Half the charm of Tulum is its split personality. Part adventure holiday destination, part Instagrammable yoga retreat, much of its appeal is its ability to make everyone feel it’s the holiday destination of their dreams.
The first time we visited it was a happy accident whilst looking for a reprieve from the stifling heat of Austin, Texas. Friends who had recently returned from Cancun recommended we check out the quieter areas of Playa del Carmen and Tulum. Desperate for a sea breeze we flew the very next day with our two pre-school children.
The strip between Cancun and Tulum is littered with large resorts, so cheap during the off-season it seems as if you’re making a profit in guacamole alone! Competition is fierce amongst these resorts, resulting in excellent casual Mexican food, formal dining restaurants, cafes, ice-cream parlours and as much corn chips, guacamole and margaritas as you can shake a lick of salt at (top shelf tequila being one of the only things you need to pay extra for). The kids clubs feels reassuringly Americanised (if it’s good enough for litigious Yanks!) and the all-inclusive price makes it completely relaxing.
The pristine resort was by no means cut-off from nature’s wonders though, and enormous iguanas roamed the paths to the many restaurants and pelicans dive bombed the ocean while we swam.
The gated compound wasn’t easy to leave, but we rented a car to visit the beautiful Mayan ruins (hot work carrying small children but worth it) and explore the outskirts of town and beginnings of the jungle. A highlight was seeing a spider the size of a dinner plate crossing the road in front of us on the way back from Coba.
It was an amazing holiday full of wonderful memories, and alarmingly well-priced considering what we would’ve spent on Fiji at the same time of year (October school holidays). Whilst super relaxing, the all-inclusive resort made me aware we’d seen a heavily sanitised version of Tulum and I wanted more.
So two years later we went back. Adventurous spirits buoyed by advancing age (children now aged 5 and 6), we ventured out into Tulum proper.
Tulum Beach is a curious mix of honeymooners and wanderlusters, all vying to capture the most instagrammable holiday ever. The beachfront resorts range from the eye-wateringly expensive to the very basic. All have a beautifully quaint feel and many are still happily without WIFI and using generator power. Much of this accommodation bills itself as eco-resorts and many places offer dedicated yoga retreats or at the very least offer daily yoga classes and meditation.
Away from the beach, Tulum Pueblo is where those in the know head for a more genuine Mexican experience. Here, you can get carne asada with all the trappings for 30 pesos (around NZD$2). Of course, sitting on slightly grubby plastic furniture isn’t quite the same as dining in a beautifully situated resort. Luckily there are some happy mediums along the strip of beach down from the ruins. Here you will find some of the best ceviche you’ll ever eat and delicious cocktails served in the ubiquitous coconut. Be aware that these beachfront cafes close before 7pm – one of the differences between Tulum and its hard-partying neighbour Cancun!
Along the other end of the beach, past most of the resorts, lie several world-class restaurants. The most well-known of these, Hartwood, has sadly been closed for the off-season both times we have visited. That and the cheaper prices are really the only signs we’ve seen of an off-season – the weather has been glorious during each visit, although the warm sea was rather wild (and alas, no signs of nesting or hatching turtles in October).
It’s not all coconut water and beach yoga; Tulum is action station both in the water and on-land. The Yucatan Peninsula is home to many fresh water cenotes (‘sacred wells’). The Mayans settled around these water sources and considered them spiritual, and it’s hard to imagine the water being any clearer then than it is now. They’ve been meticulously protected and are stunning pools of sparkling jade, absolutely freezing but teeming with life. Dos Ojos is one of the better known; the ‘two eyes’ in the name refer to two pools – one light and open and the other cavernous and spooky. Both offer incredible fresh water snorkelling opportunities. Those with more adventurous tastes can look up any number of diving excursions through underground cenotes.
For an open-air freshwater snorkelling experience you can’t go past Yal Kul Lagoon. Partway between Tulum and Playa Del Carmen, it’s a large lagoon seething with colourful fish and plant life. It’s possible to swim out to sea from Yal Kul but not particularly appealing; as the freshwater hits the salt water it gets incredibly murky. As with the cenotes, you are prohibited from wearing sunblock in the lagoon and must shower before entering.
In a similar vein to Australia’s Gold Coast there are theme parks along the highway between Cancun and Tulum. Of these, X-Plor is easily the best; so good in fact that we would go back to Tulum just to go again! Upon arrival you are fitted with a helmet and harness, everything else is locked away including wallets and phones. You zip-line over jungle tops, crash into water and swim through cenotes. Whenever you need it, you crawl out of the water, lie in a hammock and order a smoothie. The buffet restaurant is brimming with wholefoods and it’s one inclusive price. Plus, your helmet records photos that you receive at the end. I’ve never been to Disneyland but I have a hard time believing it could be better than X-Plor!
We are revisiting Tulum for a third time next April when we are attending a Noma restaurant pop up. Now that our children are older again we will aim to head further inland after we have our beach fix, to see what the jungle has to offer us. Hopefully tarantulas and howler monkeys are on the itinerary.