Winter in New York is a strange thing. In early December it’s eagerly anticipated, a reason to snuggle in front of fires with mugs of cocoa (or hot toddies) and plates of holiday cookies. I’ve heard myself utter, on many occasion, “it doesn’t feel like Christmas without a bit of cold weather.” “White Christmas” is a thing for a reason, right?
By February, that wistfulness is long gone, buried under snow, sleet, slush and endless mornings of this. This year felt particularly rough (Jonas, anyone?) so I flew the coop to Mexico for a long weekend in paradise.
Tulum, on the Riviera Maya, is a small beach town two hours south of Cancun. It’s far less tourist-saturated than Cancun (though that’s rapidly changing) and has a much more laid-back vibe: think huts and hammocks on the beach, not mega-resorts with swim-up pool bars. I described it to friends as the Brooklyn of the Riviera Maya — smaller, quieter and more hip, with a boho chic scene all its own.
There are two parts of Tulum, the beach (la playa) and the town (el pueblo). The beach is lined with hotels on the ocean side and restaurants, bars and boutiques on the jungle side. Town is a 5-minute cab ride from “beach central,” and offers its own restaurants and bars, with much more local flavor. We ate like kings in both places — the food in Tulum is crazy good. Most of it is very simple, relying instead on supremely fresh ingredients (especially fresh seafood) and minimal seasoning to shine. Plus, it doesn’t hurt when this is your view.
This was easily the best meal we had in Tulum, for a few different reasons:
1) Some of the restaurants along the beach road are extremely scene-y (think hours-long lines to get in, less-than-helpful staff, etc.). Arca had no attitude — the staff was super welcoming, very friendly and pretty helpful in guiding us through the menu.
2) The cocktails are 🔥🔥🔥, as the kids say. We got the Solar and the Har Mar Superstar, and both were a nice contrast between the smoky mezcal, fruit and a little bit of spice (the Solar from ancho chilies and the Har Mar from a solid kick of ginger). It’s worth coming here just for the drinks.
3) The food really lets local ingredients shine. We had a gratin made with local squash that was excellent, and my perfectly cooked baby octopus came with ibes, the local version of lima beans. My favorite use of local ingredients was the creme brulee made with mamay, a local fruit that tasted like a cross between a sweet potato and an apricot.
In short, go here. You won’t regret it.
Perhaps the most surprising thing about Chamico’s is that it still feels like a secret, despite its shoutout in the New York Times. This tiny shack on Soliman Bay, at the end of a long road 20 minutes from Tulum, serves up massive plates of ceviche, whole fried or grilled fish, and not much else. But when the fish is as fresh as Chamico’s is (usually caught that morning) and the view is as gorgeous, you need nothing more, except maybe a cold beer and a book to read in your beachside hammock.
(The prices, however, definitely reflect all of the hype — we spent $80 on lunch … WORTH IT.)
Antojitos la Chiapaneca
We headed into town on our last night in Tulum, partly to explore where the locals were (at a carnival) and partly for Chiapaneca, the #1 taco spot in town according to everyone we talked to. The al pastor tacos are the star here, for good reason — they’re perfectly charred and meaty, with plenty of spicy-sweet flavor. Plus, they’re only 7 pesos (ie. 40 cents), which is a nice change after the sticker shock of some of the beach-area restaurants, where you can easily spend $100 on dinner and drinks for two.
Bonus tip: I’d highly recommend heading into town at least once during your stay, as there are a bunch of great restaurants and bars, with a less scene-y vibe than the beach. Encanto Cantina was a fun place to get a cocktail (with fresh papaya and mezcal! Delicious!) and there’s a live band playing traditional Mexican music some nights.
Chilaquiles at Papaya Playa
This is a bit of a cheat, since we stayed at Papaya Playa. But breakfast on the beach is a must, regardless of where you stay, and Papaya Playa makes a mean chilaquiles. Traditionally, chilaquiles were a way to use up the previous night’s tortillas by frying them then topping with salsa, beans, eggs and anything else that was lying around. The chilaquiles at Papaya Playa come with red beans, red or green salsas (or both), queso fresco, crema, eggs or chicken, and a gorgeous view.
Steak Sandwich at Casa Banana
Casa Banana definitely falls into the “scene-y” category of restaurants, and the service had a bit of an attitude. But its the best steak in town and after a few days of seafood, I needed some meat. The crowds were smaller at lunch and their steak sandwich was great, loaded with juicy steak, bacon, cheese, a fried egg and a side of crispy potatoes. Beach body be damned, this sandwich + one of their margaritas gave me life on a sunny Sunday afternoon.
And a bonus must-have on your Tulum “To Do” list:
Cenotes are sinkholes filled with groundwater, and there are dozens of them near Tulum. There are some that are completely or almost completely enclosed by caves (like the Gran Cenote, which is the best-known cenote in the area), but we visited two cenotes that were basically open-air pools surrounded by the jungle.
Cenote Azul was a 30-minute drive from Tulum, and was a series of pools, connected by natural rock paths. There’s a mini-cliff to jump off of, if you’re feeling frisky, but this was also a nice place to sit and relax in the water, since there were plenty of places where the water was shallow and the rocks were smooth.
From there we headed to Casa Cenote (also called Cenote Manatee), which is a 15-minute drive from the center of Tulum. Casa Cenote is large, deep and feels more like a lake (though the water is so clear you can see straight to the bottom). We went kayaking (a real adventure, since I don’t know how to kayak) and many people were snorkeling. There’s also a beachside restaurant across the street, which is great for appeasing that post-swimming appetite.
Regardless of what cenote you go to, definitely visit at least one, since they’re pretty amazing.