Tulum, known for the archaeological site founded by the Mayans in the 15th century as a cultural and religious center has become a sought-after destination beyond history seekers exploring the ruins of sacred temples.

To the surprise of my wife and I, a vacation in Tulum is unlike a stay in one of the glitzy hotels of Cancun or at an all-inclusive resort, of which there are dozens, up and down the Riviera Maya. We set out by car from the Conrad Tulum 20 minutes away to see the other side of Tulum.

Shopping In Tulum

The small, but growing town of Tulum has a commercial area filled with the usual retail stores, souvenir shops filled with Mexican handicrafts, and tequila stores. Small inns and hotels dot the area and patronized by guests looking for inexpensive places to sleep so they get around town by scooters and e-bikes to frequent roadside cantinas and taco bars. This is the cheaper side of Tulum.

What we found elsewhere is the Tulum of the moneyed-crowd. The chic neighborhood of Aldea Zama is filling up with luxury condos amidst construction sites building more. There were sold out signs on many buildings leaving the impression that condos are snatched up as fast as they become available. 

Invited guests or family members that come to visit, can stay at a Kimpton Hotel or an Aloft Hotel nearby. Walking distance from these hotels and the fancy condos is a row of outdoor eateries and bars under large palapas. Driving by, you may think, this is authentic Mexico. Maybe for some.

Upscale Beach Clubs In Tulum

Down the beach road is a string of upscale beach clubs. They are part party-animal clubs and part yoga and wellness retreats. These private admission clubs offer beach access and upscale amenities, pricey accommodations and restaurants, nightclub activities, immersive celestial experiences, and more. Papaya Playa Project is one of the largest.

Further down the beach, we were amazed at the scene. On either side of a road filled with pot holes, no curbs, no sidewalks, pools of water after it rains are dozens of expensive 12 – 30 room small luxury boutique hotels, more beach clubs, swanky bars, and incredible restaurants opened by celebrated chefs from Mexico City.
Drive slowly through the area, not only to see the sights, but to be careful as the street winds and curves; people are walking in the road, barefoot and shirtless; people are on bikes; people are on scooters; and taxis have no where to pull over to pick up or let out passengers, so they just stop traffic in the street.

Who knows about this place? My wife and I thought. It costs no small fortune to stay and eat in the area, yet the small hotels were at full occupancy and we were there in off-season. There is no display of wealth because everyone is in beach attire and shirtless men staying cool in the tropical heat and humidity. But the vibe is definitely sophisticated which becomes evident at nightfall. 

Strings of outdoor lights, candles, and lanterns offer a soft glow at every establishment. At night, patrons dress up a bit to resort wear and casual chic. The smells of wood-fire grills fill the air. 

Dining In Tulum

That day we had lunch at La Zebra Restaurant and Hotel overlooking the ocean. The tacos were superb and washed down with a cerveza. Next door, was a pop-up bar where we had to try one of the many hand-crafted margaritas with our choice of tequila, mixers, spices, and seasonings. The experience was entertaining, wet and tasty.

We came back to the area at dusk, to try a famous place for dinner named Casa Banana. Known for interesting specialty cocktails and grilled foods cooked on its open-flamed outdoor oven, our meal was outstanding. We were not disappointed. Everything from the grilled asparagus with goat cheese, to the rump steak, my wife’s choice to the chia and cheese stuffed cannelloni, my choice, was spectacular.  

This was our Tulum adventure. We never made it to the ruins. We had been there before. But to see this side of Tulum, was a delight and an eye-opener. We intend to visit again.

John Werner

As a 45 year veteran of the travel industry and the President of MAST Travel Network since 2002, John’s career has included 14 years as a travel agency owner. He has served in various capacities on the Board of the Midwest Chapter of ASTA including Treasurer and Vice President. John has also held several positions on the Board of Directors for MAST including Vice Chairman and Board Chairman during the years he owned Travel Group International, a MAST member during the 1990s.