For the first half of my Mexican vacation, I never left a 1-mile radius.
That’s why we go to resorts, right?
The daily swim in the infinity pool. Pushing the baby around in some floating contraption in another pool. Sipping a margarita in yet another pool. Gluttonous dinners offset hopefully — but not likely — by the 15-minute walk to the white sand beach overlooking the gleaming Caribbean Sea.
But five days of such splendor at the Fairmont Mayakoba near Playa del Carmen was quite enough. That’s why I spent the second half of my winter getaway stretching my legs.
I rented a car and moved down the beach to a hotel nearer Tulum to better explore one of Mexico’s most popular destinations, Riviera Maya, an expansive stretch of Caribbean coast where many people go precisely not to leave a 1-mile radius. But sometimes the legs need stretching.
What is called Tulum is actually two starkly different places. One is a hot, dusty collection of streets about 2 miles from the coast. The other hugs the coast.
I started in town, parking my car on a side street and walking up and down Tulum Avenue, which doubles as the primary highway running along the coast. (Forget images of a beautiful Mexican coastal drive; the beach has largely been reserved for private development, which means you won’t see a drop of water from the car.)
What was a sleepy backwater not long ago has had an infusion of modernity, such as the restaurant Burrito Amor, which, like many of the most charming eateries in the area, has no walls: just a low wood enclosure, dangling lights and small menu of well-constructed burritos, including vegetarian options.
Though there are some progressive food options in the town of Tulum — bohemian cafes, upscale pizza and the like — it’s a fairly charmless place and features the same gas station/convenience store/fast food/tourist schlock lineup as anywhere. So it’s best to get to the beach.
A couple of miles east, down a paved road buzzing with rental cars, taxis, scooters, bicycles and hitchhikers, sits that beach, in a very different place also called Tulum.
This Tulum amounts to a road hugged by thick trees. One side is the jungle side, which is where the restaurants and shops stand. The other side is the beach side. That, unsurprisingly, is where the hotels are.
There’s barely any sidewalk along this road, which leaves visitors to walk amid the passing traffic between the cafes, restaurants and boutique shops. It’s smoothies and espresso, boutique hotels and eco this-and-that, bike rentals and racks of straw hats, cool dudes in tank tops and women in bikini tops (almost all American, at least in January). More than anything, Tulum is about yoga, health and general relaxation, with almost endless options for classes, instruction and hotel stays catering to the wellness getaway.
The beach is largely hidden behind the hotels, though fortunately, they’re generally of the modest and boutique variety, not the sprawling concrete behemoths farther north on the coast. I stopped in at The Real Coconut, the beachfront restaurant at the Sanara hotel, which offered menu items such as “Heaps of Kale,” a gluten, grain and dairy-free quesadilla and a hemp burger. I opted for a mint chocolate ice cream smoothie (delicious — with no actual ice cream) and avocado toast (gluten-free, of course), which was robust, fresh and as delicious as any avocado toast I’ve had.
A breeze blew in from the gleaming ocean, across the attractive people from New York City who lounged on the patio with their cold-pressed green juices. After the avocado toast, I walked down to the broad, white beach and spied a chalkboard touting the 9 a.m. daily yoga class. The cost? Just a “loving donation.”
Yup. That’s Tulum.
Also: This stretch of coast is much more than Cancun and Playa del Carmen. Little towns worth visiting include Puerto Morelos, Puerto Aventuras and Akumal.
SWIMMING WITH TURTLES
About 15 miles north of Tulum sits Akumal, where many people visit for one reason: snorkeling with green sea turtles. (A guided tour with snorkeling equipment costs $15 to $25.)
I wound up with a guide named Moises, who told two German tourists and me that the green sea turtles come to the shallow waters off Akumal to feast on the grass growing from the sandy floor. Masks tight on our faces and flippers aflutter, we headed into the calm Caribbean waters. Within minutes, Moises was pointing at a handsome speckled turtle, about 2 feet long, puttering along the ocean floor, ducking its head into and out of the swaying grass.
Guides guarantee a tourist will see at least one turtle, and it soon became clear why: They’re all over the place. We swam from turtle to turtle — and a resting stingray, half-buried by the sand — watching them move their little snakelike heads as they ate, then rose to the surface to gasp some air.
After 45 minutes of turtle-watching, I walked half a mile down the road to La Buena Vida (www.labuenavidarestaurant.com), a beach restaurant that's the definition of a beach restaurant — no walls, no roof and just a sandy floor shaded by coconut trees and thatched umbrellas. I ordered ceviche, guacamole and a strong, limey margarita, with proved yet again that there is no finer meal than ceviche, guacamole and a strong, limey margarita.
Also: The Riviera Maya is well known for cenotes — naturally occurring sinkholes filled with water. They’re popular attractions for swimming and diving.
In addition to its beaches and cenotes, Riviera Maya — and the general region, stretching down to Central America — is well known for its hundreds of Mayan ruins. An entire trip to the area could be dedicated to nothing but ruins by day and margaritas by night. I carved out time for just one visit, and it, too, is called Tulum (entry cost is only a few dollars). Situated a couple of miles north of the town of the same name, the Tulum ruins sit mostly on a cliff above the sea and include their own beach.
I took everyone’s advice and arrived shortly after the 8 a.m. opening. The miserable overcrowding and long lines were nowhere to be found. I was free to move unhurriedly between the fascinating stone structures dating back hundreds of years beneath a moody gray sky and above a swaying blue-green sea.
Also: There are many Mayan sites to explore in the immediate area, none more famous than Chichen Itza, which is three hours away but considered one of the world’s seven wonders for a reason.
HUNGRY AT HARTWOOD
The night I planned to eat at Tulum's trendiest restaurant, it was closed because of rain. Having no ceiling will do that. Fortunately, the next night was Riviera Maya perfection — 70s and gently breezy, which allowed me to check out Hartwood (www.hartwoodtulum.com).
Started by a husband-wife team from New York City, Hartwood generates a two-hour wait just to get a reservation when they become available every day at 3 p.m. Show up any later than 2:30 and you’re likely to get the first seating, at 5:30 p.m. Show up much later and you’re eating somewhere else.
Situated on the jungle side of that road running through beachfront Tulum, Hartwood is certainly not the only meal worth your time in Tulum. But sometimes hype is deserved, and so it is in this case.
Hartwood is rustically beautiful, from the lack of the ceiling to the gravel floor and the roaring wood fires from where most dishes hail since there’s no conventional oven or stove on site.
The menu, written on a chalkboard, included several fresh fish options (snook, mackerel and yellowtail amberjack). Following the server’s recommendation, we opted for the octopus (as tender as any I’ve had), skirt steak, an heirloom tomato salad and, quite literally, the finest, freshest empanadas I’ve ever tasted. As succulent as the tender pork was inside, the dough — a beautiful, freshly baked grainy texture — was the revelation.
What makes Hartwood such an intoxicating experience is difficult to pin down, because it is in fact everything about Hartwood that is so intoxicating — the warm Mexican breeze tinged with incense, the dub music drifting from the speakers, an icy cocktail on a warm day, and fresh, thoughtful food beneath a canopy of trees.
Also: Hartwood is a special experience, but there are many well-regarded restaurants in Tulum, including Mateo's (www.mateosmexicangrill.us) and Arca (www.arcatulum.com).