The secret’s long been out about Tulum. As the laidback, bohemian alternative to Cancun and its megaresorts, the siren’s call in Tulum is its lush, tropical setting that feels as though you’re in a fantastical treehouse. Beachside palapas double as yoga studios, trendy neon signs light up the verdant restaurants, and the region is rich with cenotes and Mayan ruins.
But as Tulum grows in popularity—and, simultaneously, as travelers emerge from their COVID cocoons still cautious of crowds—Tulum can feel a wee crowded. The good news? There’s a way to vacation on Mexico’s eastern stretch, enjoying the original allure of Tulum while dodging the crowds.
Here, a guide to the quieter side of Tulum:
Book a stay at Casa Altamar, a 10-room beachside boutique hotel where grand arched balcony windows frame palm trees and sunrises like the works of art that they are and a pair of swaying hammocks on the dock beckon you for an over-water siesta.
The 12,140-square-foot hotel was purchased and renovated in 2018, with a pool and dock added in 2019. Over the past year, a third floor and rooftop were added. Rooms are 390 square feet, and each one is outfitted with a patio except for room No. 1, which has direct beach access and VIP views of the Caribbean’s turquoise waters.
“When we were working on the renovation for Casa Altamar, I had this vision of doing a modern take on the classic, simple style of the Mediterranean,” says owner Ken Wolf. “I wanted something that felt clean, refreshing and contemporary. From the mid-century hutch to the touches of Mexican Talavera tile, every detail of the design feels intentional while maintaining the architectural integrity of the building and its surroundings.”
Guests here can slip on water socks (the sea bottom is rocky) and paddle through the blue-green waters on a paddleboard or kayak, or go for a swim.
The on-site restaurant—led by Chef Eric Fischer, who is from Chile—has culinary prowess, and draws guests from nearby hotels as well as locals. Enjoy tropical fruit and pastries at breakfast, fresh ceviches at lunch (those on a plant-based diet can scoop mushroom ceviche up with tortilla and wood-fired pizzas for late-afternoon snack or dinner. After you’ve had your fair share of tequila and mezcal, sample pox (pronounced posh), a corn-based spirit that Mayans have long used as a ceremonial drink. It’s more like a rum or white dog whisky than an agave-based spirit.
To get into relaxation mode, book a massage in the palapa on the pool deck; the waves set the soundtrack.
If you can peel yourself away from the resort, a 30 minute cab ride (about $40 U.S. dollars) will deliver you to the busier main stretch of Tulum, which is lined with renowned restaurants and trendy boutiques.
Rates at Casa Altamar start at $160 a night.
Float along Mother Nature’s version of a lazy river by booking a tour with Mayikal Experiences to explore Sian Ka’An Biosphere Reserve, just south of Tulum. A sustainable boat tour will zip you through the mangroves (pack some Dramamine if you’re prone to sea sickness) delivering you to the tranquil emerald waters of a Mayan canal once used as a trading route. From here, you’ll take a 10-minute walk along a winding wood dock and then plunge into the river outfitted in a life jacket, letting a gentle current carry you down the river back to the boat.
Translating to “origin of the sky,” Sian Ka’An is a Unesco World Heritage Site with tremendous biodiversity, which ranges from tropical forests that are home to jaguar and puma to forested islands, mangroves and cenotes. More than 350 species of birds have been identified in the reserve. As part of the Mayikal excursion, you can picnic on the boat, devouring homemade tamales while birdwatching and crocodile spotting.
As an alternative to the busy beaches, swimming in the region’s cenotes is a peaceful way to cool off. These ombré blue and green swimming holes carry cultural significance as they were the portals where Mayans communicated with the gods. A five minute walk from Casa Altamar is Casa Cenote, also known as Cenote Manatí. The cenote winds through a lush mangrove and is a snorkeling and scuba spot. A note before you go: Sunscreen and bug spray isn’t allowed because it can be detrimental to aquatic life.
Ready to venture into Tulum for a special night out? Experience al fresco dining in a leafy setting at Atila, a buzzy natural wine bar and brasserie with seasonal dishes and a special attention on sauces, like grilled trout with plantain puree.
Or, book a dinner at Kitchen Table, a restaurant in the heart of the jungle that preserves “old Tulum vibes” and where charcoal ovens slow cook meat and fish dishes. The restaurant has a focus on inventive cocktails and seasonal ingredients, which means organic squash wontons could be on the menu one night and fresh fish ceviche another.