For my birthday this year, I went to Tulum, Mexico with Johnny. It was our first trip we would be taking together and it took ages to decide where to go. Buenos Aires? Mexico City? CUBA??? I hadn't taken a tropical vacation in forever, so the requirements were a nice beach and good food. And for Johnny, to "not die."
I'm not sure how we stumbled on the idea of Tulum. I think it was the combination of Googling around and recollections of east coast friends mentioning Tulum, that led us to our final destination. Tulum is right on the beach, we heard had great food, and is south of Cancun, so away from all the spring break craziness (Girls with Low Self Esteem!).
Norma had told me that Tulum is "paradise" and she was right! Tulum was indeed everything I had been craving in a vacation -- lazy days, balmy nights, miles of white sand, turquoise seas, tequila and tacos. It felt like forever to get there (a 5+ hour flight from SFO to Cancun, then a two hour bus ride south), but once we arrived, we were definitely planets away from home. This is exactly how I wanted to spend my birthday -- totally offline, incommunicado, just me, my book, and a great travel companion.
I had researched a ton on where to stay in Tulum, and held my breath as I confirmed a reservation for a cabaña (hut) on the beach at Coco Tulum. At $70 a night during high season, I was super skeptical, as other beachfront hotels in the same area easily go for $200+. But my faith in TripAdvisor reviews really paid off, as Coco really was an exceptional place to stay, for the price, and exceeded all expectations. Here is our view from our hut!
Tough life. All we got was a bed and a mosquito net, but who needs anything more? Extra credit for the hammock right outside the door. The shared bathrooms and showers were a bit of a pain, but they were always clean so no real complaints there. Coco's sister hotel, Playa Azul is just a short walk down the beach, and had everything else, like a restaurant and the bar with the deck chairs on the beach. We ended up spending a lot of time there for the amenities. We totally cheated the system -- we're so smart!
Coco was perfect for us, and we were really lucky as it was well-situated next to a slew of restaurants and bars. Here are our top three food highlights in Tulum.
Avenida Tulum + Luna Sur
When we first got to Tulum, our cabbie told us that El Camello was one of the best marisquerias (seafood shop) in town. Now, we all know that cabbies know best, so we headed straight there for my birthday feast. The place is a bit past the hubbub of the main Tulum road, but worth the trek. It was packed with locals and tourists alike, all clamoring for a table.
Locals and futból
Complimentary shark dip!
Mixed cóctel with octopus, shrimp and oysters in a tomato sauce. Look at that neon-green avocado! The ceviche is also well-known here.
Grilled lobster tail with garlic. Johnny's dream.
The El Camello fish market.
Tulum Beach Road, on the jungle side, across from the hotel Tita Tulum
I had heard that Tulum was the new "hot-spot" for NYCers, and Hartwood is surely a pioneering destination for the fashionista set. The owner/chef Eric Werner had been a chef in Manhattan who relocated to Tulum to open Hartwood -- a restaurant with no walls, under open skies, with a drop-dead gorgeous kitchen. And most importantly, a prized wood-fired oven.
The menu at Hartwood changes daily, with ingredients that are locally sourced. Yadda yadda.
A fizzy gin drink with mint and a slice of mango.
A fresh tomato salad with cheese and some sort of spicy radish-like sprout, tossed in a vinaigrette.
Vionier from Baja! It was really great to drink a nice bottle of Mexican wine.
For dinner, we ordered the special fish for two, which was a locally-caught boquinete (hog fish). Can you see it?
It was a huge, ugly fella, with plenty of strong meat and bones. Chef Werner simply stuffed it with citrus and herbs, and stuck it in the oven on a cast iron pan with some juicy radishes. It was a nicely-prepared and a very memorable dish.
The cocktail menu was full of mezcal, gin and tequila. They made their own fresh fruit juices and syrups too.
Birds of Paradise.
Kuulani, a Bay Area native who worked at Chez Panisse, moved to Tulum a year ago and now works at Hartwood. She is a joy.
ANTOJITOS LA CHIAPANECA
West side of Avenida Tulum, right past a fast-food pizza joint
Kuulani told us about Chiapaneca, and on our last night, we came out to the main strip in Tulum to get our tacos on. We learned early on that in Tulum, most taquerias and casual eateries are closed during the day. So just keep this in mind when making plans to eat.
Johnny is a major taco critic, and is especially cuckoo for the al pastor variety. This is when a meat is stacked on a spit vertically, like so...
... in real life!
The pineapple on top is always a good sign. He sliced the pork with precision. Drooling now.
Mamas in the kitchen -- another good sign.
The salsas were all lined up, waiting for me to douse my tacos.
Menu painted on the wall. So smart!
Please, please don't end!
Happy taco critic.
Meat on fire!
Five days in Tulum was much too short. There's so much to do! Like swim with turtles, visit ruins, snorkel, and dive through the cenotes (swimming holes).
Tulum ruins, right on the beach. Can you see the iguana?
We snorkeled with tropical fish in this bay.
When factoring in how long it takes to get to Tulum, you really should stay for at least a week. We'd do a few things differently next time, like rent a car at the airport so we could cruise around to other towns to see ruins and eat more tacos and feast on local cuisine. The Tulum beach area is quite touristy, so it's hard to find simple, cheap food. Everything is pretty pricey, and geared towards the yoga retreaters. Nothing wrong with that, but it would be nice to get out and visit other towns in the area that are not so infiltrated with tourists.
All said, I had such a wonderful time, [Johnny came home alive], and every day I think of waking up to the Caribbean waves. And those perfectly-charred tacos at Chiapateca! Check out the rest of our photos of other eateries and our iguana friends, below. [For captions, please enlarge the slideshow (bottom right corner) and click on “Show Info” on the top right corner. If you are on an iPad or iPhone, please access the photo gallery here.]
Thank you Tulum for your hospitality, dreamy landscape, and diverse food culture. We'll be back soon!
*Photos by Johnny Lopes and Kayoko Akabori