Mexico has the reputation of being built up by huge all inclusive hotels, but Tulum more like the anti-resort of the Yucatan Peninsula (and has been dubbed the Williamsburg of Mexico). You won't find any clubs, swarms of tourists, or anything all-inclusive here. Because of this, you feel much more like a local and get to experience everything that this little jungle/beach town has to offer, instead of just feeling like a tourist trapped inside a resort. We wandered the streets with no shoes on, biked to and from town, got food or drinks and many of the hotels along the beach without restriction, and explored just as we would at home. The sense of community in Tulum is strong, and it's one of the things I loved most. And after seeing Tulum pop everywhere in newspapers, magazines & in some of my favorite blogs over the last couple of years, I had a pretty clear idea of places I wanted to visit while there. Luckily with one week and a town that's only a couple of miles wide, it was easy to see it all!
Where to Stay
I picked this hotel because it was the #1 rated hotel in Tulum on TripAdvisor, and once again TripAdvisor didn't steer me wrong. Ahau, which is best known for it's commitment to the environment and morning yoga classes, was a relaxing retreat centrally located right in the middle of all of the restaurants, hotels, and hotspots on Tulum Beach. We opted to stay in one of Ahau's smaller "Bali Huts" for the first half of the week, which you can see a few photos of below. Your floor in the hut literally just fits a bed & bathroom, which to be honest is really all you need when you're living on the beach. The small quarters and open air elements make it almost feel like camping, and waking up to views of the ocean and the breeze blowing through our bedroom canopy was something that I wish I could bottle up forever. After four nights in our beloved little hut we were almost sad to move into our larger hotel room, but that feeling was short-lived when we walked through the door. The added space to unpack our clothes felt like a luxury at that point, and we had the most amazing private balcony with a hammock that we loved taking afternoon siestas in. I'm so glad we were able to experience both rooms, and truly got to see everything Ahau has to offer. If you ever visit Tulum, you must must stay here!
This hotel was right next to Ahau, about a 2 minute walk down the beach. Started by male model and Yucatan transplant Nicholas Melleville, it has quickly become "the place" to stay in Tulum, and countless celebrities have been spotted on its beach. It was completely sold out when we were booking our trip so it wasn't an option, but we made a point to spend a lot of time there. It almost looks like an old beachfront castle, that has been completely renovated in a chic (yet effortless) boho/nomadic way. Fringed hammocks and seagrass pendants hang from the ceilings, incredible scents waft out from the first floor "perfumeria', and every turn is an Instagrammers dream.
Ahau TulumJosh and I aren't big breakfast eaters, so when we go on vacation, enjoying breakfast is one of the biggest luxuries. Every morning we devoured a spread of perfectly cooked poached eggs with toast, salsa, avacado, cheese & black beans - it's one of the things I miss most. And if you stop by for lunch, don't miss their shrimp tacos or their frozen drinks, served in the cutest smiling pineapples! Most of the time we chose to eat in the oversized daybeds in lieu of chairs, which left me wishing every restaurant back home had the same setup. :)
The main street of Tulum Beach is bustling, but as soon as you step foot off the road into Casa Jaguar, you feel like you are miles away in the middle of the jungle. Exotic music and some sort of smoke (likely to keep the bugs at bay) flows throughout the space, and the whole experience just feels really cool. Don't miss their delicious cocktails, or the decadent Mexican chocolate fondant cake, which we admittedly when back for twice!
If you want to find every hipster New Yorker in Tulum, look no further than Hartwood restaurant at about 2pm. They start taking reservations at 3pm and are fully committed for the night about a half hour later, so getting a spot in line early is a must. If any of you know josh, there's nothing he hates more than lines, so as we stood there waiting for a half hour in 90 degree, we were a little grumpy and a lot skeptical as to if it would be worth it. But after reading this article in the NY Times about a year ago and hearing "long lines, but worth the wait!" from everyone we asked, we knew we that Hartwood was a spot we couldn't miss. And when we returned that night for our reservation, we quickly realized what all the hype was about. The restaurant has no appliances outside of a blender and runs completely on solar energy, so everything on the menu is cooked over a wood fire. The flavors in every dish were out of this world - definitely one of the best and most memorable meals I have had in a long time. My line-hating husband even wanted to wait in line the following night to eat there again!
We had so much fun at this little jungle mezcal bar! If you go to dinner here, be sure to go after dark, when this restaurant is completely mesmerizing. Light from the plentiful string lights and mini lanterns reflects off hanging disco balls, and the result is insanely dreamy. We ate here our first night in Tulum, but stopped here multiple more times for drinks after dark.
This place not only has great food, but also offers salsa lessons on the beach almost every afternoon! We stumbled upon this hotel a little ways down the beach towards the end of our trip, and were drawn in because of the fun music and amazing-looking lunches. After a week of fresh food - tacos with grilled fish caught that day, salsa made right in front of us, juices straight out of the pineapple or coconut - we found ourselves craving the cheesy, greasy Mexican food we were used to back home (which was seemingly nowhere to be found)! But with nachos, quesadillas, beer battered fish, and Mexican street corn all on La Zebra's huge menu, we were finally able to satisfy our cravings.
This restaurant was a little further of a walk down the beach from where we were staying, so we put off making the trek until one of our last nights. But wow, was it worth the walk. This place is a weathered wood, shabby-chic dream. From the beach, it almost looks like a beautiful shipwreck. It's also one of the only places in Tulum that serves Italian food, so it was a nice little break from all the fish tacos we'd been eating.
Greece, I also love sharing things that surprised me, or that I didn't know in advance of visiting (despite lots of reading & research). Here is that list!
Things to know:
- Bugs: Obviously with this year's frenzy around the Zika virus, everyone is on high-alert when it comes to bug bites and there was actually bug spray provided both at the airport and hotel. However, despite being in two nearly open air hotel rooms, I didn't notice a single mosquito or flying insect. All of our bites came from little sand mites, which were almost invisible but can do a number on your body. So don't get me wrong, josh & I were both covered in bug bites by the end of our trip, but not the bad kind!
- Cash Only: There was only one restaurant that we ate at in Tulum (La Zebra) that took credit cards, everywhere else was cash only! I wish we had known this in advance, as every ATM along Tulum Beach charged a whopping $20 for every $100 that you withdrew. Luckily Mexico is fairly inexpensive as it is so not much cash was needed, but looking back we should have traveled down with more dinero. Also, no need to swap your money for pesos, everywhere in Tulum took US dollars!
- No flushing: You can't flush the toilet paper down the toilet anywhere in Tulum, not even in your hotel room. I think this is true for most of Mexico, but it was definitely something to get used to! :)
- Surfs up: The waves along Tulum Beach are BIG! If you were envisioning the calm, still waters of the Caribbean (like we were), you are very wrong. This was actually one of the most exciting surprises to us, as josh & I are obsessed with boogie boarding and were able to really hone our extreme boogieing skills over the course of the week. We definitely got thrown into the sand a few times and came back with some intense sand scars to prove it, but we always came up smiling. Josh isn't as good at doing nothing on sunny vacation as I am, so it was nice to be able to do an activity on the beach while still getting my much-needed sun time.
- Nightlife: Tulum is more of a zen, yoga town and is where people go to relax and recharge, so there is not much of a nightlife scene there. If you are looking for clubs, discotecas, or all-night dancing, stay in Cancun! We did find a few parties along the beach during the day and spent many nights enjoying margaritas at mezcal bars like Gitano (above), but most nights we were in bed by midnight.
And there you have it, Tulum in a nutshell! Of course there is so much to do outside of Tulum in the Riviera Maya like visiting the ruins, swimming in cenotes, snorkeling etc. that I didn't cover here. Mexico is such a beautiful country, that left me feeling relaxed and inspired. It's so nice to cross a destination off your bucket list and have it be even better than you ever imagined. Tulum, we are pretty obsessed with you. We'll be back! xx