The Magic of Tulum on the Mexican Caribbean
Could this be Paradise?
The Tulum landscape is a jungle of dense tropical foliage, a blend of many greens: tangled hanging vines, twisted mangrove tree branches, more exotic palm trees than it is possible to imagine. All this verdure is juxtaposed against a blue sky that drops into the aquamarine ocean with rows of gentle waves lapping the deserted white sandy beaches.
This is Tulum.
Everything, even buildings, blends into the landscape: the architecture and use of materials have been carefully thought out. Trees have been selectively cut down, then recycled in the construction of the new hotels. The talented architects and designers, working together with the local artisans, have re-used the timber in interesting ways incorporating them into the design in a way that keeps the forest “present.” And sometimes, still alive!
It is not uncommon to see entire palm fronds woven into a herringbone design to create a passageway entrance, branches used to support roofs and walls created using indigenous climbing plants. Among this organic privacy is “real” privacy, too: each hotel is protected by security, many not even having their name outside.
Walls of stone are built using rocks found at the ocean’s edge, balancing them one above the other with no cement to hold them together. These boulders were a miracle of nature and with careful design are still a miracle of nature.
How did Tulum Evolve?
Tulun has a long history as suggested by the breathtaking nearby Mayan ruins, dating back to the 13th Century. Skip ahead a few hundred years from the Age of the Mayans and you find yourself in the 1980s. Backpackers came across this idyllic place, stopping along the way to marvel at the ancient archaeological sites, swim in the cenotes (deep, freshwater sinkholes) and snorkel amid the amazing coral reefs that line the coast. They did what backpackers do: camped out in the open, swam, fished, smoked weed and enjoyed the peaceful isolation of the beach rent-free. There were almost no shops, no hotels, and not much going on. But they also spoke and wrote about the remarkable beauty of Tulum — and eventually, word got out.
Jump ahead three decades and it is one of the fastest-growing communities on the Riviera Maya with the exception of Playa del Carmen. It is now a global destination, a hub of eco-tourism, with several hotels charging as much as $1,000 a night for “almost” open-air accommodation, palapas (open-faced shelters), outdoorsy showers, and of course, 1500-thread Egyptian cotton sheets for sleeping under the stars.
As such, it has become a magnet for the young and the well-heeled to spend a few days wearing very little clothing and eating healthy food in a super relaxed atmosphere. This is a haven for yoga on the beach and an assortment of spas offering treatments to the hedonistic crowd who now populate the hotels. In short, it is the Mexican Caribbean and it does not disappoint.
There are strict rules in the books that ensure all architecture blends into the environment. No highrises, no chains and no all-inclusive hotels. Several tastemakers and influencers have helped raise the standard and popularise Tulum — people like Nicolas Malleville, the handsome Argentinian model and his beautiful Italian wife Francesca Bonato from the Coqui Coqui perfumery collection. There’s also Leo Malca, an international gallerist from New York who opened “Casa Malca” in what had been drug lord Pablo Escobar’s beach hideaway. Here he displays hundreds of thousands of dollars of international artwork using his hotel and surrounding gardens as an open-air gallery. So many of these structures were the efforts of Tulum-based architecture studio Co-Lab Design Office, who are masters at blending the foliage and the architecture using the most creative artistry.
Water is an important feature of the landscape if not one of the defining ones. Pools and agua designs are everywhere. There are palapas built right on the water, covering table and chairs whose feet — alongside yours — are right in the water. Visually, nearby infinity pools seem to merge with the ocean, and one has to decide whether to lie at the pool or the beach — what a decision !!
The entire length of the oceanfront has been “dedicated” for hotels, and the space is now almost built up. Yet somehow it has retained its organic feeling.
Nearby Tulum Town, located on 307 Federal Highway, was a funky village, with a few coffee shops, bars, and shopkeepers selling trinkets. With no beachfront left in the Hotel Zone, fashionable hotels have been opening in Tulum Town on the main street. Casa Pueblo Tulum was recently opened on Avenida Tulum and is helmed by Derek Klein, a local restauranteur, and tastemaker. It’s in contemporary hacienda style with polished concrete floors and an industrial feel with minimalist furnishings.
Another new location is Mi Cielo — with a buzzy cafe on the first floor, that has used some spectacular Mexican tiles on the floors and walls and is furnished with reconditioned antiques, some painted in surprising colors. The adjacent hotel, decorated in the same style is reminiscent of “Shabby Chic”, a look that was all the rage in California in the eighties. Now that there is a more upmarket crowd staying “in town”, the coffee shops and restaurants have upped their game.
It was only two and a half years ago that I “discovered” Tulum and read everything I could about it before visiting, trying to imagine what it looked like — and it looked nothing like in my imagination because my imagination was too restricted to grasp it all.
My observation is that the crowd going to Tulum is young and beautiful. It is full of boho chic hipsters, including people from the movie, music and fashion world. There are a lot of people from NYC and Los Angeles, looking for a dose of spirituality and nature. You can find every variation of yoga, much of it practiced on the beach, sometimes on Persian rugs on the sand. There are fancy herbal massages, body treatments, soaking baths, energy healing, and other “wu wu” things for the indulgent. As far as music, there are many out-of-the-ordinary musical events, some offered by the Habitas Hotel Group, an establishment that has built up a large music following. And of course, the other items that keep the publicity machine churning: movie festivals, fashion events, art exhibitions, and everyone taking selfies.
The restaurant scene is unique. It began with pop-up restaurants and beach shacks but is now one of the most vibrant food scenes in the world, preparing the freshest seafood in unique ways. There are tacos and tortas, yes, but they are special.
Tulum is in the Yucatan, a region known for its unique flavors. Appropriately, the food is colorful and embraces local spices that add coloring and flavor. To accompany the food, there are great bars with mixologists creating Instagram-worthy cocktails, incorporating the local fresh flavors into the drinks.
The leading restaurant is Hartwood, a world-famous culinary destination — and good luck trying to get a reservation here. It was founded by Eric Werner and Mya Henry, who worked at Vinegar Hill and Peasant in NYC. Other big names include Chef Jose Luis Hinostroza, who worked at Noma in Copenhagen. Here he has opened Alca, another restaurant that definitely needs a reservation – and several restaurant groups from Mexico City are following suit, seizing the opportunity to get into this exciting market. The food, as a result, is getting better and better.
It is mostly fresh and uncomplicated with a lot of farm-to-table; several restaurants have their own vegetable gardens where they grow special varieties. The food is healthy and you can find vegan, gluten-free and organic. Most establishments are casual and open-air, taking advantage of the beautiful climate.
GETTING TO TULUM
The best way is to fly into the International Airport at Cancun, an airport which has worldwide connections. From here, one can take a taxi or rent a car: the drive takes approximately two hours, traveling south on the 307 Federal Highway. The road has been well maintained, with two lanes in each direction and driving is fairly easy: the 307 Freeway goes directly into and through the town of Tulum.
Look for Avenida Coba going off to the left, as this is the turnoff that takes one to the Zona Hoteleria. The Hotel Zone is completely removed from the town on the freeway, unfortunately. Avenida Coba winds its way through the hotel zone and is in really bad shape, in my opinion. I was there two and half years ago and had read that it was repaired; maybe it was, but it is still in bad shape with several potholes. Traffic is congested and it is under construction with earthmoving equipment delaying the traffic. At one point when the traffic was backed up, my GPS reported that I had 6 km to travel and it would take 27 minutes – and it did. You are better off renting a bicycle, taking a taxi of which there are plenty or walking. And there’s so much within walking distance: the entire road is edged with hotels on the beachside, all with private beaches, and bars, shops and restaurants set among the trees on either side of the road.
TO SUM IT UP
Tulum continues to have a unique style with an emphasis on sustainability, although it seems at odds with the hotel zone at times. The first ZDTS award in Mexico was given to Tulum in 2018 — in English “Sustainable Tourism Development Zone” award. This includes funds and strict rules about development.
But tourism in Tulum has grown too rapidly. To protect the natural environment, under the ZDTS, funds are being made available to establish a standard of sustainability criteria for new development. Hopefully, this will protect the environment from the development of hotels and the onslaught of tourists. We will see if it is effective…