Tulum Travel Guide
It had been 15 years since we’d been to Tulum and we knew a lot had changed. We heard it was the new Williamsburg, with plenty of hipsters, juice bars, artisanal this and organic that. Well, hey, I LIKE Brooklyn (and juice bars), so this news did not deter us. My daughter had agreed to spend her Spring Break with us, so off we went for a week in the sun.
There are tons of small hotels that line the beach in Tulum. We got a late start planning, so there wasn’t much left to choose from. Even less, because my family’s only requirement was air conditioning. Most everything is powered by generators in Tulum, so an “ecological” hotel means there is no AC. I found us the last two rooms directly on the beach with air. It’s cool enough at night to dispense with it and fall asleep to the sound of crashing waves. As I nervously discharged a wad of cash through Paypal for the entire non-refundable week, I prayed I picked right. Otherwise, family mayhem.
We arrived to find exactly what we all wanted. Simple white rooms, with ample bathrooms and a deck (with lounge chairs and a hammock no less), smack on the sand. Lovely amenities included a coffee maker restocked with local coffee daily, spacious bath with a rainshower head, plenty of bottled water, a yoga mat, and beach bag. The bed was super comfy, but if you’re picky about pillows (moi), bring your own. And breakfast. That breakfast was the BEST part of our stay. We woke up thinking, yucca pancakes? Overnight oats? Chia Pudding? Tropical fruit salad? Vitamin C smoothie? Or all of the above. The meal was included, and we made the most of it.
Cabanas Tulum is the middle of the road. There are plenty of hotels that are more expensive (Be Tulum, Sanara) and plenty that are less, but this spot was perfect for us. Besides, the staff was incredibly anxious to please, delightful and helpful. What more do you want? Nada.
That breakfast kept us ’til dinner, so we mainly plotzed on the beach and read trashy novels. One day we took a long walk. One day we went to yoga (offered at the hotel or throw a rock and you’ll hit a studio). One day we went to a cenote. That’s it. We didn’t even make it to the ruins because we’d seen them before (plus Coba, Chichen Itza, and Uxmal). It’s not exactly like once you’ve seen a ruin you’ve seen them all, but once you’ve seen four, it’s not on the top of your list on a hot day.
Where to eat:
We thought we had discovered the most authentic tacos at Safari, a teeny spot with an airstream kitted out for a kitchen. Grilled pork, shrimp, and fish arrived on brightly colored tortillas, seasoned with beets, yams, and spinach. Simple and delicious. We chatted briefly with our server about the chef. He has another taco joint in NYC and brought his concept HERE. Okay, so maybe not the most authentic, but yummy, nonetheless.
Gitano is hailed as the second best restaurant after Hartwood, which arguably raised the bar for serious eats in Tulum when it opened in 2010. While we would have loved to hang at Hartwood, the process for getting a table included getting in line at 3 in the afternoon. Seriously? This is vacation and none of us were willing to waste our afternoon for a meal. So, Gitano. We got so much attitude from the hostess…she tried, and almost talked us into leaving, but we persisted. And so glad we did. This is a weird one, but I had the best grilled rib eye I think I’ve ever had. Was it the combination of a balmy evening under the stars and a secret sauce bursting with umami? Or the fact that it was so dark I couldn’t see my food (hence no pix). I’ll never know, and that’s quite all right. My husband devoured his whole grilled fish like a pathologist (he is). Just a perfect carcass of neatly aligned bones remained. Make reservations and go to Gitano. Hopefully, the annoying hostess has the night off, because everything else was perfect. Bring bug spray and cash.
or the Jardin Secreto
Thanks to my daughter we ended up at this place. It was her night to choose, and she has a nose for a good restaurant. Centzontle vied for Gitano as my favorite. The garden setting was sweet, and there was a little electric light on our table so we could actually see our food (still pix were poor), and we pretty much swooned over our handsome waiter. As he waxed rhapsodic about the Beef Barbacoa or the fresh catch, he’d touch our shoulders lightly and urge us on. Much later, after several hand-muddled cocktails (try the Hepburn), a heaping plate of that succulent beef with homemade tortillas, gorgeous grilled vegetables, and a ridiculous cinnamony chocolate brownie with fresh coconut ice cream, we waddled back to our hotel. The menu is limited but this is a must.
I was so enjoying being off duty in the scheduling department that I happily let my family choose the restaurants. On my husband’s night, off we went to Mur Mur. This spot, about half way down the beach road, features a giant grill and an award-winning chef. The concept here is to use the least technology possible combined with the best local ingredients to produce simple, elegant fare. My grilled sea bass with eggplant puree and squash was perfect.
Most days we skipped lunch, but we heard the tacos at this shack were worth the trek down the beach. It’s a popular spot, but we were able to snag a few stools facing the ocean and happily sipped fresh watermelon margaritas and coconut water (yes, still-in-the-coconut coconut water) while we waited for our ridiculous order of 10 tacos. We tried all of ‘em and yes they were worth the hike. Especially the al pastor (pork), grilled shrimp and grilled fish. I think the bill was $30 bucks for all of it.
Next time: Posada Margherita, Antojitos La Chipaneca, Hartwood. On my list, but we didn’t make it!
Good to know:
There are lots of cute shops on the jungle side of the beach road, but you won’t find any bargains. You will find racks of beautiful and expensive caftans and handmade jewelry. Head to the little town of Tulum (referred to as The Pueblo) for souvenirs and better deals. My daughter and I each bought a pair of huaraches and that was it. But if shopping is your thing, there’s plenty of it.
We’ve been to Cenotes before (deep, interconnecting pools of fresh water), and I’m sure we could have found a better one than Gran Cenote which is a short drive away. It’s a tourist destination, if not a trap, with a fee to get in, a fee for snorkeling equipment, a fee for towels, a fee for your locker. Don’t let that deter you if you’d like to splash around in an underwater cave with bats. My husband and daughter loved it. Me, not so much.
Bring bug spray wherever you go in the evening. And do not spend hours waist deep in the warm turquoise water blabbing with your daughter (as I did). My back is peeling off in sheets and my dermatologist would KILL me. We went through two entire bottles of Coola 30 sunscreen. Next time I’ll be wearing 50.
Every place accepts American dollars, but you’ll do much better exchange-wise by having a wad of pesos at the ready. Weirdly, most ATMs dispense dollars. Ask your hotel for the closest place to exchange and bring your passport. Also, many of the restaurants are cash only.
We heard that getting stopped on the road to Tulum is almost inevitable, and we heard right. If you’re renting a car at Cancun airport, keep a very close eye on the ever-changing speed limit on the one road that goes directly from the airport to Tulum (in about an hour and a half). We made it there but got pulled over immediately on our way back. After handing over our remaining pesos (about $50), the officers happily bid us good day. They even have a name for it down here: The Bite. Sorta like a tax on a good vacation.
Leave Tulum four hours before your flight. You’ll need two hours to get to the airport and return your car, and the lines for security can be long. We were there during Spring Break, at the height of the season. Lucky for us the spring breakers stay in Cancun at the all-inclusives and don’t make the trek down the peninsula.