The slow creep of summer’s end is upon us, and the last few weeks of sunshine are ready to be seized. Instead of crowding around Rockaway beach or the Jersey Shore with the rest of the tri-state area, we decided to embark on a different sort of getaway.
The magical town of Tulum is away from the big cities, blessed with ethereal scenery, and surrounded by white sand, crystal-clear waters and dense rainforest. Starlit nights slow down time, and feeling the glow of the sun on your salty skin erases all sense of worry and stress. It’s not about the all-inclusive mega-resorts of Cancun, Playa del Carmen and much of the rest of the Yucatán peninsula here. There’s no room in this town for the Americanized versions of a Mexican vacation—it’s a place for personal journey, a sacred spot that naturally lends itself to the healing of the soul.
It has to be said, the visual beauty of Tulum tends to be ultra instagrammable, and there’s a bit of bragging rights among the fashionistas and wealthy New Yorkers that favor this spiritual oasis—but there’s still a lack of pretense. Even with Tulum’s popularity growing, there’s still a sense of peace and retreat to be found wherever you go.
Surprisingly, the sargassum (a type of seaweed that washes up on the beaches daily) that has been keeping many of the tourists away has brought back a touch of the wild allure that made Tulum famous in the first place. If you’re looking for a less-crowded way to experience the amazing restaurants, gelato, culture, art and cenote’s then the time to visit Tulum is now.
WHERE TO STAY: CASA MALCA
There’s the town proper of Tulum, which houses some great authentic cuisine and affordable hotel options, and then there’s the strip, featuring all of the stunning boutique hotels, chic seaside restaurants, high-end shops and smoothie shacks.
The beaches here are all private, which suited us especially well, since our absolute favorite beach and boutique hotel could be found at Casa Malca. Casa Malca was discovered after being abandoned for over a decade.
It’s since been renovated and expanded comprehensively, while still respecting the existing architecture and natural environment. It is rumored to have been owned by Mexico’s most notorious drug lord, but that past has been washed away with the tide, allowing for a new era of beauty and luxury to reside.
The proprietor is Lio Malca, an acclaimed NYC art gallery curator and true aesthete who has created a unique space that lets juxtaposition reign.
Walking into the property feels like a surreal entry into another dimension, an Alice Through the Looking Glass vibe. You are at once connected to nature and also transported to the Chelsea art district. It’s a fascinating sensory experience. The natural beauty of the sand and sea greets you, along with sculptures from world famous artists like KAWS and tongue in cheek paintings by Wayne White.
What Casa Malca excels at is keeping you interested. It’s so far from the giant all-inclusive resort that people often associate beach vacations with—wander the garden and come across a bathtub adorned in gold and bathing in ferns. Step outside for an ocean dip and walk past the larger than life Light Bulbs—Sunil Gawde’s ‘Blind Bulbs’ representing the illumination of humanity. Stop in the bar for a drink before dinner and find yourself in a velvet room with crystal chandeliers and David Bowie crooning gently. Breathe in the ocean breeze on a velvet Chesterfield swing adorned with thirty foot curtains composed of sewn together wedding gowns on either side. It’s a wild ride. It’s also a very private experience—if you’re not a guest of the hotel you have to spend a minimum of $50 USD on drinks and/or food, so the right amount of people are there all for the right reasons. To enjoy the art, celebrate the property, relax and explore.
Attention to detail here really completes the ultimate guest experience. Casa Malca has an on site concierge who is incredibly accommodating, warm and welcoming. The entire staff here makes you feel happy to be visiting, going above and beyond to make sure you are one hundred percent satisfied. For the over organizer like myself, who likes to chat in advance and confirm every minute detail of an itinerary, Jonathan or Riccardo (two of the fantastic in house concierges) will WhatsApp you to discuss, plan, confirm, coordinate. They take the stress away and replace it with a refreshing bespoke Jicama cocktail.
WHERE TO EAT: WILD
When you hop on a moped to breeze around town (the best way to explore the strip, with the sun on your face and wind in your hair), you’ll get a little overwhelmed by the abundance of hip, eco chic restaurants touting things like sound baths and mezcal tastings, the best tacos in Mexico, snacks around a Cenote.
Tulum’s food game is at a peak right now, and honestly, it will be hard to find a bad bite on the strip. Having said that, certain spots are more worthwhile than others, and we’ve weeded out the tourist traps for you. One of our favorites is the little jungle restaurant aptly named WILD. Nestled in the jungle and under the stars, WILD pays tribute to the diverse landscape of the Mexican Caribbean. The ambiance is cozy and hushed, the sounds of the jungle surrounding while a whiff of gentle sage fills the air. In a ceremonial style, the hostess burns an extra large smudge stick to ward off evil spirits (and mosquitos).
The concept here is a fusion of traditional Mayan craftsmanship with rustic elements, alongside modern elegance. Start with the ultra fresh Michoacán avocados guacamole & sikil pa’ak served with tostadas (sprinkled with dehydrated worm salt), move on to the decadent campeche king prawn, homemade mascarpone and parmigiano filled agnolottis, local cherry tomatoes, warm brown butter vinaigrette and end the evening with a flight of Mezcals and churros like you’ve never had before (the churros perfectly fried, the chili chocolate dip mind blowing). Cocktails here are also pretty stellar, using freshly made juices, purees, homemade syrups and cordials all made on site. Our favorite was the signature Hayate margarita, made with red pepper-infused tequila.
WHERE TO EAT: PHILOSOPHY
Of course, when you’re at Casa Malca you also have the option of dining at their on site restaurant, Philosophy. Philosophy echoes the entire aura of Casa Malca—floor to ceiling windows showcase the natural beauty of the playa, and a calm and cool eclectic interior for a space that is both romantic and bachelor pad-esque.
The term, from Greek origin, is composed of two words: Philos (“love”) and sophia (“thought, wisdom, knowledge”). Thus, the restaurant is born from the ‘Love of Knowledge”. They incorporate that into the menu, which features local ingredients and knowledge handed down from generation to generation in Mexico, combined with contemporary European techniques.
The freshly caught aquachile de cameron, a classic seaside dish, is an incredible, melt in your mouth dish comprised of seabass (or whatever the catch of the day is) pepino, aquacate, and pimiento rojo with cucumber, avocado, red pepper and serrano chili. Pair it with the Jicama cocktail, a mezcal infusion with jalapeno, jicama juice, chili and worm salt, watch the waves in the distance, and have one of the best meals of your life. Philosophy also serves an incredible breakfast that goes way beyond the typical continental breakfast—trays and trays of fresh salmon, tuna, ceviche, fresh chilaquiles, homemade bread, mimosas, fresh made green juice, `and all with your toes in the sand incredible views of an azure blue sea.
WHAT TO DO: EXPLORE WITH MEXICO KAN TOURS
Obviously, there’s more to Tulum than beautiful beaches, incredible artwork, and worm salt cocktails. We wanted to make sure we had a chance to sink into the history of Tulum, but without hopping on a super touristy bus ride that wouldn’t have much of an impact. Mexico Kan Tours is a travel company dedicated to the concept that one should always travel with intention. Their philosophy is that travel should have a purpose, whether great or small, and in setting this intention there is so much more to be had from exploration than simply seeing somewhere new.
Visiting the ruins of Tulum—of course you can just show up, buy the ticket, walk around, read the info panels and get some great photos but in visiting with Said (our guide for the day) we discovered elements of the past while he shared the context of the city in its environment. Standing on these sacred grounds and connecting the link between the Mayan people, what this temple was to them, and linking the past and present—it was a spiritual journey, instead of a tourist stop.
Said and his team are also advocates of the eco-tourism movement, preserving the culture of the Yucatán and actively promoting the conservation of the places they visit. Said took us to the amazing Santa Cruz cenote, a primitive cenote in a natural, non polluted state, without bowing to pressure from mass tourism.
There are thousands of these sinkholes all around Mexico—they are the result of limestone collapse that exposes groundwater underneath. Some are large enough to paddle board across, some damp and dark and narrow little caves. The Mayans actually believed the cenotes were a gateway to the underworld once you passed away, and once you’ve wandered deep within the eerie caves with catfish at your feet, bats flying idly by and dripping stalactites above your head, it’s easy to see why.
The difference between heading to a public cenote and being escorted to one like the Santa Cruz with Said is that these are private—so there’s a beautiful lack of people to disturb your ethereal experience.
Tulum is a land is full of wonders, immense history, delicious food, and an incredible cultural identity. It’s a transcendental town that will leave you in a state of perpetual happiness, fighting the urge to ever return home.