Destination: Mexico: Tulum
Tulum is a magician. I can’t think of any other place in the world that casts its spell so quickly. As soon as you come up for air after your first dive in the warm turquoise sea there, you’ve already forgotten what day and time it is. You have stopped obsessing about the stress before or worrying about the to-do list after your vacation. In one swift dip, Tulum has pulled you powerfully into the present—into its lulling rhythm of salt, sand and sun.
Tucked between Mexico’s luxe Mayan Riviera and the expansive Sian Ka’an Biosphere, Tulum has long been a well-kept secret of eco-conscious travelers in search of life’s simple pleasures: a great climate, a perfect beach, simply prepared seafood, a strong margarita. Recently the beach-chic crowd has arrived, as well as some hotels that are not really “green” in the Tulum sense of the word (most of the classic, cabana-style beach accommodations don’t have AC, pools or electricity after 10 pm). But despite an influx of visitors and a constant worry that one day this little patch of heaven will get too built up, for now Tulum remains beautifully, willfully its own special spot.
“You’re surrounded by incredible nature in a place that’s rightly famous for yoga, meditation and a laid-back lifestyle,” says James Greenfield, the charming owner of the visionary eco-property Casa de las Olas. “Anyone who tries to impose something on Tulum that it is not, loses. This place has its priorities and its soul completely intact.” Unlike so many “eco projects” these days, Tulum’s green slant is not driven by trend. It’s simply the way the hippie enclave developed, and it’s the real deal. Take Casa de las Olas for example. No, you cannot run your high-watt blow-drier from back home because the state-of-the-art, solar-powered system is all about minimal energy and soft consumption. No, you cannot flush the toilet paper and the shower pressure will not be what you’re used to at home. But you can experience what living off the grid is about, learning the intricacies of environmental stewardship.
And one dip in the sea, one walk through the mangroves, one swim in a pristine cenotes demonstrate why preserving this fragile habitat is more than worth the occasional inconvenience of eco living. Casa de las Olas sits next to the Sian Ka’an Biosphere, a million-plus acre wonderland of tropical eco-systems, including lagoons, sand flats, grass savannahs and jungle, and the home of countless species (it’s a bird watcher’s paradise). In-the-know Tulum visitors make the 4km drive into the biosphere to Cesiak, whose rooftop has expansive views—the sea on one side, the lagoon on the other—a marvelous spot for sunset viewing, while snacking on ultra-fresh ceviche.
Eating and drinking well in Tulum is easy: the town is full of small taquerias, juice places, ice cream parlors and Mexican seafood joints that are simple and, catering as they do mostly to locals, delicious. (Read about the local spots not to miss.) Along the beach, prices are more akin to New York City dining, but the selection is also excellent, from delicious Mediterranean-inspired food at tiny Hemingway and thin-crust pizza at Casa Violetta (a favorite for lunch) to expert vegan fare in romantic Restaurare and haute Mexican at elegant Hechizo.
Besides the quality of the food, the other thing that surprises first-time visitors is how much exploring is available. Unlike the flop-and-drop resorts of the Caribbean, or even the Riviera Maya, Tulum offers tons of activities. There’s Mayan history, seen in the archeological sites of Tulum and Cobà (a one-hour drive away). There are countless cenotes, ranging from small, refreshing swimming holes to complex underground rivers. There’s incredible snorkeling, especially in the Biosphere, kite-surfing, catamaran-cruising, scuba diving and boat excursions. There are yoga and meditation lessons offered daily on the beach, small spots for massages (a great one is Coqui Coqui), and in the evening, when the night sky explodes with stars (there’s hardly any light pollution here), you can find live music and dancing at many of the hotels.
I had a mental to-do/explore list for my recent trip, and I didn’t do any of it. Even a massage seemed strangely pointless, considering how completely relaxed I felt, lying on a shaded lounger under a palm tree on the deserted beach at Casa de las Olas. It was enough to listen to the waves whispering to the shore, watch the dare-devil kite-surfers glide by, read novels and occasionally walk to the closest cenotes for a cool dip. Priorities shifted, allowing me to fully embrace the Tulum lifestyle—imperceptibly, easily, as if by magic.
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