulum, there?s an upswell of places to spend money. The hardest part will be parking. If you?re up for a walk or a bike ride, this is the time. Otherwise, drive to Hartwood restaurant, and pull in between any two palm trees that don?t have a No Parking sign. All the shops are within feet of each other: Mr. Blackbird is a tiny boutique with a sandy floor, elegant jewelry, strappy leather sandals and well-edited wraps and shawls. Across the street, Josa Tulum carries sundresses in happy, vibrant prints. Hacienda Montaecristo is the place for bags, tops and bohemian dresses with leather details. Or skip clothes entirely, and indulge your newfound appreciation of mezcal at La Tente Rose Mexican Wine and Spirits, a liquor shop where the bottles are displayed as works of art.

7 p.m., Have a Drink

There?s a decent chance that drinks at Gitano could cost more than dinner. This is the new Tulum, the kind of place where it seems reasonable to teeter through the jungle on five-inch stiletto heels. When my husband and I went there with friends, drinks for four (one round each, mind you) plus an appetizer of guacamole, pico de gallo and a Mayan pumpkin seed salsa came to about 700 pesos (about $53). But you?re paying as much to be there as you are to drink the house cocktails. Grab a table somewhere near the disco ball, if only because seeing a disco ball bouncing off palm fronds is as amusing as it is unexpected.

9 p.m., Jungle Fever

Everything in Tulum is either beach side or jungle side, and no establishment on the jungle side is more jungly than Restaurare. The tables are set under a canopy of palm trees so lush you will think you?d died and woken up on Gilligan?s Island. The open-air kitchen serves only traditional Mayan food, all local, all vegan. The owners Karla Yoana Gonzales Madrazo and Jos? Roberto Terrazas Jimenez tweak the menu seasonally, but, if you?re lucky, they?ll be serving oyster mushroom ceviche and Mayan curry with coconut milk. (Dinner for two is about 700 pesos.)

8:30 a.m., Yoga by the Beach

Coming to Tulum and not taking a yoga class is like swearing off wine in Tuscany. It?s everywhere and inescapable. One of the most serene places to find your third eye is Maya Tulum. After checking in for a class, make your way down the sandy path to the yoga studio. A word of caution: Don?t be misled by your teacher?s innate calm! Just when you think he?s about to get too spiritual for real sweat, you will notice every muscle below your earlobes straining. But under a tropical palapa roof with a breeze blowing through and the light drenching the room, offering the sun a few friendly salutations feels less like working out and more like gratitude. (Drop-in classes are $15.)

11 a.m., To the Bat Cave

The Yucat?n Peninsula is full of cenotes (sinkholes in caves), and they range from small and claustrophobic to enormous and claustrophobic. Anyone with children will appreciate Aktun Chen, a combination cenote, wildlife preserve and zip line. Ask your guide (you?ll meet him when you check in; no one goes into the caves without one) for an abbreviated tour. (Tours of the caves only are $33 per adult; $16.50 for a child. For the full cave-cenote-wildlife preserve tour, it?s $102.) They?ll try to talk you out of the shorter tour, but stand your ground and do what I do: Point to your kids and shrug; it?s the universal gesture for ?What are you gonna do?? If you do the tour in 30 minutes, you?ll still see the bats and get to walk on the creepy underground bridge.

1 p.m., Turtle-Watching

Tulum?s beaches are world class, but to get closer to the action underwater, head to Akumal. Twenty minutes up the coast, Akumal is Tulum?s less bohemian cousin, and its public beach is wide, clean and dotted with overpriced quesadilla joints. Right in the middle is the Akumal Dive Center. It offers plenty of group classes. No one ever stood on a beach with a dozen sunburned strangers in flippers and snorkels, walking backward into the water without feeling ridiculous. Instead, my husband and I rented the gear ($18 for flippers, mask, snorkel and life jacket), skipped the class and followed the advice of a guide: ?Swim to the right!? Then we spent the next hour following a very friendly sea turtle throughout the tiny bay, until he finally dived deep and left us, presumably to go home to his family. And we went home to ours.