Once a quiet little beach town, Tulum has grown into an ever popular tourist destination in recent years. A quick Google search might return a handful of articles on the fall of the old Mayan port city due to its sheer volume of tourists and the resort developers accommodating them. The hotel zone—the area that sits on the beach—is lined with resorts, shops, and restaurants and can take a half hour to drive just a couple of miles as you navigate through the throngs of people. Despite the negative press, I’m here to tell you that it’s still possible to have a low-key and relaxing vacation in Tulum. You just have to know where to look.
Instead of staying at one of the bustling resorts, try renting an Airbnb in one of the adjacent neighborhoods. Aldea Zama is a little closer to the hotel zone and La Veleta is just south of Tulum Pueblo (or the city center). Many places include a pool, hot tub, and bikes. You can always purchase day-access passes at any of the resorts on the beach; there's also a free public beach near the Tulum ruins. If you stay in La Veleta, you may want to rent a car or a bike, as it does take a little time to get to the hotel zone on foot. There are paid parking lots dotted throughout the hotel zone so it’s easy to park when you want to spend time in that area.
One of the best things about having a car in Tulum is that the Yucatan Peninsula offers several day trips at your fingertips. Spend the day in Cancun or take the ferry to Cozumel. Drive inland to the ancient Mayan capital, Chichen Itza; find a cenote to swim in (there are many!); and then grab lunch and shop in the colorful town of Valladolid. Or drive a little bit south of Tulum into the Sian Ka’an Nature Reserve. Driving through the Sian Ka’an reminds me of what I think Tulum would have been like before the influx of tourism. A bumpy road splits the thick jungle instead of businesses, restaurants, and resorts.
A few kilometers into the reserve you’ll find restaurant Ka’an, situated on a secluded beach overlooking the Caribbean Sea. At Ka’an, Chef Hugo Duran has created a Mayan kitchen that focuses on pre-colonial Mexican food. All ingredients are locally sourced on the Yucatan Peninsula and prepared in Mayan tradition. Fish wrapped in hoja santa, nixtamalized corn tamales and fire-roasted huitlacoche are a sample of what’s on the seasonally rotating menu. Refreshing and inventive cocktails and seasonal frescas round out an idyllic culinary experience. Spend the day lounging on the many daybeds that line the beach. Worth the small detour.
Jose Luis Hinostroza, formerly of Noma (Copenhagen and Sydney), is the executive chef (and co-owner) of what is arguably the best restaurant in the Tulum Hotel Zone: ARCA. Founded in 2015 by Christian and Hermoinie Mora, ARCA has everything you want in a restaurant: lush surroundings, great service, beautiful cocktail list, and artfully presented food that tastes as good as it looks. There is something for everyone. The locally sourced menu is broken down into "Flora" and "Fauna," Flora being the vegetarian selections like whole-roasted squash and Fauna for items like ceviche, venison tartare, and bone marrow. The marrow comes to your table served on top of smoldering coals with house-made bread.
Taquería Honorio in Tulum Pueblo is where all the locals go and is, hands down, the best place for tacos and tortas. They’re open for breakfast and lunch only, so make sure you plan accordingly. They have vegetarian options as well as carne asada, pibil, and lechón tacos that are served with crispy chicharrón. You can walk up and take tacos to go or sit at the plastic picnic tables off to the side. The food is inexpensive (you won’t spend more than a few dollars) and comes out fast. It’s the perfect pre- and post-beach spot.
Once a food truck in the hotel zone, Pasha has since graduated to a brick-and-mortar location just south of Tulum Pueblo near La Veleta. Headed by husband-and-wife team, Chef Gurdal (of Cyprus) and Tania (from Mexico), Pasha brings Turkish and Mediterranean flavors to the area: fluffy flavor-packed couscous served with fall-off-the-bone lamb kebab, meze platters, tender parsley-flecked falafel from a family recipe, and more.
If you love classic Mexican restaurant food, then Don Cafeto is the spot. The menu is packed with all of the greatest hits: chile relleno, enchiladas, ceviche, even caldo de camarón, desayuno Azteca, bean tostada, and the best pickled carrots I’ve ever had. Don Cafeto is one of the oldest restaurants in Tulum Pueblo and, as it's on the main road, it also happens to be a great place to sit and people-watch.