During our recent trip to Playa del Carmen we decided to take a day trip to Tulum. You know, that place that nobody had ever heard of ten years ago that’s now one of the hottest beach destinations in Mexico? Tulum is only about an hour outside of Playa, so it seemed like a can’t-miss opportunity.
A Centering Morning Swim at Cenote Cristalino
There are several cenotes (pronounced see-noh-tays) on the drive between Tulum and Playa del Carmen. Cenotes are sinkholes that form when limestone collapses and leaves a hole, usually filled with gorgeous turquoise-colored water. We had decided to check out Cenote Cristalino and see what these were all about.
It was cloudy Sunday morning, but we were still surprised that the cenote was mostly empty when we arrived. We had paid a small entrance fee ( around 150 pesos per person or $8 USD) and had the swimming area more or less to ourselves. The color of the water was entrancing, crystal clear with a bluish-turquoise hue to it.
I’d been dealing with some stressful work projects the week before, but stepping into this hidden paradise instantly melted that all away.
We dipped our feet in the water, and immediately swarms of little fish came over to check us out. (They will nibble your toes, so if that kind of thing freaks you out – beware!)
After a little footsie with the fishes, we jumped in for a swim. The water was on the cooler side but was very refreshing. I now want a cenote in my backyard. That’s not too much to ask, right?
This was such a centering and peaceful way to start a day. We wished we could have stayed longer, but we had a long day of exploration ahead.
We grabbed a zapote fruit from a roadside stand after our swim. Definitely give these a shot if you’re ever in Mexico. They’re kind of like a cross between a really sweet carrot and a cantelope.
Locally-Sourced Coffee and Mexican Brunch at Ki’ Bok
There are essentially two different Tulums – the town (also known as the pueblo) and the beach. The town is laid-back with eclectic art shops, cafes and restaurants. We were hungry and in dire need of a coffee, so we headed straight to Ki’ Bok Coffee.
Ki’ Bok serves premium Mexican coffee in a lush garden setting. They also offer delicious breakfast and brunch items that we were eager to try.
We shared the chilaquiles and enchiladas mole and both were incredible. Mole has become a new obsession lately and this one was rich, smoky, sweet and spicy in all the right ways. The chilaquiles were done well also, but were a bit eclipsed by the mole.
After brunch, we walked around town for a bit, enjoyed the street art and did a bit of shopping before heading over to the beach.
Boho Meets Luxury Meets “Am I Cool Enough to be Here” at Tulum Beach
Driving into Tulum’s beach area is like entering an Instagram fever dream. If you’re like me, you might immediately start to wonder if you’re cool enough to be there. Besides the beautiful aesthetic, the first thing we noticed was how crowded everything was. While Tulum was once an under-the-radar destination, the secret is definitely out now.
Our first stop was to the adorable I Scream Bar known for cocktails, tacos and boozy ice cream. Sounds fabulous, right? Unfortunately, the service was pretty terrible. Signs seemed to be pointing to the fact that we were not, in fact, cool enough to be there.
Beach Club with Bespoke Cocktails at La Zebra
Hitting up a chic beach club is the thing to do in Tulum. But we’d gotten more than enough sun the day before. Instead, we decided to admire the beach from the shade at La Zebra.
La Zebra is a beachfront hotel with an open air restaurant that over looks the ocean. We grabbed a table with a view of the waves and took in the scenery while sipping on cocktails. It was the perfect place to rest our feet and admire the beach.
Our our way into La Zebra we noticed a sign out front for something called the Mulberry Project. We didn’t really know what it was all about but saw the words “pop-up cocktail bar” and knew we had to check it out. We strolled down towards the bar area to see what this was all about.
The bartender greeted us and explained how their bespoke cocktail program worked. You started by choosing a base of either tequila, mezcal, or rum then choose some ingredients based on a menu listing of market-fresh fruit, vegetables, herbs and spices available that day. For the final step, you describe the type of cocktail you would like choosing from options like refreshing, sweet, spicy, tropical, bitter, dry, smoky, herbal and more. The bartender takes this guidance and creates a customized cocktail just for you. Tom had a mezcal cocktail that was spicy yet tropical with fruit flavors while I had a refreshing and citrusy tequila cocktail.
Holy Hipster Heaven, Hartwood
Every travel guide we read on Tulum mentioned the popular restaurant Hartwood as a must for dinner. It’s known for being very hard to get into, and we didn’t have reservations so we figured it was a no-go. On a whim, we decided to stop by around the time they opened to ask if they could squeeze us in.
The hostess stopped short of laughing in our faces, which I appreciated, and told us to come back in an hour and they’d see what they could do. It didn’t sound overly promising, but we popped into the cute bar next door called Mur Mur (the cuteness is never ending in Tulum) to wait it out.
Somehow, we did get end up getting a seat at Hartwood. It felt good to be part of the in crowd.
The restaurant is completely outdoors with minimal but chic design elements. There were no menus but instead a large chalkboard that the wait staff would situate close to your table and describe each dish. The chalkboard had simple labels like “ensalada jicama”, “ceviche yucatan”, and “filete de coronado” that our waitress would elaborate on and describe in more detail. Then, as soon as she left we promptly forgot everything she said and had to ask her a million questions.
We ordered several dishes including a tomato salad, roasted sweet potatoes, pork tacos, and slow cooked ribs. The presentation was great for every dish and overall we enjoyed the meal. But for a restaurant that had so much hype, we expected a little more. Everything was good, but nothing really stood out or was overly memorable.
We wondered if maybe we just didn’t order the correct things, but a place with this much acclaim should be delivering on every menu item. I expected more from you, hipsters.
Tulum is definitely more upscale than Playa del Carmen or Cancun, which is reflected in how much everything costs (which is a lot). We enjoyed the little slice of (slightly overcrowded) paradise, but one day was enough for this trip. If we went back, I think we’d spend more time in town and away from the beach.