Tulum has been a major travel destination in Mexico for years and the place has gone through many changes and much growth. The town of Tulum itself still feels like a Mexican town bisected by a highway. Yes, a shade more touristed than most Mexican towns but with enough local tourists from around the country to keep it real. The beach area of Tulum is where the big changes are most evident and most ongoing–so much so that we stayed for an extra week to check out the beach boom going on in Tulum.
We called La Zebra Beach Hotel & Restaurant home for our first few days in Tulum. Not only did we love the place but it’s also a good example of how things are changing in Tulum. Once a budget bungalow joint that was free of frills and pretty cheap, as beach digs go, La Zebra was purchased by John Kendall who upped the comfort and decor level considerably.
La Zebra is now a wonderful place to get your fix of beach-chic, Tulum style. Nine cabanas come in skittles colors and have plushly finished interiors (no leaky palapas here). Bathrooms inlaid with gorgeous stones, festive zebra-print linens, a small bottle of complimentary tequila and best of all: they’ve put the fans inside the mosquito nets so you can actually feel the breeze while you’re sleeping! There ought to be a law…
Cabana #1 is larger (two bedrooms), has a really sexy outdoor tub that’s enclosed in walls but open to the sky, and is closest to the water. This cabana is perfect for a family or two couples. Just note that there’s no door between the bedrooms.
There’s also an even larger room above the restaurant that’s perfect for larger families/groups plus a stand-alone two story positively luxurious house just a few steps down the beach which they have the gall to call the “Beach Shack.” In the “shack,” the downstairs room has a king bed and an open-plan bathroom. The upstairs room has two twin beds and a bathroom and it opens onto a big furnished deck with a sink, fridge and outdoor tub. The place just screams “Party!”.
A suite and five more cabanas, with a shared plunge pool, are tucked right across the road on the jungle side of the property.
As wonderful as the rooms are, you probably won’t spend too much time in them. La Zebra is right on the beach and it makes good use of its location with comfortable outdoor lounging areas and an inviting bar. Even if, like us, you believe the margarita is more often butchered than perfected, spin the dice one more time and order one at La Zebra.
Made with all natural fresh ingredients, including sugar cane juice squeezed using a hulking old press that’s attached to the bar, La Zebra’s passion fruit margarita is the welcome drink of choice. Warning: you will want more.
Even hipsters have to eat and the restaurant scene in Tulum is definitely up for the challenge. We managed to grab a table at El Tabano (which, oddly, means horsefly) and were immediately struck by the juxtaposition between the staff and diners (all could have been models, except us of course) and the lovely ladies doing the cooking who looked like typical Mexican mamas and daughters busy getting the work of feeding the masses done. They could have been slinging tacos from a street cart but here they were busy drizzling balsamic.
It was a comforting combination that made us expect lively company and great food. We got both.
As a birthday-party-in-progress passed around tequila shots we settled into our long wooden table and surveyed the more than 15 wines on offer and a menu that ran the gamut from seafood to tortilla lasagna (all listed on a massive chalk board). The homemade bread was delicious, the salad was huge and fish prepared in beer was out of this world–rich, salty, sweet, tender. The soggy and bland tortilla lasagna may need to be re-thought though…
Friends of ours (hi Joe and Pooja) raved about their celebratory meal at the Italian restaurant at Posada Margherita where they ate delicious food and drank lots of good wine. When they realized the restaurant was cash only (heads up) the proprietor told them “Don’t worry. You can pay me tomorrow. What’s important is the food.” Seriously.
That same night we enjoyed, of all things, a Thai meal at the restaurant at Mezzanine Hotel which manages a very urban look and feel (it could be in New York City’s meatpacking district). We sometimes feel guilty for “cheating” on the local cuisine when we choose to do something like eat Thai food in Mexico, but our meal at Mezzanine was worth any charges of food adultery.
Another thing we liked at the Mezzanine: the hotel throws a weekly party with a live DJ. To staff it, they fly in top-spinners from around the world and put them (and one lucky guest) up in a special DJ room at the hotel for two weeks at a stretch. The DJs get an awesome Mexican vacation and guests of Mezzanine get awesome parties.
Opened in 1993, Zamas (which means new beginning) is a beach side option that helped spearhead the cool movement out here. Even today it retains a hippy movie set look and feel that’s easy-going and welcoming enough to make sense of the infrastructure, aspects of which could use a new beginning.
A standout at Zamas is the open air restaurant ¡Que Fresco! where the pizzas are dreamy (out of a real pizza oven!) and the seafood chowder is complex and not fishy at all. Sadly, we didn’t have time to try the rest of the items on the inventive (but not outlandish) menu, but we’ll leave that up to you.
The owners of Zamas are currently transforming a home in the most interesting neighborhood in Valladolid and plan to open it as their second hotel soon.
Perhaps the ultimate stamp of hip-dom is the fact that Grupo Habita, creators of iconic boutique hotels across Mexico including Condessa DF, Maison Couturier, and Boca Chica, is working on a new hotel on the beach in Tulum. Look for it to open its doors in 2011.
Inside the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve
Yes, the chic factor is gobbling up the beachfront in Tulum, but there’s still plenty of jungle and mangrove wilderness here too, thanks in large part to the Reserva de la Biosfera Sian Ka’an. This 1.3 million acre preserve is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the largest protected area in the Mexican Caribbean. The place is full of birds and mammals and even Mayan sites. Kayaking is the main way to explore the preserve since roads and trails are scarce/nonexistent.