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Sophie Elkus

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Tulum Travel Guide

Farm Rio dress, Sol Sana sandals, Hat Attack tote, Janessa Leone fedora

I didn’t expect to fall in love with Tulum; in fact I didn’t know what to expect – but it’s left me with such a lingering magic that I can’t wait to go back.

In terms of Mexican vacation spots – I’ve been to Cabo plenty of times, and it’s always a gorgeous landscape, but also a known quantity. Expansive resorts, lots of American tourists, a rowdy and sort of commercial town center with cheesy clubs that bring back college spring break memories.  You know you’ll have a good time, whether it’s to relax at the spa or party, but to me there’s no real “charm” there (on the positive side, it’s super easy to get to from California, everyone speaks English, and it’s foolproof for all kinds of people). It’s the place I’d go to stay at my resort most of the time.

I’m not arguing that Tulum has genuine cultural “charm” as I know it’s very much geared toward tourists too – especially now that it’s so popular – but Tulum has a totally different atmosphere and energy. It feels like an adventure. Walking down the streets, I thought I was in the Jungle Book. It’s a real jungle, with lush greenery and that warm, humid air. Everything is on a much smaller scale than Cabo – smaller boutique hotels, little artisanal shops, people riding bikes instead of hopping in cabs. Twinkle lights hanging everywhere. It’s easy to feel the magic there.

Tulum is geared toward wellness and balance, instead of overindulgence, which feels like a big difference from other Mexican vaca spots. Hotels offer yoga and meditation classes, healing spa treatments, and every menu had healthy, creative and delicious options that left me feeling surprisingly light after meals. I came home feeling refreshed, not full and bloated (but of course it has all your taco and cocktail staples, too, so don’t overlook it as some hippie-dippy diet place).

I couldn’t believe how chic the tourists were there! In most vacation towns you get a big run of the mill, but Tulum seemed to attract a lot of fashion-forward people. There seemed to be plenty of Angelenos, New Yorkers, and Europeans (there was a family from Spain staying at our hotel with the chicest mom who wore beautiful kaftans and beaded earrings every day and carried her babies around the beach… goals).

My girlfriend Deema suggested Tulum for a weekend trip while our boyfriends planned to be away for a bachelor party in Miami (I’d say we had a better time 😉  It was perfect for a girls’ weekend, but I’d recommend Tulum for anything – a couples’ trip, a bachelorette party.  I’ll break down everything we did there:

Hotels

We stayed at Sanara and loved it. A lot of Tulum hotels are jungle treehouse rooms built into the greenery (also cool, maybe a bit more fun for a guy), but Sanara has a nice balance of white-washed casitas and simple but chic decor. It feels a little more styled, so naturally as a blogger I was 100% in for the photo ops. The Sanara restaurant, The Real Coconut, has some of the best food I’ve had – deliciously fresh breakfasts, smoothies and tacos. We passed by the Chiringuito hotel and thought it had a similar look; it’s on my list to try. Nomade is the most known “go-to” hotel in Tulum, a bigger property with modern glass treehouse rooms built into lush jungle. If you don’t stay there, it’s 100% worth going for dinner. Be Tulum and La Valise are also beautiful properties with treehouse rooms.

Restaurants

La Popular, the Nomade Hotel’s restaurant, is set on the beach under twinkling string lights. It’s the most romantic place, with low tables, pillows on the sand to sit on, music and the beautiful ocean breeze. We went for sunset dinner and I kept looking around and pinching myself. I’d come here with your boyfriend/husband. For a night out, we loved Gitano –  the perfect place to go for dinner and stay to dance. Multiple bars, live music then a DJ, great food and lively ambiance. It’s big, but doesn’t feel like it as tables are tucked into corners around trees and each has a bit of privacy. The decorations are on point – disco balls hanging from palm trees (look at the website photos). It’s perfect for a big, lively group dinner and drinks after (bachelorettes!)  Hartwood was on our list but full when we wandered over around 7pm – you’ll need a reservation, or get there right at 5pm to try for a table. It’s a small outdoor space with wood ovens and close tables; the ambiance didn’t impress us too much. The food is supposed to be amazing and I believe it, but it looked very sceney, sort of like an Abbott Kinney Venice crowd had landed in Mexico and congregated in that one spot.

Posada Margherita has pretty views and great Italian food, if you’re looking for a taco break. Arca won for most creative menu – if you’re a real foodie and appreciate unique dishes, go here for delicious food and a gorgeous, modern outdoor setting. Raw Love for snacks – get an acai bowl, a raw pizza, or a coconut milk matcha latte. It’s a very casual little hut, go barefoot from the beach. Speaking of matcha, you’ve probably seen my Instagrams from the adorable Matcha Mama drink hut – complete with swings at the bar. It pains me to admit that it wasn’t the best matcha I’ve ever had, but it was so insanely cute, I didn’t even care! (I’m sure they created it for social media, and I 100% buy in). We wanted to hit Casa Violeta and Casa Malca for lunch, which both sounded amazing, but ran out of time, as well as for drinks at Casa Jaguar.

Activities

Spend a morning visiting the Mayan ruins of Tulum (get there early to avoid crowds). It’s a quick tour and you get a fuller picture of Tulum’s history. Swim in the cenote caves (Gran Cenote, Dos Ojos Cenote and Cenote Cristal). This is one thing we really wanted to do and didn’t – there are diving platforms and the water is super clear. Ride a bike down Tulum’s main street (all the hotels have cruiser bikes for guests) and window shop; there are plenty of artisanal shops selling beautiful cotton kaftans, straw hats, handmade jewelry and bags. Look at all the shops before purchasing – we almost bought several things but were glad we waited as better options kept coming! I bought a pair of rose gold and opal earrings by the Mexican designer Amandina.

 

Spa

While all the hotels have spas (Sanara’s was lovely), there are several separate spa/wellness centers there. We tried to get last-minute appointments at Yaan Wellness but they were sold out. It looked so incredible – a lush massage retreat. The entryway has a coy pond with a wooden deck you walk over, fire pits and open reception area where you can see through to steam rising from pools in the relaxation area. I thought I was dreaming when I saw it. If you wanted to come to Tulum just for a wellness retreat here, you definitely could.

Transportation

We flew into Cancun and took a shuttle service from the airport into Tulum. We booked through Cancun Vacation Experts, who were on time, professional and friendly, and also half the price of a hotel shuttle. Message me for their info. The car ride is about 1:45. Depending on where you fly from, I’d recommend a morning flight to arrive before sunset. Our noon flight got us to our hotel around 9pm and it definitely ate up the day.

Cash

Bring enough of it. Some restaurants charge a fee to use a credit card (not the majority). Most places take dollars or pesos. I used a credit card most of the time, but it’s always good to bring cash for shops and tips.

Safety

I felt very safe in Tulum the entire trip, even walking around at night. As two girls traveling alone I’d be lying if I said it didn’t cross my mind before we went, especially with so much recent news coverage about drug crime in Cancun and issues with corrupt law enforcement. My opinion has always been that it’s your responsibility to behave in a way that protects you while traveling – it’s unlikely that tourists are randomly sought out as prey, but if you’re attracting negative attention to yourself you become a target (in any city!) If you’re looking to let loose somewhere where you can go crazy, over consume, wear super flashy things and make a huge drunken scene then… maybe do that in your own backyard, not in Mexico. Anything less than that and I’d say you’ll be just fine. Don’t go looking for trouble, be aware of your surroundings and use common sense.  I actually felt much safer in Tulum than I have in Cabo’s downtown area, which can have some riff-raff. Tulum locals were nothing but friendly and polite to us; the few that approached us only offered to take our picture or say a friendly hello before we both moved on. It’s nice that Tulum’s main drag is walkable – we didn’t get in a car once.

Unrelated to safety, if you lay out on the beach you’ll likely be approached by many young kids carrying bags of handmade knick-nacks, jewelry or woven animals (in Cabo, too). They pass by all day, even after being politely declined (although they are all very sweet). If you do buy something, hide it in your beach bag afterward. My girlfriend bought a woven animal and after one kid saw her purchase, we were inundated with a handful trying to sell to her for a better price until our hotel beach attendant finally told them to move along.

Bug Spray

Living in LA, bug spray is never top of mind and I usually forget to pack it. We were eaten alive by mosquitoes. Our room at the Sanara had beautiful bottles of herbal bug spray (including peppermint and coconut oil) that sadly didn’t work for us, so on the second day we stopped by a pharmacy to pick up some good old deet. I really don’t love spraying that on my skin, but I also don’t love bug bites, so… priorities (we were told you don’t have to worry about Zika there, as it’s been very rare, although if you’re anticipating becoming pregnant obviously check with your doctor first).

Timing

It’s possible to do Tulum for a weekend, but to get the full picture you really need 3-5 days. We had 2.5, and felt incredibly rushed trying to pack in all the restaurants and activities. Especially if you plan to spend a chunk of the day laying on the beach or at the spa instead of wandering around, add more days if possible!

I’ll leave you with this – if you’re thinking of visiting Tulum, the time to go is now (or yesterday). It still has character and unique energy, but I see that changing. I spoke to a lovely reader of mine who was married there nearly 5 years ago, and she told me that she’s already witnessed a vast transformation (when she went, most places didn’t have wifi!) We passed a lot of construction while walking around Tulum and it’s clear that as it rises in popularity, the town will become bigger. There’s an ideal balance there right now – enough variety in hotels and restaurants, while still feeling like a small jungle town. There’s so much magic to be seen and felt – don’t miss it.

What to Wear

The most important part! I was totally inspired by the jungle vibes in Tulum and wanted to wear palm print. These palm sandals are perfect for a little cotton dress, and this tie-front bikini makes for the perfect IG memory. Bring a pair of chestnut sandals or wedges for dinner; otherwise you’ll likely be barefoot or in flat sandals during the day. A straw bag is a must for the beach. I’ve taken this straw Hat Attack tote around the world, from Mexico to Ibiza to Miami. I love this updated circular shape this season. I always leave my expensive gold jewelry at home and bring fabric statement earrings on beach trips. They pair with everything from denim shorts to dresses or even with my bikini during the day. Plus they’re lightweight, easy to pack and just bring that festive vacation vibe.

If you have any questions, feel free to drop a comment below!

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