Off The Beaten Track: Explore the secret(ish) Mayan ruins of Tulum, Mexico’s hidden gem
Where? Cancun is as close to tourist hell as I can imagine – like if Portugal’s Algarve had sex with Las Vegas and put a sombrero on the child – but if you drive two hours south, you will find the pristine beaches, jungles and hidden Mayan ruins of Tulum – and not a spring breaker in sight.
What’s it like? Tulum has the feel of Ibiza before it really took off in the 1990s; think cabanas on the beach, tequila cocktails and lots of hippies rising at dawn to do yoga. It even has a dance music scene: when I was there top DJs included Felix da Housecat and Damian Lazarus, with clubbing throughout the night, and after-parties the following day that start at 2pm and finish at a respectable 10pm.
Where to stay? The beachfront has a number of choice “hotels” (all are made up of individual villas and small units, rather than high-rise monstrosities). But the best of them all is Sanara, a relative newcomer that’s already picked up design awards for its stylish, ecological approach. It’s made up of various villa-style apartments, all a stone’s throw from the sea. Sanara’s yoga studio takes pride of place, with views of the ocean and the rising sun: perfect for shaking off the fug of the previous night’s cocktails. The restaurant/bar, The Real Coconut, serves great takes on Mexican cuisine. It’s all sustainable, using only locally-sourced ingredients. Coconuts are used in almost everything: there is even coconut cheese, which tastes a bit like the cheese you put on nachos at the cinema. The rooms are large and airy, with a neutral colour-scheme and a vague nautical theme.
What to do? First hire a bike (there are rental shacks everywhere) and cycle to the Tulum Archeological Site, where you can find a huge Mayan ruin perched on a cliff overlooking the sea. If you can drive, rent a car and drive to Chichen Itza, the former capital of the Mayan empire, where you’ll find a gigantic pyramid that’s been dubbed one of the wonders of the modern world. On the way back stop off at the town of Valladolid, where you will find one of the largest and most beautiful collections of Mexican folk art. Casa de los Venados is a private home owned by a wealthy US couple, who open up their home to art-lovers (if it seems closed, try ringing the bell).
And when I’m sick of ruins? Cenotes – sink holes filled with water – are an incredible natural formation caused by the erosion of the limestone coastline. They vary dramatically in size, appearance and depth: some require you to be lowered into a hole not much wider than your shoulders that opens into an underground cave filled with bats. Others are located at the centre of shallow lakes, which plunge to 100 metres at the centre. Cave explorers have charted thousands of miles worth of winding tunnels. To find the best, book a day or half-day tour with local guides (available in Tulum town centre). They also offer jungle trips and will take you to the sites where you’re practically guaranteed to see endangered black-handed spider monkeys, which are adorable.