Just Back From
How far are you willing to travel to unplug?
The first time I visited Tulum more than a decade ago, my driver refused to leave me at the small eco-retreat I had booked, worrying “it might not be a real place” until he met one of the owners. Tulum was like that back then—remote, sleepy and still somewhat of a secret, even to locals from further north along the Riviera Maya.
Today, that Tulum is gone. Particularly within the last five years, it has experienced enormous growth (it is one of Mexico’s fastest-growing cities). Current Tulum news includes an onslaught of trendy new hotels, restaurants and boutiques, and most of the newcomers barely eke out the eco requirements that used to be the baseline of this special destination. Along some stretches of beach, it’s impossible to escape a soundtrack of house music; the crowd is decidedly more selfie-taking than meditating; and the meandering road separating beach and jungle can become a traffic nightmare during December and January.
But while old-timers grumble about paradise lost, the truth is that the new Tulum is a grab-bag of bad and good. Yes, remote serenity and hippie-dippie charm are rare now (though they can still be found if you’re smart about planning). But instead, you now get an amazing culinary scene, most of it featuring innovative takes on Mayan and traditional Mexican food (as opposed to places like the nearby Holbox where the menus are a baffling hodge-podge of international fare). Some of the restaurants not to miss now are Casa Jaguar, the sister restaurant of acclaimed Hartwood (which many credit with leading Tulum’s food revolution); the innovative Kitchen Table; Nü, the new restaurant of charming Encantado hotel; hidden-away Nest, especially for lunch, and Be Tulum, still one of the best spots for cocktails.
In terms of activities, Tulum has also stepped up its game. You can shop your heart out at the many fashion and accessories boutiques that have popped up on the jungle side (expect prices that are similar to the Hamptons, however). There are also more opportunities for yoga classes and wellness, including the upscale Yäan spa, run by the same people as Nomâde, a new hotel in the designer vein of Be Tulum and Sanará. (Of course the fact that there are now massages that cost upward of $200 in Tulum has longtime visitors enraged.)
Those who long to avoid the scene in Tulum have two options: either plan a weekend trip way off-season or go further—much further—to stay at a new eco-retreat deep in the Sian Ka’an biosphere. Mukan bills itself as being located “south of Tulum,” which is technically true, but it feels a world away. To get here, guests must drive through and past Tulum, then venture down a bumpy dirt road into the Sian Ka’an Biosphere, which, at nearly 1,600 square miles, is one of Mexico’s largest protected nature areas. At a non-descript dock, they are met by the captain of a simple, six-seater motorboat that will take them on a wild 45-minute ride across a brilliantly colored lagoon, through pristine mangroves and past Kermit-green tropical forests. By the time they arrive at the Mukan dock—windblown and most likely barefoot—they feel like they have crossed over to a different, much more simplified world.
Whether that world is the right fit for you depends greatly on personal preference, as the experience of staying here is still uneven. Since December 2018, Mukan has been managed by the same company that created lovely Esencia on the Riviera Maya, so the potential of the property is huge—and the crowds will surely follow. For now, it’s best for travelers who knew and fell in love with this stretch of Mexican coast way back when. Turns out the old Tulum and its promise of unplugging may not be gone entirely—if only you’re wiling to travel further.
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