We flew to Los Cabos in December to attend a good friend’s wedding. Driving to our hotel and home for the next four days, I soon realised that the initial desert views from the car window would be the closest thing to experiencing authentic Mexico that we would get on this trip. So, when we found ourselves heading to Tulum in February, I was curious, were we going to get any closer to discovering the heart and soul of the real Mexico.
For those of you who have managed to shelter yourselves from the constant bombardment of oh-so-cool boho pics from social media influencers on Instagram, firstly – well done you! (As much as I love this destination and its earthy roots, I am all for originality, and tire quickly of the same perfectly photoshopped image posted a million times over). But, there is so much on offer in this wonderful town, so, let me introduce you to Tulum.
Located on the Yucatán Peninsula, about a 2-hour drive from Cancun, you’ll find a laid-back tropical oasis with sandy white beaches and cobalt waters. This place is as magical as it sounds. As a tourist, you will likely head towards QR15 lined with upmarket eco-resorts. And I’m sure you won’t be disappointed by what awaits. So much loving care has been taken to craft your perfect hideaway, with beach chic, bohemian interiors. You’ll pay an arm and a leg for it, but here in Tulum, they were quick to work out that luxury travel is what the American tourist market calls for, and it goes for top dollar. And tourists are all too willing to pay. Kudos to them I say.
Along this very same street, you will find yourself wandering along the boulevard, lined with lush jungle vegetation that shelters you from the warm sunshine that permanently hangs overhead. You will be tempted by one of the many boutiques selling gorgeous silk kaftans and hand knitted crochet swimwear, but your eyes will water when you look at the $250USD+ price tags. How can a handcrafted garment from a developing country cost so much, I hear you say? I suspect the locals aren’t paying these prices. I think you will soon fatigue from the same style pieces that start to feature at chic boutique, after chic boutique.
You’ll notice that all things cool in Tulum are in the same area making it easy for tourists to get around, without requiring a car I guess. Along QR15, you will find some truly incredible restaurants. I cannot express to you how much effort has gone into fitting out each one with the most stunning décor. Upon entering any of the stylish restaurants, you instantly feel like you’ve stepped into the glossy pages of a Conde Nast Traveller magazine. My favourite was Gitano, serving modern Mexican cuisine. We paid $135USD per person for a divine sharing menu with a selection of starters, three generous mains with dessert and an open bar of their signature cocktails, wine and beer (for 2 hours). Pretty reasonable for a group set menu including unlimited drinks, right? But again, are the locals paying these prices? I think not.
Now, whilst I am not downplaying the fabulousness of the town of Tulum and all its Insta worthy goodness, I think you’ll see that perhaps this isn’t the most authentic portrayal of Mexico. So, how do you have the most incredible luxury vacation, but introduce a touch of traditional Mexican flair? Well, how about…
Hire yourself a car (avoid mopeds as it takes a while to get between attractions and you don’t want bugs flying into your shades at 100 km/ph), and get EXPLORING!
There are so many incredible natural wonders in Tulum and the surrounding Yucatán Peninsula. No trip is complete without at least a day exploring the incredible cenotes.
A cenote is a limestone sinkhole filled with water. They are created when the roof of an underground cavern collapses. Natural pools are formed in the crevices by rainwater and underground river systems overflow. No two cenotes are the same. Some are above ground, whilst others are below. Some even have passages in their underwater caves, making for excellent diving.
For the Mayans, they were seen as a passage to the underworld. Excavations have recovered artefacts including human and animal skeletons, jewellery and other precious items, showing the significant value of them to the ancient civilisation. Today, they are used as the main source of water supply.
With over 5,000 in the region, here are some of my faves that are perfect for a cool, refreshing dip.
- Ik Kil– this is the one with the iconic photographs of the vines hanging from the circular stone opening where the limestone once crumbled creating the amazing sinkhole below. This one is particularly popular with tourists, so ensure you arrive just as it opens (9 am), or closes (5 pm), to avoid the buses filled with tourists donning high-vis buoyancy vests in droves.
- Yal Ku Lagoon– technically not a cenote, this stunning inlet is found in Akumal, which is known as the ‘Place of Turtles’. Its cross paths are divided into two sections, one half filled with cool fresh waters from nearby cenotes, and the other with the warmer waters of the Caribbean. And interestingly, where the fresh and salt water merges you can witness the unique chemical reaction. Home to many varieties of fish, including colourful tropical kinds, it makes for the most memorable snorkelling experience.
- Suytun– this one is great if you are planning a visit to Chichén Itzá. It is located nearby the picturesque colonial town of Valladolid. Make sure you give yourself time to explore the Mexican folk art and furnishings whilst you’re there. With a dramatic stoned platform jutting out into the centre of the emerald lagoon, you are guaranteed some epic pics. Only thing is, this one has become hugely popular in recent years, so you need to go as it opens (9 am), or closes (around 6 pm, but sometimes earlier if no one is there). I think we got there around 4 pm, and there were only a handful of people. It’s worth noting that the swimming in this one isn’t the nicest experience. It’s cold and murky and there are catfish-a-plenty.
- Bonita and Celestial – these are private cenotes accessible only via guided tours with Edventure Tours Tulum. Tours with this eco-operator guarantee small capped groups to ensure that you have an exclusive experience and don’t have to contend with others whilst taking in the tranquillity and beauty of the encounter. Bonita is partially covered by an overhanging rock, allowing sunlight to fill the cave-like formation. The turquoise water is the clearest I have ever seen. Whilst, Celestial is an underground cenote with an impressive accumulation of stalactite and stalagmite. For more on our Edventure Tour experience, watch there vlog here.
The entire region of the Yucatán Peninsula is steeped in the HISTORY of the ancient Mayan civilisation. Make sure you take a moment to venture from the cool beach clubs of Tulum, to learn about the evolution of Mexico from its Mayan roots to the Spanish invasion and it’s heavy influences, to the vibrant developing country that it is today. Mayan ruins can be found in various locations including Tulum town itself, and nearby Chichén Itzá (about 2 hours away).
It is totally worth getting up early to beat the heat and the crowds. Chichén Itzá opens at 8 am. Be there for then if you don’t want to share your holiday photos with millions of selfie sticks! We made the mistake of not investing in a guide. There is little information printed on monument plaques. To have a more enriching experience, I’d suggest that you get yourself one. Helpfully they also double up as great photographers 😉 For more about Chichén Itzá, check out my vlog here.
If SHOPPING is your thing, you need not travel far to find the stores locals shop at. But, be warned, they are not flashy like your Tulum designer boutiques. After all, what would a local want with a silk kaftan that costs months’ worth of wages, if not more? With this in mind, I found a great selection of well-made clothing and accessories with bright Inca style prints on them, at reasonable prices at Wayan’s, recommended to me Lily from Rivera’ Kitchen Tulum.
It’s actually a little bit hard to get locally made artisan items for bargain prices. Items crafted in the local area are generally commissioned in the glamorous shops such as La Troupe, Bendito Tulum, Lolita + Lolita on QR15. They sell gorgeous crochet and embroidery, dream catchers and eco-skincare among other amazing products. And if tourists are prepared to pay high prices for these items, why shouldn’t the locals get all that they can for them?
You’ll find that the ‘traditional’ trinkets on offer for more reasonable prices are mass produced and not from the local area at all. The real shopping mecca of Mexico is Guadalajara. Sadly, that’s quite far from Tulum. Closer to home you can try checking out Talavera Pottery (about 15 km out of town on the road to Coba), Tulum Bazaar, Mixik and MexicArte.
Be brave and venture away from Tex-Mex food, you are in Mexico after all! Not only am I sure that you will be impressed by the simplicity and explosion of flavours, but the price tag to match LOCAL CUISINE will also put a smile on your face. After meeting Lily last year and being instantly charmed by her vivacious personality, I knew if ever I found myself in Tulum, I had to take part in one of her cooking classes. Sharing her Grandmother’s recipes from Wahaca, Lily passionately guides you through the history and flavours of traditional Mexican food. This unique evening out guarantees an authentic dining experience that you won’t forget. For more about cooking with Rivera’ Kitchen Tulum, check out my vlog here.
And, if you’re looking for some great local restaurants serving traditional food, Lily recommends:
- Taqueria Honorio – order the acos de cochinita pibil y tacos de asada!
- El Camello Jr – delicious ceviche and seafood southern style.
- Antojitos La Chiapaneca – order tacos al pastor.
- Tacos Kukulkan – order tacos de arrachera.
- Sabor de Mar – Seafood Northern Mexican style.
So, to come back to my original question, is Tulum an accurate portrayal of Mexico or just another resort town? I think you will see that over the last 20 years of tourism in this idyllic destination, that the chic bohemian beachside town has become the perfect combination of a luxury resort town, with an authentic Mexican pulse. There is more to Tulum than lavish hotels, celebrity holidaymakers, and ambient bars. To experience it for yourself, make sure you delve beyond the confounds of the glittering high street. You need only venture a stone’s throw away to experience all that Tulum has to offer. Find and enjoy Mexican Tulum.
Until next time, safe travels.
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