TULUM’S ANTI-RESORTS: 4 BOUTIQUE HOTELS
For the last year my social media feed has been clogged with photos of Tulum. I hadn't known this Mexican Utopia on the Yucatan Peninsula existed until my Instagram feed filled with fashion bloggers posing on hammocks with Boho-chic jewelry and dresses perfectly sweat-free highlighting the tropical luscious scenery more than their clothes. My fascination with exotic locales lured me to book a two-part trip from wild, gritty Cuba to Tulum, Mexico just an hour flight away. Arriving at night, our two hour drive south from Cancun plummeted us to a narrow road with liquid darkness where cars only had about a few inches for oncoming vehicles, bicyclists, and walkers.
Just ten years ago, not much may have existed in this free spirited beach strip, but today people from all over the world have discovered what makes Tulum truly special. The area is not only steeped in Mayan history, Mayan ruins, and backed up to a carved out jungle, but offers miles of picture perfect beaches on the Caribbean Sea with silky sand and aquamarine water. For the adventurous, there are more than 5,000 freshwater cenotes (650 open to the public) to explore, and Sian Ka'an Biosphere, a UNESCO World Heritage Site (1.3 million acre nature reserve) is just a short drive away. Thanks to an informative guide we swam in a closed cavernous cenote called Muul Ich with a tiny light to illuminate the limestone stalactites, bats and catfish. From the archeological site of Muyil, we crossed two lagoons by boat to float through a crystal clear canal the Maya dug thousands of years ago surrounded by mangroves. One of our favorites memories was biking to climb Coba at sunset, the highest pyramid in Maya world elevating us high over the jungle. Barely a tourist in site!
The global cuisine in Tulum blends traditional Mexican fare with Caribbean fresh seafood along with modern approaches thanks to the culinary creatives flocking the area. Yoga classes are offered at most hotels, and the stars twinkle bold and bright with no light pollution. Candles and torches are often the only light to guide your way at night since hotels run on generators and solar power. Toilet paper is thrown in the trash and Potable Aqua trucks bring in drinkable water for restaurants and hotels.
But what makes Tulum hedonism and like nowhere else I've ever visited is the feeling. Hotels are typically less than twenty rooms and the inspiring architectural and design styles blends with the scenery and the low key Bohemian vibes. Move over annoying conglomerate resorts with noisy kids and basic food, and relish in a boutique hotel that feels so unique and personal, your room feels like your own self-contained resort. Welcome to Tulum, where simplicity and nature are the new luxury.
NEST truly feels like your own private nest, a place with nine rooms (or should we say villas) that feels like a home, not a hotel. The sign is so small you may miss the location, but you know you have 'arrived' with the tiny reception hut glow to greet you. The relaxed ambiance is why you want to stay here. We stayed in a two bedroom top floor garden suite, which felt more like my dream apartment styled in a rustic chic minimalist way with numerous hammocks indoor and out, a concrete floor with throw rugs (perfect for barefoot sandy feet), and a massive stone-like tub with glorious bath amenities we later saw in town. The decor fits the environment with products, furniture, and dangling woven lamp fixtures sourced from local artisans thanks to music industry veteran James Chippendale who designed the entire property with love and a careful attention to detail. Even woodworkers outside Cobá made most of the wood pieces.
The property includes two ocean view lofts, two rooms with partial ocean views, two unique tower rooms with access to a circular deck with views, and several garden rooms. The common area called the Living Room is situated beneath the palms and sits on a pristine beachfront with inviting lounge areas where we enjoyed Mezcal drinks at the tiny bar and looked forward daily to the made-to-order complimentary breakfast including a huge fruit yogurt granola bowl, eggs your choice, fresh juice, coffee, and probiotic drinks.
Dreamy beach beds awaited us each day to keep us cool in the shade, and lunch or drinks could be delivered at all times to your beach bliss. We greatly appreciated the friendly service catering to our every whim and the use of free bikes to get around town, while my boyfriend also adored the A/C at night as well as the complimentary guest happy hour each day. One day we walked south about ten minutes and swam out to snorkel with no one in site for miles.
We loved the Nest so much we shed tears upon leaving, and promised to either get married here or return again next year. Torches in the sand guide your way at night through the leafy palms. The intimacy of the Nest makes it the best. Trust me, you will never want to leave.
Nest is a referral-only guesthouse. For inquiries email firstname.lastname@example.org. Rates range from $225-$350 per room or book the entire property for around $3000 per day.
EL PEZ, A COLIBRI BOUTIQUE COLLECTION
Little did I know, the second sunrise at El Pez I would be getting engaged on the rock outside surrounded by the crashing ocean waves and plummeting birds that frequent this area. After Cuba, El Pez felt too good to be true with its soft towels, rain shower, scrumptious bed linens, and secluded stunning cove where tea and coffee greeted us before bed, and each morning was carefully placed outside our oceanfront "villa" known as La Casa Seafront. I will dream about this unassuming comfortable spacious room for the rest of my life because from our king sized bed we could watch the sunrise, get lulled to sleep by the sparkling pounding surf, and gaze in awe at the nonstop bird action and rock formations of Turtle Cove. Our room at the far end felt so private, even with people walking past.
During the right time of year, you can witness sea turtles lay their eggs in their cove. Although there are two public beaches on either side of El Pez, the property is located not on the easiest swimmable beach, but a few minutes walk away you can find a perfectly sandy beach with no rocks. However, the beach outside is perfect for snorkeling when the seas calm. We enjoyed relaxing on our comfortable deck chairs and never wanted to leave the three course breakfast outside on their comfy lounge area with the glistening waves.
Only six ocean view rooms (two are beach houses) are available at El Pez and several have multiples rooms. Security guards patrol the area. Next to our Casa was an enormous closed lounge area with kitchen that could be used at anytime and seemed perfect for parties, private events, or get-togethers. A pool is on site in the back, and the children we saw at breakfast were so well behaved that I wasn't bothered. The hotel's rustic chic decor is mesmerizing. Many people seem to enjoy this space for dinner with live music setting the mood. We will always remember the friendly welcoming staff and outstanding service.
Foodies, scream for joy! This hotel is partnering with Noma's Pop Up, now in Mexico April 12 on, where you can receive two tickets to dine at the famed Copenhagen restaurant in Tulum when you stay for two nights at El Pez. Also, as part of staying at El Pez, the hotel offers you drink tickets so you can explore their other breathtaking locations. We ventured to the chic lounge of Mezzanine for Mezcal cocktails hanging off a blustery cliff followed with fresh sushi-grade fish appetizers at Mi Amor, a super romantic mod setting reminding me a bit of Miami. La Zebra is the fourth property part of the Colibri Boutique Hotels that we regret not visiting.
Rooms rates range from $350 on up.
AZULIK RESORT AND MAYA SPA
Come for the adult treehouse room at this eco-friendly wellness resort hanging off the water, but not for the service or food options. Sadly, one of the most expensive meals we had in Tulum was at their new fine dining restaurant Kin | Toh, a place built on stilts 12 meters over the jungle that seemed like it was trying too hard to be not Tulum with a snooty host, flavorless food combinations, and a hard piece of bread on a rock. We left starving and disappointed for the amount of money we paid, especially on our engagement eve. The blasé unenthusiastic attitudes from when we first arrived was what bothered me. Guests weren't even allowed to enter the restaurant for sunset views (even if you had a reservation time) or even check out their Nest in the sky attached to the restaurant.
The hotel who saw my Facebook comment later went out of our way to appease us after the twenty things that went wrong that first day too. A bottle of Moet was sent to our room along with an exceptional Mystikal Wanders tour the hotel provided with extremely knowledgeable and fun Alberto Cuellar who took us to explore two cenotes and to climb Coba. We appreciated their attempt at fixing the mishaps, but even after speaking to several lovely managers who came to our room, we waited an hour for someone to collect our bags upon leaving, and no one ever came.
Come to Azulik for the unique property and your airy room over the sea. The adults only sanctuary consisting of 47 wooden-crafted villas is lit at night by candlelight creating a naturally magical ambiance. Our Luxury Aztec Villa on the upper floor may have been one of the most romantic places in the world, where our private terrace included a hand-crafted tub for two perfect for enjoying the sunrise over the crashing rhythmic waves. We spent our days moving between the outdoor circular swinging Balinese bed, the two sun loungers, the grand circular bed with mosquito net, and the indoor tub dangling over the sea. There are no showers. Room service is a ball that shoots down a tube. Glass water bottles can be filled onsite in a four pack for your room. The small beach area is a nude beach with beds and lounge chairs. Also, the bamboo yoga dome is a neat place to try early morning complimentary yoga.
After our first meal I was reluctant to eat again at the hotel but since my fiancé was sick, we didn't go far one evening and decided to try Azulik's outdoor beach "Thai" restaurant in the sand lit with swinging romantic candlelight, but this spot's food couldn't redeem itself and was beyond disappointing. The two worst meals I have ever eaten. Since breakfast is not included, I recommend biking to Sanara Hotel to The Real Coconut for a memorable beachfront brunch with healthy selections and a long list of fresh juice concoctions.
Rates range from $339 to $1,300.
PAPAYA PLAYA PROJECT
The sunrise streaming in straight to our simple bungalow hut in our mosquito net bed is a memory seared in my mind. Papaya Playa is a bare bones cool resort with a fun vibe. Sustainability is key here and some of their efforts have included retaining 93% of the jungle and using local providers, artists, and materials.
This "barefoot luxury" resort would be a good place to stay if you are single. Papaya Playa is known for their big parties and monthly Full Moon sessions at the Beach Club which hosts late night events involving live gigs and sets played by international musicians and major-league DJs touring around Mexico.
Rooms are dotted along the coastline and nestled in the jungle. Our basic room called the Mayan Oceanfront Cabana faced the stunning ocean views perched atop the natural rocky ledge with our own outdoor terrace and hammock. It was blissful! Rooms include a simple bathroom, simple power lighting and candles, and may come with bugs. Just a few steps away, we were at a quieter part of the beach property. From our room I saw colorful fish and a white skate swim past since the ocean is so crystal clear. Besides the charming casitas, you can now rent a private beach house that sleeps ten or even a treehouse.
The mile long beach filled with a long row of sun beds and shaded hanging beds is the benefit of staying here, and you can snorkel right off the beach. One morning I enjoyed complimentary kundalini yoga beachside followed by an exquisite buffet breakfast in carved out tiered nooks at their rustic casual bar and restaurant facing the surf. A fashion shoot was in full effect as we sampled many tasty Mexican breakfast options. Another day we discovered Charly's Vegan Tacos, a taco truck with cool outdoor seating, which will make you reassess your feelings about veganism with their mango quac and taco trio.
Rates range from $350 on up.