The Greener Side of Tulum

Pick your Own Shade of Green When Hitting the Beaches, Yoga and Bikini Bootcamps in Tulum, Mexico
By Judith Nemes

There are many shades of green when it comes to eco-travel. And in a magical, remote, yoga-inspired beachfront town like Tulum, the green-minded globetrotter can easily find a way to dial it up or down, depending on how minimalist, rustic or eco-chic you want your vacation to be.

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our private deck, Azulik Resort

Flying into Cancun, known for its all-inclusive commercialized resorts and hordes of wild college students on spring break, it’s hard to imagine that 90 minutes down Mexico’s Riviera Maya is a town off the grid that’s dotted with boutique hotels powered by wind turbines and solar panels. Once you pass Cancun and Playa del Carmen further down the coast, you get the distinct feeling you’re peeling away layers of noisy, touristy civilization.

Tulum is a well-known magnet for its yoga retreats and Mayan spas, including Maya Tulum and Retiro Maya, but there’s plenty there for anyone not interested in perfecting their eagle pose or chanting Om on the beach at sunrise. The soft, sandy Caribbean beach goes on for miles, with options to rent kayaks and take kiteboarding lessons or bake in the seductive sun like one of the iguanas you’re likely to see slithering by where the sand meets the jungle a few hundred feet away.

For those who want to leave in better shape than when they arrived, there’s the famous Bikini Bootcamp at Amansala, run by Melissa Perlman, an American who escaped New York after 9/11. More on that later.

Nature lovers are drawn to the area to explore Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, the largest protected area in Mexico at 1.3 million acres. There’s an estimated 103 known mammal species and 336 known bird species within the reserve, as well as nesting grounds for many species of wading birds.

Entrance to the reserve opens at the southern end of Tulum’s winding beach road. Tourists can sign up for a range of guided activities, including canal tours through the lagoons of Caapechen and Boca Paila, sunset birdwatching tours, and kayaking. Enjoy a lovely sunset dinner at the CESiaK Restaurant, part of the biosphere’s own laid-back eco-resort within (http://www.cesiak.org).

Snorkeling and scuba diving are big draws at nearby cenotes, or freshwater caves. The largest, most popular one is aptly named Gran Cenotes, west toward the Coba ruins about 2 miles past the main intersection in town. You can rent snorkeling and diving equipment on the premises.
 
There’s no shortage of cenotes in other spots nearby. A couple of small ones are sketchily marked off the roadside just before entering the Sian Ka’an Biosphere and a few more are just off the highway north of Tulum heading towards Playa del Carmen, including Cenote Dos Ojos.

Tulum is also famous for its own seaside Mayan ruins about three miles north of town that was considered an important port city hundreds of years ago. Much less spectacular than the acclaimed ruins at Chichen Itza, but still worth the trip.

The city is walled in on three sides, with the cliff-top coast on the eastern border (Tulum means fortification or walled city). The fortress city is believed to have been built around 300 BC, but most of the buildings appear to date from between 1200 to 1500 AD, when the Mayans inhabited the city. Guided tours are available, but you can purchase small guidebooks brimming with information and most structures have signposts with descriptions of their ancient functions and architectural features.
 
No matter how internationally hip or traditionally Mexican the food is prepared in Tulum, the common denominator for all is local and fresh. Fish is caught daily in the local Caribbean waters and fruit and vegetables come from nearby farms run by Mexican farmers.

There’s plenty of beach side restaurants with a cool vibe and fabulous food. Hipsters were streaming in to Posada Margherita, a chic Italian open-air restaurant and hotel with a bohemian tone set by the wildly-tattooed owner Alessandro Carozzino, who will sit at your table and gently urge you to have the red snapper cooked in seawater topped with tomatoes, olive oil and pine nuts. It may be the best fish you’ve ever had. Another night we returned to indulge in grilled lobster covered by a mound of homemade tagliatelle, asparagus and tomatoes and white wine.

At Casa Violeta, a lounge-y open restaurant with hanging white paper lantern globes swinging in the tropical breeze, we loved the zucchini and eggplant carpaccio that came with the house starter of grilled flatbread with olive oil, rosemary and sea salt. Appetizers were followed by giant grilled mojito shrimp and vegetables on skewers. One morning we had a delightful breakfast of fresh fruit, yogurt, cinnamon french toast, flaky croissants and cappuccinos at Be Tulum, an uber-chic hotel and restaurant at the far southern end of the beachfront that is a big draw for folks in the fashion and advertising industry. We had the option to stay for the day at the hotel beach club that offered plush raised beds on the sand covered in fluffy blue and white striped towels. We took a pass and hit the Mayan ruins instead.

A British green home interior designer I met at Bikini Bootcamp raved about the ceviche at La Zebra’s tequila beach bar (http://www.lazebratulum.com/). And at Amansala, a waiter happily delivered to our beach chairs a huge platter of grouper fish tacos and side salad with ginger and honey vinaigrette, plenty for two to share. We washed down our al fresco lunch with frozen mint margaritas and an icy, local Modelo beer.

Further down the beach strip across from Parayso on the jungle side of the narrow winding road is Hartwood Restaurant, a newcomer barely open a few months that‚Äôs already getting buzz as one of the best places to eat in Tulum. Owner/chef Eric Werner, a veteran New York chef, cooks only a handful of dishes each night in the open wood-burning oven that diners can see at the far end of the candle-lit open-air space. That night, we feasted on plump shrimp, cauliflower and tomatoes sauteed in anchovy butter right out of the iron skillet, then shared a delicate pan-roasted whole red snapper with cherry tomatoes and fresh herbs, and roasted eggplant drizzled with Mayan honey. 


Hartwood owner Eric Werner, prepares dinner

There are lots of other dining choices off the beachfront too. With a short ride into the town of Tulum, you’ll find a strip of restaurants, Mexican trinket shops and India-inspired jewelry and craft stores along the main drag of Avenida Tulum. We ate at La Nave, a classic Italian eatery where we enjoyed thin-crust prosciutto, mozzarella and arugula pizza and traditional lasagna bolognese. We rounded out our meal with an inexpensive Cabernet from Chile.

At the far southern end of the strip, locals sang the praises of El Camello, a no-frills inexpensive Mexican seafood joint with lines down the block at prime time. Other notables in town include Altamar, a South American seafood place, and Ginger, a haute cuisine restaurant one block west off the strip that offers eclectic entrees including fish fillet with passion fruit and tuna with tamarind sauce.
 
Travelers who find their way to Tulum tend to fall into one of several categories: A hip, bohemian eco-chic crowd, many adorned with tattoos or wearing India-inspired breezy shifts; the yoga-minded individuals seeking a getaway that’s restorative and peaceful; and the nature lover in search of pristine beaches and protected natural habitats that aren’t yet overrun with masses of cookie-cutter tourists. You can also spot the occasional dread-locked hippie walking roadside with backpack in tow, thumbing a ride to a nearby hostel or campground. Common to all is a desire to leave a small carbon footprint while engaging in their own travel adventure.

What shade of green is your travel flavor?

My husband and I began our week-long trip to Tulum by checking in at Azulik, a no-electricity beachfront hotel on the strip that’s part of a trio of upscale cabanas/villas catering to travelers looking for a decidedly rustic (but pricey) way of dropping out. Owned by Eco-Tulum Hotels Group (http://www.ecotulum.com/), Azulik consists of a handful of minimalist-decorated villas perched high atop a rocky cliff overlooking the Caribbean sea. The other two Eco-Tulum hotels next door are Copal (less expensive one-room villas tucked into the jungle just off the beachfront), and Zahra, the only one of the three that welcomes children. The resort is an apparent draw for Europeans. A London art dealer and his younger British female companion were our neighbors on one side and a hipster couple from Barcelona were staying in the villa just south of us.

Azulik’s villas were built with local sustainable materials, and have a decidedly minimalist Balinese feel. Our thatched-roof hut had a comfy, large bed with a netted canopy and side tables, a swinging mattress for lounging, a bathtub for two carved out of a native tree with a hand-held spray for showering, and a couple of tables with chairs. Only saltwater flowed from the tub, or canoe, as my husband affectionately called it.

Each villa has a private deck that juts out over the rocks with a sunken over-sized tub that beckons you to step in and relax while you watch pelicans Kamikaze-diving for their daily fish or check out sunbathers at the adjacent clothing-optional beach. The view of the Caribbean sea stretching out forever to the horizon was nothing short of spectacular.

The hotel leaves candles in glasses around the room, but you’d be wise to bring flashlights to find your way at night. During our trip in mid-January, the sun set around 5:30 p.m. and we suddenly found ourselves bathed in darkness with nothing to see but the glow of candles amid a backdrop of the sound of Caribbean waves crashing against the rocks below. Thankfully, we remembered to charge our MacBook, iPad and BlackBerry with 3G at the reception desk where a couple of power strips were packed with chargers hooked up to a bevy of laptops and smartphones. Even without electricity in our villa, two bars on my BlackBerry were enough to keep us in touch with civilization if we were so inclined.

The sunrises were magnificent — hard to miss when the first rays of daylight come blazing in through the wide wooden slats of our villa. I loved the idea of staying in a place completely off the grid — an antidote to our hectic, city-oriented energy-filled lives back home in Chicago. There was something romantic about moving around by candlelight after dark, as long as you weren‚Äôt looking for anything tucked too far out of reach.

Room service was available, but the food from Copal Restaurant didn’t measure up to the fantastic cuisine we were sampling further down the beach. And while the Maya Spa on Eco-Tulum’s grounds got good reviews from a psychotherapist/yoga instructor on her umpteenth visit from Washington, D.C., my scheduled appointment with a highly-recommended Mayan healing massage therapist was a no-show.

The idea of living ascetically with no power whatsoever was adventuresome initially, but the novelty wore off and we quickly decided it wasn’t the right shade of green for us.

After about four days, we decided to change it up for Amansala, an eco-chic boutique hotel owned by Melissa Perlman and famous for its Bikini Bootcamp and yoga retreats. We found its accommodations more to our speed, while still leaving the gentle footprint we sought for this trip. There was electricity everywhere powered by the sun and WiFi in the restaurant and lounge area a few sandy steps from our lovely beachfront room.

We had a walk-in shower with terrific pressure and windows covered with wispy scarves in fiery shades of orange and red. No need for air conditioners — the ocean breeze was delightful, though a bit humid. A funky Indian chest was at the foot of our canopied bed and one stucco wall was decorated with tiles shaped into a whimsical curlicue that we found repeated throughout the compound as a reminder to feel at one with the universe. After all, Amansala, as Melissa tells it, means peaceful water in Sanskrit.

One morning I joined a group of hard-bodied gals (aged in their mid-30s to early 50s) at Bikini Bootcamp for a 7 a.m. walk in silence along the beach followed by an intense workout led by Josh the trainer who kicked our butts for another hour. We made our way back with a long sprint to the volley ball net, then a series of deep lunges back to Josh’s line in the sand. We sweated through some cardio-boxing moves, jumping jacks and tricep dips off the end of our beach chairs. Our session ended with a grueling round of ab work that was bound to make a difference in our bikinis.

We were rewarded with a breakfast of vanilla yogurt, granola and big bowls of fresh papaya, pineapple, cantaloupe and bananas that awaited us at Amansala’s open-air restaurant with long communal tables.

Some of us then joined others in a yoga class and inspirational session led by that week’s yoga retreat leader Sadie Nardini (http://www.sadienardini.com/). An internationally-acclaimed yoga instructor and wellness expert, Sadie was at Amansala teaching her personal brand of Core Strength Vinyasa Yoga and imparting her message of self-empowerment and balanced living. Sadie is based out of Studio 94 in Brooklyn, N.Y., but travels the globe leading retreats and workshops.

The yoga class took place in an open room above the dining area with wide-open windows that faced the ocean and let a cool breeze waft into the space. Sadie focused on strengthening our pelvic core as she led us through a series of Vinyasa flow and balancing poses that helped stretch and relax my tired limbs from the early morning workout.

I bowed out of the late-morning activity where Melissa and her helpers slathered participants from head to toe in yellow clay and honey, then led them through a meditation at the water‚Äôs edge. When they were done, they dunked in the water to rinse off the dried clay and wash away the troubles they brought with them on vacation.  

On my last day in Tulum, I got my Mayan healing massage after all. It turned out the same Mayan healer who canceled on me days earlier was on the roster of massage therapists at Amansala too. He led me to a thatched roof hut high in the treetops across the road where my only instructions were to listen to the birds call to each other in the jungle just outside the hut and submit to his healing hands as the sun set in the distance. The 90-minute experience was nothing short of transformative.
 
I left Tulum with a healthy glow, some wispy scarves in orange and blue with peaceful Sanskrit messages, and a few locally-crafted bracelets. Packed away in my suitcase was a Bikini Bootcamp tank top from Amansala’s gift shop to remind me where I want to return with a couple of girlfriends next winter.

Namaste.

Judith Nemes is a Chicago-based freelance journalist specializing in green issues and urban sustainability. She writes a weekly column online for Crain’s Chicago Business called Green Scene and freelances for the Chicago Tribune, Edible Chicago, GreenBiz.com and other publications.
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