Why are there suddenly so many Mexican restaurants in London? Where I live ? in Clerkenwell ? I?m surrounded by them and the truth is, I?ve never been sure about Mexican cuisine. It comes in garish colours. It oozes. Despite all the different flavours ? the avocados, the black beans, the melted cheese ? I?m never quite sure that it tastes of anything until you happen to bite into one of those tiny red things ? after which you run, howling, for the nearest bucket of iced water.
So when my wife proposed a holiday in Tulum, two hours south of Canc?n (which has direct flights from Heathrow), my first thought was that I?d be unlikely to find a local branch of the Ivy. Still, we weren?t going there for the food. This was about winter sun, a 10-day break somewhere off the beaten track, with wildlife, Mayan ruins and, best of all, no signal on my mobile. A complete rest.
At first sight, it?s not an obvious holiday destination. Tulum is a very ordinary, quite small Mexican town, two hours south of Canc?n. Which is to say it?s actually quite ugly ? sprawling across two sides of a wide, busy road, and with a few pleasant caf?s and gift shops but not much else. Add to that the tangle of overhead cables, rubble and flaking plaster and you get the general idea.
But Tulum also has ? and this is the point ? about seven miles of white sand on the edge of the Caribbean, and it really is unique. When I first came here, 30 years ago, it was a quiet, forgotten backwater with a scattering of cheap hotels; a favourite place for hippies and backpackers. They still arrive and seem to be in no hurry to leave? or to do anything, really. It?s still possible to camp or rent a wooden cabana on the sand. But at the same time, Tulum is moving upmarket and the result is an atmosphere that is quite hard to define. I would call it shabby chic.
A giant statue of a Toltec warrior at Tula, near Tulum (Alamy)
There is now a whole series of extraordinary, intimate beachside hotels hiding in the tropical forest on the edge of the beach with wooden verandas where you can drink margaritas ? at about ?7 a time ? and watch the sun set. They may not be easy to get into. The charming Coqui Coqui has just six rooms. Be Tulum, another boutique hotel tucked away a little farther up the coast, has 20. What you won?t find are Hiltons, high-rise apartments or anything ostentatious. You can forget the pedalos and ice-cream stalls, too. The beach is pretty much untouched, except by the Mexicans who work outside the smarter places, endlessly sweeping up the seaweed and debris dumped by the tide. It must be utterly dispiriting work; it all comes back the next day.
We rented a lovely house that we found on the internet ? typically Mexican, with high ceilings and luxuriously thatched roofs that had become home to a family of friendly iguanas. It was at the far end of one of the most extraordinary, exasperating roads in the world. This runs through the so-called ?hotel zone?, with the sea on one side and a lagoon on the other ? but you can?t see any water at all because of the thick, tropical forest along the sides. The road is exasperating because although there are a few gift shops, health spas, restaurants and caf?s along the way, there is nowhere actually to stop; no squares, no sense of any centre. You have to drive along it every time you want to go anywhere ? and that?s not easy with the delivery lorries, parked cars, police vehicles and army trucks.
And then there are the bumps. The Mexicans go for speed bumps big time ? they call them topes ? and they?re not so much sleeping policemen as sleeping guerrillas. They are hard to spot and will rip out your tyres or smash your axle in the blink of an eye. It seems that taxis will travel only a certain distance through the hotel zone. Car hire is shockingly expensive.
That said, every expedition we made was quite wonderful. Tulum has one of the most beautiful archaeological sites I have ever visited. A Mayan walled city that once served as a major port, it consists of a pyramid and several temples, spread over a flat, grassy platform surrounded by tropical vegetation. But what makes it unforgettable is its position, on the edge of a cliff, with the waves crashing below. Sadly, you are no longer allowed to enter any of the ruins, so bring binoculars if you want to see the details.
We saw other superb pre-Columbian ruins. Coba (45 minutes away) is the least developed and, in many ways, the most exciting ? you need to hire a bicycle and pedal through the dense woodland to see it all. And then, of course, there?s Chich?n Itz?, about two hours from Tulum. Its monumental, astrologically precise central pyramid, El Castillo, is still a miracle, even if you are no longer allowed to climb it ? and haven?t been ever since an American tourist fell to her death in 2006. The entire site is both mysterious and slightly menacing, and it?s all the more baffling, therefore, that the Instituto Nacional de Antropolog?a e Historia, which runs the place, should have allowed dozens of stalls selling tourist tat inside the complex, all around the buildings.
Wooden cabanas can be rented for a budget beach stay (Alamy)
Tulum isn?t all about ruins. There is superb diving in the cenotes, the sinkholes that allow you to explore fantastic underwater caverns. Be warned ? they can get crowded at times. I dived with an outfit called Ko?ox and found them friendly and efficient. It?s also possible to go swimming with dolphins or, between May and September, with (supposedly friendly) sharks. There are adventure parks that offer zip-wires through the jungle, snorkelling, abseiling and climbing. One of my sons went riding through the jungle, which was fine if a little too tame, while the other went kite surfing.
We were staying on the edge of the Sian Ka?an nature reserve, a Unesco World Heritage Site, which is well worth a visit. We shot across the lagoon in a speedboat, then entered a series of canals between the mangroves, past nesting ospreys, eagles, herons and the occasional vulture. But the highlight was a 45-minute ?float? ? lying in the fresh water, being carried along by the current. It?s hard to describe because it should have been ridiculous but was actually quite exhilarating, the natural equivalent of one of those ?lazy rivers? you get in water parks.
All in all, Tulum delivered exactly what I?d hoped for. And the food? I gorged myself on burritos, enchiladas, cochinita pibil (slow-roast pork), grilled cactus, sensational fresh fish and, of course, guacamole. When it comes to Mexican cuisine, I can say I?m a complete convert. But not, I think, in Clerkenwell.