Tired of gazing longingly at pics of this boho-chic beach town? Here’s where to eat, shop and more, so you can book a trip and make a few Mexican-getaway memories of your own.
Known for attracting spiritual seekers, fashion fiends and youthful creatives (it was once dubbed “The Williamsburg of Mexico”), Tulum appeals to free-spirited wanderlust seekers looking to experience something beyond the mega-resorts of nearby Cancún. But don’t be surprised by the traffic, crowds and restaurants with long wait lists — over the past decade, Tulum has developed into a new-age, eco-friendly destination with a healthy dose of yoga studios, vegetarian spots and expat-owned businesses. With an endless amount to do, see and eat here, you can come for the beach and the sun, and discover so much more.
What to Do
You’ll probably want to sip a margarita under the sun ASAP, so head to the pristine beaches of Tulum. But don’t be a beach bum forever — explore downtown’s main drag Ave Tulum for cheap eats, colourful souvenirs and lively nightlife.
Surrounded by stunning views of the turquoise sea, the 13th-century Mayan Tulum Ruins are a must-see, and admission is free on Sundays! Keep an eye out for dozens of iguanas and coatis (a racoon-like mammal) rambling in the shade.
One of the main draws of Tulum are its cenotes. Snorkel or dive through these deep, freshwater swimming holes, which vary in size and shape, from cavernous craters with minimal light to more expansive ponds. The more popular, better-serviced and pricier cenotes in and around Tulum are Gran Cenote and Sistema Dos Ojos. For a more off-the-beaten path experience, try the nearby (and more affordable) Cenote Zacil-Ha, which also features a zip line, or Casa Cenote, with its own crocodile-in-residence.
Cenote Ik Kil outside Valladolid
Where to Shop
Tulum might just be Central America’s capital of boho chic. (The unofficial tourist uniform is a breezy minimalist kaftan.) On Ave Tulum, where cream-coloured dream catchers and hammocks float outside every storefront, take your pesos straight to Mixik. Curated by a California expat, the boutique’s kitschy collection of Mexican curiosities, like traditional ceramics and woven textiles, won’t disappoint.
On Boca Paila Road, the beach’s main drag, virtually every shop is a concept store with New York prices, but a few spots stand out, including KM 33, which is owned by Sara Galindo, former fashion editor at Elle Mexico, and focuses on accessories created by Latin American designers.
Caravana, run by a Mexico-based Italian design duo, specializes in hand-worked leather accessories, fringed linen and knit garments in neutrals like sage, pale black and oatmeal. (Hot tip: the brand can also be found on netaporter.com.) It’s impossible to stroll through the area without spotting something cute, especially if you stop to scope out the shops World By Hand, Wildsea, Wanderlust and Hoki Poki Kana as well.
Where to Eat
Ave Tulum has its fair share of amazing tacos for 8 pesos ($0.50 CAD) each. You can also dine on Mexican faves like sopes, fajitas and tostadas while watching high-energy game shows and soap operas at either Antojitos la Chiapaneca and El Rincon Chiapaneco.
If you’re game to eat adventurously à la Anthony Bourdain, El Camello is a sit-down restaurant specializing in seafood. Order fresh ceviche or a whole lobster for super cheap, and you’ll feel like you’ve discovered a true local gem.
Cool off with fresh-fruit paletas at La Flor de Michoacan. Go for the striped-coconut-and-pineapple popsicle, which, though perfect for Pinterest, you just might polish off before you’re able to take a pic. For classic gelato, head to Panna e Cioccolato, or taste traditional Mexican flavours melded with the Italian treat at Campanella Cremerie.
For dinner, break all your budget rules and splurge at Hartwood. Opened by former New Yorker Eric Werner, this open-air, solar-powered, zero-carbon-footprint restaurant focuses on locally farmed ingredients and sustainable seafood cooked in a wood-burning oven. Just be sure to get there at 5 p.m. sharp to put your name on the list (they open at 5:30). The menu changes daily, but start with a boozy cocktail in a mason jar, share an appetizer (the lobster salad and roasted beets will make you weep with joy), and enjoy a main for a meal that will leave you feeling totally full yet still wanting more.
Where to Explore
The Yucatán peninsula is relatively safe, so DIY day trips are encouraged. Many destinations are accessible via the ADO bus, which has a terminal in downtown Tulum.
The state of Quintana Roo, where Tulum is located, is renowned for its natural wonders, so drop by Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve and Ecopark Kantun Chi, the latter being an excellent choice to see many cenotes in one day. Visit Akumal for snorkelling with turtles, or stop over in Mahahual or Bacalar for a different kind of beach vibe.
For an urban adventure, spend a day in the colonial town of Valladolid, near the ancient Chichen Itza ruins and Ik Kil cenote, with vines that flow into its deep waters.
In Valladolid, wander the charming streets lined with handmade craft shops. See the Ex-Convent San Bernardino de Siena, a beautiful architectural complex known for its rustic all-pink walls. Stay overnight at Hotel Coqui Coqui, or visit during the day to sample their renowned perfumes and spa. All it takes is one stop at the intricate Shrine to the Virgin Mary mosaic, and your heart will be sold on Valladolid.
Valladolid Virgin Mary shrine
Photos by Erin Pehlivan