Mayan Magic in Tulum, Mexico
We first visited Tulum in 2005, when a small feature in Conde Nast Traveler alerted us to Cabanas Copal, a group of rustic cabanas with no electricity perched on cliffs above the clear blue sea. Arriving at night and bumping around in our hut lit only by a kerosene lamp, we noticed a full moon rising out of the sea. We sat on the beach drinking wine and marveling at the bright moon shadows. Watching the moon rise, we began our love affair with Tulum and that particular beach, which we have returned to 9 or 10 times since then.
Our favorite part of Tulum centers on a stretch of the beach just past the fork in the main road connecting Tulum Pueblo to the beach road. Many of Tulum’s trendy shops and hotels are further down the road. Tulum has received international attention in the past year or two as the value of beach front property has skyrocketed, resulting in several high profile evictions. Some of the pioneering free spirits who made Tulum a cool, bohemian destination have been pushed out their properties.
As this Guardian article notes, the issue is a dispute over property, not a safety issue for tourists. Without doubt, Tulum is changing, but we hope we have at least a few more years of enjoying it without crowded beaches or huge hotels cropping up along the beach road. If you prefer gated, all-inclusive hotels with large swimming pools and hundreds of rooms, choose one of the international properties along the Riviera Maya on the road from Cancun.
Many of our best days in Tulum have been on the beach or in the hammock, swimming or doing practically nothing. When it gets dark, we grab our flashlights and walk down the beach road to dinner. We always stop at Mixik, a wonderful shop for Mexican art and handicrafts, which is open late. After each visit to Tulum, my suitcase is stuffed Mexican holiday ornaments, textiles, and colorfully crafted objects celebrating Day of the Dead or Luchador Mexicano (Mexican wrestling).
Across the street is Zamas, an open air restaurant with tables near the sea covered by a palapa or under the stars. We have been enjoying lunches and dinners at Zamas now for more than a decade, and it never disappoints. Zamas is known for its artisanal wood-fired pizzas and seafood. We love the pizza al diavolo, the salt-crusted sea bass, and the pappas fritas. A cold glass of beer or wine, and off to bed. Another perfect day.
When I think of Tulum in my mind’s eye, I see blue— the turquoise blue of the sea, the iridescent hue of the Blue Morpho butterflies that flit across our veranda, the vibrant blue flash of the Yucatan Jays as they fly across the beach into the jungle as we bike to the ruins.
In those early years, we didn’t miss air conditioning because we went for Thanksgiving week, when the weather tended to be hot and sunny in the daytime and chilly enough in the evening for a warm blanket. In the early days, a/c was spotty as most people weren’t spending time in their rooms anyway. Now it’s more consistent, although much of the electricity in the small hotels still comes from generators, and it’s not unusual for it to kick off in the cool of the early morning hours.
After a few years of gloriously unplugged holidays in huts on the beach, we now favor the hotel Piedra Escondida— not too rustic, very comfortable, cabana rooms with electricity–and nighttime air conditioning. Piedra Escondida is only nine rooms, on a quiet cove near great shopping, yoga, and bike rentals. We appreciate the excellent food, from breakfast through dinner, and we love that we see the same friendly faces when we return year and year. One year, we arrived a day or two after an extraordinary evening when loads of baby turtles hatched on the cove. The clouds had obscured the full moon, so instead of racing to the ocean, the turtles were drawn to the lights of the restaurant, clamoring onto the deck. The staff and guests were delighted to scoop up the babies in pots from the kitchen and help them find their way to the sea.
At Piedra Escondida’s restaurant, they do every meal right. An excellent breakfast is usually included with our room rate. Morning coffee, our nectar, is served with “leche de iguana” or at least that’s what our waiter jokes to us. Uno mas, por favor. And the fruit plate, please. At lunch or dinner, we always love the excellent grilled fish and margaritas.
After trying most of the rooms at Piedra Escondida, we now prefer the lower unit closest to the water, because we like to be right on the beach. We hang out on the porch, swinging in the hammock or reading in the deck chairs. And in the evening we are lulled to sleep by the sound of the ocean. We often book their “seven days for the price of five” special, which for the moment brings the cost of our favorite room to less than $200 USD/night. I say for the moment because we’ve seen Tulum hotel prices rise consistently over the past decade.
For one of my coolest friends, who was spending a week in Tulum with her college-age daughter, the hotel we recommended was the Papaya Playa Project. A part of Design Hotels of Mexico group, Papaya Playa took over the site and beach of our beloved Cabanas Copal a few years ago, and transformed the place into a hip destination with comfy beach beds and full moon parties. What once was rustic huts on the cliffs overlooking the blue sea is now gorgeous houses and ocean front cabanas. We have spent many days on Papaya Playa’s beach, resting on palapa-shaded beach beds and feasting on fish tacos, ceviche, and frozen magaritas, and ice-cold beer. PPP asks that you spend a modest sum for access, and we easily reached that with our lunches and beverages–which they brought right to us on their comfy beach beds. I’ve also enjoyed excellent spa treatments and yoga classes at Papaya Playa. Miraculously, even when we’ve been there during Thanksgiving week, Papaya Playa’s beach doesn’t feel crowded.
Our friends loved their week in an ocean front cabana, posting their view to Instagram with the hashtag #bliss.
We always rent bikes in Tulum. The beach road is a flat easy ride in both directions, and there are bike paths along parts of the beach road and into Tulum Pueblo. On the beach road, one way leads, across the bay from Zamas, to a great many small, trendy shops and hotels. The other way, heading North, is the ruins of Tulum, which we visit every year, admiring the Mayan archeological structures spectacularly situated overlooking the turquoise sea.
Stargazing in Tulum is awe-inspiring. Especially in the winter months when the sky is crystal clear. Within minutes, we can count on seeing shooting stars. We love using the Skyview app to spot constellations, then spot them at another point in the sky as we walk back from dinner. It’s one of the few times we stop to marvel that we are on a spinning planet. We always bring a flashlight, so we can see and be seen as we walk along the beach road at night.
Our best advice is don’t do too much. How quickly a week passes, hanging on the beach beds, reading in the hammock or looking out at the sea. We plan to enjoy many more visits in the coming years, and hope that we still find there much of what we love in Tulum.
Now, despite the spotlight now thrust upon it, Tulum still feels low key and under the radar. So go now, while you can still capture some of the magic of Tulum’s wilder days. As we always say as we depart, Hasta la proxima!
Piedra Escondida— http://www.piedraescondida.com/
Papaya Playa— http://www.papayaplayaproject.com
Zamas – http://www.zamas.com
See our favorite shops, Mixik, km33, and more here:
Search #Tulum on Instagram and follow @Piedra_Escondida, @papayaplayaproject, @tulummexico, and @km33tulum and more for Tulum style and living all year round.
*We were not compensated for anything in this post and all opinions are our own. All photos our own unless credited otherwise.
See below for more images from our decade of visits.
What to buy in Tulum? Every year we buy a new colorful Mexican blanket to lounge on the beach, and leather sandals at the shops in Tulum Pueblo.
More great photos! I love them all! I was in Tulum last year and also read Keith Richard’s ‘Life’ whilst there, what a coincidence! Thanks for the tips, I would love to go back one day and will have to check out Piedra Escondida, it sounds and looks incredible and much more understated than many of the more trendy places in Tulum. Thanks for the great post Jim & Mary!
What a coincidence! A great book and Piedra Escondida is a wonderful small hotel.
This looks like such a fun and relaxing trip! Your pictures of the beach are gorgeous!
We are going back for Thanksgiving week! Can’t wait!
This looks like such a fun and relaxing trip!