Once a hippie hideaway, Tulum has emerged as a destinationfor the fashionable to decompress and spiritually recharge
s we enter Hartwood, an open-air restaurant located, as its website says, “on the jungle side of Tulum Beach Road,” a guitarist plays a melancholy Spanish tune. Oil lamps cast a faint light in the damp darkness. Near the large wood-burning oven’s wild flame, a pile of squashes, dried flowers and potatoes are displayed like a Dutch still life. Standing in the orange light, a tall, thin man with a prominent ginger beard toils at the oven. Eric Werner is his name, and he once worked at Peasant and Vinegar Hill House in New York City. He first visited Tulum years ago, fell in love with it and stayed, opening Hartwood in December 2010. “My wife, Mya, and I believe that if you put your whole self into your dream and pray,” says Werner, “then Tulum is the place to build upon those principles.”
We sit among jasmine and gardenia trees. A bronzed man with wild curly hair brings pineapple-habanero margaritas followed by deliciously charred skirt steaks, melt-off-the-bone pork ribs cooked in agave leaves, mashed sweet potatoes, persimmons and sautéed chia, an exquisite, pungent local spinach. Here, there is no electricity, everything functions on sustainable energy and the ingredients come from nearby farms. “Tulum is a truly magical place,” says James Greenfeld, a New Yorker who moved here to open his five-suite luxury rental, Casa de las Olas, near the Sian Ka’an nature reserve and who organizes OH! Food, a sustainable gastronomy festival, with Werner. “It’s very raw and pure.”
Like Greenfeld and Werner, many of the people who now live in Tulum were once only visiting; bewitched by the town’s mystical charms and turquoise Caribbean sea, they stayed. Tucked in the Yucatán tropical jungle and spread along the narrow, powdered sugar–sand beach, this is where hippie travelers once came to camp and discover the area’s thriving Mayan heritage, including deep spiritual rituals that inspired a New Age revival. But now Tulum is also a home away from home for editors, photographers and socialites such as Carine Roitfeld, Mario Testino and Jade Jagger, who flock in for the holiday season to relax, practice yoga and explore the area. A three-and-a-half-hour flight from New York, three major Mayan temples, the world’s second largest coral reef, a biosphere protected by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, the luxuriant jungle, soothing cenotes (sinkholes used for bathing) and a never-ending beach lined by the rustic palm-thatched huts known as palapas—this, they say, is paradise.
“It’s so free here,” says Jiri Sornmayura, a Thai-American beauty, as we sip smoky tequila at a salsa beach party while staring at the night ocean, so bright it seems lit from within. Sornmayura once owned two fashion and décor boutiques in Nolita but moved here to start a new life, charmed by the glorious nature and bohemian atmosphere. The agency she owns, Passage to Culture, organizes high-end tours of Tulum, Thailand and other exotic destinations. “Here,” she says as we watch barefoot couples swing and swirl, “no one cares about what you’re wearing or what you do for a living.”
Indeed, in the thatched-roof palapas suspended over the horizon, the pulse of the ocean breezing through the wooden beams and with limited electricity and little Internet and phone access, the disconnect is immediate. At Hemingway Romantic Cabanas, where I am staying, the room is bare save for colorfully embroidered pillows and a mosquito net. The hotel’s owner, Paola, is an Italian woman with unruly grey hair and Birkenstock sandals. She has been here for 12 years. “People come here to find tranquillity,” she says over a meal of freshly caught fish and chilled white wine. “We are doing everything we can to keep it this way.”
Health nuts might prefer Amansala, which New Yorker Melissa Perlman (who pioneered the Bikini Bootcamp 14 years ago) opened when she made Tulum her full-time home after 9/11 caused her to rethink her life choices. Lean young people drink detoxifying concoctions, practice 6:00 a.m. meditation and yoga classes, and tan, topless, on the quasi-deserted beach. “People come here to reconnect with themselves and be healthy,” says Perlman, as we nibble on impossibly sweet, creamy guacamole and sip icy hibiscus tea. Now Amansala also offers yoga, detox and wellness holiday packages for those who’d prefer a Bikini Martini (with chia, pineapple and vodka) to an all-you-can-drink-and-eat buffet. “This is the anti-Cancún,” she says.
qually boho is the chic hotel Coqui Coqui, a favorite of actors Eva Mendes and Kate Bosworth and designer Riccardo Tisci. The owners, Argentine model Nicolas Malleville and Milanese designer Francesca Bonato, fell in love on this beach and began offering massages and facials on their tiny property with the island’s coconut oils and flowers. They now sell luxurious linen dresses, leather sandals and straw hats at their boutique, Hacienda Montaecristo; their line of exotic perfumes and room scents, Coqui Coqui, is exquisite. “This is the most beautiful beach in the world,” says Bonato, whose delicate freckled skin and large blue eyes bring to mind a young Carla Bruni. “And it’s still very natural. For me, real luxe is waking up in the morning and seeing the Caribbean. There’s a magnetic energy here; we’re very close to the stars.”
At the Sian Ka’an biosphere reserve, the setting sun filters through ribbons of golden clouds, slicing the sky with its pink rays. Flamingos, toucans and pelicans whirl madly in the wind. A breeze cools the air as we slide on the limpid lagoon that snakes through the mangroves and orchid bushes toward the horizon. Soon, we arrive at the crossroad of the three lagoons that feed into the ocean. Light foam boils on the jade-colored water. As we throw back our heads in the pitch-black night, we look up to a shower of stars. In the distance, the full moon rises from the end of the world, a burning red light caressing the thick waves. Sian Ka’an, in Mayan, means “where the sky is born.” If there is a paradise, this must be where it begins.
Arts and lifestyle writer SHIRINE SAAD has contributed to The New York Times, MTV, Nowness and Surface, among others. She has just written Boho Beirut: A Guide to the Middle East’s Most Sophisticated City.