Mexico’s Riviera Maya might be best known for its rows of all-inclusive resorts and cruise port destinations, but another beautiful world awaits just beyond. Only ninety miles south of Cancun is the charming town of Tulum, marching to the beat of its own (Mayan) drum.
Smaller, chic, boutique hotels, incredibly fresh cuisine and impeccable beaches draw the eye, yet what lies beneath the surface is the most captivating. It’s the scene that bohemian dreams are made of – an otherland that speaks to your soul where the ancient is ever present amongst their new hip vibe.
The cornerstones of this gypsy wonderland are the Mayan culture, eco-tourism, and culinary adventures that highlight the thriving bounty from the local land and sea. For this Mississippi girl, Tulum definitely delivered.
The Lay of the Land
Tulum is primarily known for its naturally beautiful coastal terrain and its boho vibe. The beach and lush jungle are separated by a single two lane road that’s only been paved in the last decade. Dotted alongside each side of this thoroughfare are modest, simple hotels and shops.
If you’re looking for an “off-the-grid” destination – this is it. Tulum operates completely off the grid, instead relying on generators, solar energy and a lot of ice and old world methods to operate to mostly modern standards.
An abundance of beautiful cenotes (caverns formed by sunken limestone that create incredibly picturesque swimming holes), snorkeling locations, hiking trails, nature reserves, and so much more will fulfill the adventurer at heart.
The Mayan walled city at Tulum National Park dates back to 564 A.D. and is located only a ten minute drive to the north. This was the only Mayan city built on the coast, and the Maya people thrived here at their seaport, their only source of trade with the outside world. Today, the kind and hard working Mayans still live here and in the surrounding areas, speaking primarily Maya at home with Spanish as their second language. They maintain a vibrant Mayan culture in Tulum as cooks, business owners, taxi drivers and artisans.
The local “town” is just a few minutes ride inland from the Tulum “playa,” or beach. The village caters to the locals who live there, thus offering an insightful culinary experience of its own. Here you’ll find an entirely different array of food including Mexican comfort food and street food along with street vendor shopping and small markets.
A bit further inland is the heart of the Yucatan where most farming and trade take place. Much of the produce grown here makes its way to the coastal areas to supply smaller markets and higher end restaurants.
In their book Hartwood: Bright Flavors from the Edge of the Yucatan, Chefs Eric Werner and Mya Henry tell of their life changing trip to Tulum. After this trip, they sold everything, quit their New York restaurant jobs and moved to Tulum to create a new life. This resulted in their renowned restaurant, Hartwood, acclaimed in countless publications and referred to by Rene Redzepi, owner of two-Michelin-star restaurant, Noma, as “the place I dream about.”
In their book, the pair document their journey to resettle in Tulum and recount their experiences as they sought to source high quality ingredients during their first years in Tulum.
“We became driven in our search for ingredients. Where did the vegetable at the market come from? Then we began to notice Mayans stepping onto the road from little unmarked trails… We’d go for miles (down paths), and then suddenly, there’d be a small “milpa,” or farm… there were tomatoes, squash, beans and chiles growing between rocks, seemingly defying nature to survive under the endless sun,” they wrote.
This was the beginning of bringing these ingredients and this culture to the forefront of the culinary world.
For me, their book educated my own journey to Tulum. Admittedly, I’ve enjoyed it even more as I look back on my experience. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to dine at Hartwood this trip – but I’ll be back.
A Culinary Adventure
To know food in Tulum is to understand the ingredients as well as their ancient methods and the local lifestyle.
First, most things in Tulum are simple, including the food. Not that it’s easily prepared or lacking in flavor, but it’s definitely simple. The ingredients are wild, beautiful and completely unadulterated. They never see the inside of a factory. And they’re never touched by foreign chemicals or additives.
The cooking methods are a thing to behold. Tulum is void of electric ovens, massive stove tops, or walk in coolers. Instead, ice chests protect the daily catch. Large open kitchens house masterfully made wood burning ovens and simple grill pits as well as mounds of picked, cleaned, cut and ground ingredients. It’s all an art.
The air near dinner time is filled with a mystical scent of burning wood, roasting meat and toasted herbs. It’s a soft incense that sets the tone for the super sexy, chic open air jungle restaurants. (Deep breath and sigh.)
Dining in Tulum is by candlelight (remember, they’re off the grid) with the occasional single strand of outdoor bistro lights hung above. It’s perfect – but it does make it difficult to bring home a photograph! So, I just stopped trying and enjoyed my dinner. Hey, maybe that’s a thing.
A Familiar Face in Tulum
The variety of cuisine in Tulum is overwhelming for my short four day trip. It seemed like every meal blew my mind. I have to be honest, my immersion in the local cuisine was easier – and quicker – because our friend, Chef Jesse Houston, was there to help.
Chef Jesse Houston is a Texas native who made a name for himself in acclaimed Mississippi restaurants like Parlor Market in Jackson and City Grocery in Oxford before stirring up the Jackson restaurant scene with his first original concept, Saltine Oyster Bar. There, he served fresh locally sourced seafood with a hip modern twist that landed him a bevy of awards including a James Beard nomination and a Best New Restaurant nod from Bon Appetit Magazine.
Recently, Houston moved to Tulum for several months to learn more about the local culture and food and to guide the eager kitchen staff at ZAMAS Hotel. He wasted no time immersing himself in Tulum’s culinary culture, and he’s surrendered his culinary perspective to the locally available ingredients and cooking methods. I watched from afar via his Instagram @chefjesshouston – where I was so tempted that…
I couldn’t resist a visit.
The Taqueria Tour
A day in town brought us to three local eateries that were far from the modern strip on the “playa.” There, for about only 500 pesos (roughly $25) three adults ate more tacos than we’d normally eat in three days.
We started at Barbacoa, a small restaurant where I started a love affair with REAL horchata and tasted my first bite of traditional Mexican “barbacoa,” or barbecue. Barbacoa in Tulum is made with various meats and usually slow cooked in a pit. Today’s choice, slow roasted lamb, was served on fresh, soft corn tortillas with onions cilantro, lime and salsa. We also had some incredible consomme here, a comforting, flavorful broth made with tender barbacoa and chickpeas.
A short walk further through town brought us to a small lot with a taco stand and a juice bar – and two tables. I’m told El canastón is a well kept secret. Rosie and her family cheerfully make eight to ten taco varieties each day, including everything from traditional barbacoa to requedon, a local cheese. Tacos are served with fresh toppings, presented on the counter in local pottery. Rosie nudged us to try the pickled carrots, onions and garlic, pointing to the younger girl who made them with pride. The girl smiled and graciously removed the lid, motioning for us to try her creation.
At El canastón, all of their tacos are made ahead and kept warm in a sealed basket that creates a steam-like effect. Choose your tacos from the daily home made options then add your toppings and choose a fresh squeezed juice. It’s the orange juice I’ve ever tasted!
When we were done, I turned to Rosie in an attempt to sincerely thank her for this experience, and she nodded giving me one word in English: “Tripadvisor.” I giggled as she pointed at her sign with a Facebook and Tripadvisor logo. Ahhh… even here.
We finished out our tour at Taqueria Honorio with some “tortas,” or Mexican-style sandwiches. They reminded me of our fresh poboys at home only filled with tender roasted pork and light crunchy pork rinds. At Taqueria Honorio, I also tasted – and highly recommend – the “cochinita pibil,” or slow roasted pork taco. This pork has big flavor!
What an incredible day. The authentic food here is unparalleled.
More Coastal Dining in Tulum
Dinner each night was a dream with the moon shining brightly above, the sultry scents of the open kitchens, and the unbelievable food and cocktails. Here are my top picks.
Gitano. A great jungle bar for fresh mezcal cocktails. The word mezcal comes from Nahuatl mexcalli metl and ixcalli which means “oven-cooked agave.” Like tequila, mezcal is derived from the agave plant, but then it is roasted, giving it a range of smoky notes. Mezcal is quickly increasing in popularity across the U.S. Drinks at Gitano will run you what dinner will cost elsewhere in Tulum (500 pesos or $25 for two drinks), but the ambience is perfect with great music and a disco ball bouncing off the jungle canvas.
Arca. Candle lit paths illuminate the way along limestone gravel walkways to this jungle dining experience. The large wood-fired oven was in view from our table, so one might even consider this dinner and a show!
At Arca, we started with warm, sourdough bread and salted butter. Don’t skip this part! Then came the grilled “pulpo” (octopus) with native cascabel and xcatic chiles and a black sauce. The octopus was charred on the outside, giving it a great flavor and texture. Each bite melted in my mouth with layers of char, chiles, smoke and salt water that played well together.
Next up, wood roasted whole snapper continued our meal with the same medley of chiles but adding bright citrus and herbs. The crispy charred skin elevated this fish to divine.
I also discovered my new favorite cocktail here: Mayami Nice featuring gin, Xtabentún, passionfruit, orgeat and lemon. It’s bright, smooth and slightly floral with some anise coming through. Holy, Tulum! Oh, this dining experience for two, complete with cocktails cost only 1200 pesos (around $60).
Mina. Meat hung and roasted over a fire, mixing in Argentinean style with Mexican ingredients. We enjoyed lechon (suckling pig) with fresh salads and a caramel plate with house made banana ice cream. Located just a few doors down from ZAMAS, Mina also offers an impressive wine seletion for this region.
Paradise Found at ZAMAS Hotel
I can’t imagine a more hospitable place than ZAMAS Hotel.
When we arrived, Ricardo greeted us with a big smile and and took care of our bags. Then he introduced us to Chelsea, who was planning a fun meal with Chef Jesse in the restaurant.
Chelsea and her American parents moved to Tulum when she was a young girl, and she grew up at ZAMAS. She and her parents enthusiastically showed us around and answered our questions, still with a bit of awe in their own eyes after all these years.
The ZAMAS property includes twenty bungalow-like rooms split between the beach, the jungle and a coconut grove. The grounds are well maintained and inviting, possibly with more hammocks than people, and the views are breathtaking.
Each day at ZAMAS, we were greeted by a beautiful sunrise peaking through the wooden fence that separated our “jungle chica” room from the beach side of the property. We lounged on the hammocks until it was time for breakfast which included coffee, fresh mango and papaya, house made bread with mashed mango and butter and huevos rancheros, which is eggs, black beans and avocado over crispy tortillas. Oh, and infused water. My favorite was the “jamaica,” (pronounced ha-my-kah), or hibiscus water. Overall, the perfect way for this beach bum to start the day!
Later, we’d enjoy cerveza on the beach with chips and guacamole, sometimes served with marinated cucumbers and chapulines (salty, toasted grasshoppers). Actually, we did this every day while we watched the fisherman catch dinner right off the shore in their small boats. They’d glide their boats right onto the beach where we’d watch them deliver their catch in modest ice chests and crates to the back door of the kitchen to be stored on ice alongside the pile fresh coconuts waiting to be cut on order.
Mezcal, tequila and racillia tastings are an important part of the culinary adventure in Tulum – and ZAMAS is prepared to help you explore these spirits! They’re typically served with chapulines and chile powder dusted orange slices. Like our Americanized version of “salt and lime” – but, in my opinion, better.
Racillia is a spirit from the agave plant, like tequila and mezcal. Chelsea introduced me to it. Racillia hails from the Mexican state of Jalisco. Racillia is a distinctive spirit with many dialects, influenced by the variety of agave plant, the soil and climate where it’s grown and the roasting technique. I tried three La Venenosa racillias that had clearly different tastes. What a fascinating spirit!
Each evening, we sat on the restaurant terrace sipping cocktails under the bright moon light that danced on the waves. I’ve never seen a full moon so bright. I couldn’t help but think of the brilliance of our Creator and how this same moon appeared centuries ago over the Mayan temple’s observation tower on this same stretch of beach.
Plan Your Trip to Tulum, Mexico
You simply must go to Tulum. This was a perfect four day getaway that honestly, didn’t break the bank. It’s a culture trip and culinary getaway in paradise all wrapped into one beautiful destination.
>> Our friends at ZAMAS HOTEL would love to meet you, too! Book your stay now and receive a 15% discount with code EATYALL. Visit before the end of May and you just may find Chef Jesse Houston in the kitchen!
This is what dining at Zamas with Jesse Houston playing in the kitchen looks like: