Karen Young of South Tulum's Wild restaurant fills us in on Beach Road's more authentic side and doles out expert tips.

By Nina Ruggiero
May 25, 2021
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From left: Karen Young; The a pool at La Valise Tulum
Credit: From left: Courtesy of Wild Tulum; Courtesy of La Valise Tulum

Karen Young was living in London and producing global music festivals when she first visited Tulum, Mexico in 2010 on a break with friends. By 2015, the laid-back beach town was calling her back. "My lifestyle was quite hedonistic and Tulum was exactly what I needed," she told Travel + Leisure. "I wanted a calmer life by the sea, with the option to practice yoga and kite surf."

Since then, the chic restaurateur has created Wild, a venue that perfectly embodies South Tulum, the stretch of Beach Road that sits closer to the Sian Ka´an Biosphere nature reserve than it does to rowdy beach clubs and influencer photo ops. Young describes the area as "barefoot luxury" — it's a part of town where the clientele is more refined while the surroundings are a bit more raw.

At Wild, where a concrete jungle canopy rises among the untouched natural jungle, Tulum's savvier crowd lingers over candle-lit cocktails and wood-fired dishes by Michelin-star trained chef Norman Fenton that blend Mexican-Caribbean ingredients and international flavors.

Young's ability to create a memorable ambiance comes from her days in music festivals, "which was always about giving people a good time," she says. She continues to do that for her guests at Wild, from diners to couples planning destination weddings, and she and her team work hard to bring the same positivity to others in the local Mayan community as well.

During COVID-19, they raised over $20,000 to provide emergency food parcels and PPE to thousands in need, she tells us, adding, "Currently, we are fundraising to build a school for Mayan children in Tulum alongside the region's local children's NGO, LADLE."

Tulum, and the "wild" path that led her there, clearly hold a special place in Young's heart, and her desire to help others experience it is palpable. "There is a real sense of peace, tranquility, and magic about the area that I think all visitors feel while exploring Tulum's jungles, or strolling along the turquoise waters on the beaches," she says.

Here are Young's picks for where to eat, drink, shop, and sleep in one of Mexico's hottest destinations.

Travel + Leisure: What makes South Tulum special?

Karen Young: "Not only is South Tulum strikingly beautiful, but the luxury end of the beach exudes a calmness with its many miles of coastline, wellness offerings, boutique shops, and jungle and beachfront dining options. South Tulum is also home to several eco-friendly tourism attractions, including the UNESCO World Heritage Site Sian Ka'an, a sublime biosphere of natural beauty where thousands of endemic flora and fauna reside. With the huge growth of tourism and development in the region, locals and businesses are working together to support the preservation of Tulum's rich coastal ecosystem. Wild, and several other restaurants and hotels in the area, source their food locally and build and operate sustainably.

We are collectively working to protect this area, through initiatives such as The Tulum Pledge, a promise we ask visitors and residents to make to be mindful and leave South Tulum's natural surroundings better than they found it. Consisting of 10 points, the pledge asks visitors and residents to bike and walk as much as possible, use reef-friendly sunscreen, and abstain from loud parties that disturb wildlife. Other initiatives include Red Tulum Sostenible, No Mas Plastik, Makers Global and the Tulum Hotel and Restaurant Association."

Do you have any other favorite restaurants nearby?

"One of my favorite restaurants in the area is , a contemporary Mexican restaurant by Michelin star-trained and local celebrity executive chef Cesar Castañeda. At Nü, guests can experience a blend of modern and traditional Mexican and Mayan cuisine served artistically by the restaurant's seven creative chefs. Just a few minutes away is a relatively new culinary addition to South Tulum, Itzik, which features al fresco dining in the jungle and a menu of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern dishes made with sustainable, locally sourced ingredients from the Yucátan. Itzik features a chic jungle aesthetic, diverse live music program and Nakawe mezcal tasting, making it one of my favorite late-night dining experiences."

What are your favorite shops?

"Spiritum, which is located next to Wild, is one of my favorite shops. It features a beautiful selection of high-quality Tulum-style dresses, jewelry, and hats for women and has a nice selection of menswear. Zac Be features stunning handmade 'contemporary ancient' jewelry, and Wanderlust, Kaya, Yeva Don, and Juun are great for designer summerwear, dresses, ceramics, and accessories."

Best hotels?

"Some of the best hotels in the area are on the boutique end of Tulum Beach, away from the crowds. La Valise is a rustic luxury boutique hotel that features 11 rooms, including a master suite with a king-sized bed that rolls out onto the balcony, for those who want to watch the sunrise or stargaze from bed. Encantada is one of Tulum's original boutique hotels and a private paradise with stylish bohemian cabanas, which sit directly on the beach. Nearby, Nest offers more of a minimalist design blended with Mayan and ancient spirituality decor elements. Stepping into Nest is like stepping back into the region's history and lifestyle before the area was discovered by Instagram. Lastly, The Radhoo Tulum is a rather cool alternative to a beachfront hotel, located on the jungle side of the beach road."

La Valise Tulum's suite view
Credit: Courtesy of La Valise Tulum, A Namron Hospitality Group Hotel

Beach spots?

"All of the hotels I mentioned above feature amazing, private beach fronts. A few of my favorite unique experiences in South Tulum include spending the day at Casa Malca, Pablo Escobar's old mansion, now filled with art collector and gallerist Lio Malca's eclectic collection of paintings, sculptures and furniture by some of the most revered contemporary artists and designers, such as Jean-Michel Basquiat, Marco Brambilla, George Condo, Keith Haring, and KAWS.

Other favorite activities include kite surfing with one of the local schools on the beach, and wellness experiences like the Akashic Records Readings for a holistic reset, which uncovers the precious details about one's soul, mission, and life's purpose; a Mud Ritual, a two-hour journey for visitors to join their spirit with the energy of the earth to encourage inner harmony and outer joy; and the Lunar Ceremony, a nighttime couples massage that evokes the energy of the moon."

Can you share some insider tips for travelers planning to visit Tulum?

"Renting a bike is the best way to explore the area, as you can encounter spots that may not look like anything from the outside but contain surprises inside. For example, there is a huge cenote, Encantado, on the jungle side of the road, towards the Sian Ka'an arch, the entrance to the area's biosphere reserve. Visitors can access the cenote through several access points on the jungle side. A trip to Sian Ka'an is a must. Visitors can spot dolphins, manatees, and crocodiles and snorkel within the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef. I love taking a sustainable boat tour with a local guide who can teach you about the beautiful creatures that live in the biosphere, having ceviche and a beer in Punta Allen in a local restaurant, and ending the day watching the sunset over the jungle on the way back."

What's a mistake people should avoid making when they visit?

"Tulum visitors should avoid going to places that they can experience back home. Tulum is home to unique cultural and natural attractions, steeped in Mayan history. The area also features stunning hotels and restaurants with a bohemian and modern design. I would also suggest that visitors try to support small, local businesses, particularly those that are socially and environmentally conscious, and that they be mindful of the type of sunscreen that they use, as many contain ingredients that are harmful to our cenotes and the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef."

Nina Ruggiero is Travel + Leisure's deputy digital editor. A New Yorker living in Los Angeles, she's happiest on a beach, a cobblestone street, or in a hotel bathtub with a view. Find her on Instagram @ninamarienyc.