TULUM, Mexico -- The all-inclusive Cancun resorts are not known for topless women on the beach or Argentineans with scraggly beards playing gypsy music. But that's the norm in Tulum, a Mexican seaside spot south of Cancun that attracts a mix of bohemians, well-pocketed New Age types and sun-seekers to its turquoise waters and white sand beaches.
Despite its proximity to Cancun and its fellow party neighbor, Playa del Carmen, Tulum is not for the same spring-break crowd.
"The college kids go to Cancun. The professors and teacher assistants come to Tulum," said Richard Contreras, whose family has managed properties in Tulum for nearly a decade.
That doesn't mean Tulum is cheap. We couldn't find a room on the beach for less than $150 a night that came with a bathroom. Meals nearby cost just as much as they do in my hometown of Seattle.
"Tulum is luxury, but the luxury here is nature and the beach," said Mimi Contreras, Richard's sister.
Our trip was a five-day sun-seeking dash in the first week of January, during the area's high season, which stretches from winter through spring break. Tulum, located on Mexico's lush green Yucatan Peninsula, was an ideal destination. The weather was perfect. The bright sunshine was rarely obscured by fast traveling clouds. December and January are among the driest months on the Yucatan Peninsula and offer hot weather, but no debilitating heat. The dayside highs in our trip were in the mid-80s. The night skies were full of stars.
Tulum is about 90 miles south of Cancun and the highway connecting both is well-paved. We flew into Cancun, rented a car ($25 a day plus insurance from Hertz) and made the drive late at night. It went smoothly and we hit no traffic, but watch out for speed bumps scattered around the area and pedestrians crossing the highway in some spots. There are also shuttles available from Cancun to Tulum, but the car gave us the mobility to visit attractions beyond the beach.
"Tulum is pretty laid-back and chill. And I think most of the people who live here, work here, who have property here, want to keep that way to a certain extent," Mimi Contreras said.
Tulum can be divided in to three parts: the town, the Mayan ruins and the beach.
Tulum the town is on the highway, about a 10-minute drive from the beach. Tourism has pushed the population to around 30,000 people, but the town retains the blueprint of many Latin American pueblos, centered on an open plaza or town square. Shops, street-food vendors, hotels and restaurants catering to tourists line the main drag. In general, hotels and restaurants downtown are much cheaper than those on the beach. (We found tasty Mexican food and great service at La Malquerida.)
Just past the town are the nearest cenotes, which are water caves that are part of a network of rivers under the Yucatan Peninsula. We went to the Gran Cenote ($10 entrance plus snorkel rental) for a swim in its cool and clear waters. Snorkeling underwater, you can see how the water has eroded the cave's limestone walls over the eons into formations of many different shapes and sizes. The Gran Cenote even had fish in its cavernous pool and bats flying overhead. The Yucatan has many cenotes and some are deep enough for scuba diving.