Tulum, Mexico: Three days on the most beautiful stretch of beach we’ve seen in all our world travels.
This was our second trip to Tulum. Our first trip was back in 2009. We stayed in a little bungalow a the end of the Boca Paila beach road next to the Sian Ka’an Biosphere. There was only electricity from a generator after 5:00 PM, and our Argentinian host cooked delicious yet simple BBQ dinners in the evenings. The powdered-sugar beach was amazing, and we often had it all to ourselves. Far (but not too far) from the maddening tourist crowds and all-inclusive resorts of Cancun and Playa Del Carmen, Tulum felt like an undiscovered, sleepy paradise.
Needless to say, we’d been longing to go back. The two drawbacks to our first trip to Tulum were the time of year (September was WAY too hot for our taste, although we did enjoy the lack of crowds), and our bungalow at the end of the Boca Paila road was nice and remote, but if we needed to go to town we had to hire a taxi to take us the seven miles into town, which was expensive if we wanted to go to town frequently.
This trip, we went with a couple friends of ours during peak season in March, and stayed on the north end of the Boca Paila road closer to town. I had done a little research on the hotels along the beach road, and there were sections in the middle that were fairly rocky without a really nice sandy beach. It looked like the best beach stretches were on the north and south ends. (Tip–to see what kind of beach a hotel has, use the Google Maps satellite feature to see the coast from above).
We opted to stay at La Vita e Bella, which was a bit more money than we wanted to spend but looked like it had a great beach.
When we arrived at Hotel La Vita e Bella in Tulum at 12:30, we were told that our room wouldn’t be ready until 3:00 but that we could leave our bags at the front desk luggage storage until then. Our friends Heather and Stephen had arrived a couple days prior and Heather met us in the beach bar and we took a taxi into town (Tulum Pueblo) for lunch. Unfortunately, Stephen had made the mistake of drinking some tamarind water from a taco truck on Isla Holbox, and had been pretty sick for their first two days.
**Pro tip: stick to bottled drinks only.
The Tulum Pueblo is a few miles from the hotels along the Boca Paila beach road, and a taxi or car is necessary to get to and from. The hotels and restaurants in the pueblo are much less expensive than the ones on the beach. That being said, the beach is the best beach we’ve ever been to in all our travels, and the extra money to stay on the beach is worth it. The sand is a soft, powdered sugar texture with no rocks or coral in the water in many places, and the water is electric blue.
In the Tulum Pueblo, we had lunch at La Barracuda, a great little local seafood restaurant on the far end of the main drag. Lunch came with complimentary chips and a tiny cup of a brothy crab soup. We had fish, shrimp, and octopus tacos and they were all outstanding. Prices were excellent—if you are in town looking for food, this place is worth the trek down to the end of the main street.
When we arrived back to check into our room at La Vita e Bella, the girl working at the desk showed us to a very tiny bungalow near the public bathrooms with a view of the bushes in front of the restaurant, just steps from the front desk. Pretty much the shittiest mid-range bungalow they had.
We had booked a “junior suite,” which was described as being large with a large private deck. I went back and asked the front desk girl and she told me that the tiny bungalow was the same price as the junior suite (not sure what that was supposed to mean). She then said that she might have another room available if we would like to look at it. I said that we would.
We were then shown to a room that was exactly the description of what we booked, on the top floor of a four unit building. It had an ocean view, a large balcony with a hammock, and was very private. We opted to move.
We were a bit annoyed that we weren’t put in this room to begin with. Heather had been taking care of Stephen while he was sick the last two days, and wasn’t so impressed with the front desk service. The front desk staff seemed unwelcoming and indifferent, more content to play around on Facebook on the computer than assist guests. Heather did say that the restaurant staff was very helpful and accommodating, however.
We spent the afternoon relaxing at the beach and in the hammock on our deck. It was pretty windy and the snorkel tour we had booked at Akumal the next day was cancelled. I was still recovering from my cold and we were sort of relieved to spend the rest of our last two days relaxing before flying home.
For dinner, Heather, Paddy, and I went down the road a short ways and across the street to Kitchen Table, a restaurant that pops up every night with a wood fired stove, coolers, and a grill to serve fresh food for dinner. The only light is from candles and a few solar powered lights in the kitchen and bar. We had some appetizers and cocktails, and they were outstanding. We knew Stephen would want to come here (he was back at the room trying to keep down some rice and beans) so we made a reservation for dinner on our last night. Note: Kitchen Table is cash only.
**Tip: When eating at restaurants on the jungle side of the beach road, wear LOTS of bug spray with DEET. The mosquitos are particularly bad after dusk.
Since our snorkel tour was canceled due to strong winds, we decided to have a lazy day. Heather and Stephen (who was finally feeling better after his bout with tamarind tap water) had gone to Chichen Itza for the day with Eduardo from MyCancunTransportation.com. We had been to Chichen Itza on our previous visit, and we highly recommend it. We do recommend getting there right when they open in the morning, however as all the tour buses start showing up at about 10:30-11:00 AM. They said that Eduarado charged them about $200 USD for being their personal driver/tour guide for the day, and he was great. The drive to Chichen Itza from Tulum is about 2.5 hours each way, and they went at their own pace and made stops in Valladolid and at the Gran Cenote as well. Considering that a ticket on a tour bus is about $80-$115 per person, it was a great deal for them. They enthusiastically recommend Eduardo and said that he was a great guide.
Breakfast is complimentary at La Vita e Bella, and has a choice of a Mexican style breakfast, an American style breakfast, a “natural” style breakfast with yogurt, fruit, and granola, or a continental breakfast with fruit and croissants. We opted for the Mexican style breakfast, which was scrambled eggs with salsa, beans, tortillas, and rice.
We spent the day reading, relaxing, and walking on the beach.
That afternoon we went to the beach bar in front of the restaurant and sat down in some beach chairs. A staff member came by and asked us what our room number was. We told him 23, and were told that our beach chairs and palapa umbrella were further down away from the restaurant. (It would have been nice to be told that we had our own beach chairs, or anything about the way the beach restaurant/bar operated when we checked in…but that is the fabulous front desk service for you). We asked if we could sit in front of the restaurant as we wanted to order food and drinks and the waiter decided that it was okay that we sat there. I read the sign in front of the restaurant a little later and saw that they charge people 150 pesos to sit at the beach chair, intended for people who are visiting Tulum for the day and want a beach club to hang out at. There were a lot of beach chairs open, and for what they charge for the rooms there, we should be able to sit wherever the hell we want. But I digress…
We ordered some beers and pizzas for lunch, but we weren’t allowed to eat the pizza on the beach, and the restaurant service was separate from the beach service, so there was some confusion at the end when we asked for our bill for the two 7-Ups we drank on the beach and the two beers and two pizzas we ate in the restaurant. It was a little annoying.
That evening we met back up with Heather and Stephen and decided to check out the bars and restaurants further down the beach road. We were easily able to get a taxi upon walking out to the road, and found a little hub of restaurants, shops and bars about two miles down. We were a bit blown away by how developed the beach road had gotten. We remember it being just a gravel road with barely anything on it besides palm-shaded little driveways to little beach hotels back in 2009. Now it was paved for quite a ways and pretty built up. Paddy and I took a walk down the road a little ways while Heather and Stephen went to Mateo’s Mexican Grill for a drink.
We walked down to a rocky section of coast where some locals were fishing in the water. There was a group of seagulls and pelicans following them everywhere begging for fish.
One thing we noticed in this section of the Boca Paila road was an abundance of stand-alone ATMs, all dispensing US dollars. It was pretty perplexing—why not pesos? Are the shops and restaurants trying to cater to the average American tourists who find it too difficult to deal with pesos? Or is it because the peso has fallen recently and they want to accept the stronger dollar as currency to exchange for a better rate later? I tend to suspect the latter, since most of the shops and restaurants offer a poor exchange rate of 14 pesos to the dollar (vs the current rate of 18 pesos to the dollar if you withdraw pesos from a regular ATM).
When we arrived back to Mateo’s Mexican Grill, Heather and Stephen were just then getting the beers they ordered 15 minutes ago. The bar wasn’t that busy yet, so the slow service was a little odd. We ordered beers and were considering ordering food for dinner, but after our beers took 20 minutes and we began to get eaten alive by mosquitos, we decided just to ask for the check. It was a shame, because the ambiance at Mateo’s is pretty nice, despite the mosquitos.
Across the street and a bit north of Mateo’s is a little tapas restaurant called Mi Vida Tapas. Paddy and I love Spanish tapas, and it was on the beach side of the road so no mosquitos. We were seated in a little greenhouse type structure on the beach, which was very nicely decorated and lit by candlelight. The glass windows blocked the beach wind. We were the only people eating there and had the place to ourselves.
The food and service were phenomenal. I had the Pulpo y Garbanzos (octopus with mashed chickpeas, garlic, and olive oil), and the Atun Sashimi (seared ahi tuna with tamarind sauce and mashed potatoes). Everyone else had the Mini Brochetas (filet mignon bites), and the Tagliata Pequeña de Res (small beef tenderloin with polenta, parmesean, arugula, and truffle oil), and a few others I can’t remember. Everyone was very happy with what they ordered. For dessert I tried the Chocolate Salami, because I can’t see something called “chocolate salami” on a menu without finding out what the hell that is. It turned out to be a roll of chocolate ganache with little rice crispies in it, sliced to look like slices of salami. A bit comical, but delicious.
After dinner we flagged down a taxi back to our hotel and had a few drinks at the hotel bar before going to bed.
We wanted to spend our last day enjoying the gorgeous Tulum beach, and that we did. We woke early enough to catch the sunrise at 7:00 on the beach, then went back to bed for a while, and then had a lazy morning reading and relaxing.
In late morning, we spent about an hour and a half in Tulum Pueblo (the main part of town) shopping for souvenirs. There are lots of great shops to explore. Be sure to negotiate, the vendors will always give you a really high price at first. It helps to bargain the price down if you are buying several things from one store, and it also helps if you speak a little Spanish.
In the afternoon the wind died down considerably and we enjoyed a great time at the beach. The waves were still pretty big and a lot of fun to body surf in. Mostly, we just spent time getting knocked around by the waves, which is actually a pretty good workout. It was a good last day in Mexico.
We had our last dinner at Kitchen Table, and I think it was the best dinner we had on our whole trip. If you make it to Tulum, don’t miss Kitchen Table. I had the Deviled Avocado and the Pan Roasted Octopus with sweet potatoes and caramelized onions, which was the best octopus I’ve ever had. It even trumped the octopus I had the first night in Cancun, which was hard to top. Everything was outstanding and you can tell that the chefs at Kitchen Table really love what they do.
Our first trip to Tulum was a bit more rustic, romantic and remote. This time around we enjoyed spending a little more time checking out Tulum Pueblo and some of the restaurants on the Boca Paila beach road.
Tulum is a great home base for seeing Mayan ruins, snorkeling in the Cenotes (fresh water underground caves and rivers), and shopping for souvenirs. Our last trip we were a bit more active, seeing the Mayan ruins in Tulum and a day trip to Chichen Itza. This time around, we ended our Yucatan trip in Tulum and were happy to just relax and enjoy the beach before heading home.
We will definitely be back to Tulum again. We have yet to find a better beach with soft sand and electric blue water in all our world travels. Our next trip I think we may try to stay down at the end of the Boca Paila beach road again near the Sian Ka’an Biosphere. We liked the remoteness of it, and the rustic jungle/beach atmosphere. We weren’t super impressed with La Vita e Bella.
We would also like to explore the Cenotes in the area, and take a day tour in the Biosphere. But above all, we would come back to Tulum to relax and enjoy that magnificent beach.