Tulum has indeed become a state of mind. I first came to Quintana Roo many years ago at the recommendation of Italian friends who loved the deserted, pristine beaches. The single highway leads down a coast of coconut plantations and white beach after white beach. I stayed in Akumal then, a favorite nesting place of sea turtles, and a scuba destination. The nearest telephone was in the now gigantic but then small village of Playa del Carmen, and the tiny Tulum peublo was down the road from the beautiful Mayan ruins. The long white sandy beach runs for what seems like miles.
It was a well known destination for back-packers, some of whom came and never left. The hippy vibe exploded when small hotels and yoga retreats started to open. The beach is a few miles drive from the town and is off a single small road between the beach and the mangrove jungles that leads to the Sian Ka’an Biosphere and Punta Allen. Chic hotels, bars and restaurants nestle along the road. The vibe is relentlessly laid back, and the design is original, as is the spirit. Mega-all-inclusives may have replaced the coconut groves on the road to Tulum. Luckily they do not line this beautiful beach. Tulum’s attitude and its take on life have kept it humming along.
The narrow beach road is dotted with suggestions.
We were staying at a villa above Tulum on a bay called Tankah. Private houses and tiny design hotels line Tankah and the adjacent Soliman Bay. This was the view of our beach from the pool. We were at the point where the 2 bays meet, and could walk to either one. In the past year or so the bays have been branded as being in Tulum, but they are much more private and less commercial than their famous neighbor.
The hotels and restaurants that line the Tulum beach go from funky to luxurious. They all share the same white powder sand. There are small public beaches as well. Reserve a place on the beach at Mia, which is a partner with the Kasa Hotel in town. Relax under the palms and enjoy frequent dips in the sea.
You don’t need to leave your perch to go shopping. All sorts of people make jewelry and other accessories and they are happy to bring it to you. There is a thriving local crafts and clothing business using local materials. These beach lovers share their style.
At Mia order lunch, and eat it without leaving your lounger. The food is terrific in Tulum. Duck chalupas and a rainbow of seafood tacos are perfectly made.
Need some sunglasses or some more jewelry? This couple is glad to share their picks.
Shops are pretty informal. Boho chic style is on offer. Clothing as well as decor for the home. The stores’ decor blends in to their jungle setting.
Shops sit in between hotels, bars, coffee shops and restaurants. Everything on the beach is intimate and none of the buildings are more than a few stories high.
There are relaxed stores for relaxed lives.
There are also a lot of Farmacias, on the beach and in the Puebla, offering just about everything and anything.
The drugs are cheap and plentiful. Are they for real? Probably. The advertising is half the fun.
Cenotes are found all over the Yucatan. Most of the peninsula is limestone, and it does not have any rivers. Instead, they flow below the ground, and surface in beautiful pools of water, or cenotes. The cenotes lead to underground caves and a system of underground channels.The road on Tankah Bay has a cenote right across from the beach. People come to snorkel, but it is also popular with cave divers, scuba divers who relish diving into the dark caves and exploring the underground rivers. You can hire local guides who do know their way around the hidden byways beneath the jungle. There are huge caves, some filled with bats, sightless fish who never see the light of day, and even ancient campfires once underground, now under water.
Soliman Bay is lined with homes, and one small hotel. The Mesoamerican reef stretches nearly 700 miles from the Yucatan down to Belize and Honduras. The bays of Tulum are protected by these reefs. The bays are alive with fish. I have even spotted a few barracuda as well as turtles and rays.
When you follow the small road along the bay to the very end you will find Chamicos. The seafood spot is a perfect place to spend an afternoon. Hammocks are strung between the palms, and the beach is welcoming. It consists of a few buildings, a playground and groups of plastic tables. Simple perfection.
The kitchen is mostly outside. Fish, shrimp and lobsters are steamed indoors or fried in the large wood-fired traditional vats at the entrance.
A bin of coconuts is used to make the house drink, CoCo Frio. It’s just a coconut with the top sliced off. About as basic as you can get. Some add rum for an added punch. Simply delicious and good for what ails ya.
People tend to linger at lunch in this natural setting. Gulls and pelicans dip in and out of the waters, as do the guests.
Tankah Bay is the home to several very small welcoming hotels. The Alea Tulum is one of them. Come for lunch, and stay to enjoy their beach. The waters are shallow and the long dock offers access to the sea and some hammocks to hang out in. There are several dive shops nearby that will take you out to different areas of the reef.
The small restaurant offers breakfast, lunch and dinner. The decor incorporates local materials and has the minimal Tulum feel.
The Tulum Puebla, or town, is an interesting mix of the traditional and the new. A sleek chic juice bar, a new Tulum tradition, sits next to a restaurant serving Yucatan classics like cochinita pibil, a specially marinated roasted baby suckling pig, and other dishes. From small delicious taco stands to the foodie famous Hartwood, there is a lot of great food being served.
This display on the road caught my eye. It was in front of the Azulik Hotel, one of the first luxury eco wellness hotels to open in Tulum. The hotel itself is a design statement, housing a gallery as well as a boutique, and several excellent restaurants.
The Zak Ik boutique is housing a Dior pop-up. The space is quite amazing, like the rest of the hotel. Shoppers are requested to take their shoes off before entering the store. When you step inside the bright sunlight outside filters into the space creating a mirage-like feeling. The space is filled with many rooms, some connected by a small stream with stepping stones.
Zak Ik has some one of a kind Dior products, set in the store’s multi-sensory experience. It promotes Latin American craft and design. A Tulum experience on some of those steroids from the Farmacia.
The hotel and store have no air conditioning, the design is carefully thought out to showcase the merchandise. I still can’t figure out what will happen when it rains.
The collection from Dior fit the mood perfectly.
There was clothing from other brands as well as the shop’s own designs. Zak Ik has to be one of the most interestingly designed shopping spaces I have seen.
A mile or so down the beach, we stopped at Le Zebra, a hotel/restaurant, for an afternoon. It was yet another perfect day. Dogs walked and ran on the beach with owners in tow.
We found our palapa on the beach and settled down. More locals walked the beach, this time with bundles of hand made home decor.
The palapas had nifty signs to summon the wait staff.
Lunch overlooking the beach was delicious. I had never tried fried plantains with guacamole, but it was delicious. There is a bar and DJ here, but as the crowd is families and couples, it was never too loud. The hotel is known for its Sunday Salsa Nights where everyone is part of the party.
After lunch it was back to the beach. And why not.
On the way home I stopped into some more boutiques. More laid back dresses were shown.
Down the road was a shop for men with chic bathing trunks and linen shirts in many colors.
Another store offered a large assortment of home goods and local cosmetics and body treatments.
Along with clothing, you can also get tattoos.
One boutique was a little dressier, offering day to night cover-ups and dresses. You may need something to dress for the party scene in town.
When it was very windy, we headed back to Akumal. The name means “the place of the turtles”, and it is still an important mating ground for them as well as a government marine refuge. The bay here is normally calmer because it is protected by the island of Cozumel. There are a lot of turtles as the bottom of the bay is covered with the kinds of grass that they love to feast on. The restaurant Lol Ha has been here forever. Akumal was founded by a group of wealthy divers lead by Pablo Romero in 1958, amid coconut plantations. Lol Ha, owned by his daughter, serves breakfast, lunch and dinner on the beach.
Mexico is always a good idea. It’s a large country, with many interesting and beautiful places to visit, and a wealth of different food and scenery to enjoy. But after a few days here, you begin to understand why this tiny part of Mexico is a little bit different than the rest of the country. Hopefully it will stay that way.
As we got up on our last morning the sun rose on what was going to be another beautiful day.
We headed to the airport for a late afternoon flight, and stopped in a small town fairly close to the airport. Puerto Morelos is a fishing village protected by the same Mesoamerican reef. The handmade clothing and crafts don’t have the Tulum boho look, but are appealingly made in the local tradition.
Near the docks is a favorite place, Pelicanos. Bright, open and almost always full, the restaurant has some of the freshest seafood on the coast. Gulls drop by and eye your table while you eat; some have been known to fly off with a bite or two.
The Puerto Morelos dock is to the right of the restaurant. Hundreds of pelicans live near the dock and in the mangroves near the sea. They know when a boat full of fish is headed to shore. It’s a well fed greeting committee. After watching the pelicans soar and dive, the flight back to New York beckons. I think the sign in Tulum may be wrong — you can take a part of it with you. Cold nights yield to warm memories.
Barbara Hodes is the owner of NYC Private Shopping Tour, offering customized tours in New York and Brooklyn.