Sachi asked me last year if I wanted to go to Mexico with her, I said "absolutely" without hesitation. Not because I had strong feelings about the specific destination, but because she is a dear friend and we'd been talking about taking a trip together for awhile. (You may remember her from blog appearances such as "Sushi with Sachi" or my forays into Indian cooking).
Our schedules never really coincided last fall, so we postponed 'til 2015. The timing couldn't have been better. It was a much-needed escape for both of us, and we added a third traveler to the mix, my friend & makeup artist Susie Popovich... who, as it turns out, was a frequent visitor of Tulum.
And as it also turns out, Tulum is a very magical place that should absolutely be on your list to visit if you haven't already.
Transportation: Avant Rent A Car- Tulum is located about 90 minutes south of Cancun, so you will need some form of transportation to get there from the airport. Many people opt for a shuttle service, ranging in price from around $180-$220 round trip depending on the company and number of people in your party. (Your hotel can likely arrange this for you as well). However, after doing some research, I decided it would be nice to have a car during our stay, and I'm so glad we did.
As with anything travel related, it's important which company you pick and keep in mind it is Mexican law to purchase insurance. So if you see a rate online that says your car will only cost $2 per day or something ridiculous... know that's FLAT OUT LIE and they will likely charge you an extra $30 per day for the insurance and try to sell you on a timeshare property in the process.
My friend Kristen Keith recommended Avant Rent A Car. Of course I was a little weary considering it wasn't an American company I was familiar with such as Avis, etc, but I trusted Kristen's advice and wasn't disappointed. No rental car center to deal with, no shuttles, no timeshare pitches. They literally meet you at the airport with your car, you sign the contract on site, and you drop it off curbside at your terminal when you leave (they will frantically wave you down as you drive up).
If you decide to go with them, they will send you extensive instructions on how to find them, but basically, you walk right past all of the other rental companies, past the little coffee shop and someone will be waiting for you in the family area with a placard that has your name on it (all pictured above). They offer a free day on a four-day rental, so our total was around $150, and they upgraded me to an automatic for free.
Accommodation: Ahau Tulum- We looked at a variety of lodging options, including Air BnB, but in the end, we decided to opt for a cute little eco boutique hotel on the beach. Ahau Tulum fit the bill perfectly. Unless you opt for a beach front room, we found the King size, garden view rooms to be moderately priced (around $200) and perfect for our needs. (The room was also big enough to add another bed to accommodate our party of 3, for a fee of $25 per night). There is air conditioning, but you are only allowed to use it from 9pm until 8am... which is fine since you shouldn't really be spending too much time in your room during the day anyways.
I loved the little thoughtful touches. Organic bug spray, towel art on your bed each day, and my personal favorite... fresh Mexican-style coffee and pastries delivered to your balcony each morning (best enjoyed in your own personal hammock). They also offer free parking and wifi, yoga classes each morning for $12, and massage services.
But let's be honest. You come to Mexico for the beaches, and Ahau Tulum really shines in this department. Our first day, we took a leisurely stroll up the beach and we concluded that Ahau Tulum definitely had one of the cleanest and prettiest setups around. They rake the beach each day and offer beds, beach towels, hammocks, umbrellas and most importantly, top-notch beachside food and drink service.
**Side note: We were worried about the seaweed situation, as the entire Riviera Maya has been dealing with a saragassum (brown seaweed) invasion for the past year. It wasn't totally seaweed-free, but it definitely wasn't as bad as the photos and articles we'd seen. And furthermore, Ahau Tulum did its best to keep it off their portion of the beach.
Speaking of that food and drink service.. special shout-out to our server, Ricardo, who took extremely good care of us during our beach days at Ahau Tulum. If you stay here, you absolutely MUST get at least one drink served in a pineapple and/or coconut decorated with a creative fruit face. (If that doesn't scream: "I'M ON A SUPER FUN BEACH VACATION!" I don't know what does). We also loved the ceviche mixto and the guacamole... a perfect beachside snack while you're sipping on piña coladas and getting your Mexican tan on. (They will even cut open your coconut when you're done to enjoy the "meat" afterwards.)
Ahau Tulum also has a restaurant on site, which utilizes all local and fresh ingredients. We dined there for dinner on our first night (since we arrived in the middle of a torrential downpour and didn't feel like venturing out) and also for breakfast one of the mornings. As I mentioned above, we loved the ceviche... and at breakfast, the Ahau Eggs dish is not to be missed. It's a poached egg nestled in phyllo dough, with cheese and crispy onions on top. Best part, you can dine with sand in your toes and an ocean view if you so choose. And while you could be perfectly fine eating most of your breakfasts (or meals) at this restaurant... you shouldn't. That's because Tulum is a foodie paradise! You should absolutely venture out and try as many as the fabulous restaurants as possible, as outlined in the remainder of this post, and organized by my "best of" designations.
A quick note about currency: Several of the restaurants we visited only take cash, though a few did take cards. While many of them accept U.S. dollars, I highly recommend paying in pesos. The restaurants all arbitrarily set what exchange rate they will give you. While we were there, my bank was giving me around 16.5-16.8 pesos on the dollar. Many of the restaurants did 14 or 15, and one even did as few as 12!! So as long as you take out enough cash at the ATM's to maximize what you pay in fees (there's one at Ahau Tulum), even with your bank fees, you will be saving a lot of dinero by paying in pesos.
Best place to feel all healthy and stuff: Raw Love
Another great perk to staying at Ahau Tulum is that it is also home to "Raw Love," a vegan smoothie and coffee bar that also serves small bites and breakfast items. Our room was in a prime location, as this place was literally steps away from our front door. It's not affiliated with the hotel really (you must pay cash, can't charge to your room), but it's located smack dab in the middle of the labyrinth of cabanas that make up Ahau Tulum's property. I was obsessed with the frozen coconut latte (made with fresh coconut milk). All of their smoothies are amazing and can be made into a bowl topped with fresh fruit, goji berries and chia seeds (and if you really like chia, they also make a killer chia seed pudding.) Special thanks to Sophie, who took excellent care of us during our stay.
Best Huevos Rancheros OF YOUR LIFE: Mezzanine
I'm really not exaggerating, these were the best huevos rancheros I've ever eaten. And also the prettiest (pictured bottom left). The restaurant at the Mezzanine Hotel is actually a Thai restaurant, but they keep it Mexican at breakfast. Sachi and I each ordered the huevos, which came with two soft tortillas, topped with refried black beans, two perfectly fried eggs, a spiced tomato sauce, avocado and cheese. I have dreams about this breakfast dish. We also enjoyed the coconut passion fruit french toast for the table (breakfast appetizers FTW!) and Susie opted for the Tostada Mezzanine (bottom right) and loved it. Mezzanine also has a gorgeous view and seems like it would be a nice place to stay as well.
Best bite: Ceviche at El Camello Jr.
Towards the end of our trip, Sachi asked me to name my favorite "bite." I pondered this carefully, as we enjoyed so much incredible food during our short stay... but then I remembered our meal at El Camello Jr., which came highly recommended by her brother and sister in law. I will never forget that first bite of ceviche there. So bright, so delicious, so fresh. (I meannnnnn, when a guy walks in with a giant fish... you know all of it was caught that day.) The ceviche mixto was also the most interesting I had ever tried: octopus, sea snails, as well as shrimp and white fish. Even if you don't like octopus or snails, you would like this I think. It was't fishy in the least, and our "medium" plate (which was HUGE), was devoured in no time. I was sad to learn that the tacos are not available at dinner, but Susie and I shared a fish platter, which came with tortillas, so we just made our own. Sachi ordered a seafood soup that was also tasty and brimming with seafood, and we were also obsessed with the black bean puree that came with the fresh chips and salsa. The restaurant is located towards the edge of the actual town (not the beach area), so you will need to drive or take a cab. You will notice a ton of locals eating here, which is always a good sign in my mind. And the best part? Our total bill, with tip, came out to about $30 U.S.
Best ambiance: Posada Margherita
If I'm ever lucky enough (and wealthy enough) to own a beach house, I would like to decorate it exactly the same way as Posada Margherita. Such a perfect mix of beachy chic, you can't help but feel relaxed and happy here. Susie had dined here several times before, and highly recommended it. I'll admit, at first, Sachi and I were both a little skeptical when we learned it was an Italian restaurant. (Margherita not Margarita.) Not that I don't love Italian food... (because I do, very, very much) but I had grand ambitions of stuffing myself with as much Mexican food as humanly possible on this trip. So initially, we just ate there for breakfast, which was fabulous (fresh juices, omelets, etc... selected from a menu hand painted on a board.) But on our final night... we also ended up dining here for dinner, and Sachi and I were both happily left eating our words... literally.
Best place to eat Italian food in Mexico: Posada Margherita
If you like the ambiance during the day, you will absolutely fall in love with it at night. You feel as though you just stepped onto a romantic movie set. Beautiful people dining by candlelight on the beach in a lively environment with the waves crashing in the background. The place feels almost magical. The cocktails were probably my second favorite of the trip (more on our favorites in a bit), and the food was stunning... in both taste and presentation. They start you out with a giant platter of focaccia bread, served with cheese and pickled cauliflower. We shared two large dishes and a salad, and it was the perfect amount of food for three girls (along with a dessert to share). They make their pastas to order, and we opted for the one served inside a lobster shell, with fresh lobster to go along with it. You also must try the fish that is poached in salt water. It literally melts in your mouth. And honestly, after 3 days of nonstop chips and salsa, I was ready for a break... I just didn't know it until we got there. They don't take reservations, so either arrive early, or be prepared to wait. (We got there around 6:30 or 7, and timed it perfectly as we were seated right away, but the place quickly filled up after we arrived). I will say, it was probably the most expensive meal of our trip, but a perfect spot to celebrate our last night of travels.
Best Cocktails: Casa Jaguar
We happened to ask for a recommendation for cocktails while walking around during our first full day in Tulum, and when the guy told us Casa Jaguar, we were pumped to learn it was literally across the road from our hotel. We became even more excited when we tasted the amazing drink concoctions. It was a welcome change from the standard margaritas and mojitos you'll find at most of the other places. My favorite was the Tikal, which had coconut cream, mezcal, pineapple and guanabana. Sachi fell in love with the Temezcal, which mixed mezcal with tamarind, pineapple and basil. And Susie consistently went with the Kanto, which featured vodka, basil, ginger and lime. Needless to say, we ended most of our nights here following dinner, as it was a quick walk from the hotel and is open until 11. It also came in a close second for best ambiance, as the decor and jungle setting was really enchanting. (We were told they also have a fun dance party there on Thursdays, but our trip fell on a Friday-Tuesday. Additionally, they serve food if you are hungry.)
Best place to get pissed off at the manager: El Tabano
Never have I been more frustrated with service and a manager as I was at El Tabano. It's a shame too, because the food was actually really tasty. The menu is written on a giant chalkboard, and I always enjoy an open kitchen at restaurants. Sadly, that's where my compliments end. Sachi and I ordered a bottle of wine, but after about 30 minutes of waiting for it, we became agitated. Especially considering the food had started to arrive. Finally, the manager arrives with a bottle. Except it's the wrong one. (As in... we ordered a Tempranillo, it was a Nebbiolo). Not only was it the wrong one, it was a considerably more expensive one. When we mentioned this, he informed us they were out of the one we ordered. At this point, we told him to just bring us two glasses of red. This took another 15 minutes, to the point I was about to cancel the wine order altogether since our food was almost gone and we just wanted to get the hell out of there. When I politely and calmly tried to express my frustration to the manager, he pulled up a stool, sat down as if to apologize but instead condescendingly said "I'm sorry that you've never had a bad day and that you're perfect." I responded with "Whoa, whoa, whoa. I never said I was perfect. Can you please just bring us the check?" I seriously wanted to punch the guy. Not only did he not comp any of our bill, but they charged us for guacamole that never arrived, so we had to ask for an adjustment. It was an unpleasant experience to say the least.
Best place to R-E-L-A-X: Maya Tulum
Ok, so this isn't a restaurant (though there is one on the property), but you absolutely must splurge and get a spa treatment at Maya Tulum. (There are rooms there as well.) I went for a deep tissue paired with a Mayan Clay treatment. I wish I had snapped a quick selfie because I was covered in the stuff from head to toe, including my hair. It's said to help with absorption of essential minerals and also draws out impurities from the skin and hair. Sachi and Susie opted for the traditional Mayan "Yoot Kene" massage, which focuses on your abdominal organs.
Best place to get cultured: Tulum Ruins
One of the cool parts about Tulum is you can easily access the ancient Mayan ruins, and unlike some of the other sites in the area, these ones are situated overlooking the beach. I had actually visited these on an excursion from Playa del Carmen like 10 years ago, and Susie had also frequented them on her previous trips. However, this was Sachi's first visit to the area, so we popped over on our second to last day. It was very hot, and we were longing for more beach time, so we didn't spend too much time here, but enough to get the idea and snap a few photos. "Look! Ruins" "Look! Iguanas!" (Entrance fee is less than $4). I would recommend going first thing in the morning to avoid lines and the hot sun. Additionally, you can use the beach there, so you could make a day of it (but we were missing our pina colada faces and Ricardo back at Ahau Tulum). Also... Mezzanine is on the way to the ruins, so that would be a good day to stop there for breakfast either before or after for some bomb huevos rancheros.
Best places we missed: Sadly, there were tons of things we just didn't have time for during our stay in Tulum. (All the more reason to go back!) So because I did the research, I felt I should pass along these additional spots to you!
El Pollo Bronco: Similar to El Camello Jr., this is more of a "locals" spot and it's also located in town. Most people simply refer to it simply as "Tulum Chicken" and it's supposedly out of this world (and also very cheap). It gets rave reviews on Trip Advisor and Yelp, so it definitely seems to be worth a visit.
Hartwood: If you do a Google search about top restaurants in Tulum, Hartwood will likely be named in all of them. (Including this NY Times article exclusively dedicated to this restaurant.) It was started by a Brooklyn couple who relocated to Mexico, and decided to only cook on open flame (apparently there is no electricity in the place at all). It was at the top of my food list for our trip, so I was very sad to learn that they were closed for renovations from August until the day after we left. That's some unfortunate luck. They only take day-of reservations in person, starting at 3pm, so be prepared to venture over to put your name in around that time. The good news? It's very close to Ahau Tulum (across the road on the jungle side). Just note... for all its praise, some have also said it to be overrated, so do your research and make your own decisions from there.
Cetli: We actually tried eating here. But unfortunately, it's a very small place, and we did not make a reservation. So. Learn from our mistakes. Make a reservation. Similar to Hartwood, this also will likely appear on most "must try" lists for Tulum restaurants. It's located on a little side street in town, so you will need to drive or take a cab. (This also happened to be the night of our horrible experience at El Tabano, so that was just an all-around bad luck night for us).
Cenotes: Not a restaurant... but an activity. The cenotes are basically jungle pools where cave ceilings have collapsed. They are supposedly awesome for snorkeling or diving. You can take guided tours (for a hefty price, usually over $100 for the day)... or you can drive to individual ones and just pay the entrance fee. I was considering Gran Cenote or Dos Ojos based on reviews and proximity to Tulum. In the end, we didn't want to give up precious beach time during our short trip, but I definitely want to check them out on a return visit! Most reviewers recommend arriving early in the morning when they open or later in the afternoon to avoid the crowds from the above-mentioned guided tours.
My only complaint about the trip (aside from our little mishap at El Tabano)... is it wasn't long enough. I was gone five days, but we only really had three full days in Tulum by the time we flew there and drove the 90 minutes south. I would budget at least 4-5 full days if you can. But as I've mentioned several times... I plan to return! It's so different and special from any of my other Mexican vacations. No all-inclusive resorts, no time share pitches... just good food, good people, yoga, and beach. Arriba!