Seeing our Mexican, guitar-strumming friend play the exact same song set on the return ferry from Isla Mujeres, we could not wait to jump in our waiting taxi. One hour and 30 minutes later we arrive at Tulum, slowing for and passing various town checkpoints guarded by armed police. As I started to observe, the police and any other civil employee took a very relaxed approach to their jobs.
The road into Tulum is a tree-lined track with hotels either side promising an abundance of free Wi-Fi, tacos and margaritas. Eventually we pulled up to our hotel and I glanced left at Carolina’s reaction. This was it, she was happy. I breathed a sigh of relief and as we climbed the steps into the reception area my shoulders dropped and any tension evaporated.
The Beach Tulum describes itself as an “Eco resort” albeit a luxury one. As you turn left into the white walled, high thatched roof building a bar stands on the back walk to your right and then straight ahead is the money shot. A labyrinth of snaking narrow, circular pools walled with greenery and native plants. Small wooden bridges cross the pools and soon you realise there are more pools to be found further behind the greenery. Natural looking sunbeds sit on the decked pathways, some shaded by palms.
Walking to our to room we were taken to a small row of white buildings and as the door opened Carolina’s initial reaction was eclipsed. A low king-sized bed facing the glass and wooden doors and onto our private deck complete with loungers and hammock. Just two metres walk and you are smack bang on the beach, a narrow strip of sand and the crashing turquoise ocean in front of you. The beauty being you can see all of this view from almost anywhere in the room.
A large bathroom at the front of the room with spa and opening to the beach view, shower and double sink all in an upmarket beach hut style. A screen door opened at the front onto another deck and one metre away straight into one of the mysterious circular pools. Above us was our private rooftop desk, whitewashed with a spa bath.
Back on the public beach large chunky neutral day beds provided by the hotel are dotted between the coconut palms. Although for our first four days you could have sworn a group of American women were Germans as they put their towels on four beds in a prime spot at 6am, rising around 9am and staying in the same spot for 10 hours. To be fair, any spot was idyllic. The sand is bright white. Smiling waiters walked up and down bringing drinks to the few sun seekers. The smartly dressed security mingled, sometimes kicking back under the palms and ensured you felt completely safe.
The hotel staff are the most pleasant and genuine people we had met in Mexico, providing us with lots of information about Tulum at every possibility. Nothing was too much for them, the bar staff brought drinks to you wherever you may be on the grounds, particularly great at happy hour between 4-6pm. We had been told Tulum was generally expensive, but a beer and a cocktail normally were no more than equivalent of $10-$12 Aussie dollars. Happy hour extended this value, as did the superb cocktails.
Something I noticed the most was the grounds staff. All day everyday they spent half an hour cleaning the room, painstakingly hand cut hedges, plants, raked soil and sand, swept the decks and cleaned the pool, all without any loud equipment or machinery. This was managed with no fuss in 30 degree plus heat. They were so quiet you had to really concentrate to notice they were there, and then you will see them everywhere. The care that goes into the resort is like nothing I have ever seen, all to keep to pristine but as natural looking as possible.
Due to a wedding party booking the whole hotel we had to leave with two nights remaining but had pre-booked accommodation further south down the beach at Nueva Vida de Ramiro. The vibe was more secluded here and we had our own Mexican character house on stilts hidden in a small forest but facing the beach, with suspended day beds and a terrace overlooking the ocean.
As much as we both love snoozing, daydreaming, sipping drinks, swimming and sunbaking, after a couple days of this I’m itching to explore. Just a ten minute drive north are Tulum’s very own ancient ruins. There are a cluster of different ruins within a couple of hours drive radius of Cancun but Tulum’s are the only coastal example. For just US $6 you gain entry to the walled city and can stroll past the remains of temples and houses, some preserved. The most striking and picturesque ruin sites on the cliff top overlooking the ocean and a beach. As the sun was still low in the sky it was a beautiful site. A top tip would be to go early when it opens as we did. A local told us at 9:30am the masses of tourists from Cancun arrive and it becomes Disneyland. If you ever visit make sure you also look out for the Iguanas, as there are thousands that live among the ruins and cliff top, basking on top of the ruins in the sun undisturbed. Some will even sit along the pathways and dash out across in front of you.
Later that same evening we hailed a taxi into Tulum town, approximately eight kilometers away depending on how far South or North you stay on the beach. We had been told it had a bunch of great restaurants that were up to a third of the price at the beach. Dropped off in the centre of town the first feelings were mixed. The majority of shops, cafes and restaurants are based on the main strip, Avenue Tulum, which is pleasant enough. We had pinpointed the restaurant we wanted to go to but Google Maps had told us that it was a few streets back from the main strip.
We picked up some replacement thongs and mosquito spray for me and started walking down a side road. As each block passed the tension progressively rose another notch. There were less shops and cafes but more residential buildings, some with many people crammed into a small room watching television on the freshly dirty, rain-wet floor. We passed a college that was being built and trusty Google instructed it was the other side of this block. Kids played in the street, locals starred and stray dogs lay on the crumbling paths. Eventually I grabbed Carolinas hand and we marched back towards the main road as the sky darkened, ignoring the incessant cars’ horns. We both may have travelled fairly well in our lifetimes but the warnings about Mexico before we left were clear. These “Gringos” stuck out like a sore thumb and hitting that main street again brought instant relief.
That is not to say do not venture into the town, there are plenty of bikes to hire at hotels on the beach side and I’m sure in the daytime it would be a great indication of authentic life in the Yucatan region. But we found our best food experiences specifically on the beach side. The road lined with hotels is also lined with restaurants and we ate at as many as we could for lunch and dinner. A handful of the best were La Zebra, Casa Banana and Hartwood. If you like great ceviche then you must go to La Zebra for lunch, I’ve never had better and the burritos were also outstanding, substantial and oozing with flavour. At Casa Banana it’s Argentinian delights in a very cool setting complete with Martini Bar so make sure you order the rib eye steak. Finally the best by far is Hartwood and you can read more about this revelation in my detailed review Hartwood: NYC meets Caribbean.
Generally you cannot buy bad tacos if you tried, they are equally delicious and fresh everywhere we had them but if you tire of them quickly order any dish with Grouper or local fish. Be warned many dishes come with a black beans in a thick sauce, it may not look great but it’s a good accompaniment.
For the beer and lager drinkers most bars will stock the obligatory Corona and Sol but also Modelo and Dos Equis, equally as good. Margaritas are the first drink on the menu in every establishment, and Carolina loves the traditional ones but will also highly recommended the spicy, hot versions with chili and jalapenos. Ask for top shelf tequila instead of the house tipple, they are smoother and stronger.
Part Three to follow…