How Tulum Became the Trendiest Tourist Destination

Formerly known for its ruins, the Mexican hotspot has become a must-see for globetrotters.

March 27, 2018 5:00 am
Hotel Zulum. (Photo by Sally Sorte.)
Hotel Zulum. (Photo by Sally Sorte.)

As I found my private “Happy Shuttle” for the hour and 45-minute drive from Cancun to Tulum, I quickly realized that telling locals I was alone “sola una” because my friend was pregnant “embarazada” and she couldn’t travel because of Zika “el risque” was a bad idea. How could I say that when they all had wives and were either taking calculated risks or were waiting or simply were not in a position to worry about such things? Meanwhile, family-planning Americans avoid half the globe in order to prevent exposure as per the CDC recommendation.


Tulum street art. (Sally Sorte.)

It was my second time to Tulum and it did not disappoint. Once I accepted the role of solo traveler, I freshened up and headed to dinner at Hartwood, a restaurant I’d wanted to try since my first visit in the fall of 2016. The menu changes daily to reflect local harvests of the land and sea.

Reservations open a month in advance – and fill up! – so set a notification on your phone to book your spot. Or, if you’re more of a fly by the seat of your pants person, chance it and walk in (5:30 p.m., when they open, will be your best bet) and wait amongst the lanterns and tree trunks.

Despite my Google calendar reminder, I emailed for a reservation a few days after the one-month window opened and nothing was available. So I went the walk-in route.

A waiter will bring a chalkboard menu over with the specialty cocktail menu. I enjoyed a mango Mezcal margarita garnished with chili powder and lime.

This place is vibes. Even waiting half hour with a drink in hand is a good time to take it all in. Smells, tunes, Tulum tones. Flickering flames keep the mosquitoes at bay and provide the only lighting after sundown.

Green lagoon outside Tulum.

I met another solo female traveler and we cozied up to the bar. The bartender kept us well plied with chupitos and customized cocktails amidst our fresh ceviche, pulpo (octopus), pork ribs, and a sweet potato side. We ended up sharing, so I got to try everything. My new friend & dinner company lives part of the year in Tulum (split with Michigan) so she had all the local knowledge of best places to go, eat, and stay.

Best of Tulum

Sunset of Azulik. (Sally Sorte)

Here are some of the highlights that I checked out and aprovechar-ed over the next 5 days:
Raw Love – Located in the jungle adjacent to Ahau Hotel, stop by for their gourmet raw vegan menu: from acai bowls to veggie pad thai.
Matcha Mama – This adorable matcha stand also has cold brew, smoothies, and acai bowls. Sip while you swing.
Cenotes – There are dozens of cenotes (natural pools in limestone caves) around Tulum. Go for a day trip and swim in the mystical, healing waters.
Tulum Ruins – Explore the well-preserved limestone outcroppings that used to be home to the Mayan civilization. Castillo is the most prominent, perched on a cliff overlooking the Caribbean sea.
Nomade – Immerse yourself in the gypsy motif and dine at one of the hotel’s two restaurants: Macondo or La Popular. Grab a cushion and enjoy the beachfront view.

Tulum ruins. (Sally Sorte)

Tulum was kind to me as a solo traveler. On my first morning, I found myself on the back of my friend’s scooter headed to a green lagoon to swim and drink cervezas. Afterward, we went for tacos at Taqueria Honorio in the local Tulum town.

The Three Tulums

Sunrise in Tulum. (Sally Sorte)

There are essentially 3 Tulums- ancient Tulum (the Tulum ruins, bring cash & sun protection), local Tulum (the cheaper area ~2.5 miles from the beach with the best street tacos, but stay alert for pickpockets), and boho beach Tulum (the strip along the beach with Vegan restaurants, hip boutiques, dreamy design details, and a travel blog lover’s paradise). Tulum is compared to Bali for its laid-back vibe, photogenic aesthetic, and digital nomad appeal.

For the first part of my trip, I stayed at Hotel Zulum, a simple beachfront hotel with lovely service and a resident donkey named Sancho. I always love a unique mascot, but if you stay here, you may want earplugs as he has adopted the role of rooster and “Hee-Haws” loudly each morning at sunrise. You know you’re in Mexico when!

Hotel Zulum. (Photo by Sally Sorte.)

Kin Toh

Kin Toh. (Sally Sorte)

Last trip, I stayed at Azulik Hotel and Spa, a tree house eco resort slightly removed (a short walk) from the beginning of the beach strip. When I visited, their restaurant was under construction, so I couldn’t wait to give it a try. I booked a reservation online via Open Table and timed it so I’d be seated for sunrise. I arrived early to explore and take pictures, along with a flock of camera-clad happy hour goers and couples on date night.

Lounging at Kin Toh. (Sally Sorte)

The views and the design at are beyond compare. This spot fulfills all of your childhood and adult tree house dreams combined. I cannot say the same for the cocktails or cuisine. While the presentation was lovely, I had to send two cocktails back before switching to wine and the food was surprisingly subpar. That said, this is still a ‘spot,’ so either come enjoy the bar for a drink or book a nest for a special event with friends.

Papaya Playa Project

Papaya Playa Project. (Sally Sorte)

For the last part of my trip, I stayed at Papaya Playa Project, an idyllic enclave on a private beach, a short cab ride from Tulum. I had a jungle casita with a rooftop pool. This place was pure luxury – from the giant bed and comforts of the room (AC included) to snacking on pistachios and sipping Coronas in a beanbag chair on the rooftop, watching the sun go down. Papaya Playa throws epic beach dance parties every Saturday night and full moon; plan accordingly.

Papaya Playa Project. (Sally Sorte)

On my last night, I headed to dinner solo for crab cakes, stuffed peppers, and vino tinto at the hotel restaurant. Two models sat down in front of me and proceeded to be playfully bothered by two hopeless blokes (“Is it hard being famous?”). I was brought into the conversation as the instafamous bikini duo deflected the guy’s attempts at flirtation.

The models eventually headed back to their casita to lose the fanboys, and I met a big group of old school friends from Mexico City on their annual reunion trip. We went to Rosa Negra for handcrafted dry ice cocktails and to Gitanos for the night scene. My hopes for dancing the balmy night away in Tulum came true after all. Un buen viaje.


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