A Tale of Three Tulums
Tulum lies on the Caribbean coast of the Yucatan peninsula, in the state of Quintana Roo, about two hours south of Cancun. This stretch of coast has been dubbed "The Mayan Riviera" by the Mexican tourism industry. Formerly fishermen's villages, the coast was developed into a major resort area in the 1970s, starting with Cancun. Now Playa del Carmen, between Cancun and Tulum, is the most glamorous of the resort areas. Tulum is less developed, without the crass all-inclusives that dominate the other beaches. It was formerly the beach favored by backpackers, and you still see several places announcing yoga classes, but prices have gone up considerably and it's hard to find budget accommodations at the beach these days. What the beach areas all share are miles of pristine white sand and the sea as blue as Paul Newman's eyes.
Tulum is also the site of an ancient Mayan ruin, though a minor one in terms of its importance in the Mayan world as well as the quality of its architecture and preservation. Still, it's one of the most visited due to easy access from the beach resorts. In my hour at the ruins I saw more tourists than the much more spectacular Uxmal ruins, close to Merida, probably sees in a month. The one thing that sets the Tulum ruins apart from other Mayan sites is the dramatic seaside setting.
The third Tulum is Tulum Pueblo, the town just a bit inland from the beach, where hotels cater to budget travelers and where many of the folks who work at the beach hotels tend to live. I stayed in Tulum Pueblo, at a decent enough little hotel called Maison Tulum, which was marred only by an annoying, clueless manager who reminded me of something out of Fawlty Towers. What Tulum Pueblo does offer the tourist, even those staying at the beaches, is a strip of interesting international restaurants. I ate at an Argentine steak house and a surprisingly good Vietnamese restaurant.
I visited the ruins the morning after I arrived in town and shared my time at the site with hundreds of others, many coming in large tour groups led by men and women with those silly flags. The ruins are perhaps worth visiting as long as you're in the area, but unless you're a Mayan ruin completist you wouldn't be missing much if you skipped it.
Afterwards I took a cab a bit down the coast to one of the main stretches of beach, where I had lunch and drinks at La Zebra, a beach hotel that also rents cabanas for day use. After lunch I took a long, romantic walk on the beach with that certain someone, me.
I had two of La Zebra's fabulous house special pineapple Margaritas.
For lunch I had some excellent grilled fish tacos.
The night before, after I had arrived in Tulum Pueblo, I had a nice steak dinner at El Pequeno Buenos Aires, one of the Pueblo's two Argentine steak houses. Happily they offered half orders of meat, just enough after my spicy beef empanada and along with my order of frites with parsley, garlic and olive oil. They offer a number of cuts of steak, and I went with the vacio, an Argentine cut of flank steak that's not common outside of Argentina.
But my real find in Tulum Pueblo was El Canto de Buda, a 3-month-old Vietnamese restaurant. I scouted it out after I finished my Argentine dinner, and after looking at the menu and seeing the Vietnamese proprietress greeting customers, I decided it might very well be the real thing and decided to dine there the following evening.
Not only was it the real thing, it was better than most Vietnamese restaurants in New York. For 135 pesos (under $11), I had a three-course dinner (juice or tea included) that consisted of fabulous spring rolls, a crab souffle (made with crabmeat, egg, chopped pork, glass noodles and mushrooms), a side of fried rice and a dessert of tapioca pudding with sweet potato.
I told the owner that her food was excellent and she replied that she was lucky to have found a very good cook. "Mexican or Vietnamese?" I asked. "Mexican." Then I told her that in New York, no matter what type of restaurant you were dining at, odds were pretty good that the guys doing the actual cooking were Mexican or Central American.