Mexico Riviera Maya
Destination: The Spell of Tulum
Just try to resist this rare mix of Italian style, yoga serenity and hippie chic found only on Mexico’s Riviera Maya
BY BARBARA PECK | PHOTOGRAPHY BY DAVID A. LAND
The castle, the largest structure at Tulum's Maya ruins, sits just above the beach; a taco platter at ¡Que Fresco!, the restaurant at Hotel Zamas; the sassy parrot expecting treats outside Aktun Chen's restaurant.
Picture a quiet dirt road in Mexico beside the Caribbean Sea. Palm trees arch overhead. To your left, white sand beaches, sparkling turquoise waters and, instead of high-rise resorts, just thatched huts with hammocks. To your right, only jungle and mangroves.
 
Actually, that was Tulum 10 years ago. But while things have changed a little since then, Tulum (pronounced too-loom; on Mexico’s Riviera Maya) remains a magical place. New resorts are springing up all the time along that beach road, officially called Boca Paila Road; there are more than three dozen now. Some of them are fancy—at Be Tulum, for instance, a suite with a private pool can set you back $700USD per night in high season—but none is more than two stories high, and many stick to the area’s laid-back, rustic style. That’s because this area is proudly “off the grid”: there’s no electrical supply, so all the establishments rely on solar or wind power, with generators—and candles!—as backup.
 
Wherever you’re staying on the Riviera Maya, Tulum makes a great day trip. It’s less than a two-hour drive from Cancún and only 40 minutes from Playa del Carmen, but it’s a whole other experience. Here’s why you should get there soon.
 
Reason one: Some of the best beaches on the Riviera Maya—wide and clean, with the whitest sand and the clearest, most brilliant turquoise water. Reason two: Tulum’s Maya ruins, a rare archeological site right beside the ocean. Reason three: The abundance of natural wonders—the endless salt marshes of the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, caves to explore and cenotes to swim in.

Need more reasons? Because of the stylish international crowd, you’ll find unusual bars, restaurants and shops—plus great people-watching.

GET YOUR BEARINGS
Tulum consists of two parts, a sleepy Mexican village and the beach road. There’s plenty to see and do in town, where Mexican businesses are interspersed with European-flavored spots (many resorts are owned by Italians and Argentineans, and the clientele comes from all over). From town it’s a 10-minute drive to the beach road, where the previously empty “mangrove side” is slowly filling in with establishments that could variously be described as funky, eclectic, stylish, hipster and eco-chic.

SUN SALUTATIONS
Many visitors come to Tulum to find themselves: meditating on the beach, doing yoga and confronting their hopes and fears in the temazcal, a Maya sweat lodge. Indeed, the yoga culture permeates much of the scene along the beach road. Amansala, one of the first resorts here, caught the public eye when owner Melissa Perlman started her Bikini Boot Camps in 2002. (The “camps” consist of yoga, fitness classes, massages and healthy meals.)

Many other resorts also offer yoga, and you don’t have to be a guest to sign up. At Maya Tulum, for example, sessions are held in two breezy open-air halls with tiled floors, thatched roofs and iPod surround-sound systems. Classes are given in all types and levels; beginners shouldn’t feel intimidated (rrresorts.com; classes $12*). The spa offers massages, body scrubs and Maya skin-care treatments that use the local honey, chiles, agave and clay. If you’re hungry for breakfast after yoga, stop by the resort’s restaurant for banana-granola pancakes.

PARADISE BEACH
All beaches in Mexico are public, but sometimes gaining access is a problem. Not so in Tulum, where many resorts operate public beach clubs with appealing bars and restaurants. Lots of visitors make a beeline for Playa Paraiso. You turn left instead of right when you hit the beach road, and follow the signs. Parking costs $4, and you can rent a lounge chair ($4) or a beach bed to spread out on ($12); the fee includes use of the facilities.

The beach is impeccable—it could be the longest undeveloped stretch along here. Boats scoot out to the reef laden with divers; Mexican families play in the waves. You can easily spend the day, lunching at the palapa-roofed restaurant—but there are many other ways to fill your time here.

SHOPPING BREAK
Explore the beach road by renting a bike for an hour or two and pedaling along for some laid-back sightseeing and shopping. Last January, a New York Times article called Tulum “The Quiet End of the Runway”—implying that the Mexican town now draws so many fashion insiders that it’s like the new Hamptons. Don’t be too concerned by that; you can easily ignore the fashionistas, and maybe also the high-fashion boutiques on the beach road, where the New York prices will give you pause (“That T-shirt is how much?”).

Instead, browse among the Day of the Dead tchotchkes, painted gourds and woven fabrics at Mixik, which has one store on the beach road and another in town. Owner Sally Peterson focuses on folk art but also stocks plenty of inexpensive craft items and toys.
 
You should also make time to stroll the main street in town, where shops sell Mexican crafts and souvenirs. Pick up a straw fedora to fit in with the crowd and stop by La Flor de Michoacan for refreshing paletas (ice pops) made of mango, guanabana, strawberries and pineapple with chiles. Cool down in the courtyard out back, shaded by fruit trees.

You never know what you’ll find when you venture off the main street: perhaps a tempting taco shop, or the town cemetery, where flowers and candles decorate above-ground tombs. Outside one side-street bar, the amiable proprietor will demonstrate how he squeezes cane juice for mojitos by means of a hand-cranked press set up in an old Volkswagen Beetle.

FALLEN TO RUIN
Every day, busloads of visitors come from Cancún and all over the Riviera Maya to pay their respects to the Maya ruins at Tulum. The site, just north of town, is modest in size, so you can easily combine a visit with other pursuits. Come early, since the heat and crowds tend to mount as the day progresses. Arrive at 8 a.m., pay the $4.50 entrance fee, and ask one of the state-appointed guides to show you around. You can ride the tram ($2) or just walk the trail to get there; it’s less than 10 minutes on foot.

A guide isn’t required, but your visit will be much richer if you hire one (the posted fee is around $45 for a group of four). The guides know which window slots in the ancient stone buildings were strategically placed to let the setting sun shine through on the spring and fall equinoxes. Did the Maya really practice human sacrifice? The jury still seems to be out on that, but the stone table in front of the largest building, the Castle, is said to have been used for that purpose.

The ruins are peaceful in the early morning, with breezes coming in off the water, iguanas basking here and there on the paths and majestic pelicans soaring just offshore. Keep your ears open for the cenzontle, also known as the Mexican mockingbird or the bird of a thousand calls, which has a song that just doesn’t quit. And when the sun starts to blaze, head for the wooden staircases on one side of the Castle: They lead down to the beach, where you can cool off with a dip if you’re so inclined (wear your swimsuit).

AKTUN CHEN
Anyone who’s visited the Riviera Maya knows what a cenote is: an underground freshwater pool, or sinkhole, often open for swimming. If you want to combine a cenote swim with other activities, consider visiting Aktun Chen, a 450-acre nature park just north of Tulum. Its spacious enclosures hold a number of animals—spider monkeys, pacas (striped two-foot-long rodents, like guinea pigs), white-tailed deer, javelinas. Then there are the ziplines, now common along this coast (in fact, Aktun Chen has officially added “Indiana Joe’s” to its name in an effort to lure adventure seekers). The cenote here is especially visitor-friendly: Broad stone steps lead down to the pool, ceiling openings admit shafts of sunlight, and you can even walk around inside on a gravel path.

But Aktun Chen’s prime asset is its five-million-year-old “dry cave.” A guide leads your group along a winding trail past countless, artfully illuminated limestone stalactites and stalagmites. After an hour or so, you reach a sight that takes your breath away: The ceiling opens up to a gigantic cavern with a 40-foot-deep pool at the bottom. The hundreds of stalactites reflected in the water look like ghostly, multi-towered castles. While you gaze around in awe, fruit bats flit overhead and cling to the walls in furry clusters.

Stay for a lunch of tacos or quesadillas in Aktun Chen’s open-air restaurant, Tukan. A friendly parrot lurks outside, looking to mooch any uneaten food, and a peacock may sweep in through the door for a visit. indiana-joes.com; full day with all activities, from $97 per person

SIAN KA'AN BIOSPHERE RESERVE
The views stretch for miles in this 1.3-million-acre nature preserve. There are two entrances from Tulum: You can either keep driving south on the beach road to reach the headquarters of Cesiak, one of two companies that operate tours of the area, or keep driving south on the main street in town, Avenida Tulum.

Sian Ka’an holds all the ecosystems of the Yucatan peninsula: savannah, mangrove, jungle, beach and coral reef. Some 330 bird species make their home here, along with jaguars, crocodiles and even manatees—though these aren’t commonly spotted. Book a boat tour to explore the wetlands by canal—some natural, some built by the Maya 1,000 years ago. You’ll motor up narrow waterways rimmed by grasses and mangroves, with nothing but nature to be seen on the horizon, and gorgeous sky and clouds overhead. (In the Mayan language, sian ka’an means “where the sky is born”; you’ll see why.) You’ll probably stop at one of many stone mini ruins, out in the middle of nowhere—Sian Ka’an has been named a UNESCO World Heritage site for its archeological remains. A hot day might call for a swim, so again it’s a good idea to have your bathing suit with you.

Cesiak (cesiak.org) and Community Tours (siankaantours.org) run a variety of guided trips in the reserve; consult their websites for information. Both groups also operate restaurants where you can refuel with delicious fruit platters and Mexican dishes. Cesiak’s lodge, right on the coast, offers panoramic views from a high rooftop deck; somehow the beach looks even more stunning from here.

EAT
Restaurants vary widely, but most are informal and open-air. Few accept reservations or credit cards; you can pay with dollars or pesos. (Even the resorts expect cash for their rooms.) The most convenient cash machines are at the Chedraui department store (Mexico’s Walmart) on the road that connects Avenida Tulum to the Boca Paila Road.

IN TOWN
Los Aguachiles A casual, quirkily decorated taco joint at the far end of town, serving colorful, great-tasting food. Avda. Tulum at Avda. Palenque; lunch for two, $18*

La Nave When it opened in 1999, this nautical-themed spot was Tulum’s first Italian restaurant. Come here for salads and brick-oven pizzas. 570 Avda. Tulum; dinner for two, $40

Kinich A recently opened dining room at the far end of town serving Yucatecan specialties—cochinita pibil, queso relleno, Maya-style venison. Avda. Zamná at Calle Asunción; 52-984-871-2633; dinner for two, $40

Cetli Chef Claudia Pérez Rivas herself may bring out the free appetizer (five mole sauces in wooden spoons). The kitchen turns out ambitious regional dishes. Calle Polar at Calle Orion; 52-984-108-0681; dinner for two, $85

El Camello A bare-bones marisqueria (seafood bar) favored by locals and tourists, serving huge portions of the freshest ceviche. Avda. Tulum at Avda. Kukulcán; lunch for two, $20

Le Bistro A French-owned café and bakery that has great coffee and fresh bread and croissants. Calle Centauro; breakfast for two, $12

ON THE BEACH ROAD
Mateo’s Mexican Grill Come to watch the sun set: The third-story deck here is the highest spot for miles. The affordable menu includes tacos, fajitas and American favorites. Km 5.2, Carr. Tulum–Boca Paila; 52-984-114-2676; dinner for two, $40

Posada Margherita A romantic, sophisticated spot, built right over the beach (you hear the waves at night) and lit by candles. The Italian menu is limited but servings are plentiful. Km 4.5, Carr. Tulum–Boca Paila; dinner for two, $80

Casa Jaguar Mismatched tables and chairs give this place a comfortable, funky feel. The menu is Asian fusion, and a wood-burning oven is used to cook up pizzas and whole fish. Km 7.5, Carr. Tulum–Boca Paila; dinner for two, $60

Casa Banana Argentinean owners have partnered with the Hotel Nueva Vida de Ramiro across the road. The food is pricey but simple and well prepared. Do get the salad with beets and goat cheese. Km 8.5, Carr. Tulum–Boca Paila; 52-1984-806-2871; dinner for two, $100

¡Que Fresco! Colorful wooden tables and chairs are set right on the sand at the Zamas Hotel’s restaurant. Km 5, Carr. Tulum–Boca Paila; 52-984-877-8523; dinner for two, $60

*Prices have been converted to U.S. dollars. Estimated meal prices do not include drinks, tax or tip.

STAY
RCI affiliated resorts on Mexico’s Riviera Maya include:

Dreams Tulum Resort & Spa by UVC C583
An all-inclusive Mexican oasis on a secluded beach, this resort offers lavish amenities. Km 236, Carr. Chetumal–Puerto Juárez, Tulum
Member Reviews: “Beautiful grounds, pools and rooms. Varied food venues from buffet to upscale restaurants. White sand beach with plenty of lounge chairs and palapas.”
“Staff, especially in restaurants and bars, were great!”

Dreams Puerto Aventuras Resort & Spa by UVC C589
An all-inclusive beach resort with a full range of water activities, including catamarans, Windsurfers and an ocean trampoline. Km 269, Carr. Chetumal, Puerto Aventuras
Member Reviews: Not yet posted.

Grand Sirenis Riviera Maya Resort & Spa C180
A striking all-inclusive beachfront family resort. Km 258, Carr. Cancún–Tulum, Puerto Aventuras
Member Reviews: “The resort staff are very friendly and happy to help in any way you need it.”
“The beach was good, with turtles and rays right in the bay. Always being able to find a spot at any pool or the beach was priceless.”
 
Ai Grand Velas Riviera Maya Ambassador A865
A luxurious, sprawling resort located where the jungle meets the white sandy shore. Km 62 Carr. Cancún-Tulum, Playa del Carmen
Member Reviews: “Unsurpassed personal attention. Beautiful resort, perfect location.”
“Opulent, impeccable, excellent service.”

The Grand Mayan Riviera Maya 6973
This sprawling modern resort offers almost anything guests could want in a Mexican vacation. Km 48, Carr. Cancún–Playa del Carmen
Member Reviews: “Gorgeous. We ate really good food on the property.”
“The pools were beautiful, the staff was exceptional, the rooms were modern and very clean.”

Sandos Caracol Eco Resort & Spa A357
A beachfront family resort with tennis and water-skiing on-site. Km 295, Carr. Cancún–Chetumal, Playa del Carmen
Member Reviews: “It was like a little village. Everything was nicely spread out, with something to see and/or do everywhere.”
“Clean, attractive beach; close to town. Staff is very helpful.”

Moon Palace Golf & Spa Resort 4227
An expansive all-inclusive resort whose pools are as impressive as the ocean they overlook. Km 340, Carr. Cancún–Chetumal, Cancún
Member Reviews: “We plan to go back as soon as possible.”
“The food and drinks were awesome. The staff treats you like royalty!”

Ocean Coral & Turquesa A704
A vast, bright and verdant beachfront resort. 12 Predio Santa Irene, Puerto Morelos
Member Reviews: “The entertainment was great, and if you wanted to go off the resort to do other attractions, there were people to help with that.”
“The staff was very accommodating, with customer satisfaction a high priority.”

El Dorado Seaside Suites 6289
An adults-only beachside property. Carr. Cancún-Tulum, Kantenah
Member Reviews: “Romance at its best. This resort is a perfect getaway."
"The resort is immaculate and beautiful."

For complete member reviews (as member reviews have been condensed) and additional resort listings, visit RCI.com or call 800-338-7777 (Weeks) or 877-968-7476 (Points). Club Members, please call your specific Club or RCI telephone number.

Non-RCI affiliated resorts:

Hotel Nueva Vida de Ramiro The 30 units range from bungalows on the beach to garden studios. The rate includes breakfast at Casa Banana, across the road. Km 8.5, Carr. Tulum–Boca Paila; 52-984-877-8512; tulumnv.com; doubles from $105 per night

Maya Tulum A resort with 45 thatched-roof cabanas on the beach, plus a spa, yoga studios and a good restaurant. Carr. Tulum–Boca Paila; 52-984-116-4495; rrresorts.com; doubles from $180 per night

Papaya Playa Project A wide range of units, from well-priced rooms with shared bath to oceanfront casitas. Carr. Tulum–Boca Paila; 52-984-116-3774; papayaplayaproject.com; doubles from $155 per night

Casa de las Olas Five secluded oceanfront suites, designed by an Austrian engineer more than 40 years ago to catch the optimum ocean breezes. Carr. Tulum–Boca Paila; casadelasolas.com; doubles from $180 per night

Azulik The 15 beachfront cabanas may lack electricity, but the views are amazing. Carr. Tulum–Boca Paila; 866-471-3472; azulik.com; doubles from $260 per night

Posada Luna del Sur A pleasant in-town hotel with 12 well-kept rooms and a rooftop dining area. 5 Calle Luna Sur, Tulum; 52-984-871-2984; posadalunadelsur.com; doubles from $110 per night, breakfast included

NOTE: Information may have changed since publication. Please confirm key details before planning your trip.

Published: Winter 2013 
Photos: David A. Land (3)
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