We sloped off work a couple of weeks early this year and squished in a trip back to Mexico just before Christmas. Having been to Mexico in 2014, it’s actually the quickest we’ve returned to a country so soon after last visiting, other than USA. There’s something about it that got under our skin and made it quite addictive. Maybe it’s the tacos and hot sauce. Who knows.
We did go to a completely different area of the country this time: where previously we were in Mexico City and Oaxaca in the centre-south of the state, this time we flew into Cancun airport on the eastern Yucatan peninsula. By all accounts Cancun is not worth sticking around in, so we traveled immediately to Tulum for a few days, followed by time in the towns of Merida and Valladolid.
Tulum essentially comprises a tiny strip of downtown that’s set a little inland, and a huge stretch of hotels and restaurants along the Caribbean coastline, stretching about 10 miles top to bottom. We spent a bit of time exploring the town, which has some sweet tacquierias frequented by locals amongst the unattractive tourist shops and heavy roadworks, but mainly spent our time on the coast.
Its main draws are firstly the beautiful beaches. The entire coast is ridiculously pretty and pristinely clean. It’s the nicest ocean I’ve ever swum in: perfectly warm in temperature, crystal clear and not too choppy most of the time. Since it’s on the Caribbean Sea it definitely has Barbados vibes, but I think it’s even nicer – and much more affordable.
We mainly used the beach right outside our resort, which was a literal ten second walk from our room. The hotel we picked, the Alaya, was nice in a rustic, eco kind of way. The best part was definitely the beach proximity. Waking up to sunrise on the waves and having a pre-breakfast swim with pelicans swooping by is pretty special.
We went to a couple of beach spots further north too; this is Playa el Paraiso. Even though it looks overcast in these photos it was still over 30 degrees every day, and the clouds soon blew over into clear blue skies for the rest of the trip.
The other draw to Tulum is close proximity to a lot of Mayan ruins and natural wonders. Tulum’s own ruins are on the coast at the north of the town. They aren’t as spectacular or well-preserved as the Mitla or Monte Alban ruins we saw in Oaxaca, but the grounds are pleasant and it was fun to spot some iguanas hanging around.
We also took a daytrip with Mexico Kan Tours (who were great!) to a biosphere reserve and unesco heritage site called Sian Ka’an situated at the southern end of the coastal strip. Containing the remains of a Mayan village and palace dating from 300-800 AD, as well as jungle and mangrove marshes, it was an interesting and relaxing afternoon trip.
The best part of the excursion was taking a boat ride across a freshwater lake in the reserve then dipping into the water and floating along an old Mayan canalway lined with mangrove trees. There’s a natural current that pulls you gently but firmly along; it was quite a strange feeling to just bob along in a lifejacket without needing to paddle!
There’s some fantastic food in Tulum. The best meals for me were a toss-up between a beachside taco place and a much-hyped New-Yorker-owned place. Charly’s Vegan Tacos won for me on the pure novelty of being able to order whatever I wanted and not have to worry that it was some obscure offal disguised in hot sauce. They do vegan versions of classics taco fillings – seitan chicharrones and soy chorizo for example – along with lovely sides of beans and corn and a help-yourself homemade salsa station. It was so good I ordered another round for seconds and ruined my dinner appetite.
We reserved super-popular Hartwood as soon we we booked the trip. Its ethos, in keeping with Tulum’s general eco-conscious theme, is to run with as little power and waste as possible, so everything’s cooked in a big wood-fired oven. Apparently it barely used to cater for vegetarians at all but now has quite a few options, though fish and meat are the speciality. The tomato salad starter was in particular out of this world. I’ve never tasted anything like it! The salty cojita cheese, tart pink pickled onions and oregano-heavy vinaigrette made a plate of tomatoes really special. Josh’s 14-hour braised pork rib went down pretty well, too. Do book ahead as you won’t be able to walk in and get a table.
We really ran out of time to try every bar and restaurant that looked promising: if we had more time I would have also liked to try Safari, Kitchen Table, Cetli and Restaurare. FYI if you visit, it’s slightly annoying to actually get to some the restaurants because they are all set along an inland road which has no pavements, so it’s quite unpleasant, dusty and hot to walk along. You can hail a taxi but they vary wildly in price depending on if your driver likes fleecing gringos! It didn’t help that our hotel was pretty far south; if I was to go again I would stay further towards the crossroads to the town to be more in the middle of things.
However a lot of the restaurants and bars also open onto the beach, and you can wander nearly the entire strip from the beach side, which is much more pleasant. Our favourite place for cocktails was Playa Canuk next door to our hotel. They infuse their own mescal with various chillies and spices and serve it with homemade fruit purées. This habanero and blackberry concoction was delicious. Another favourite was Gitano, next door to Hartwood, who also cook in a wood-fired oven and make really great cocktails.
Like Barbados, nightfall comes early and suddenly at around 6.30pm, and because the town is not wired to the electric grid there is little outdoor lighting so it goes DARK-dark. It was pretty nice to have some relief from the heat of the day and gaze uninterrupted at the moon and stars over the sea.
Back soon with the next stop, Merida…