Are you looking for a romantic getaway in Mexico away from the crowds and tour buses full of tourists? Do you feel like sometimes you need a vacation from your vacation because there was too much hustle and bustle getting around while you were there? Then look no further, because everything you are looking for can be found in one magical place, Tulum.
Tulum, in the heart of the Mayan Riviera only about an hour and a half from Cancun airport, is a hidden gem that has somehow maintained it’s bohemian feel despite the overdevelopment of the Yucatan peninsula around it. Intrepid travelers who want to experience Mexico's untouched beauty should bypass the concrete-high-rise jungle that is Cancun, and head straight down the Yucatan Peninsula coast to Tulum.
Here on the Tulum beach strip, you will find one small road that runs the length of the beach and leads you straight to the arch which is the access way to Sian Ka’an marine reserve. You feel like you are in the middle of the jungle while just steps from the pristine white sand beaches. Each boutique hotel is nestled and built into its surroundings and is kept impeccably clean. There are about 50 different hotels here, ranging from eco-huts running on wind power to funky boutique hotels with private cabanas, but what you won’t find here are huge 500 room hotels.
It is amazing that Tulum has remained largely untouched by overwhelming development. Though travelers won't be able to rely on cell phone signals and Wi-Fi is spotty, I found this to be part of the charm of Tulum forcing me to disconnect from my daily life and my smart phone and just connect with the magical surroundings around me.
Although there is a street running through town, most people choose to walk along the beach connecting all of the hotels and have the freedom to stop anywhere to relax, swim, order a cocktail, or get your pick of beach massages. If you did want to cruise around and check out the shops or Tulum’s downtown area, it was easy to hitch a ride or rent a bicycle. There was no time urgency anywhere
I actually lost my shoes on the trip somewhere in the sand and never needed to find them again. Most people are barefoot on the sand and there was no need for shoes or cars here. The beach is public the whole way along and you can find many options where you can dine or enjoy a drink with the baby powder-sand between your toes.
Eating well and healthy is remarkably easy in Tulum, thanks to restaurants on restaurant row like Ahua, which focuses on whole ingredients, organic locally sourced foods, and big flavors. Relax with a cup of organic coffee or a fresh smoothie, but no matter where you choose to dine along this small strip of tiny restaurants, you know you will be eating amazing, authentic cuisine.
Do as much or as little as you want..
For a sleepy town like Tulum, there is a remarkable amount of activities to do that could keep you busy for over a week. For the adrenaline junkies out there, Tulum beach is famous for kite surfing due to the constant wind and waves that lap the shores. You can also climb the Ruins of Coba and learn about the local indigenous history of the Yucatan Peninsula, visit the Pyramids of Tulum, Scuba dive the famous Cenotes lagoons, or trek through the jungle.
If you are wanting to refresh your body, there are countless beach yoga classes up and down the strip, meditation and massage spas on the beach, or snorkeling and swimming in the crystal blue waters right off the beach.
Every hotel has mattresses on the beach that you can just doze off and read to the sound of the waves, or sip a cocktail and watch the kite surfers sweat it out, but regardless of what you choose to do, there is something for everyone here. My only advice is to not miss the Three Ancient Wonders of Tulum that are “Must-do’s” while you are there.
Climb the Pyramids of the Ancient City of Coba or visit the ruins of Tulum
If you want to learn about the rich history of the Yucatan Peninsula and Ancient Mayan culture, you are in the right place. There are so many Mayan ruins throughout the Mexican landscape, but Tulum has the best number of well-preserved ruins dating back to the 13th century. Plan a day trip to visit the ruins and take the time to properly explore the many sites which have dramatic clifftop views of the Yucatán Peninsula coast and the turquoise waters of the Caribbean.
If you travel a bit inland, you can discover the Ancient City of Coba either by walking or via bicycle. This Mayan archaeological site is still largely unexcavated, making it a true wonder in the Yucatan. The pyramids are connected by shaded walkways that are the original white roads of this once large city 30 square km in size! Unlike Tulum’s ruins, you can still climb the highest Mayan pyramid in the Yucatan, Nohoch Mul, here at Coba. Once at the top, you have an incredible vantage point above the jungle treeline and can see what used to be a giant Mayan City from 2500 BC! Your day at Coba can last up to 3 hours if you walk the site, a little over an hour if you rent bicycles to cruise through the old city, or in less than an hour if you choose the “Mayan limo”, a chauffeured tricycle where you just sit and take in the sights. Both bicycle options are inexpensive and super fun!
Swim or Dive in the Sacred Waters of the Cenotes
Cenotes are natural swimming holes formed by sinkholes into an ancient cave system that was flooded by glacier water from millions of years ago. These sinkholes have revealed a secret subterranean world of groundwater pools. Most cave cenotes have fresh water that has been meticulously filtered by the earth, making them so clear and pure that you can see straight through to the bottom.
The Ancient Mayans used to revere the cenotes because they were a fresh water source in dry times. The name cenote means 'sacred well.' Mayans settled villages around these spiritual wells and believed that they were a portal to speak with the gods. Today you can still feel the power and mystery of these waters when you are swimming in them.
There are 300 miles of connected underground caves systems that are still largely unmapped. Our only entrances into these underground rivers are through these open-air cenote caves. It’s amazing that while you are snorkeling in one, divers can suddenly pop up and you realize that they have been swimming in a secret underworld of turquoise pools surrounded by stalactites and stalagmites.
There are literally dozens of Cenotes in and around Tulum and Playa del Carmen. At these hidden locations, you can swim in crisp mineral-rich waters in magical caves or under a jungle-framed sky and feel lost in another time. El Gran Cenote is one of the region's most popular because of it cavernous beauty and comfortable lounge areas, but I preferred Chiken-Ha which was less developed and not full of tourists. At Chiken-Ha, we were able to climb into a cave with a local Chaman and experience an ancient Mayan purification ceremony where you gather around a fire and enter “Temazcal," a smoke ceremony, which in Mayan symbolism represents the return to the womb that heals us to purified rebirth.
Snorkel the Sian Ka'an Biosphere Preserve
Sian Ka’an is a UNESCO World Heritage site and protected biosphere portion of the Riviera Maya. This protected national treasure is enormous, almost 1.3 million acres in total, comprising almost one-third of the Caribbean coast of Mexico. With a rich historical background, diverse ecosystem and large waterways, the Sian Ka’an biosphere is treasured by locals.
The northernmost section of the reserve contains what is thought to be an ancient trade route through the lagoons and mangrove channels between the cities of Tulum and Muyil. The fishing industry is still one of the most important activities for residents in the reserve and you can rent a boat driven by a local fisherman to take you to the reefs and lagoons. Here you can relax on deserted white sand beaches, snorkel, swim, and learn about the history and environmental richness of this area.
As I write this, I’m torn between wanting to spread the word about this hidden gem or keep it a secret from the droves of tourists that will want to descend upon Tulum. There are few places left where the simple life prevails over technology and we revert back to good old-fashioned walking and talking.
Paradise, I have found, is whatever you want to make of it and comes in many forms. But in order to disconnect completely, we need to learn how to reconnect with nature, ourselves, our bodies, and just the elements around us.
The Ancient Mayans in certain ways knew a lot more than us about connecting to our world and the heavens. They understood what being “connected” really meant and I found that while here in Tulum, the people have somehow managed to pass down this Mayan secret through the generations and just maintain a simplicity and a flow that works. There is a real tangible energy and magic about being here in Tulum and I hope that it never changes.