ATL’s Guide to Tulum, Mexico
I’m sitting on a cabana watching the birds fly east towards the sunrise. In front of me I can hear the waves crashing into the endless sea of ocean. This has been one of the most exhilarating travel experiences. Tulum, with its bohemian vibe is a spiritual oasis that attracts hippies and those seeking a spiritual retreat or just a change of scenery from the hustle and bustle of Mexico’s more popular cities. Off the beaten path, about 90 minutes south of Cancun, Tulum has become increasingly more popular. I recall hearing about it from a colleague about 4 years ago and put it on my bucket list of places to go. So when our annual summer trip plans got thwarted and Cabo was no longer an option, I didn’t hesitate when Tulum was suggested. Needless to say this was the best decision. Fortunately, I’m glad we made it when we did. There are still bits of authenticity and Mayan culture that allow you to truly experience what this small beach town has to offer. From the thousands of cenotes (natural sinkholes that now serve as natural swimming holes) to the Mayan ruins this is definitely a place you’d want to visit if you value serenity and history. Unfortunately, as Tulum gets more recognized by the outside world, I fear that some of its authenticity may wane. Riding through Tulum town, there were a number of construction sites ranging from resorts and shopping malls with proposed open dates starting in 2020. Below I’ll share some of my experiences and some I plan to engage in when I come back (because I’m most definitely coming back). Five days just wasn’t nearly enough to experience this Mexican Nirvana. My advice to you would be to plan at least a 7 day trip or if you’re already heading to Cancun or one of Mexico’s other cities, carve out some time to get a taste of Tulum.
If all-inclusive resorts are your thing, you won’t find too many in Tulum. Many of the places to stay are ecofriendly, clothing optional establishments that boast jungle inspired open wood villas. I decided to skip the Tarzan experience and opted for an all-inclusive resort so that food and drinks were taken care of. The Kore Tulum Retreat & Spa Resort is the only Adults Only All Inclusive boutique hotel in Tulum. It is a unique accommodation perfect for couples and adults with exceptional personalized service. The weeks leading up to this trip had been pretty busy for my partner and I so we were really looking forward to relaxing. Being able to recharge without kids running around the pool was a huge selling point. In addition to breakfast lunch and dinner, 24-hour complimentary room service was provided. This was great for those late night snacks or those times when we stayed out in the city and ended up missing lunch. All in all I’d rate my visit a 4 out of 5 and that’s solely for the food. The options were pretty limited. I’ve been a patron at a few all-inclusive resorts and this by far had the least amount of options. The staff was professional and hospitable, the service was always prompt, and the grounds and pool were well kept.
Had we not chosen to do all-inclusive, we would have stayed at Azulik. This 48 villa retreat has no air conditioning, television, Wi-Fi or electric light. Illumination is provided solely by candles and access to electricity is limited. The villas of Azulik are designed to create an atmosphere for rest and reconnection with nature and or each other and many of the villas are feet from the sand right where the waves meet the coast. Clothing is optional here so you’re encouraged to leave your inhibitions….and clothes behind.
Stepping off the plane in Cancun there was a stench I could only describe as that of rotten eggs. The reason for the influx scientists explain is unclear. Teams of municipal workers can be seen scooping up wads of rotting, brown seaweed from the beach but as quickly as it is removed, it returns. According to The Guardian, Mexico has spent $17m in an attempt to clear 500,000 tons of sargassum seaweed from its Caribbean beaches, but the problem only seems to be getting worse. This makes the beach experience pretty unpleasant to say the least.
Caleta Tankah is a hotel beach club that allows you to get the beach experience in Tulum without the seaweed. They offer a secluded private beach area that is connected to a cenote near the sand. Rocks portion off the section of the water plagued with seaweed so the water from the cenote builds around the rocks creating a mini beach. The only downside is that there is a cost to enter the beach due to this being on the hotel’s property. The cost is 250 pesos which rounds out to about $13 US dollars.
Ruins-When you think of Mexico’s ruins you probably think of Chichén Itza. This is most likely Mexico’s number 1 tourist attraction. Chichén Itzá is a complex of Mayan ruins on Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula and is one of the 7 Wonders of the World. A massive step pyramid, known as El Castillo or Temple of Kukulcan, dominates the ancient city, which thrived from around 600 A.D. to the 1200s. If you don’t necessarily want to make the nearly two hour trip from Tulum, you can explore Tulum’s Mayan ruins. The area isn’t necessarily large nor is the architecture the most grandiose. However, the scenery is dramatic and the ruins sit over the sea atop a small cliff, which gives visitors beautiful views of the surrounding landscape. Entry to the park will run you about $3-4 unless you decide to use a tour guide.
Pablo Escobar’s Hideaway Mansion- Yes, you read that correctly. The Colombian drug lord often sought out places to lay low and it’s no surprise he would choose some place off the beaten path like Tulum as one of his hideaways. The drug dealer’s estate, now named Casa Malca, is a luxury boutique hotel and is filled with some items from Escobar’s collection. Ten years later after Escobar’s death in 1993 and the property’s abandonment, it was rediscovered and returned to its original owner who sold it in 2012 to a New York art dealer. Reservations will cost you anywhere from $350 per night, but if the idea of staying in the drug lord’s hideaway isn’t appealing to you, you can opt for dinner at one of the hotel’s 4 restaurants.
Cenote- not C-Note like a 100 dollar bill. Cenote (pronounced see-note-aye) is the Mayan word for well and is a deep, water-filled sinkhole in limestone that is created when the roof of an underground cavern collapses. It is filled by rain water and water that flows from underground rivers. Ancient Mayans considered these passages to the underworld. Today they are used for swimming and snorkeling and have some of the clearest water you can find. Finding a cenote isn’t hard being that there are over 6,000 in the Yucatan Peninsula alone. Many companies offer private tours which include snorkeling gear if that’s your thing. One of the most popular centoes is the Grand Cenote which tends to get pretty crowded as a result of its popularity.
Night Life- Tulum has a strip of bars, restaurants and clubs some of which line the shore creating an unforgettable night beach vibe. We even found a cool outdoor vegan ice cream spot that served authentic Mexican fare and played hits from 90’s to today. Another hole in the wall was filled with American expats who all seemed to know each other. This spot is more your speed if you’re looking for today’s pop and hiphop. Drinks, however at both of these places weren’t priced very moderately. We spent the same amount we would have had we been at a bar in the states which was pretty surprising because the dollar tends to go much further in Mexico.
If you can, try to plan your trip around a full moon. This place is heavy into rituals and spirituality. We got to witness a full moon party on the beach. This was such a rich experience inclusive of bonfires, tribal music, and I even got to witness a Mayan elder performing a sacred ritual.
Temazcal- A Mayan word meaning medicinal house, Temazcals are also known as sweat lodges. Hot volcanic rocks are used in conjunction with healing waters to create a steam bath or sauna like atmosphere. It is said that this ritual unveils traumas, fears, emotional stresses and releases them through the steam. Once these negative energies are released those who participated in the ritual are likely to raise their energetic vibration, creating a sense of true peace and balance within themselves and the universe. This ritual has also been known to increase vitality.
This restaurant deserved its own section! Kin Toh is a stunning luxury restaurant that serves modern Mayan cuisine and is built on stilts above Tulum’s Mayan jungle and seems to be something out of a fairytale. With a sensational atmosphere, this mock treehouse is best taken in right before sunset. Because this restaurant is a part of Azulik’s resort, electricity is minimal and partly outdoors. Upon ascending up the spiral staircase you are immediately thrust into another world. One that really can’t be described. The restaurant’s wine cellar is made to appear as if you are inside of an old wine barrel.
Downstairs there is an art museum that keeps the treehouse theme. Besides the amazing atmosphere the food certainly didn’t disappoint either. Patrons can choose to sit indoors or they can sit amongst the clouds in a tree house nest. For this perk however, at least $1500 must be spent. If you don’t do anything else on your trip, do this and don’t forget to a photo opp on one of the huge hammocks lining the entrance.
All in all, I would definitely recommended Tulum. In my opinion its best suited for couples who are looking for a more laid back atmosphere or solo travelers who are looking for a spiritual retreat. Either way, I’m sure you won’t regret choosing this gem.