Tulum is a not-so-hidden gem on the Yucatan Peninsula—a popular retreat among Bay Area regulars as well as the international gypset.
But the quintessential bohemian beach town—an hour drive from Cancun Airport in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo—retains a low-key vibe thanks to its off-the-grid status (there's no flushing the toilet paper and cell service is scarce), commitments to sustainability and wellness, laid-back locals, and the casually cool philosophy that less is always more. Here you'll find none of the selfie-taking, tequila-swilling spring breakers that make nearby Cancun a destination; Tulum is all about yoga, eating right, and master the art of unplugging.
All of this is to say nothing of the fine white sand and crystal clear turquoise waters of the Caribbean coastline, the awe-inspiring ancient Mayan ruins, obsession-worthy eats, seriously stylish stays, spas, and plenty of water sports. It's the kind of quiet paradise that will draw you back again and again.
Where to Stay in Tulum
The eco villas at Azulik have all the privacy and romance a couple need.
(Courtesy of Azulik)
Nomade is among the newest stays along Tulum's main beach, and its boho-chic vibe—think moodily lit wind-chime garden and a meditation tent kitted out in Moroccan-style poufs and textiles—feels just right for this devil-may-care destination. Don't miss the day's freshest catch (whole octopus and lobsters!) served hot off the beachside grill to the tune of DJ beats—it may be your most memorable meal in Tulum (no matter what everyone says about Hartwood). // $223–$908 per night, KM 10, Carr. Cancún - Tulum, 77880 Tulum, Q.R., Mexico
Casa Malca, named to T+L's 2016 Best New Hotels on the Planet list, sits directly next to Nomade, just before the entrance to Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve. According to local legend, the secret villa was built by notorious drug smuggler Pablo Escobar in the 1980s. Now, it's been dramatically restored with a stunning collection of modern art—a sculpture by KAWS greets you in the lobby. Even if you can't afford to stay, cocktails in the Keith Haring–wallpapered bar are a must. // $515–$840 per night, Km 9.5 Carretera Tulum - Boca Paila
Hotel Zamas, set on its own beach at the start of Tulum's main stretch (and run by Bay Area native Susan Bohlken), goes for classic Mayan vibes with a bright palette, tile mosaics, and traditional Mexican fare (huevos rancheros, fish tacos), a departure from the international flavors and health foods that dominate menus elsewhere. Look for Zamas' annual Taste of Tulum Series, which has featured San Francisco restaurateurs Evan and Sarah Rich (Rich Table) and Kris Esqueda (Huxley). // $165–$305 per night, Km 5 Carretera Tulum Boca-Paila
Ahau Tulum is popular among the bohemian set for its Balinese-style beach huts (starting at $102/night), daily yoga classes, sunrise meditation, superfood-driven food shack Raw Love, and cocktails loaded with fresh tropical fruits. // $102–$554 per night, Km 7.8 Carretera Tulum-Boca Paila
The clothing-optional, adults-only, eco-stay Azulik is an Instagrammer's dream—but not because of the naked people. Think of it as a chic, hedonistic treehouse-meets-art-gallery-meets-Atelier-Crenn (Crenn herself has been a guest). // Carretera Tulum-Boca Paila KM 5, Zona HoteleraFor families, the Loft Vanilla at Cabanas Tulum ($264.35–$1799) has three bedrooms and thoughtful, modern design details. Or, get a taste of old school Tulum at Coco Tulum ($150–$402), an off-the-grid haven with wind- and solar-powered cabanas, shared showers, and hammocks aplenty. Groups of six can rent the tower with 360-degree views, a private bath, and, remarkably, air conditioning.
Eat + Drink in Tulum
Next to Hartwood, Posada Margherita is a can't-miss meal in Tulum, where perfectly handmade pasta and beachfront views will transport you elsewhere entirely.
(Courtesy of Posada Margherita)
AT THE BEACH
Most where-to-eat-in-Tulum lists begin and end with Hartwood, where Brooklyn expat chef Eric Werner's meals, prepared with the day's freshest bounty from land and sea, are flame-kissed on the central open fire. For his culinary expertise, the waits can be legendary. Peddle over in the morning on your rickety rented bike and pray to the Mayan gods that there aren't already dozens ahead of you. If you don't make the list, arrive by 5pm, drink mezcal in the twinkly garden while you wait. It could take hours, so you'll be forgiven for ordering everything from the roving chalk board—including tantalizing ceviches, grilled fish, and succulent steak. // Km 7.6 Carretera Tulum Boca-Paila
If eating Italian food on Tulum Beach feels all wrong, then you haven't been to the funky garden-style stay and restaurant that is Posada Margherita, which is, hands down, one of the most pleasurable dining experiences we've had, ever. The homemade pastas are decadent yet light enough to enjoy in your bikini; the fish and shrimp from the grill are simply prepared and taste divine; and the pairings of dry white wine and views guarantee you'll linger over lunch. // Km 4.5 Carretera Tulum Boca-Paila
The Real Coconut is a godsend for wellness retreaters with dietary restrictions, but don't let that deter foodies: This restaurant at the posh wellness resort Sanará takes healthy eating to a whole new level. While the menu is all gluten-, dairy-, grain-, and refined-sugar-free, it's definitely not devoid of flavor. Superfoods, luscious plant-based milks, hearty salads, and egg dishes provide the gleeful satisfaction that comes with splurging on a really satisfying brunch. The three-page drinks menu merits several exploratory visits: Marvel over cold-pressed green juices, coconut ice cream smoothies, coffee infused with a healing mushroom blend, turmeric and black pepper–spiked bone broth, charcoal lemonade, and organic herbal cocktails (yes, there's booze!) such as Jardin de Mezcal (Mezcal Reposado, cucumber, ginger, fresh cilantro, lime juice, sparkling water). Go in the morning or afternoon—dinner is not their best. // Km 8.2 Carreterra Tulum Boca-Paila
Simplicity is luxury in Tulum, and no meal perfects this fine art as much as a dinner of freshly charred octopus, caught just that morning right off the shore, and rustic sides such as pumpkin served with mint, garlic, and yogurt at Nomade's beachfront grill. You'll sit cross-legged on throw pillows in the sand, chat up your friendly server (who's likely to sit down and stay awhile), sip mezcal with sandia (watermelon juice), and vibe out to live DJ beats. // Km 10 Carretera Tulum-Boca PailaRegulars to Cancun may be surprised to find a dearth of tacos here, but you will find some—and some of the best you'll ever have—coming from refashioned Airstream trailer at Safari. Billed as "campfire food," the kitchen serves up everything from pork pastor to shrimp mole verde between fluffy tortillas, as well as ceviches, yuca truffle fries, and mixologist-approved drinks. // Km 8 Carretera Tulum-Boca Paila
The best evenings begin with a killer cocktail beneath the disco ball at jungly Gitano (Km 7.5 Tulum Beach Rd.) and end with tropical drinks and dancing on the beach at Papaya Playa Project (Km 4.5 Carretera Tulum-Boca Paila), the sustainable beach club that hosts regular DJs and monthly full-moon parties.
Grab a cab (be sure to agree upon price before you get in) or hop on your rented scooter and zip into puebla for fantastic homestyle Mexican food at El Tacoqueto (Av. Tulum and Acuario Sur); daytime or late-night tacos at Antojitos La Chiapaneca (Av. Tulum between Calle Acuario Nte. and Calle Jupiter Nte.); fresh fish tacos at El Camello Jr. (Carretera Chetumal-Cancun Locales 1 y 2 Lte 3 Mza 40, Centro, Tulum); and magical pork tacos at Taqueria Honario. Mix up your taqueria-style crawl with piles of fresh ceviche at La Barracuda, and Barcelona-style tapas at La Gloria del Tio Pepe. The locals get festive with cool drinks and hot live music at Batey Mojito & Guarapo Bar (Calle Centauro Sur and Andromeda Ote).
Play + Explore
With it's powdery white sand and bath-warm water, it's easy to spend all your time at the beach. But don't miss town for its street art and epic cochinita pibil.
(Courtesy of luxurycolumnist.com)
The Mayan Riviera takes its name from the ancient civilization that once called this its kingdom. The ruins can still be seen everywhere. A 45-minute drive away, Coba emerges from the jungle as if you just discovered it. Climb the 130-foot pyramid and spot tropical birds and howler monkeys.
If you're game to make a whole day of it, the famed (and highly touristy) Chichen Itza (about a two-hour drive from Tulum) is home to the Kukulkan Pyramid, one of the seven wonders of the world.
Or, the non-committal can rent a scooter at iBike (Av. Coba between Calle Sol Ote. and Calle Gama Ote.) and zip over to Tulum's eponymous Mayan ruins in about 15 minutes. Here, crumbling remnants of a majestic civilization perch atop oceanfront cliffs. If you're staying at Zamas, ask the concierge to arrange a private tour by boat.
CENOTES + SIAN KA'AN
Before your trip to Tulum, everyone will tell you, You have to see the cenotes. While yes, these underwater caves provide stunning otherworldly scenery (stalagmites!) for snorkelers and scuba divers, you really have to do your research first—there's a cenote at every turn, many overrun with kids and tacky snack bars. Within close proximity to Tulum, Gran Cenote is the most crowded but widely considered to be the most scenic; Cenote Escondido may be a bit more intimate—its name literally means "hidden"; or, go further afield to find more secret spots to swim.
Thanks to steady coastal Caribbean winds, kite surfing and stand-up paddleboarding are popular activities here. Head over to Mexican Caribbean Kitesurf & Paddlesurf, on the beach in front of Ahau Hotel, to get set up.
Also worth exploring is Sian Ka'an, a biological reserve and UNESCO World Heritage Site. The sandy road to Sian Ka'an is awfully bumpy, so leave the scooter behind and book a boat or Jeep tour to check out the area's numerous archeological ruins, preservation projects, and gorgeous views.
More of a city type? Work off your tacos with a leisurely stroll around the Pueblo, which is home to a lovely collection of murals and street art.
Yoga + Wellness in Tulum
Sweat out all your demons in a traditional Mayan temezcal.
(Courtesy of Yaan Wellness)
Long a destination for yogis, Tulum has no shortage of places to practice your downward dog. Get your om on with a morning session at the ocean-facing Sanara Studio (Km 8.2 Carreterra Tulum-Boca Paila) (don't miss breakfast or lunch at the hotel's Real Coconut) or an ass-kicking, vinyasa, traditional hatha, or Aligned Flow class at Yoga Dicha (Ave. Tulum and Geminis Sur). The glamorous eco-chic resort Amansala (Km 5.5 Boca de Paila) offers yoga retreat packages including Bikini Boot Camp and Destination Detox.
For hardcore wellness seekers, the ancient Mayan Temazcal ceremony seems like just the thing to do while on vacation in Tulum. Led by a shaman, the ceremonies take place in hotter-than-hell sweat lodges, where you'll be wafted with copal smoke and immersed in chanting until, eventually, you experience some kind of spiritual rebirth. Temazcal ceremonies are available all over Tulum: Try a low-key experience (250 pesos) at Ahau Tulum, or the special Open Moon ceremonies at the super-elegant Yaan Wellness (Km 10 Carreterra Tulum-Boca Paila), which also offers an enticing menu of less-sweaty spa services.
SOUND HEALING: Ever tried it? This is the place. Check the schedule in person at Alaya Hotel (Km 8.5 Carreterra Tulum-Boca Paila) for a blissfully melodic session beneath the thatched roof of a palapa.