Tulum, Mexico

Tulum is about an hour south of Cancun, and feels a world away. Far from the mega-resorts and spring break madness, Tulum is a tiny town where beach-goers stay in electricity-free, boutique eco-hotels and can practice Yoga, visit Mayan ruins, and explore a nature preserve when they’re not basking in the sun on the pristine Tulum Playa. The budget-minded traveler can stay in Tulum Pueblo, which is filled with a ton of great restaurants and shops, and is only a short ride to the beach.

We stayed in town for the first six nights, and on the beach for the last. Our first hotel was Posada Yum Kin- a tree house-like hotel in the far corner of town. We were only there one night, but the bright room, vine-covered balcony, continental breakfast and friendly manager made it a great first stop. Next we stayed at The Secret Garden, a charming hotel whose rooms surround a jungle of a garden, also in town. Affordable, clean, and in the heart of Tulum Pueblo, The Secret Garden was a lucky find and a great place to stay.

Most days started with a quick breakfast at The Secret Garden- coffee and bananas courtesy of the hotel, and instant oatmeal that we bought at Chedraui, the Wallmartesque everything store that was new in town and our one-stop-shop for essentials: water, sunblock and lunch supplies. We wasted no time in getting to the beach bright and early. Tulum Playa stretches for miles, an idyllic expanse of soft, white sand and warm, turquoise water. On the Yucatan Peninsula, Tulum sits on the Caribbean Sea, which means the water is absolutely heavenly.

A few mornings we had breakfast in town, and my favorite place was Natural Cafe. There are a few sidewalk tables, but the open entrance and bright colored walls make even the inside tables feel alfresco. Eggs are served alongside potatoes with fresh herbs, turkey bacon and toast. Fruit and vegetable juices come in any combination, like orange, carrot, celery, papaya and melon. My favorite was Yogurt with Fresh Fruit and Granola, served in a large, glass goblet.

Tulum is also home to the only Mayan ruins found on the seaside. We spent an afternoon exploring the walled-in stone fortresses, temples, and homes.

A thirty minute drive West brings you to Coba, where the tallest Mayan pyramid on the Yucatan Peninsula can be found. Coba was a Mayan city where more than 50,000 people lived during the peak of the Mayan civilization, and the ruins contain several large pyramids, temples, and steles- large, stone slabs with carvings of gods. Coba made another great afternoon trip.

In addition to the beach and the Mayan ruins, Tulum – and the surrounding area – is also home to a series of Cenotes: underwater caves where snorkelers or scuba divers can explore the mysterious deep. We rented snorkel gear for a day and checked out Dos Ojos, two magical cenotes where we snorkeled in fresh water around tiny fish and huge stalactites. Before we snorkeled at Dos Ojos, we visited Akumal, a tiny town between Tulum and Playa del Carmen where you can see Sea Turtles. We saw five, amazing sea turtles- three at one time. Happening upon them each time was like discovering buried treasure. We would watch them nibble at sea grass and come up for two sips of air every so often. It was a definite highlight of the trip.

Whether it was a full beach day or a half day at the beach and a half day of snorkeling or visiting the ruins, every night began with a sunset cerveza or tropical cocktail. (My favorite was a Watermelon Daiquiri from La Vita Bella, and the most deadly was Mateo’s Coco Loco – Vodka, Tequila and Rum with fresh coconut milk).

We ate in town almost every night. Prices are more affordable and we preferred the low-key, less touristy scene. Tacos at El Asadero were some of the best I’ve ever had- and certainly the best in Tulum. Three tacos – in a corn or flour tortilla – with salsa and the best guacamole in town, alongside a tall glass of Horchata, made for one unbelievable dinner.

Down the street, right by The Secret Garden, is another phenomenal taco place: Antojitos La Chiapaneca, where Tacos Al Pastor are the speciality.

The freshest seafood in Tulum can be found at El Camello, another open air restaurant in town. All of the fisherman bring their daily catch to the owner of El Camello, and he distributes it to all of the hotels and restaurants. He keeps the best catch for his restaurant, and the best of the best for his Ceviche.

The fish is so fresh that with only a little lime juice, cilantro, tomato and onion, El Camello’s Ceviche is the best tasting food you can find in Tulum. With ingredients so fresh, hardly any seasoning is needed to make the dish one to remember forever. Hot and crunchy tortilla chips, with a side of black beans, are perfect for scooping up the Ceviche or for dipping in a delicious fish stew. Served in a great, big bowl, this fish stew is made with a spicey tomato sauce, and hunks of fresh crab meat, snapper, octopus, calamari, and prawns.

My favorite dessert came from Flore de Michoacan, which serves ice cream pops or fruit popsicles made entirely of frozen fruit. With fresh food being in the theme in Tulum, Flore de Michoacan’s fresh fruit was all its popsicles needed to be the sweetest, most refreshing desserts in town. The kiwi was perfectly tart, and the mango sugary sweet with a hint of tang. A strawberry ice cream pop coated in milk chocolate and covered with Coco Krispies was a winner.

On our last morning, we ate breakfast in what felt like a diner (photos of the owner with restaurant patrons covering the walls; small, plastic, juice cups; and steak and eggs being cooked on a large skillet), and we spent another tranquil day at the beach. We saw an iguana on the road to the beach and watched a fisherman catch fish with a net.

The last night we stayed at Zamas, a hotel on the beach. We listened to live music, ate fish tacos and drank Tequilla. It ended up being a stormy night, but it was our last, so we didn’t mind. The crashing waves were a great soundtrack as we fell asleep after a seriously relaxing seven days.