Tulum: Where to eat and what to see
Tulum sits at the end of 120km of pristine coastline that makes up the Riviera Maya. The beach road is lined on one side by restaurants dotted amongst verdant jungle, and on the other side resorts face the turquoise Caribbean sea and miles of fine white sand. It feels untouched by the traps of tourism and encourages one to switch off from technology and get back to nature. A true bohemian town where you can do as much or as little as you please.
With limited time and one of the most exquisite beaches I have ever seen, most of our days were spent getting a good dose of Vitamin D and swimming in the warm turquoise Caribbean sea. One afternoon we grabbed one of the Be Tulum bikes reserved for guests and rode the length of the beach road before stopping for a much-needed rest and refuel at one of the local restaurants.
Tulum is not all lazy beach days though. If you are looking for adventure and a dose of culture, you can visit the ruins of Chichen Itza, Coba and Tulum. Chichen Itza is perhaps the most famous of the Mayan ruins, with the Kukulkan Pyramid at Chichen Itza named one of the new seven wonders of the world. The site is one of the most visited in all of Mexico, covers roughly 5 kilometres and is one of the best preserved examples of Mayan architecture. Visiting the site gives you a sense of the sheer scale of Mayan history. The ruins of Coba lie 44km northwest of Tulum and are unique as many of the estimated 6,500 structures are yet to be uncovered. The sheer scale of the site covers over 80km and is set around two lagoons. It is best traversed by bikes, which are available to hire. You can also climb 130 steps to the top of the pyramid and for your efforts you are rewarded with stunning views across the jungle canopy.
With limited time in Tulum, we elected to visit the ruins of Tulum, which means fence or wall in the Mayan language, with a local guide. One of the smallest of the Mayan ruins, but perhaps one of the most beautiful; these ruins are built on the cliff tops of one of the most stunning beaches in all of the Riviera Maya. I would recommend visiting the ruins on a private tour for a more personalised experience and ideally early in the morning or late in the afternoon to avoid the hordes of tour buses that flock to the site on a daily basis. These ruins were one of the last built (around 800 years ago) during a time when the power of the Mayans was waning and served as an important trading port as well as a sacred site. El Castillo, which was originally thought to be just a temple, but now seems to have also served as a lookout for guiding canoes into the cove below. The Temple of the Frescoes which contains some of the best preserved examples of Mayan art and also served as an observatory for tracking the movements of the sun and the Temple of the Descending God are the three most famous buildings. It was an impressive site and a good way to get a sense of Mayan culture in the limited time we had.
Tulum is also home to a number of cenotes, which are underground sinkholes that have formed by the limestone terrain above collapsing into the underground network of caves and rivers. The water is incredibly clear and popular with both diving and snorkelling enthusiasts. One of the most visited in Tulum in Dos Ojos, which is 13km from Tulum and features two circular cenotes that create over 415m of underground caves. Both of the cenotes are easily accessed by wooden decks with stairs, with the right being better for snorkelling and swimming. The stalactites and stalagmites combined with the stunning blue shimmering waters make this an amazing and different swimming experience. Entrance to the site is around 100 pesos ($8-$10).
There are a number of great restaurants along the beach road in Tulum, which are either accessed by foot or by bicycle. I was already dying to try Hartwood, after reading that it was the best restaurant the editor of Conde Nast Traveller had ever been to. Huge call and I could not wait to check it out. Unfortunately I did not manage to snag a coveted table at Hartwood during my stay, so I will share a few tips to ensure the same fate does not befall you. Hartwood is closed on a Monday and Tuesday, so try to plan your stay accordingly. Next they are not joking when hotels tell you to head to Hartwood at 5:30pm...sure I thought, it seems relatively quiet, it's not peak tourist season and who honestly eats that early? So we took a chance and went later, much too late looking back. One of my girlfriends raced off on the bike after we realised we might have missed our chance. I eventually caught up and felt my stomach fall as she looked at me and shook her head. Rightly or wrongly, my whole trip to Tulum had been built around dining at Hartwood. Where to now? Swallowing my disappointment, we rode on a short distance and stopped at Gitano. This may have just been a most fortuitous decision...
Walking down the stone path and under the leafy arch with neon pink 'Gitano' sign, we were seated in the balmy summer air at one of the wooden tables. The long bar sits under a rustic canopy in the centre of the restaurant and to the left as you enter is a lounge area for casual cocktails, which sits under a tangle of jungle and palm trees and is illuminated by a mirrored disco ball. Seemingly incongruous and yet it works.
The menu is delicious! There were a number of amazing dishes that I couldn't wait to try, with all designed for sharing. Ordering cocktails and perusing the menu we settled on:
- TOTOPOS - CORN CHIPS, GUACAMOLE, PICO DE GALLO, SIKIL P’AK; who doesn't love fresh avocado with crunchy tostadas and a fresh pico de gallo of tomatoes, onion and chilli. A good way to get the tastebuds singing.
- TOSTADAS - ROASTED CHICKEN, CHIPOTLE, TOMATO, ONION; these were delicious. The perfect mix of crunchy tostadas with juicy plump chicken that has a welcome hit of warmth on the tongue from the chipotle, finished with zingy avocado and more fresh pico de gallo.
- SHRIMP TACOS - SHRIMP, CHARRED TOMATO; with shrimp marinated in charred tomatoes this taco had a smoky flavour. The addition of fresh coriander was an unexpected but welcome surprise.
- FISH TACOS - WHITE FISH, SALSA VERDE; out of all the entrees we tried this was the unanimous favourite. Delicious, perfectly cooked and melt in the mouth fish with tangy salsa verde. A match made in heaven!
- PORK SHANK - GRILLED PINEAPPLE; this was the standout main. A hefty pork shank that had been slow cooked on the bone for hours, resulting in the most melt in your mouth, moist pork that literally fell off the bone. The grilled pineapple added a nice hint of sweetness. Faultless!
- GRILLED STEAK - CHIMICHURRI; this was also another outstanding dish. Perfectly cooked, juicy steak covered in a generous helping of chimichurri sauce of finely chopped parsley, garlic, olive oil, oregano and vinegar. Yum!
Each plate is presented rustically on wooden boards and as the sun goes down and night falls across Tulum we enjoy our meal by candlelight. With bellies almost bursting we consider dessert, but unfortunately the standout choice is sold out for the evening. Such a shame as the chocolate and chile brownie with mezcal cream would have been amazing I am sure. Although I originally thought nothing could ease my disappointment of not being able to eat at Hartwood, this turned out to be a dark horse and may have just been my most memorable dining experience.
Other restaurants to check out in Tulum include:
- Casa Banana- further up the beach road this is a lovely restaurant complete with wood fired ovens and a well stocked bar. A worthwhile choice for both lunch and dinner with a delicious ceviche of mixed seafood.
- The restaurant at Be Tulum- possibly the best fish tacos we experienced all trip. Well worth trying, especially for late afternoon munchies looking out at the pristine turquoise ocean.
- El Capitan in Tulum town- well worth heading into town on one of the evenings and our taxi driver recommended this restaurant. Standout dishes were the ceviche, the grilled octopus which was some of the best I have ever had and the mexican seafood soup with its hit of chilli and rich tomato broth.
- Posada Margherita- one of the restaurant staff nominated this little gem for some of the best Italian in Tulum, not quite as good as his mother's but very very close.
All in all Tulum offers something for everyone, far from being over commercialised it offers something for beach babes, culture vultures and adrenalin junkies. Do yourself a favour and add Tulum to your bucket list. You will not be disappointed.