I’ve been to Tulum many times, mainly between 2005-2009, before I got crazily busily running my restaurant Miller Union. We used to gather for a friends' trip together every year and would take this little beach town by storm.
Tulum is on the Yucatán Peninsula, which juts out into the Caribbean. It’s just two hours south of Cancún and three hours north of the Belize border. To get there, it’s best to fly into Cancún and then either rent a car, arrange for a pick-up with your hotel or take the local bus.
There are two main areas in Tulum: the town itself and Tulum Beach. In my opinion, the best time to visit is between November and March when it’s slightly cooler. When you're there, I recommend you get around by bike during the day and by taxi at night. The roads aren’t well lit enough for you to cycle when it’s dark.
What I love most about Tulum Beach is that the resorts are eco-friendly. Most of them use solar power, rely on wind for cooling instead of air conditioning and cook food in wood-burning ovens. The gorgeous beach boasts dreamy white sands and crystal clear water. Most of the resorts have a beach entrance so you can saunter up to a bar or restaurant right from the golden sand, as well as a jungle entrance for access from the main road.
The majority of the Tulum locals live in a part of town referred to as the "puebla." This is the main drag, situated on the highway running from Cancún to Chetumal. It’s filled with banks, pharmacies and groceries. The beach is basically designated for tourists and has the higher prices to prove it. For lower priced drinks and food you can head to the puebla, but it does lack the atmosphere, beach views and refreshing breeze! The puebla is dustier, rougher round the edges and more real: it’s definitely worth exploring for at least half a day.
I first visited Tulum 10 years ago. It’s changed a lot since then, but despite its growing size and popularity it still retains its charming character. There are definitely more things to do now and it’s a lot more accessible.
To navigate the surrounding area, consider the road that connects the puebla and beach as a dividing line. Heading north of this road leads to the ancient Mayan ruins of Tulum. Heading south leads deeper into the jungle and eventually to the Sian Kaan biosphere, which is a UNESCO nature preserve.
Situated on Tulum Beach, this is one of my favorite spots for breakfast and lunch. It’s been open for 23 years, which makes it the oldest restaurant on the stretch. Susan and her daughter Chelsea run and own Zamas. Supported by a super friendly team, they serve up reliably delicious food.
I was a guest chef here for four nights and had such an awesome time working with the local ingredients. It’s so amazing to cook with such a wonderful array of tropical fruits such as coconut, pineapples, avocado, papaya, mango and sour orange, as well as local squashes, spices, seeds and grains.
My favorite dish here has to be the huevos rancheros with crispy tortillas, black beans, runny egg yolks, pico de gallo and spicy habanero sauce. Beginning my day with this dish, a strong cup of coffee and a striking view of iguanas bobbing their heads on the rocks and pelicans diving for fish is a total dream come true.
Hartwood is one of the top dining spots on Tulum Beach. Chef and owner Eric Werner moved from NYC to Tulum with his family after visiting the area on vacation. Eric sources as many local products as possible. He's helped many farmers grow their businesses by partnering with them and committing to weekly quotas. The food he serves is simple and rich with local flavor.
When you visit you have to try the fresh seafood paired with local produce and herbaceous sauces. All the salads are fresh, bright and intriguing. The grilled octopus may be one of the most flavorful dishes I’ve ever eaten. Hartwood is only open for dinner and they don’t take reservations. To get a table, stop by earlier in the day and put your name down on the list.
A newcomer to the Tulum Beach dining scene, Arca is refreshingly different to what’s already there. The food is prepared by chefs Maya and Fausto. Maya grew up in the Baja Peninsula and left a cooking career in San Francisco to move to Tulum. Fausto comes from Mexico City and brings a different perspective on Mexican cooking. Together, these two chefs create beautiful and well-balanced food. Their suckling pig, lamb and whole-roasted fish are all amazing. The salads and vegetables are wonderfully fresh and are often tainted with exotic hints of sour orange, sesame and hibiscus. The cozy jungle setting makes it easy to immediately relax into supreme comfort mode.
Top Tulum Spots
This incredible palm tree-dotted beach bar boasts beautiful views and crazily comfortable seating. It’s a great place to go at lunch for a margarita and ceviche.
For the best snorkeling head to the Akumal area, which is about 15 minutes outside Tulum.
To slip into the Tulum Beach vibe of kaftans and gauzy white dresses, check out Caravana. This beautiful store sells stunning handmade, one-of-a-kind clothes.
Case Banana’s a cool, quiet and peaceful place to stay. The spacious rooms look out onto the beach, which has sought-after hanging beds for day-long lounging.
Casa Jaguar And Gitano
Both these bars are great for after-dinner drinks, music and dancing into the early hours of morning.
This simple restaurant in the puebla serves wonderfully simple grilled chicken with a range of salsas and fresh tortillas.
This store in the puebla sells the most incredible popsicles, all of which are made with fresh, local fruit.
Take a trip to this lagoon, rent some paddle boards and spend a chilled afternoon exploring this beautiful space.
The Mulberry Project's pop-up at La Zebra is a cool spot, which often has bartenders from New York working as special guests.
Mateo’s is famous for its third story deck, which has stunning sunset views looking out over the jungle.
Steven Satterfield is the Executive Chef and Co-Owner of Miller Union, in Atlanta, GA. Satterfield was a James Beard Finalist for Best Chef: Southeast in 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016 and won the coveted award in 2017. Bon Appetit and Esquire named Miller Union one of the "Best New Restaurants in America." Satterfield has also been featured in The New York Times, Epicurious, Tasting Table, Vice, Garden & Gun, Atlanta Magazine, and Men's Book. He serves on the board of Slow Food Atlanta and the local leader of Chefs Collaborative Atlanta. Satterfield is the author of Root to Leaf, A Southern Chef Cooks Through the Seasons, Harper Wave and Short Stack Editions: Peanuts, Dovetail Press.
Cover photo: Flickr: Christian Cordóva