Overview of Tulum. Photo by Spencer Watson / Unsplash
When you think you'll never see your way out of winter, head to Mexico. Sanity and revitalization await in Tulum.
TULUM, Mexico – Last year I survived my first New York winter, one of the worst in years, so I'm officially in the club.
The club of tough it out 'til May 'cuz March feels like January, and April is only slightly better.
How do people survive this every season?
I'm told the best coping strategy is to carve out at least one long weekend of happiness and to find a place with warm sun, temperate waters, gorgeous beaches, a cool vibe, some culture and some adventure, an independent hotel, no more than three and a half hours away by plane, and no annoying tourists.
Hit the sound effects for loud screeching brakes: I must be dreaming. Can such a fantasy place exist?
I found the fantasy in Tulum, Mexico.
Tulum has survived the hype and settled so nicely into itself. At this point, it's a reliable destination that always delivers. After considering countless Caribbean islands, Miami, and the Florida Keys, discovering Tulum made me feel just dumb. Why hadn't I already been there ten times? The place is magical and not overdone or overbuilt. Tulum is on the Mayan Riviera but has nothing in common with the junky all-inclusive Cancun scene or its jazzy cousin, Playa del Carmen. Drive on by those Vegas-esque resorts and head south. It's easy to rent a car at the airport, and it's worth every kilometer of the one-and-a-half-hour drive.
Tulum delivers on unassuming, charming, cultural, natural wonders; affordable, fresh, unadulterated cuisine; white sand beaches that are bohemian with worldly comforts; loads of activities; a lot of yoga; and as much romance as you do or don't want. Go with a date, go with friends, take your kids. No need to feel weird if you are single. You get it: It's easy to feel at home in Tulum.
WHERE TO STAY
On big city holidays, you spend so little time in your room you could crash in a locker. On a beach holiday, between wanting to be isolated and a busy schedule of sleeping until noon, you spend a lot of time in your room. In other words, the hotels matter extra and should be the first decision.
Tulum has one main beach where most hotels are located; these are our favorites. Cue the open-air cabanas: They're the thing around here.
Jashita is the quiet, chic and intimate 14-room boutique hotel no one knows about. It stands alone on Soliman Bay and delivers on contemporary luxury while hinting at Tulum's roots (there's a Shiva in the entryway and indigenous limestone throughout). If you're with a group (up to ten), you can rent their standalone Villa Jasmine. Read more: A FATHOM love letter to Jashita.
Ana y Jose is the best bet for full service with rustic, charming, and cool touches. It's beachfront and there's a pool as well as a good restaurant. Great for families, couples, and friends alike; they make everyone feel at home.
Be Tulum on Sian Ka'an nature reserve park has a hip-cool-urban vibe and doesn't allow children under 12, but it's no less charming than its neighbors. The vibe is very designy, Philippe Starck, I'm-here-to-be-seen-in-my-white-bikini.
Azulik is a tiny, beautiful, inexpensive complex of cabanas perched on cliffs either above or on the water. You'll feel at one with nature. There's no A/C, so be careful during the hottest summer months (July-August). There's no on-site restaurant, but it's on Tulum Beach, so dining options abound.
Amansala offers yoga retreats and a great and rigorous fitness program unfortunately called Bikini Bootcamp. Come with friends or totally come alone — if the goal is to eat well, exercise, and detox. A warning: The focus is more on the low-key vibe than on comfort. The cabanas are nice but not luxurious.
Maya Tulum is another excellent yoga retreat with week-long packages. (Look for workshops with Vinnie Marino, the excellent LA-based teacher famous for his killer classes and celeb following.) Drop-ins are welcome for single classes.
Coco Tulum is desert island rustic personified. Simple, chic beach cabanas start at $45/night. Shared bathrooms add to the hippie vibe, as does an eco commitment to only using wind and solar energy.
WHERE TO EAT
The diet is what you'd expect in a lush, tropical setting that caters to affluent and health-conscious tourists: lots of seafood, lots of fresh produce. Very beachy healthy, with a few Italian expat-run restaurants in the mix.
Que Fresco: An excellent fresh fish restaurant right on the beach at Zamas Hotel serving lunch and dinner. There's live music in the evening, everything from reggae to rock, which makes it a bit of a scene.
Posada Margherita: Skip it. Everyone will recommend it, but you'll be the smarter for knowing it's overrated, over-priced, and not very tasty.
Ana y Jose: The hotel's beachfront restaurant is excellent for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The service is friendly and professional; the menu is primarily authentic Mexican fare with universal appeal.
Le Zebra: Located closer to the Si'an Kaan nature reserve, it has a lovely outdoor lounge area on the beach. A good spot for sunset.
El Tábano: A pretty, intimate restaurant that tends to rank as everyone's favorite along the beach. Reservations are a good idea. No website, but here's what they're saying on Chowhound. (Carretera Tulum-Boca Paila, Km 5; +52-984-134-8725; [email protected])
Cetli: A gracious, more formal, romantic restaurant run by chef Claudia Pérez Rívas a couple of blocks off the main drag in town. Cash only; closed Wednesdays.
Hemingway: There are only five super cozy and darling tables right on the beach within an eco lodge. No menu; you just tell them what you want.
Sahara Café: The restaurant at Jashita Hotel serves an excellent mix of Italian and Mexican cuisines, relying on local ingredients.
WHAT TO DO
Tulum is the rare beach destination that has so much to do off the beach, both sporty and cultural.
You can snorkel, scuba dive, bungee jump, kite-surf, run on the beach, and do loads of yoga. You can plan ahead through the hotel or you can be spontaneous: Tulum Beach is so small that most activities are of the walk-up-and-join variety.
And when that "I really should do something more enriching than just lie on the beach" feeling hits, the area abounds with natural sites, history, and cultural options.
Cenotes are freshwater sinkholes or caves that you can snorkel and dive in. Natural wonders found throughout the Yucatan, several are located along route 307; a rental car will come in handy or you can arrange transportation through the hotel. Private companies on location at the cenotes arrange for guides, gear, and safety precautions; you can't go it alone. The best ones are Cenote Yax Mul, Dos Ojos, El Jardin del Edén, Tres Bocas, and Gran Cenote. Imagine: stalagtites, bats, and beautiful rock formations. For divers, cenotes offer the rare opportunity to see fresh and seawater meet but not mix. (Read more about cenotes on Wikipedia.)
Xcaret and Xel-Há are commercialized nature resorts where you can snorkel in underground rivers, swim with dolphins and manatees, and visit Mayan ruins. They're especially good for families.
Tulum has fantastic Mayan ruins, some of Mexico's best, perched on a cliff in the archaeological zone: a walled Mayan city that once served as a port. Tulum means "wall" in Yucatan Mayan. Walking the ruins along 40-feet-tall cliffs, you can feel the energy of what must have been a bustling place at its height between the 13th and 15th centuries. The three main ruins are El Castillo, the Temple of the Frescoes, and the Temple of the Descending God.
The yoga scene is very big in Tulum and lot of American teachers are drawn to the area to live and work. Amansala and Maya Tulum are the most well known, but take a walk down the beach and you'll see makeshift signs indicating beach yoga on offer with whomever is inspired that day.
Tulum is located on the Caribbean in the Yucantan peninsula in the state of Quintana Roo on southern end of the Riviera Maya, 90 miles south of Cancun. Tulum is comprised of three parts, the town, the hotel zone, and the archaeological zone, and is surrounded by three national parks, Quintana Roo, Tulum, and Sian-Ka'an Biosphere.
Other popular destinations in the Cancun area are Cancun, Playa del Carmen, Mayakoba, and the islands Isla Mujeres and Cozumel.
AIRPORTS & GETTING AROUND
Cancun Airport (CUN) is served by many international airlines (see list). Rental car companies at the airport include Hertz, Thrify, Budget, and Dollar. You'll want to rent a car to get to Tulum and get around. You can rent bikes in town or hire taxis.
WHEN TO GO
Obviously, winter in the northern hemisphere is the most popular time to visit Tulum.
Average high/low temperatures in Farenheit. October-March: mid-80s/mid-60s. April-September: low-90s/low-70s.