An Insider’s Guide to Tulum

The sweet, spicy smell of burning copal resin wafts throughout the palm trees and lush tropical foliage that color Casa Jaguar’s cozy outdoor dining room, blanketing the space in a haze of smoke, fading it into what perpetually looks like the perfect Instagram filtered photo. And while Casa Jaguar — an open-fired eatery amid the Tulum jungle — may visually nail the bohemian chic aesthetic of this increasingly popular Mexican holiday destination, it’s not in the minority.

Over the last five years or so, Tulum, situated about an hour-and-a-half south of Cancun (from which it couldn’t be more dissimilar) on the Caribbean coast along the Yucatan peninsula, has matured from a relatively unkempt mess of beautiful jungle and warm crystal blue ocean to a stylish hub with boutiques you’d find in Mykonos and Ibiza. Eco-friendly Tulum has grown so much so that this November the area will welcome its first food and wine festival, taking place from the 9th through 12th. While details are still forthcoming, in the meantime, here’s how I do Tulum.


Photo by Sanará Tulum

Stay:

Most hotels in Tulum are located along a strip known as the hotel zone — either on the beach or jungle side (some have cabanas on both sides) – and the town (or puebla). Most stay in the hotel zone since that’s where many of the places you’ll want to frequent are located, from restaurants to shops.

Sanara (rooms start at $375) is a beautiful, eco-chic boutique property with just 19 rooms, plopped right on the beach. Onsite is The Real Coconut, a health-conscious eatery serving some of Tulum’s best coconut yogurt and ranchero eggs over coconut tortilla chips. Sanara also counts Tulum’s most beautiful yoga room which overlooks crystal blue water.

Nearby is Nomade (rooms/tents start at $250), a larger spot owned by those behind Be Tulum, a local luxe institution. Sporting a beachy Moroccan vibe, Nomade is one of Tulum’s hippest wellness-centered retreats, offering daily workshops like sound healing and a cacao ceremony.

Also along the same stretch of ocean is Casa Malca (rooms start at $440), a respite which locals will tell you was, years ago, owned by notorious Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar. This design-forward property, with earthy Mexican accents, comes complete with a white and black bar painted from wall to ceiling with Keith Haring figures.

Photo by Sanará Tulum

Day 1:

Everyone will tell you that Tulum’s best breakfast tacos can be found at Taqueria Honorio, a small roadside cart and open-air restaurant in town that’s famous for its cochinita pibil tacos. And while you should definitely try these, the sleeper hit here is the torta, a Mexican sandwich on excellent house-baked bread filled with your choice of protein. Note: I’ve been told by locals the earlier you come the better. (It’s open from 6am to 2pm, and is closed Mondays).

Since you’re already in town, take a walk along 307, the thoroughfare, and you’ll find countless boutiques selling Mexican knickknacks, in addition to a few more upscale shops vending everything from dresses to hammocks. Stop by Flor de Michoacan for great Mexican ice pops known as paletas, and if you need a pick-me-up, drop by Kibok for Tulum’s best (and strongest!) coffee.

Come lunchtime, if you’re keen on more tacos, visit Antojitos La Chiapaneca for dirt cheap al pastor, otherwise if you want some Mexican seafood, visit El Rincón Chiapaneco or El Camello Jr, both popular with locals. For yoga with a view, head back to the hotel zone for Sanara’s 5pm class, which lasts an hour-and-a-half.

While Tulum counts a number of great places for a fresh fruit cocktail, I always visit Safari, a small outdoor spot along the hotel zone equipped with a vintage airstream and a concise list of bites and beverages. Don’t miss the Ruby Red, a mix of mezcal, pomelo, and spiced hibiscus juice.

From there, hop in a cab and ride over to Kitchen Table, a restaurant under a large palapa that serves a handful of local and seasonal proteins, plus a few apps including an excellent quesadilla stuffed with huitlacoche, a corn fungus that’s considered a Mexican delicacy.

Those looking to catch some late night party action can move over to Gitano, a jungle-like restaurant and bar with live music and dancing.

Excerpted from Hartwood by Eric Werner and Mya Henry (Artisan Books). Copyright © 2015. Photographs by Gentl & Hyers.

Day 2:

Of course Tulum now has a matcha café. Matcha Mama, a tiny whitewashed beach shack decked out with hanging swings, hit the hotel zone in April, offering a bevy of matcha-laced beverages, in addition to the area’s best cold brew. Drop by in the morning for matcha chia pudding and overnight oats, in addition to several smoothie options.

Next, cab it over to one of the area’s beautiful cenotes, the closest and most popular of which is Grand Cenote, about a 10-minute taxi ride away. Cenotes are freshwater pools surrounded by rock, some of which are located in caves. The prettiest and more serene cenotes are off the beaten track though, and to find these gems you’ll need a guide (like Mexico Tropical). However, I’ve known friends to find these concealed caves simply by talking to taxi drivers too, so get chatty!

Another local’s secret is Chamicos, an excellent and totally unfussy beach café on Soliman Bay about a 20-minute drive from the hotel zone. This is the place to enjoy beers and huge portions of great Mexican seafood while sitting on plastic lawn furniture.  

After lunch, head back to the hotel zone and try out a temazcal, offered by some hotel spas, like Casa Violeta. This mystical spiritual cleansing experience lead by a shaman takes place in what looks like a large ceramic igloo, where a shaman tosses “healing” waters onto hot rocks which forms a steam bath of sorts in the mostly enclosed space. It’s an ancient Mayan ritual that allegedly cleanses the body and soul.

Excerpted from Hartwood by Eric Werner and Mya Henry (Artisan Books). Copyright © 2015. Photographs by Gentl & Hyers.

Later on, for dinner and drinks, start with a cinnamon, hibiscus, and mezcal cocktail at Casa Jaguar, then make your way over to Tulum’s most famous restaurant, Hartwood, for more simply prepared fresh Mexican plates from ceviche to whole fish and meats, all cooked over an open-fire grill.

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