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The Stylish Beaches of Tulum, Mexico

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Photo: Moses Berkson

Tall and tan and young and lovely, the girl in the red bikini and cork sandals steps through a craggy passage in the walls surrounding the 1,000-year-old ruins of Tulum. She might be the girl from Ipanema. Or perhaps Ixtapa or Ibiza. All eyes are on this beauty, whose carefree glamour hardly looks out of place, even in this ancient sacred site.

Once a sleepy beach outpost, Tulum has become a fashionable yet decidedly low-key escape on a bohemian Grand Tour that might take in Marrakesh, Goa, and Phuket. During the past decade, stylish expats have set up shop, working with native craftsmen to build chic yet authentic Mexican hotels and produce small accessories lines, while adventurous chefs have drafted the fire of habaneros into a global cuisine with Italian, Asian, and Middle Eastern accents.

As an aspiring beach bum, I have sampled much of the Mexican shoreline, but Tulum’s emerging reputation for New Age character and cool-hunter cachet made me long to return. Carved out of jungle less than 50 years ago, Tulum exists in a time warp, one in which the countercultural idealism of the late 1960’s dovetails with 21st-century notions of ecotourism and sustainability. Here, recycling means using benches from a van as theater seats for outdoor movie screenings. Solar panels provide electricity, and nighttime lighting is so low that you might need to ask for a flashlight at check-in.

If you can find a desk clerk, that is. Direct calls to Tulum hotels are annoyingly futile. Even the most expensive resorts communicate only by e-mail. I was to land in the evening on one of Virgin America’s new direct flights from Los Angeles to Cancún and needed to rent a car to drive the 75 miles south to Tulum. Amansala, a fitness-focused spot famous for its Bikini Boot Camp, sent me a message assuring me that a late check-in was no problem; there would be someone to greet me at reception. When I arrived, there were two blondes—lovely Labradors sprawled on the wooden walkway, lolling in the early-May heat.

¿Dónde está la recepción?” I venture hopefully to a passerby.

I am directed to the restaurant, where a lissome young lady, radiant with yoga-blissed serenity, swipes my credit card—an all-too-rare occurrence in a largely cash-only economy where merchants accept both pesos and dollars.

“There are no locks on the doors,” she informs me, “only latches on the inside.” But there are security boxes, she adds, “and the dogs know who’s staying here and who doesn’t belong.”

Apparently, the dogs couldn’t detect my distinctly fish-out-of-water scent. This, however, is what happens whenever I visit a vortex of altered consciousness, particularly one that is endlessly raved over; it takes awhile for my L.A.-bred cynicism to subside. Fortunately, I am able to meet up with my designer friends John Powell and Josh Ramos, who’ve driven in for the weekend from Mérida to spruce up a rental villa on a private beach in Tulum’s Sian Ka’an Biosphere nature preserve. We dine on smoky wood-fired pork at Hartwood Restaurant, where the sound track is 1970’s rock, the waiter wears a T-shirt that reads slacker, and the chef–co-owner Eric Werner is a bearded Brooklynite who formerly cooked at Peasant, in Manhattan. The meal is sumptuous; the conversation boisterous; the you-are-here decompression complete.

Drifting off to sleep in my bed cocooned by mosquito netting, it hits me: if Tulum and I are going to get along, I’ll have to accept it like that sweet but flaky friend—not altogether reliable, but absolutely irresistible.

The thump of LMFAO’s hit “Sexy and I Know It” wakens me, booming from an early morning exercise class I have no intention of joining. Amansala’s founder, New Yorker Melissa Perlman, sends me to Mateo’s Mexican Grill, her brother’s restaurant, for breakfast. As a worker in this environmentally aware mecca applies some kind of varnish to a table, giving me a wicked contact high, I order coffee and huevos divorciados (eggs with salsa roja and salsa verde).

Mateo’s is on the touristy northern end of the beach, across the street from the waterfront on what is known as the jungle side. This densely packed area is where Tulum’s first resorts were built, and it’s home to roadside stands selling colorful string hammocks, embroidered quilts, and other souvenirs. Nearby, a local with gray dreadlocks and Gaultier shades hawks handmade jewelry and carved obsidian on a folding table. In Mixik, a Mexican handicrafts store, I stumble upon a stash of local lobby cards for 1970’s movies. At 50 pesos (around $4) each, I greedily snap up a half-dozen. The cashier carries the credit card machine to the window, trying in vain to get a Wi-Fi signal to post the transaction. Cash it is, then.

Heading south leads to what I call Tulum’s “zona yoga,” a string of rustic cabanas, spas, and om-sweet-om resorts. In its center, adjacent to such boutiques as the beach dress shop Josa Tulum and new cafés comprising the style-centric section of town, Tulum-inaries Italian designer Francesca Bonato and her husband, Nicolas Malleville, an Argentine model for Burberry and Gucci, established a fashion beachhead with Coqui Coqui Tulum Residence & Spa. Their arrival brought an international network of beautiful people—Jade Jagger and Sienna Miller are regulars—and the couple transformed the rough-hewn limestone beach house into an intimate inn nine years ago. Coqui Coqui’s cool, dimly lit concrete guest rooms have a vampire glamour also reflected in the mostly black lobby, which serves as a shop selling a collection of beautiful leather jewelry and silk rebozo shawls and unisex scents such as agave and a mint-lime mixture called Menli.

In Tulum, luxury and earthiness coexist, but the coin of the realm is spirituality. It is a place known for on-site shamans, and the swankest hotel in town, Be Tulum (where the Argentinean-style rooms have limestone walls, freestanding tubs, and air-conditioning), offers something even more ambitious: for $100, the in-room menu promises that a holistic card reading will “recess your inner wisdom and clarify your paths.” Seeking a more hands-on experience, I stop at a roadside kiosk for a massage in a palapa and a take-home jar of Dijon-colored Mayan Clay, which claims to relieve sunburn, eye bags, insect bites, and depression. “Mix it with honey if you put it on your face, then wash it off in the ocean,” the salesperson advises. The idea just makes me hungry.

At Casa Jaguar, where Euro-house lounge music provides a mellow backdrop for conversation, my friends and I enjoy cocktails that combine mezcal with hibiscus, cinnamon, and orange. We are joined by Jiri Filipek, a Bangkok-born former Manhattan fashion and home-décor retailer, who has set up Passage to Culture, an insiders’ concierge and tour company for Tulum visitors. “It’s like the Wild West here in a way,” she says of her new home. “If you have a dream and ambition, you can re-create your life here.”

That’s certainly true for David Graziano, who left New York, where he opened the clubs RDV and Kiss & Fly, to wear sandals all day long. After breakfast at Ahau Tulum, his new 20-room resort across from Casa Jaguar, he shows me a newly finished suite, a soaring two-story villa with a sleeping loft made from reclaimed timber and a massive hand-painted Asian lantern hanging from the woven A-frame ceiling. In his short time here, Graziano has witnessed Tulum’s coming-of-age as a beach destination. “Simplicity and nature are the new luxury. What more do you need when you have a jungle, white-sand beaches, and architecture that still remains shorter than the tallest palm tree?”

Turns out he was right. Settling into an easy routine—swimming, eating, and napping the days away—I begin to appreciate Tulum’s allure. It is rustic yet cool, small and easy to navigate. I leave the beach for the pueblo, or downtown, where the main road has shops selling jaguar heads and woolly versions of Mickey Mouse and the only English the vendors know seems to be, “How much do you want to pay?”

There are also ice cream parlors and restaurants such as Los Aguachiles, a recent arrival from Cancún. Eric Werner from Hartwood is picking up a to-go order when I visit, and recommends los figurines (lettuce wraps with fresh seafood) and aguachidos, an extra-spicy northern take on ceviche with cucumber, pickled red onion, purple cabbage, and a habanero salsa that the menu says is “grate for killing a hangover.”

I spend an afternoon at the ruins, a five-minute drive north of downtown, taking in the carefully restored relics of a civilization that thrived in the 13th through 15th centuries. The reconstructed temples are jaw-dropping—even from the distance imposed by the ropes that guard them from tourists—and pique my curiosity. What kind of people once lived here? Lisa Meschi, the American proprietor of the newly opened oceanfront inn Encantada, tells me the theory that the locals have. “The ruins you see were their getaway from the larger cities and hectic lifestyle.”

On a boat trip through the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve’s Muyil lagoon, drifting through the waters of a canal the Maya dug thousands of years ago, I realize the natural wonders of the area still serve much the same purpose. Tulum may be an emerging global style destination, but its simplest pleasures remain timeless.

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