Sun, Sea, Sand | Harper's BAZAAR India
Tulum isn't just another beach town. Its culture, kindness, and effortlessly cool buzz make it a destination to visit and revisit.
I first heard of Tulum (Too-LOOM) like any modern discovery—through social media (and pre-Donald Trump wall proposals. Ironically, the meaning of Tulum is 'wall' or 'fence' in Mayan). An hour-long drive away from Cancún, Mexico, is this quaint town situated at the south end of the Riviera Maya, touching the Caribbean, evoking a stream of adjectives like 'magnificent' and 'exquisite'. Originally a thriving civilization between the 11th and 16th centuries, Tulum was a trading port and religious centre for the Mayan people. Because the city was only rediscovered in 1841 by explorers JL Stephens and Frederick Catherwood, it has largely remained untouched. This discovery was even more precious as it is the only Mayan civilisation during its prime with an estimated 1,600 inhabitants, Tulum continues to reflect the quaint environment of its past through its simplistic way of life and lush, natural habitat.
Tulum first gained a small but influential loyalty from a group of jet-setters, including socialite Amanda Hearst and actor Sienna Miller. When the boutique hotel Coqui Coqui—run by Argentine model Nicolas Malleville and Italian designer Francesca Bonato—opened in 2003, Jade Jagger was their first guest. It has since become the destination of choice for the who's who of fashion. Now drawing in the It crowd, ranging from high-profile bloggers like Aimee Song and Negin Mirsalehi, to designer Naeem Khan and top editors like Michael Carl of Vanity Fair, Tulum has, in a sense, become the more exotic version of fashion week.
A Tulum novice, the drive from the airport had me curious and uncertain. Until that moment we had only passed the sterile monstrosities that are all-inclusive resorts. A true juxtaposition, Tulum embodies everything that all-inclusive resorts do not. Despite the convenience of these hotels, in many ways they create limitations by lack of exposure to the local environment and culture—something that Mexico has in abundance. Always open to encountering a piece of history, I relished the opportunity to explore a place so embedded in Mayan culture.
Pulling up to Mi Amor Hotel, my personal oasis for the next several days, quashed every ounce of uncertainty. Boutique hotels are to Tulum what beer is to Mexico: Inextricable. With just a handful of rooms at Mi Amor (all of them in sight), endless rustic wood, Acapulco concha swings hanging over the infinity pool, palm trees adorning my doorstep, a stylish outdoor bar, with the Caribbean directly ahead, I was immediately taken in. The tones of blue and the tranquillity it invokes even in the most anxious of visitors is why this place is paramount to others. I was residing in what I imagine Sir Thomas Moor envisioned when he wrote Utopia, had it been applicable to a beach town: "Nobody owns anything but everyone is rich—for what greater wealth can there be than cheerfulness, peace of mind, and freedom from anxiety?"
Tulum isn't just a tropical getaway. Nor is it the backdrop for the infamous Señor Frogs and night clubs with $1 tequila shots from nearby Cancún or Playa del Carmen, which Mexico has become nearly synonymous with. If there is an antithesis to these places, Tulum is it. There aren't any chain resorts, traffic is unheard of, and the only place where there is a crowd is the latest trending bar on a Saturday night. Though the coastline occasionally becomes speckled with new ventures, the ethos remains constant. From the Tulum ruins on one end to the opposite side of town, all is reachable via bicycle—Tulum's primary mode of transportation. The only cars driving through are those shuttling visitors to and from the airport.
Apart from the abundance of nature (and the occasional animal sighting), Tulum is home to fabulous restaurants such as Gitano, Casa Jaguar, and Hartwood—all worthy of their guest lists, and encompassing the ubiquitous eco-friendly, chilled-out vibe present across the beach town. One of the great things about heading to the refuge of the fashion-savvy is that not only are the hotels chic, but so are the boutiques and restaurants. Tulum has several fantastic lunch prospects, but dinner is really where it's at, post-swimming, post-sunbathing, post-sunset, and after you've had a few mezcal-laden cocktails. In addition, there is always a new chef with a new vision delivering food—particularly seafood—unlike anything you have experienced before.
Admittedly, a city as tranquil as Tulum may be a hard sell for some of your friends. But it is a sort of metaphorical triple-crown of island paradises. Idyllic waters 50 shades of blue with plush sand, divine food, and enough activities to keep you busy, makes it impossible to leave anybody wanting. A visit to the Tulum ruins—formerly a seaport and home to the city's inhabitants—is requisite. In addition, there are thousands of cenotes, underground reservoirs of mineral-rich water largely unique to the region. Historically the only sources of water to the Mayan civilisation and considered the sacred place for communication with the gods, they are in many ways a reflection of the past. Shaped by the collapse of porous limestone bedrock, cenotes became subterranean deep caves or open-air caverns surrounded by the jungle, but always filled with exquisite turquoise water.
The perpetual deliberation of an traveller is returning to the places they've already been to versus exploring the unknown. I've always fallen into the latter category—until the trip to Tulum, that is. Tulum isn't a place where you'll have that token life-altering experience. Instead, you're left with something that I believe is much richer. While most of our days were spent loitering from the beach to local restaurants eating empanadas and impossibly fresh and authentic fish tacos, always via charming bicycles, each moment of the day was relished and felt truly valuable. During our hour-long taxi ride to the airport, I was grateful to have time to reflect upon this majestic place. Some places stay with you, and before you even set foot on the airplane to return home, you know that you will certainly find your way back.
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