The first time I visited Tulum, the jungle-fringed beach town two hours south of Cancun, my dreams of spotless white sand and the brilliant blue sea were shattered. Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula was experiencing a freak influx of seaweed, which was hardly the picture-perfect paradise I'd expected.
But the seaweed apocalypse was a blessing in disguise. It forced me to venture away from the beach to cenotes hidden in the jungle, eat at authentic, hole-in-the-wall Mexican restaurants in Tulum's oft-overlooked town center, and relax the day away at one of the many spas.
Recently, when I returned to Tulum, the beach was back to its pristine self. Though I did spend time camped out on a daybed with a margarita in hand, I couldn't help but go back to what makes Tulum so much more than a beach vacation.
Planning a trip to Tulum? Here's where to stay, eat, shop, and play.
Cenotes: A dip in one of these crystal-clear swimming holes dotted around Tulum is a must, but go early-at peak times they can be crowded, noisy, and the opposite of tranquil. Head to Dos Ojos or the Gran Cenote when they open at 8 a.m., and then when it gets busy, take a taxi to lesser-known Cenote Cristal, four miles south of Tulum's town center. Even on weekends, you'll only share the quiet jungle spot with a handful of others, and it'll be even better on weekdays or in the quiet season (September/October).
Tulum Ruins: Wandering the crumbling 13th-century Mayan ruins perched on a cliff at Tulum's North End, it's hard to imagine a more stunning historical site. This is another spot to visit early or late in the day-the ancient place feels more magical when it's silent except for the waves crashing just steps away.
Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve: Swim in aquamarine lagoons, wander Mayan ruins, and see dolphins, turtles, and hundreds of species of fish. The UNESCO World Heritage Site at Tulum's South End lets visitors experience the unspoiled beauty of the Yucatan Peninsula. Explore it on your own or with a sustainable tourism group.
Spa: Luxury meets health and wellness at boutique hotel Sanara Tulum, where the spa menu includes a chakra-clearing crystal healing massage and a detox bath. Complete your cleanse with a nourishing meal at theВ onsite restaurant The Real Coconut. Order the tacos made with coconut flour tortillas and an organic cocktail.
Hartwood: Don't let the rustic setting fool you-a table here is the most sought-after dinner spot in Tulum. The menu changes daily, but expect hearty plates of short ribs, pork belly, or the fish of the day cooked on the wood fire, paired with fresh sides like the zesty jicama salad (a local root vegetable similar to a turnip), ceviche, or a whole roasted beet. There are no reservations, so arrive at 6 p.m., or prepare for a long wait.
Gitano: The food at Gitano is good-think modern Mexican fare like whole roasted fish with salsa, tacos, and tostadas-but it's the atmosphere that impresses. Diners linger under the glow of hundreds of fairy lights dangling from the trees as house music thumps. Tulum is a casual town when it comes to style, but if you can wear heels or lipstick anywhere, it's here, especially on Fridays when dinner leads to dancing.
El Pez: Rustic-luxe hotel El Pez offers a tasty Mexican menu. Go for lunch to enjoy the beachfront location, and order the grilled and raw cactus salad and the cochinitaВ pibil (slow-roasted pork) and chicharron tacos, washed down with a craft cocktail.
El Camello Jr: Pull up a chair at this no-fuss seafood restaurant in Tulum's town center, where loads of fresh fish arrive all day long. The battered fish tacos and mixed ceviche are excellent, as are the margaritas and mojitos. Tulum can be expensive, but at this locals-only spot, you'll be pleasantly surprised at your bill.Fashion Me Now
KM33: This boutique near Sanara and Hartwood stocks unique clothing and accessories by designers from across Mexico and Latin America. Don't expect to find a bargain here-the prices reflect the quality of the materials and the craftsmanship.
Mr. Blackbird: If your vacation wardrobe just doesn't feelвЂ¦ Tulum enough, a kaftan, a pair of leather sandals, or a piece of crystal jewelry from Mr. Blackbird is all you need. With soft, white sand on the floors and wares presented on pieces of driftwood, shopping here feels a bit like stumbling upon a treasure chest washed up on the beach.
Bendito Tulum: You'll want to take home every effortlessly cool Panama hat, every bikini, and every pair of sunglasses in this well-curated boutique, as well as one of its signature dream catchers-you're guaranteed to have sweet dreams of Tulum when you get home.
Mexicarte: The place for homewares. The two locations (one on the beach and the other in Tulum town) stock colorful handicrafts from all over Mexico, along with cheap and cheerful souvenirs. Painted ceramic Mexican skulls, plates, bowls, mugs, and glasses, woven blankets, and Frida Kahlo-printed everything can be found here.
La Zebra: Your own private plunge pool on the beach or a balcony with uninterrupted ocean views all to yourself? Whichever you choose, you're guaranteed to wake up just a few steps from the water at La Zebra. In the heart of the beachfront strip, the laid-back luxury property has just 15 rooms, meaning a plush daybed on the beach is reserved for every guest at all times, and the staff will happily bring you cocktails, guacamole, and tacos all day long. This is the quintessential Tulum hotel.
Papaya Playa Project: Attracting a fashionable crowd, this expansive property at the north end of the beach offers diverse accommodation options. If you'd rather spend less on your room (more for shopping), book a rustic but comfortable cabana. Otherwise, the upscale rooms impress with more space and designer furniture. PPP is the place to be on Saturday nights when world-class DJs spin tunes on the sand.Illesteva Jackie in Cream. $240ShopSensi Studio Bi-Colour Toquilla-Straw Basket Bag $195ShopMarysia Broadway Bikini $327ShopAway Travel The Medium $275ShopKate Spade New York Watson Lane Large Lyla Nylon Tote $348Shop