A Girl's Guide to tulum, Mexico

january 29, 2019

Trendy Tulum is the perfect balance of work and play. With its beachside bungalows, mezcal margaritas, sunrise yoga sessions, late dance parties, and savory eats, Tulum is what you make it. This slice of paradise along the Riviera Maya, 2 hours south of Cancun, attracts the world’s creative class of elite luxury consumers, mainly New Yorkers and Europeans escaping the harsh northern winters. Tulum is very much on the grid for influencers, celebrities, and health gurus; yet very much off the grid for the typical American tourist. In other words, fanny packs are welcome, but only if they’re made of vegan leather with beaded and fringe detail - no nylon or polyester, please.

 

The region is split between the Playa (beach road) and Puebla (town). The long beach road, featuring one luxurious property after another, is lined with palm trees, boho boutiques, and candlelit restaurants. The Puebla (town of Tulum) offers a more authentic look at regional life and cuisine. The magic extends from there to Mayan ruins and gorgeous underwater caves (cenotes). The experience is yours to curate.

SEE // DO

  • Vamos a la Playa! You have two options for beach access:

  1. There are several public beaches, the most popular being Playa Maya.

  2. You can also use the beach facilities at resorts and restaurants. Of course, if you’re staying at a beachfront resort, you can use the facilities, As a day visitor to the resorts, many of have a minimum spend on food and beverage, but it’s worth it to have the beachside service, lounging chairs, and a lovely vibe.

 

  • Casa Malca, Pablo Escobar’s former home, is at the southern end of the beach road. Today, it serves as a beach resort and hotel. The interior design is incredibly artistic and stunning. They have a high minimum spend (I think it was $80), which I agreed too. Funny enough though, after I took a look around the property, I posted up on the beach ready to spend that dinero and no one came up to me for 15 minutes… so I snuck away by just walking up the beach.

  • Cenotes, stunning underwater caves, are open to the public for diving, floating, and enjoying the surrounding nature. You can book an organized tour or arrange your own transport. Several are within biking distance, including Cenote Calavera.

 

  • For a history lesson, visit the Tulum Ruins, the remains of a 13th century Mayan civilization. Go early, as the place is swarming with tourists before noon.

 

  • High-end art meets eco-friendly design at IKLAB Gallery of the luxury resort Azulik. Stop in to peruse the priceless pieces.

 

 

  • Street art and signage abounds. The beach side has plenty of cheeky and inspirational street signs, while the town is painted vibrantly with street art and Mexican motifs.

 

  • Yoga at the beach, sunrise yoga, sound-bath yoga, meditative yoga, free yoga - ALL THE YOGA. Most resorts host some sort of class. Others advertise on signage set out on beach road. There are also several studios in town.

 

  • Take a spiritual journey with the traditional Temazcal. This Mayan ceremony is based on ancient tradition to cleanse the body and mind in a physical and metaphorical bath. Lots of steamy, chanting, and herby smells included. They’re offered by several resorts, including Holistika and Maya Tulum.

Eat // Drink

 

I am splitting this based on location: town and beach. I stayed in the town, but usually spent all day on the beach side, so I really got a taste of both (pun intended). Generally you can find great food in both areas, but I gotta say, overall food in town was better: more authentic, better value, and just downright delicious. So we’ll start there and then move to the beach.

 

Town grub and beverages:

 

  • Burrito Amor (the best damn burrito I ever had AND it was vegan)

 

  • Humo (farm-to-table Mexican with a modern twist)

 

  • Pasha (Cypriot Turkish in an adorable garden setting - I hate to say this was my favorite meal in Tulum, but if I’m being honest, it totally was.)

 

 

 

  • Matcha Mama (all the healthy liquid things and cute swings on a colorful patio)

 

  • Flor de Michoacan (colorful fruity popsicles right across from the bus station - perfectly refreshing after the two hour ride from Cancun)

 

 

  • Kiki (the best nightlife in the Puebla)

Now for the beach hangs. Many of the restaurants are part of resorts or are located on the beach, which means if you spend money there, you have cool beach hangs. Here they are:

 

  • Amansala (the most relaxed beach restaurant on a quiet strip, amazing avo toast)

 

  • Coco Tulum (those cute swing seats overlooking the ocean are the perfect place for taco devouring)

 

  • Taqueria La Eufemia (super casual with the best music and even better spicy mezcal margaritas)

 

  • La Popular at Nomade (the name says it all, frequented by everyone with a leaning towards younger crowd)

 

 

On beach road, but on the jungle side:

 

  • Arca (the BEST on the beachside, also amazing service and very memorable)

 

  • Gitano (jungle disco, great for dinner but also turns up as the night continues)

 

  • Mateo’s (funky fun Mexican joint with great people watching potential)

 

Shop // Splurge

 

  • Have a spa day! Most resorts have spas on sight, or check out Mayan Clay.

 

  • The ultimate relaxation: a massage on the beach. There are plenty of woman set up along the sand offering a rubdown starting at $40 for an hour.

 

  • Boutiques are plentiful in town, with many trendy options and also typical touristy things. Here are a couple more special ones:

  1. La Madre Tierra (for all-natural skincare)

  2. Kaahal Home (lifestyle concept store with art, fashion, and homeware)

 

  • Boutiques on the beachside are a dime a dozen. They mostly offer the same kinds of looks, but here are a few favorites:

  1. Casa Jaguar (for bikinis)

  2. KM33 (for timeless pieces that make you feel like you’re wearing a piece of art)

  3. Natural Rough (for sustainable pieces thoughtfully created by indigenous communities)

Sleep // Stay

 

You can stay on the beachside or in town. Both have great restaurants and nightlife. The two regions are connected by a road with a bike path. It’s relatively easy to travel between the two using a bike or taxi. Here are the pros/cons and hotel options for each:

 

  • The beach has most luxurious options and has the obvious draw of ocean access. The con is that it’s often much more expensive and not a great place to get a more authentic Mexican experience. Each resort has a different vibe. I noticed generally the Northern end is a bit more party-centric and youthful with resorts like Papaya Playa Project. The middle zone is super relaxed. My choice would be Amansala or The Beach. Farther down are a lot of the most luxurious options, like Nomade, Casa Malca, and NEST.

 

  • The town is very lively with a range of hotel options, from super budget to luxe. The con is that you have to travel a bit for the beach. I was very happy staying in an Airbnb. Other options include Holistika, which is located in the jungle and has a focus in wellness or 16 Tulum for minimal paradise and gorgeous design.

gETTING tHERE // Getting around

 

Tulum is two hours by car/bus from Cancun airport. You can rent a car (starting at about $30/day), hire a private taxi (about $80 each way) or take the Ado bus (about $15 each way). I took the bus several times and it was always pleasant with no delays. You can book online or just show up at the station to buy your ticket.

 

Once you get to Tulum, the city is pretty walkable. Taxis are plentiful in both the town and on the beach. Going back and forth between the two will cost between 100-200 pesos ($5-10) depending on season and time of day. Always ask the cost before you get in. Bikes are the best way to get around overall. There are tons of shops to rent them. The ride from town to beach takes 20-30 minutes. The beach road is long and things are spread out over there.

Things to Know

 

Tulum is a very special place, but it does come with its set of challenges. Visiting for a week or so is all fine and dandy, but as a digital nomad, I found it a bit impractical for long term living, which is why I happily called Playa del Carmen (1 hour north of Tulum, one hour south of Cancun) my home for the month in Mexico. Here’s why:

  1. Wifi is very spotty. Plan on not having any cell phone reception (even with local Mexican sim cards) on the beachside. And if you manage to get a good wifi connection, count your lucky stars and hope it lasts.

  2. It is expensive. Or more expensive than you’d think, and definitely compared to other destinations in Mexico. Everything is about double the price of what you’d pay for similar quality in Playa del Carmen. Prices are pretty much equivalent to what you’d spend in a big city in America, such as Los Angeles or NYC. It’s not wild, but just a little unexpected for a developing country. For example, I paid $30 for breakfast at a casual spot on the beach (mediocre french toast, coffee, and water), which is more than I’d pay most places in the USA. There are definitely budget options, but just expect the more luxurious vibe to come with a matching price tag.

  3. Cash is king. Most places only take cash, so be prepared. And on that note, the ATMs often run out of dinero, so it’s best to stock up at Cancun airport.

  4. Getting around is not that simple, especially if you’re staying long term. The beach and the town are normally about 20-30 minutes away, by car or bike. The beach road is just 2 small lanes, so things get backed up. Around dinner time in high season, it may take 2 hours by car to get from town to beach or vice versa. There are some smaller stores on the beach, but if you need a lot of things, you’ll find them in town. Also, if you’re staying long term, it’s unlikely you’ll find affordable housing near the beach. So it’s important to consider if you’re choosing a long term destination for beach proximity. Comparatively, I’m paying $400 to live in an apartment in Playa del Carmen, 10 minutes walk to the beach AND surrounded by all the shops.

  5. Getting what you need can also be difficult. The town is small and stores just aren’t as well stocked. For example, something as simple as a bike lock, I went to over a handful of stores, including several bike shops, grocery stores, and convenience stores, before I finally found something sufficient at a handyman’s stall. Comparatively, Playa del Carmen has EVERYTHING and a Walmart.

  6. Mosquitos are vicious and everywhere. I’m a magnet for the little suckers. It was fine staying there for a week, but long term would be too uncomfortable.

  7. People are a bit more uptight. I found the staff at resorts to be really strange about things, like taking pictures or having a dog or just taking a look at the decorations. I honestly can’t explain it, but I think they’re just trying to protect the property, but at times it felt borderline hostile. I’ve traveled a lot and I was a bit shocked, as I’m used to beach vibes being super relaxed always. Of course, if you go to the right resorts and are with the right people, you will have a pleasantly chill experience.

 

In closing, every place has its challenges and overall, Tulum is a MUST to visit. The vibe is so lovely and setting so enchanting. If you have just one week or a few days in the Riviera Maya, prioritize Tulum. Please go visit, just keep these things in mind, especially for longer stays.