Many know Tulum as an enchanting destination in Riviera Maya, a hotbed for yogis and backpackers who need to find Zen on unspoiled beaches. But there's more to Tulum than a bohemian sensibility. I always vacationed in Tulum for the low-rise buildings (unlike Cancun), the notoriously uncrowded beaches, and the fact you can find culture here (where there's no Senor Frogs, you're in the clear). In fact, when I returned for the third time last week, not much had—thankfully—changed but I was introduced to a slew of attractions I failed to experience on previous visits.
Unlike Playa Del Carmen and Cancun, Tulum is chockfull of independently owned boutique hotels, whether on the beach or in town (a short, five-minute drive). It's rare for a room to go for more than $200 a night in town, including at the new Gardenias Inn Tulum. Not only is the three-room boutique hotel new but it's also giving visitors a terrific dining option. The owner is a James Beard scholar, and the hotel revolves around food: the main public area is an al fresco, organic garden full of lemongrass, Mayan spinach, and heirloom tomatoes; a daily gourmet breakfast basket is left at your door in the morning; and a fire pit allows for old school, Mayan-style methods of slow-roasting fish and meats. An outdoor hot tub, colorful and spacious rooms, shuttle to the beach, beach bag with towels, WiFi, a pre-loaded cell phone, and a low, all-inclusive $119 a night sealed the deal.
While I spent many days eating my way through food stalls, a stop at El Camello was a must. It's touted as the best restaurant in Tulum, and for very good reason. Slightly removed from the main drag, El Camello is no-frills with memorable and friendly service. The food, though, is the draw and highlight. Whether it is shrimp cocktails or whole fried fish or ceviche, everything is fresh (go in the mornings to see all the fishermen deliver their daily catch). Best of all: dinner was no more than $10.
The beaches in Tulum are notoriously some of the best in Riviera Maya. The sand is sugary white, the waters are warm and shallow, and there are no water sports (like jet skis, banana boats, parasailing, and booze cruises) to compromise the atmosphere. I generally make a beeline to Playa Maya, the trendier beach club where most visitors set up for sunbathing and socializing. This time around I checked out Camping Chavez. It's a hippie-run, beachfront hostel where backpackers can rent tents, but they charge 25 pesos ($2) to use their beach club, which includes beach chairs and bathrooms. Here, it is less crowded (overstatement for Tulum) and seemingly more sublime than the other beaches.
Tulum is home to some ancient ruins, which I still visit for its awe-inspiring history. But one attraction that visitors tend to miss is Sian Ka'an, a biosphere reserve and UNESCO World Heritage Site. About twenty minutes-drive from downtown, Sian Ka'an is home to hundreds of bird species, fish, and animals and covers about 62 miles of coastline with lagoons, cayes, mangroves, and a barrier reef. I jumped on board a fishing boat with my guide, who took me out to discover the reserve. What I didn't expect was being dropped off at the entrance of a canal in the mangroves. The guide urged me to sit on my life jacket and float down the canal. It was one of the most peaceful moments I've had in my life and, naturally, I thought: Only in Tulum.
Jimmy Im is a freelance travel writer based in NYC. He's hosted programs on the Travel Channel and LOGO, and makes regular appearances on morning news shows as a "travel expert." He teaches travel writing courses and is also cofounder of OutEscapes.com. Follow him on Twitter: @dieselmad.