A (Kind of) Hidden Gem

For a few years I’ve been looking for a tropical vacation spot that balances an eco tourism feel without being completely secluded.  A place with cool hotels that aren’t severely overpriced.  A place with a lot to do and see without being too touristy.  I finally found it in Tulum, Mexico.

About four years ago, while staying in Playa del Carmen, we made a trip to Tulum to see the Mayan Ruins.  The beach was amazing, however, we didn’t see anything that interested us in going back.  Within the past few years, I’ve had a few people tell me that they loved Tulum and how it had a magical feel to it, but I couldn’t picture it.  All that I had seen was a run down town that centered around a tourist trap of old ruins.  However, we decided to check it out for ourselves.

After landing in Cancun, we took an hour and half ride down to Tulum.  Once we passed the ruins, we took a left onto a long road that seemed to be going nowhere.  After dead ending into the ocean, we turned and started down a road that was barely big enough for two cars.  I could instantly tell that there was something about this place that I liked.  No touristy shops.  There were people, but no crowds.  Everyone was either walking or riding bicycles and everything seemed calm.  When we arrived at Ana y Jose, we were given a quick tour and taken to our bungalow, Brisa del Mar.  It was perfect.  A little beach side bungalow which was little more than a bedroom and bathroom.  It had no television and two chairs on a front porch that looked onto the ocean.

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Tulum has some of the whitest sand and bluest water I’ve ever seen.  As you walk along the beach, it becomes clear that this place is different.  Most of the hotels or cabanas are almost out of sight because they are so integrated into the natural setting of palm trees and plant life.  The beach seems to be its original size, not having been cleared out or expanded.  There were people out on the beach using rakes to clean up some of the seaweed.  The beaches aren’t perfectly manicured, but they are perfect.  Its easy to see this place was founded by people cared about it and want to maintain its natural beauty.  There is almost a hippie vibe to it.  Rain catching barrels and natural energy windmills are clear signs of it.  Electricity is only available for certain hours in most cabanas and many of the restaurants are light by candlelight only which makes the experience all the more relaxing…for the most part.  Since there is little electricity, there are no streetlights so you end up walking in complete darkness. Since there are no sidewalks, you end up walking on the roads.  Between the crazy drivers and the giant holes along the sides, it can get pretty dangerous. I would highly recommend brining or buying a small flashlight.

The food is amazing in Tulum.  We tried to get to the places that we heard the most through friends recommendations and found a few little spots of our own.  Here is what I would consider the Superfecta of Tulum restaurants in order.

Hartwood

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This place is as good as it gets.  We were told that the chef is from New York’s Peasant.  He has definitely brought Tulum’s culinary scene to a whole new level.  The restaurant uses local ingredients sourced daily from fisherman and farmers stretching far into the mountains and surrounding jungle.  There is no commercial kitchen so everything is prepared in an open air kitchen with a wood burning oven and grill which makes it all the more astonishing that this level of food can be consistently prepared.  The place sell out night after night and they don’t take reservations.  We got there around six o’clock, waited in line for about 30 minutes, only to have seating stopped for the night one couple in front of us.  Being first come first serve, the line forms early and only about 180 people get seated in one of three seating times per night.  The entire place is open are, including its makeshift lounge.  We tried again the next night, arriving around 5.  We ate with new friends that night so we chose to take the second seating and enjoy a few cocktails before dinner.    The Gin Gin Queen is really refreshing even without the alcohol.  We ordered a virgin version for my pregnant wife.  You can taste the freshness in the The Tropical Punch which uses multiple juices and rum.  I highly recommend both.

Once seated we ordered two appetizers, grilled shrimp and a jicama salad.  Both were good, but the grilled shrimp is one of the best appetizers I’ve ever had.  For dinner you have to try the pork ribs.  The combination of fall off the bone meat, an amazing sauce, and the huge portion size seem to make this dish their most popular.  My wife said that these were the best ribs she has ever had and possibly one of the best meals.  I had the skirts steak which was equally as good.  The side dish of grilled chaya, a mexican superfood, was surprisingly good and very unique.  Overall, this place is a must and well worth the two nights waiting in line and the money.

El Tobano

 

Being our first night in Tulum, we didn’t know what to expect of the area in general.  When we arrived at El Tobano, we quickly discovered what this area was all about.  The restaurant is open air with a bar at the entrance.  The bartenders were just prepping for the night and provide great entertainment by recapping the drunken night before.  What really made this place stand out was the habanero shrimp.  It was unexpectedly good and something a dish that can’t really be explained.

El Camello Jr.

El Camillo
Don’t let the outside scare you away, this place is a local favorite

I love places that are a little off the beaten path and nothing to look at and El Camello Jr. fits the bill.  A favorite for locals, this place is owned by fisherman and serves “as fresh as it gets” seafood.  Rumor has it that the other area restaurants actually come here to buy their seafood.  After a long, and hot bike ride from the beach, I wasn’t sure if we were going to find this place. Its on you way OUT of town.  We were able to sit down quickly for lunch, but had perfect timing.  Within 15 minutes of us sitting in an empty restaurant, the place was packed with locals.  Always a good sign.  We started us off with a few dips including a lemon habanero hot sauce (too thin to call salsa) that was great, but very hot.  We weren’t very hungry so we tried to split a meal but ended up with two anyway do to our lack of Spanish.    But the dish we originally ordered, octopus with mojo garlic sauce was great.  It had a lot of flavor and just the right amount of spice.  This was a great lunch find for sure.

Posada Margherita

Posada Margherita

 

This place is a Tulum classic and seems to be one of the original foodie places in the area.  A young Italian couple own it and have another location in NYC.  This is by far the best atmosphere of any restaurant we visited.  The place was packed with a good looking energetic crowd, so we had to wait about 30 minutes to get seated.  It was worth it.  Structured with multiple open faced levels, every seat has a view of the ocean and a great breeze.  The entire place is candle lit and the eclectic rustic decor made this place completely unique.  There is one guy the goes over the simple menu with each table.  The three appetizers, four pastas, and three fish dishes are all written in Italian, so unless you’re fluent, he needs to explain them.  This is a great touch because this guy, I believe he was the owner, had a great personality and is the perfect person to make your night at Posada start right.  He explained that all the pastas are made from scratch when ordered.  This takes a little time so don’t expect to each right away.  Both of the pasta dishes that we had were really good.  I would definitely recommend having dinner here or even just grabbing a few drinks.

The restaurants are the only unique things in Tulum.  Any vacation of mine isn’t complete without a massage.  We, however, opted to take it to the next level and do a Mayan Clay massage.  Local lure says that this clay has healing powers that range from detoxifying the body to healing sunburn.  Its a really weird experience but something I would definitely do again.  The hut that they do the massages in is open on all sides and only covered by netting.  The showers that you rinse off in are in the courtyard and only covered by a loosely structured bamboo screen.  Both of these facts can make you a little timid about getting undressed for you massage and cleaning off afterwords, but hey, when in Rome (or Tulum in this case).

My wife looks good even covered in clay!  I'm a lucky guy.
My wife looks good even covered in clay! I’m a lucky guy.

The massage it self is very relaxing and believe it or not, my sunburn wasn’t hurting the next day!  We tried to bring some of the Mayan Clay that they sell back with us but unfortunately it didn’t make it through security.

Tulum is know as a yoga destination so our trip wouldn’t have been complete if we didn’t hit the mat at least once.  I do yoga weekly and really enjoy visiting different studios when on vacation, so I was really looking forward to this.  Yoga Shala came highly recommended to us.  Just like everything in Tulum, the setting was really cool.  The studio is on the jungle side and set back a little.  Classes are done in a “Shala” which resembles a giant tiki hut.  The first class we did was a mixture between a Vinyasa flow and Tai Chi, which was something new to me, but something that I really enjoyed.  However, the instructor told us about a Sunday evening class that she did at 5 pm which centered around Yin Yoga.  I had never even heard of this type of yoga, but since it was described as a more meditative style, I had to try it.  I have to admit, this class was one of the best yoga practices I’ve ever had.  Don’t expect an intense workout, but do expect to be challenged in different ways.

Overall, this was the perfect vacation.  Considering that my wife is expecting our second child in July and that we didn’t bring our son Brooks with us, this was the best place we could have gone to relax and enjoy a real vacation.  Something I rarely get to do, even when I take other “vacations”.  Tulum is definitely a gem.  However, its one that isn’t so hidden anymore.