With its hipster hangouts, magical Mayan ruins and boho beach bars, this little slice of Mexican paradise is the place to be right now. We meet the locals leading the creative revolution.
“Tulum is a very easygoing, open place. You’re free to do what you want – and be who you want to be”
An artist painting the Mexican coastal town of Tulum would need a pretty big palette. Turquoise, of course, for the Caribbean Sea, lots of white for the miles of sand and a bright, cerulean blue for the sky. They would also need hot pink, for the stalls of spiky pitayas (or dragon fruit), sunshine yellow for the hammocks swinging between palm trees, orange for the exact shade of the mangos, guacamole green – and every other colour besides for the vintage VWs parked in the shade at the edge of the roads. But Tulum is already a self-made masterpiece; a beach paradise just 90 minutes’ drive along the Yucatan Peninsular from Cancun with looks, personality and more allure than the Mona Lisa.
Only 20 years ago Tulum was considered off the beaten path, home to around 600 local families and known mainly for its magnificent 13th-century Mayan ruins built right by the sea. But as travellers began looking for new destinations beyond buzzy resorts such as Playa Del Carmen and Cancun, more and more people started falling for the laidback charms of this unassuming town in the east coast state of Quintana Roo.
Situated on the beautiful strip of sand which separates the jungle from Mexico’s Caribbean coastline, it’s easy to see why the world has fallen in love with Tulum. The beaches are spectacular, the vibe is low-key and there’s something for travellers of all budgets and backgrounds – yoga studios neighbour Mayan sweat lodges, bagel cafes sit alongside burrito bars, and prices are listed in both American dollars and Mexican pesos. Tear yourself away from your waterside cabana and you might even spot a holidaying star: Hollywood actors Drew Barrymore and Jared Leto, model Cara Delevingne and musician Frank Ocean are among the famous names to have Instagrammed a Tulum palm tree in recent years.
“It’s easy to see why the world has fallen in love with Tulum: the beaches are spectacular, and the vibe is low-key”
It’s this unbeatable combination of good looks and easygoing attitude which is particularly attractive to creative types who are, in turn, making their mark on Tulum. Perhaps it’s the influence of the ancient Mayans, who painted the facades of their buildings in bright colours and produced a wealth of artwork, or maybe it’s the natural inspiration of the landscape, but walk down the main street and it’s hard to find a corner where there isn’t some enormous mural covering a building or a restaurant without brightly coloured furniture or a homemade feature wall. Everyone, from the street vendors selling traditional huipil (intricate embroidered blouses), to the barmen shaking up ice, mint and rum for a perfectly executed mojito, to the chefs producing crisp tostadas loaded with ceviche, fiery habanero chilli sauce and guacamole demonstrates an inventive flair. Indeed, such is Tulum’s cultural appeal, Mexico’s tourist board recently named it one of the pueblo magicos – a series of towns around the country that offer visitors a “magical” experience due to their natural beauty, cultural cachet, or historical richness.
“It has an atmosphere you can’t get in the cities. I try to come here as often as possible just to breathe”
Ask one of the town’s resident artists why it packs such a creative punch and you’ll get an enthusiastic response. “Tulum is an energy amplifier,” smiles Alfonso Garrido, who runs both Tulum Art Club and beachside artists’ hangout Residencia Gorila. Standing barefoot on the roof of the latter, he waves his arm over a spectacular view – sand and sea to one side, lush jungle to the other. “It’s the only place in Mayan civilisation that was built on the beach, and that’s because the Mayans knew the importance of water for creating, connecting, resting and releasing. Many artists come here to relax and recharge themselves so they can start to create again. They arrive from the cities all slumped over and after a day or two – pfffft! The weight has gone.”
Then there’s Carlos Moises Zendejas – known to everyone as Charlie and one of the figureheads of Tulum’s artistic community. Sporting flip-flops and a magnificent beard, he uses his restaurant Charlie’s as a showcase for his talents as a sculptor and a chef. His artworks are dotted around the space, while the adjacent shop Mixik is run by his wife Sally Peterson and champions traditional Mexican folk art. Charlie has been running his bright, distinctive restaurant for nearly 30 years, serving up delicious piles of tacos, carnitas and other Mexican dishes between stints in the studio. “Tulum is a good place to be an artist if not to make money,” he says, handing us shot glasses of the smoky Mexican spirit mezcal. “I have this place so I can afford to practise my art.”
But Tulum hasn’t always enjoyed such a reputation for creativity. Hotelier and art lover Susan Bohlken bought her beachfront home (now the Zamas hotel) “on a handshake” from an old Mayan farmer in the 1980s. At that time there was no running water, no electricity and definitely not a lot going on culturally. “It was very natural, very undeveloped and very beautiful,” she says, over fish tacos, gambas pil pil and ice-cold beers in the hotel’s outdoor restaurant, Que Fresco. “The Mayan community were – and continue to be – very welcoming, but it was a pretty quiet place.”
In 2014, Susan and Alfonso were involved with hosting a range of international artists for the first Tulum Art Project. The project paired visiting artists with local business owners to bring dozens of larger-than-life murals to the streets. “Everyone from the big hotels to the tiny taco shops were excited about the project,” says Alfonso, who runs tours of the murals by request. “The attitude seemed to be, ‘Yeah, cool, the town needs colour. Come and paint it here.’ Obviously we have the traditional Mayan culture, but Tulum is a pretty new town and it’s developed fast so we needed some fresh culture. Now artists are turning up all the time. People are calling it the ‘Tulum boom’.”
He’s not wrong. “Tulum is the place all the artists and designers want to be,” says Antonio Saracho, who lives in Playa Del Carmen but spends as much time as possible in Tulum where his clever glass mosaics are in demand. “It’s somewhere you bump into your friends and it has an atmosphere you just can’t get in the cities. I try to come here as often as possible just to breathe.”
It soon becomes apparent that there are few better places to escape the chaos of everyday life than this beach paradise. After spending some time relaxing by the sea, Antonio recommends we try a particular craft mezcal and his favourite Tulum cenote (underwater lake), though not at the same time. Cenotes were revered in Mayan culture because they were a reliable source of water during times of drought – some even believed they were portals through which they could converse with the gods. A cooling dip when temperatures reach 40 ̊C will leave visitors just as enchanted as the locals.
Later that night, we bump into Alfonso again, hanging out with a group of visiting American artists in Batey, a mojito bar that seems to be the centre of weekend nightlife. Out front is an illuminated VW Beetle, psychedelically painted by Ariel Resendiz. In the backroom bar, a flamenco dancer and guitarist are giving a passionate performance to tables of dancing, cheering locals who raise their glasses in tribute. They look like this bar is the only place they want to be right now and why wouldn’t they? Tulum, after all, is booming. Special thanks to the Riviera Maya tourist board who showed us the coolest places to visit in Tulum.
Art and Soul: Three Places for Tulum Culture
- Tulum Art Club: This super-cool gallery and coffee shop is the place to chill with an iced latte while checking out the art on display. Don’t miss New York-based Maya Hayuk’s bold (and very Instagrammable) mural at the back of the building. tulumartclub.com
- Mixik: Snap up Day Of The Dead ceramic skulls, tin decorations, votive candles and other traditional Mexican folk art at this veritable treasure trove. In search of souvenirs or something to decorate your walls back home? Look no further. Avenue Tulum
- Tulum Ruins: In the 13th century Tulum was a Mayan seaport trading in turquoise and jade. Explore the remains of its temple and watchtower – and enjoy spectacular clifftop views of the Caribbean – at the Tulum Archaeological Site, just outside the town centre. tulumruins.net
Eat, Sleep, Drink, Repeat…
- Eat: Beach views that will have you pinching yourself (and spending hours taking snaps on your phone), plus some of the best ceviche, quesadillas and guacamole Tulum has to offer, Ahau is a must for a holiday blow-out. ahautulum.com
- Drink: Looking for a buzz on Saturday night? Find it in Batey Mojito & Guarapo Bar, where you can enjoy delicious mojitos and dance to everything from flamenco to rock hits in the backroom with the locals. Calle Centauro Sur
- Sunbathe: For snaps that will make your mates de-friend you in jealousy, head to Playa Maya, a picture-perfect slice of sun, sea and sky that’s ideal for drinking from a coconut or posing in a bikini.
Source: Thomas Cook Travel. Words: Nione Meakin. Photos: Tim E White