Tulum with a View

Unwinding is easy at Tulum, an ancient outpost turned tropical getaway spot along Mexico’s Yucatan coast
travel, lifestyle, culture, nature, outdoors
Written By Adam Van Brimmer
Photography By Stephanie Lipscomb
Illustration By Brittany Porter

Rooms at Tulum’s boutique hotels and resorts are cooled by ocean breezes.

The ancient Mayans, for all their ingenuity in mathematics, astronomy and architecture, also possessed a penchant for real estate. Choosing to build a fortified seaport atop a cliff overlooking two sheltered coves and a barrier reef, as they did at what is known today as Tulum, Mexico, is the epitome of “location, location, location.”

What attracted the Mayans more than eight centuries ago—isolation, access to the sea, natural beauty—makes Tulum a modern-day respite as well. The 7-mile tract of shore, stretching south from the visually spectacular ruins of the one-time city-state to the swampy biosphere of Sian Ka’an, has avoided the mega-resort mania heaped upon much of the rest of the Yucatan Peninsula’s east coast, an area known as the Riviera Maya.

Located off the municipal power and water grid and subject to strict zoning regulations, Tulum behaves much like the sea it borders, ebbing and flowing, constantly changing yet never enough to lose its allure.

“You come here on vacation, and you’re really on vacation,” says Mara Andrade, a transplant from Mexico City and the manager of one of Tulum’s more storied haunts, Zamas Hotel and Restaurante. “You have terrible Internet, poor phone reception and slow service in the shops and restaurants. You have to let go. You have the perfect view. So what else do you need?”

Tulum offers more than just postcard views. The sensitive nature and confined area of the surroundings means all lodging options are small: boutique hotels, eco-lodges, cabanas and rental homes. To further differentiate the locale from other beautiful spots on the Riviera Maya, Tulum’s hospitality pioneers seized on the holistic health movement. Wellness and yoga retreats and bikini boot camps line the beach road and these chakra specialists pride themselves on service and experience.

Tulum is far from just a pop-up spa, though. What makes Tulum truly special hasn’t changed much since the Mayans abandoned their cliffside sanctuary soon after the Spanish first arrived in the New World.

All Wet

The Gran Cenote resonates an eerie beauty. The blue of the water, so similar yet so different from that of the nearby sea. The shadowy caves, marked by forest-like groupings of stalagmites and stalactites. The lily pads that track the sun as it makes its daily trek across the sky above the deep limestone sinkhole.

Then there’s the wildlife. The family of bats that bounce around the ceiling of one cave; the birds that claim another. The tiny fish constantly darting out from under the submerged rocks at the bottom of the cavern and the turtles that materialize from their well-hidden home to investigate visitors.

Cenotes dot the Yucatan Peninsula like holes in a block of Swiss cheese. Hand-painted signs, reading simply “Cenote,” stand like sentries along all of the region’s main roads. Most cenotes are entrances to underground river systems, the longest in the world. They are unusual freshwater playgrounds to the swimmers, snorkelers and divers already infatuated with the saltwater theme parks—the beaches and reefs—located along the shore.

“The water is the magic of Tulum,” says Alejandro Escalante of Mexidivers, a beachside dive shop. “You have the barrier reef with great coral and marine life, the three largest underground river systems in the world close by, and to the south lagoons and ancient canal systems of Sian Ka’an.”

With a sweep of his hand, Escalante adds, “Then you have the playas, the beaches.”

Water has shaped Tulum life throughout the ages. Archeological study suggests the Yucatan was once a massive coral reef, one that died when the sea level dropped at the start of the first Ice Age. Rainwater mixed with carbon dioxide to create carbonic acid that ate through the porous limestone and formed the underground caverns that would later be revealed through the cenotes.

The lowest ridge of Yucatan coral remained submerged and today is the most vibrant barrier reef in the world. Dive boats continuously shuttle underwater enthusiasts the few hundred yards to the coral shelf, frothing with surf where the deep blue of the Caribbean Sea meets the dazzling turquoise of shallow water.

South of Tulum, where the pavement of the beach road ends and a dirt track begins, sits the Sian Ka’an. The biological reserve the size of Rhode Island is home to more than 345 species of birds, including the Great Blue Heron and colorful cuckoos, and abundant marine life, including turtles, crocodiles and manatees, as well as jaguars, pumas and tapirs. The biosphere’s lone municipality, the fishing village of Punta Allen, is a must-visit for committed anglers, be they fly fishermen or blue-water aficionados.

Good Vibrations

Back on dry land, a leisurely bicycle ride along the beach road is an unpredictable adventure. Between trading “holas” with the shopkeepers and fellow visitors, a cyclist may confront the preening peacock that frequents the entrance to Uno or be drawn to stop and climb one of the gargantuan rocks that rise from the sea along the shoreline.

At the northern end of the road, not far from the ruins’ entrance, lies the beach bar of the Sante Fe Tulum. The outlines of Tulum’s temples, El Castillo and the Templo del Dios del Viento, are visible from the wood-and-rope swings hanging from the bar’s roofline. Some 6 miles south, the beach road narrows, the last of the commercial development ends and the mangroves close in on both sides.

“There is a lot to experience along this short stretch of road,” says Daniel Vallejo McGettigan, an American who along with his then wife, Susan Bohlken, bought a piece of a Tulum coconut plantation on their honeymoon in 1987 and started the boutique hotel Zamas. “For me, it was love at first sight.”

Tulum nowadays is also love at first bite. Expatriates from Europe, the United States and Latin America operate eateries, as evidenced by the culinary variety. Restaurare, little more than a handful of tables nestled in a grove of trees and specializing in the vegan food once the basis of the Mayan diet, lies across the beach road from Hemingways, where the cocina turns out succulent seafood prepared with an Italian flair.

“Every little thing that makes Tulum special comes together and creates this mood, this vibe. There is something here for everyone, and you can’t help but relax and enjoy your stay.”

Elsewhere, smoke beckons from the chimney of the brick pizza oven of Juanita Diavola and the rich and spicy smell of huevos rancheros stops traffic in front of Zamas.

Appetite sated, don’t forget to shop. Small boutiques sell handcrafted curio boxes and baskets in brilliant colors, soft linen clothing and cotton blankets, even Italian swimwear.

“Every little thing that makes Tulum special comes together and creates this mood, this vibe,” Andrade says. “There is something here for everyone, and you can’t help but relax and enjoy your stay.”

As for the area’s original “commercial” development, the Tulum ruins will exhaust the most advanced photo storage card. Turns out the Mayans were on to something here.

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