Along Tulum’s narrow beachfront road under the lush green jungle canopy, white smoke billows from a smoldering pot of copal resin. The aroma, relaxing and invigorating at the same time, is also effective at smoking away the occasional mosquitoes of Mexico’s curling Yucatàn peninsula.

Tulum Ruins from Sea

Tulum Ruins | photo by Michael Finetti

It also establishes a sublime ambiance — reminiscent of a rejuvenating holistic spa therapy, the spiritual cleansing of a candlelit mass and a rhythmic ritual dance. More importantly, it’s essential for outdoor dining comfort.

At one of many dining spots literally carved into the jungle, the menu at Mur Mur boasts the traditional ingredient-driven wood-fired cooking of the Yucatàn.

“This is 90 percent of it,” says the hostess, as she points to the outdoor kitchen. “Your dishes start in the wood oven, then we put it on the grill. Everything is made at the moment and is super fresh, so that is why the service is quiet.” In other words, relax, and the food will come when it’s good and ready.

This is Tulum, a town as carefree as the gentle waves that break on the beaches and as relaxed and natural as the gauzy dresses that dance in the balmy breezes along the boutique-lined streets. Surrendering to this state of mind arrives soon enough.

Tulum Beach from ruins

Tulum Beach | photo by Michael Finetti

A widely embraced perception is that Tulum isn’t much more than miles of white sandy beaches along a narrow jungle-hugging road known as the Carretera Tulum Boca Paila. But boutique hotels unassumingly dominate the road, each with narrow sandy paths that lead to the sea. Among tree-canopied restaurants are rustic boho-chic shops, which blend in effortlessly and showcase artisanal goods such as handmade bikinis, leather sandals and jewelry. One would have to look hard to find campsites, signaling Tulum’s longtime identity as an off-the-grid retreat for hippies.

Tulum possesses a kind of idyllic whisper that no longer exists in the more developed nearby resorts of Playa del Carmen and Cancún. Its reputation for the relaxed lifestyle has essentially has pushed hippies aside and drawn in hipsters who are willing to pay more for yoga, chaya juice, organic soaps and handmade clothing.

Sea TurtleAlong the shoreline, white sugar-fine sands meet the clear Caribbean Sea. Sport fishing, diving, swimming and snorkeling are just a few sun-filled activities. But more popular might be sunbathing on a daybed with a Mezcal cocktail and chips and guacamole.

From Playa Pescadores, where present-day Tulum is tourist-driven, its historic past is to the north, where the archaeological ruins of the Mayan city of Tulum has stood since the 13th century. Perched on a limestone cliff overlooking the sea, the only Mayan city built on the coast combines a glimpse into an old civilization and sparkling turquoise views amid the salty air.

Never too far on Tulum’s porous limestone bedrock are the wonders of the cenote, water-filled sinkholes formed as a result of a meteor that crashed into the area at the end of the Mesozoic era. These abysses dot the landscape, and many of them are linked to one another in a sprawling subterranean network of watery caves. Crystal clear waters, some with historic fossils and evidence of past civilizations, mark the underground cave walls.

Cenote in Tulum

Cenote | photo by Michael Finetti

Tulum and its surrounding areas offer more than 2,000 beautiful cenotes, each one precious and perfect for swimming, diving and exploring.

Just a little inland is Tulum Centro, a vibrant town of shops and restaurants that bring visitors closer to experiencing life as a local. Eateries, bars, markets, shops with no names, pharmacies and general stores fulfill every need. Explore a selection of seasonal fruits, colorfully woven hammocks and artisanal crafts.

Dining in town reflects the fragrant, spicy and smoky cuisine of the Yucatàn. Defining ingredients of Mayan cooking include the achiote seed, sour orange, habanero pepper, honey and squash.

Look for taco stands that sell meats that roast overnight served with fresh tortillas. Whole fried boquinete (hogfish) at El Camello Jr., conchinita pibil (slow roasted pork) at Taqueria Honorio, and sopa de lima (lime soup) at Aluna Tulum are just a few dishes to satisfy temptations for native cuisine.

Tulum’s magic is everywhere, from its rustic jungle vibe, to the people, cuisine and natural wonders that surround it. A single visit is only just the beginning. Below are more experiences:

ARCA

ARCA Under the stars and trees, barely lit with glowing bulbs and candles, dark wood tables and pebbly gravel underfoot providethe setting for the popular outdoor restaurant where open-firecooking dominates the menu. Small plates made of microseasonal ingredients are intended to be shared. At the heart of this laid-back vibe is the busy outdoor kitchen, visible for all to experience. Try the soft-shell crab battered in amaranth tempura and served on chaya, a chard-like leaf cut to the shape of a green circle, to be enjoyed like a taco, and the roasted prawns (sometimes substituted with other shellfish) in Morita pepper butter, plantain vinaigrette and green grosella berries. (arcatulum.com)

Puro Corazón

PURO CORAZON Coconuts at Ciel Rose Terrace SM

Artisanal fusion of regional Mexican food with refreshing shades of contemporary and modern cuisine can be enjoyed at ground level or at the adjoining sunset terrace of Ciel Rose. Climb eight flights up the stone staircase to one of the best views in Tulum. High above the jungle tree line, this is one of the highest spots along the Carretera Tulum Boca Paila. While sipping on cocktails and nibbling on local bites, watch the sun sink into the vast green jungle canopy. (purocorazontulum.wordpress.com)

 

Panna e Cioccolato  

Perhaps a break from Mexican cuisine is something sweet, cool and Italian. Within the colorful and playful exterior awaits Panna e Cioccolato’s impressive selection of gelati and sorbetti. Cioccolato, frambuesa, dulce de leche, tiramisu and lemon sorbetto are just a few of the many flavors offered. Toward the back of the store, a small chocolate factory showcases an assortment of confections, including specialty chocolates adorned with dried berries and pumpkin seeds. (pannaecioccolato.com.mx)

El Camello Jr.

El Camello Jr restaurant facadeA spot for the freshest seafood, El Camello Jr. is a casual local spot that serves up a variety of ceviche and other seafood dishes including the whole fried boquinete (hogfish). Hogfish is one of the most popular types of fish in the Yucatán. Local fishermen catch it by harpoon or net only. Savor it for its delicate, delicious white meat beneath the crusty, salty exterior.

Taqueria Honorio

Located a half block off the main drag in Tulum is the popular casual locals spot where the specialty is conchinita pibil, slow-roasted pork from the Yucatán peninsula. The pork is rubbed with local spices including the seeds from the achiote shrub, marinated with citrus juices, and then cooked overnight in an earthen pit known as a pib. What arrives to the table are fresh tortillas topped with conchinita pibil dripping in juices, succulent and flavorful and topped with brightly pickled red onions. Or choose the torta and make it a sandwich.

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