With palm fronds leaning over blue waters and deep limestone caverns opening into the earth, Tulum, Mexico, offers the treasures that the former Mayan Empire hoped to hold forever. It’s a place that most don’t even know exists on the map, which is part of the mystique of this tropical getaway. Here’s how to make the most of a journey to Tulum.
Tulum rests on the eastern coast of the Yucatan Peninsula, along the Mayan Riviera. (Geography lesson: the Yucatan Peninsula is the tail-like landmass that frames the southern edge of the Gulf of Mexico, bordering Guatemala and Belize.) On the hour-and-a-half drive south from Cancun, pass the endless line of all-inclusive resort complexes until you reach Tulum, one of the few places on these Caribbean beaches untouched by mass-tourism.
Mexico was made for lazing in the sun. But the beaches in Tulum are still home to career fishermen pulling in the day’s catch and waterfowl dipping in and out of the waters for their own taste of the sea. Cabanas become more luxurious further south, where eco-friendly boutique hotels and yoga retreats are connected by a web of sandy paths and trails. Nudity is common among the locals, a mixture of indigenous Mayans as well as stylish and tattooed Italian, French and Argentinian expats. Cell service is spotty, but it’s hard to care with the surf crashing at your feet while you’re kite surfing, stand-up paddleboarding or spearfishing.
Explorers have long been drawn to Tulum, more of a village than a city, for the ancient Mayan ruins. (Tulum was one of the last cities inhabited by the Mayans.) Though there are many ruins to choose from, locals recommend hiking to the top of the temple stairs in nearby Coba. The view is worth the treacherous climb: from the highest point on the peninsula, vistas of the Caribbean are incredible. Coba is also located near several cenotes – underground wells or sinkholes resulting from the collapse of limestone bedrock that exposes groundwater. These cenotes are fascinating sights, and some allow snorkeling, swimming and cliff jumping. Bikes in Coba are available to rent for $4, but pack a lunch – there are few options for food in an ancient ruin.
The Food & Drink
Back in Tulum, choices abound, and most restaurants use only a wood-burning open stove, meaning the flavors and aromas fill the streets. From its mouthwatering ceviche with green tomatillo to its from-scratch margarita filled with fresh-squeezed lime juice, La Zebra is the pinnacle of healthy, authentic Mexican cuisine. For grilled octopus and fish served whole under a canopy of jungle leaves, check out Casa Banana. There are fresh cucumber margaritas at Le Tabana, a jalapeño margarita at Be Tulum and a wide selection of Mezcal cocktails at Casa Jaguar.
Aside from hiking ancient ruins, eating delicious food and exploring unspoiled beaches, there are plenty of places in Tulum to discover local art, practice yoga or indulge in a spa treatment. All of this without the trappings of tacky tourism, the pain of a long-distance flight or the confusion of changing too many time zones.