Five days in Tulum

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December 20, 2012Travel11 Comments

The beach at Coco Tulum.

Crayton and I went to Tulum three years ago, and we loved it so much we decided to spend five days there this year.

The beach is still spectacular, but the town didn’t feel like the same place. New pricey hotels and restaurants lie along the beach road. There’s a Tulum aesthetic now: hand-painted signs meant to look weathered by the sun, open-air restaurants with lights hanging from the trees, bars with chalkboard menus that sell artisan mezcal and fresh-juice cocktails. It’s charming until you realize that it all looks the same, and the prices, for middling to below-average food, are double, triple and quadruple of what you’d pay in Mexico City. (This is along the beach — you can still find cheap taquerías and street stands in town.)

I know I sound nostalgic, but I liked how solitary the Tulum beach felt on our last trip. I liked the mix of casual and cool and rustic, and I liked that it still felt like Mexico. Of course everyone else did, too, which is why there are now more people than ever.

Here’s quick run-down of our trip, in case you’re headed there anytime soon.

TULUM LODGING & TRANSPORTATION

We stayed at the Secret Garden hotel, the same place in town where we stayed last time. We paid about $63 USD per night for a room with air conditioning and a kitchenette, which I still think is a good value for your money. The hotel provides fruit and cookies for breakfast, and free tea and instant coffee. We made breakfast in our room a few times and ate in the garden, which was nice.

We rented a car for fairly cheap through Budget at the Cancún airport. Usually we decline extra car rental insurance, as our credit card provides basic collision coverage. But the rental agent insisted that according to Quintana Roo law, we had to pay for third-party liability insurance, meaning any costs if we injured someone else in an accident. This cost an extra $20 USD per day. We asked him to show us the law, and he pulled up a page on the Internet that appeared to reinforce what he said. Anyone else ever have to deal with this?

WHERE TO EAT

Usually Crayton and I skimp on lodging so we can spend more money on food and sight-seeing. My favorite upscale restaurant — worth every penny and then some — was Hechizo, a small place with only three nightly seatings located at the end of the beach road. Chef Stefan Schober, who owns the restaurant with his pastry-chef wife, sat down at our table and recited us the menu, which changes daily depending on availability of ingredients. We ordered shrimp curry and steak, and ate every last lick of sauce, and every grain of rice off the plates.

NaturALL, a cafe in Tulum, Mexico

Another favorite in town was NaturALL, a cheery spot for a cheap Mexican or American-style breakfast. I liked the banana pancakes (expats in Mexico know how hard good pancakes are to find), the eggs with chaya, and the chewy, crisp toast. Good coffee and orange juice too, and they’ve got WiFi.

For a heavier lunch or dinner, I loved the mole veracruzano at El Tábano, one of the older beach-road restaurants. (Tip: Bring bug spray when you’re going out to eat, or ask the restaurant to lend you some.)

Mole with a side of fried, cheese-stuffed plantains at El Tábano in Tulum

The patio at El Tábano, Tulum

We also liked Hartwood, an outdoor restaurant owned by two Americans (former New Yorkers). Crayton had a succulent grilled arrachera, and I had a spicy, peppery grilled fish served in a jícara with beans. The vibe is quirky and chill, like so much of Tulum now, and the cocktails were excellent.

BEACH TIME

Because our hotel wasn’t on the beach, Crayton and I had to choose a hotel or beach club to visit every day, or pick a section of public beach. Coco Hotel, one of my favorites, didn’t have beach-side drink or food service, but it did have hammocks and a covered area, which is good for people like us who aren’t sun-worshippers. The hotel restaurant, Juanita Diavola, also had decent pizza — thinnish crust, not too much cheese. Better than a lot of places in Mexico City.

Coco Beach, Tulum

Cabanas at hotel Zazil Kin, Tulum

My other favorite beach to laze away the afternoon was Zazil Kin, located just south of the Tulum ruins. You can rent beach chairs for 50 pesos per person, and a little cabana serves beer and potato chips. You could also snag a section of the public beach directly in front of them for free.

We sat under a palapa all day and then walked down the beach for a late lunch at Mezzanine.

The beach at Zazil Kin, Tulum

I’d like to go back to Tulum, but I realized on this trip that I really want my own kitchen, and I want to be further away from the trendy masses.

Have you found your own attitude about travel changing? How many trips does it take to really get to know a place?

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11 Responses to “Five days in Tulum”
  1. Jon Alonzo

    Thanks this is helpful. Glad you got to enjoy a beach trip. We recently traveled to Cozumel, a place that we have visited over 20 times. It was a bit disappointing after traveling through interior Mexico for the last 15 months so we can identify with the changes that you found in Tulum. I was will say that compared to other Caribbean waters we were pleased with much of the reef and it’s health.

    • Lesley

      Hi Jon: Thanks for your comment. I didn’t think much about the ocean reef, but that’s a good point — the health of the environment seems like something one should pay attention to when visiting a beach (instead of sticking my nose in a margarita all day). I also haven’t been to Cozumel, nor have I wanted to, because I assumed it was similar to Playa del Carmen and Cancún. Do you think it’s worth a visit?

  2. DH

    Thanks for the post Leslie. My wife and I are currently planning a trip to the Tulum area next year. Currently scouting hotels south of town and looking for the quaint and quiet experience like we had in the small Nayarit town of Sayulita several months ago. Even after looking at most of the smaller hotels in the area and reading your post it appears that it’s becoming too commercial and “touristy” losing some of that small town authentic Mexican flavor. Don’t get me wrong, we will still go and enjoy every bit of it, but we’ve been looking to top our experience in Sayulita and I believe we’ll have a hard time doing so. We stayed right outside of town at a hidden boutique hotel amongst the hillside jungle at the ocean’s edge. The place is actually called “Playa Escondida”. Ate three meals a day there and the food was unbelievable! We we’re literally laughing out loud each day because we couldn’t believe how extraordinary the place was and we’re hard to impress…lol! Highly recommend it and it has yet to become trampled by the masses.

    • Lesley

      Hi DH: Sounds incredible. I’ve had a few friends talk about Sayulita but we haven’t been yet — will have to add it to our list of future trips. I think if you want quiet and quaint in Tulum that’s near the beach, you probably need to rent a house, if you can afford it. Or you can stay in the pueblo (which is quiet, save for the occasional car that rolls by blaring an advertisement), and then find a section of beach that you like to visit every day. I’m intrigued by Punta Allen — if we go back to Tulum, I think we’d probably stay somewhere around there. This vacation rental looks pretty great.

  3. Joy

    Tulum is stunning…but, these days, basically a hipster Cancun. I recommend Bahia de la Luna in Oaxaca for a truly relaxing beach vacation!

    • Lesley

      “Hipster Cancún” = nailed it. I totally forgot about Bahía de Luna — thank you for the tip. I loved your pictures from that trip.

  4. Mark Peters

    Hi Lesley,
    Love your blog – especially as we love cooking and love Mexican food.
    We had our first trip to Mexico over Christmas & New Year 2010 and had a four night stop in Tulum – one of the most beautiful beaches we have visited.
    We stayed on the beach and found it to be very relaxing and not too commercial. The Caribbean coast was the most commercial area we visited in Mexico, but Tulum seemed to be still extremely relaxed – maybe due to the environmental restrictions such as no lights on the beach. We stayed in Playa del Carmen over New Year – and that is definitely a tourist party town – but we did have a great time and found some good food.
    I did have the best ceviche of the whole trip in Tulum – on our hotel terrace at Los Lirios.
    We found the area very different to everywhere else we visited in Mexico – it is very much a tourist economy there whereas the tourists were staying away from the other areas we visited – Mexico City and Manzanillo.
    Planning our next trip – but the airfares from Cape Town are expensive!
    Best Regards
    Mark

    • Lesley

      Thanks for your perspective, Mark. Good point on the electricity restrictions — I forgot to point that out, but it does make a difference (that and the fact that no high-rises are allowed) in terms of creating a more rustic experience than other beach cities in Mexico. But yeah, think I’m stuck on that whole tourist economy thing. I’m spoiled in Mexico City. Saludos and I’m glad you enjoy the blog!

  5. Norma-Platanos, Mangoes and Me!

    The last picture is wonderful..the beach…palm trees and you can tell there was a breeze.

    Feliz Navidad y Prospero Ano Nuevo!

  6. Eileen Donohue

    Lesley, did you miss Ziggy’s beach club at Cabanas Tulum? Muy buena para la actitud bohemia y el ambiente. And darned good food too.

    I noticed a bit of a disconnect in your posts about this trip to Tulum. You seem to love Hechizo, which I agree is wonderful (just went there oursleves) and really seem to like Hartwood. You bemoan how Tulum has changed and now has pricey restaurants along the beach road, etc. Hechizo and Hartwood are both pricey newish restaurants along the beach rd.

    This is a famiiar dichotomy in MX, and we struggle w/it too. We hate seeing it change, but we like some of the changes like great restaurants like Hechizo (Stephan and Hui) and Hartwood (ex-New York chef, Eric Werner, and Maya Henry who ran the front of the Soho Grand in Manhattan), etc. that are made possible because the place is changing and money is being pumped into the area. Dinner at Hechizo ran us $150 USD for Prix Fixe for two + bottle of Chile Erazuriz moderately priced wine, excluding the tip– a lot for MX, but that is what it takes to support a restaurant like Hechizo. And they would not be there if Tulum was not changing and thriving on the change, or “aesthetic” as you elegantly say

    If you are interested in Sayulita, I highly recommend to you the book “Gringos In PAradise,” by Barry Golson, an expat from Manhattan who chronicles his and his wife’s yr. of buidling their retirment home in Sayulita. Really good insight to the local culture there from perspective of two ex-pats. But it was written in 2006 and my guess is that Sayulita has changed a bit, or more, since then.

    We always like your blog writing, drool at your food descriptions, and shake our heads “yes” at your insights.

    Salud!

    • Lesley

      Hi Eileen: Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I felt conflicted writing this entire post. You’re right that money brings talent, and of course I’m glad (and grateful) to be able to eat in a place like Hechizo in Tulum. I’d love to keep supporting them because the food is stellar. My problem was more with the mediocre restaurants that are charging the same amounts as Hechizo. And with the trendy vibe that’s snuck in from Cancún or who knows where. I didn’t mind it three years ago (we did go out to a party at Mezzanine, where I went ga-ga over the stars), but this year I wasn’t a fan.

      This is entirely my issue, and I don’t begrudge anyone who wants to go to Tulum. I just realized on this trip that my values had changed — for a beach vacation, I’d love to be more secluded, or be in a house with my own kitchen where I can seclude myself.

      Saludos y feliz año!

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