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A laid-back alternative to Cancun: The bohemian vibe and beaches of Tulum

TULUM, Mexico - The all-inclusive Cancun resorts are not known for topless women on the beach or Argentinians with scraggly beards playing Gypsy music.
In this Jan. 4, 2013 photograph, a couple takes a picture while swimming in the Gran Cenote, a water cave near Tulum, Mexico. The water caves are popular destination among tourists visiting the beaches and resorts of the Yucatan Peninsula. (AP Photo/Manuel Valdes)

TULUM, Mexico - The all-inclusive Cancun resorts are not known for topless women on the beach or Argentinians with scraggly beards playing Gypsy music. But that's the norm in Tulum, a Mexican seaside spot south of Cancun that attracts a mix of bohemians, well-pocketed New Age types and sun-seekers to its turquoise waters and white sandy beaches.

Despite its proximity to Cancun and its fellow party neighbour Playa del Carmen, Tulum is not for the same spring break crowd.

"The college kids go to Cancun. The professors and teacher assistants come to Tulum," said Richard Contreras, whose family has managed properties in Tulum for nearly a decade.

That doesn't mean Tulum is cheap. We couldn't find a room on the beach for less than $150 a night that came with a bathroom. Meals nearby cost just as much as they do in my hometown of Seattle.

"Tulum is luxury, but the luxury here is nature and the beach," said Mimi Contreras, Richard's sister.

Our trip was a five-day sun-seeking dash in the first week of January, during the area's high season, which stretches from winter through spring break. Tulum, located on Mexico's lush green Yucatan Peninsula, was an ideal destination. The weather was perfect. The bright sunshine was rarely obscured by fast travelling clouds. December and January are among the driest months on the Yucatan Peninsula and offer hot weather, but no debilitating heat. The dayside highs in our trip were in the mid-80s. The night skies were full of stars.

Tulum is about 90 miles (145 kilometres) south of Cancun and the highway connecting both is well-paved. We flew into Cancun, rented a car ($25 a day plus insurance from Hertz) and made the drive late at night. It went smoothly and we hit no traffic, but watch out for speed bumps scattered around the area and pedestrians crossing the highway in some spots. There are also shuttles available from Cancun to Tulum, but the car gave us the mobility to visit attractions beyond the beach.

"Tulum is pretty laid-back and chill. And I think most of the people who live here, work here, who have property here, want to keep that way to a certain extent," Mimi Contreras said.

Tulum can be divided in to three parts: the town, the Mayan ruins and the beach.

Tulum the town is on the highway, about a 10-minute drive from the beach. Tourism has pushed the population to around 30,000 people, but the town retains the blueprint of many Latin American pueblos, centred around an open plaza or town square. Shops, street-food vendors, hotels and restaurants catering to tourists line the main drag. In general, hotels and restaurants downtown are much cheaper than those on the beach. (We found tasty Mexican food and great service at La Malquerida.)

Just past the town are the nearest "cenotes," which are water caves that are part of a network of rivers under the Yucatan Peninsula. We went to the Gran Cenote ($10 entrance plus snorkel rental) for a swim in its cool and clear waters. Snorkeling underwater, you can see how the water has eroded the cave's limestone walls over the eons into formations of many different shapes and sizes. The Gran Cenote even had fish in its cavernous pool and bats flying overhead. The Yucatan has many cenotes and some are deep enough for scuba diving.

Tulum may be best-known for its ancient Mayan ruins, which attract a steady stream of day-trippers, cruise passengers and tour buses. The complex of crumbling structures here is smaller and less impressive than some other Mayan sites like Chichen Itza, but its location atop seaside cliffs is one of the most scenic ruin sites on the Yucatan. The complex is surrounded by a wall (Tulum means wall) and was inhabited for centuries before Spanish colonialists arrived in the early 1500s. Entrance to the park is $10, which also gives you access to a beach where you can swim beneath the ruins. Guided tours cost extra.

Last but not least, there's Tulum the beach. Stretching for roughly six miles (10 kilometres), waterfront Tulum is lined with cabanas, "eco-chic" hotels, fancy restaurants and yoga spots, but it's less developed than some of Mexico's other resort areas, where the view of the beach often includes high-rise hotels.

There's only one main road and it does get crowded during the day. In spots, it barely accommodates the stream of cars, trucks, taxis, bicycles and pedestrians using it. Biking can be perilous; two women staying next to us fell off their bikes in the traffic, though fortunately they were not seriously injured.

We stayed in one of Contreras' seaside cabanas for $75 a night. It came with a shared bathroom, a fan and occasional insects common in tropical settings — including some that bite. The cabana rooms are large, cleaned daily and are nicely decorated. There's Wi-Fi, if you must. People staying at the cabanas can use beach beds, lounge chairs and a bar from the Contreras' next-door property, which hosts cruise ship tours in the afternoons. We were just footsteps from the beach.

"I want to have a place for people who are independent travellers... who can appreciate the little oasis we've built here," said Mimi Contreras.

Our $150 room was at Los Lirios Cabana Hotels. The room came with a huge bathroom, a balcony with a hammock and a view of the sea. Buffet breakfast was included.

The waves in Tulum were more soothing than daunting. The water was both refreshing and warm. Just watch out for kite surfers — I was nearly hit by one while swimming.

We spent much of our stay at the beach, only getting up to grab drinks, food and evening walks. There are plenty of people on the beach, but it doesn't feel crowded. It offered premium people-watching; the lone nuisance was bohemian types selling their handmade bracelets and bikinis.

Most of all it was sunny and relaxing, which is, after all, what makes the beach the most important of the three Tulums.


If You Go...

TULUM: Nearest major airport, Cancun, about 90 miles (145 kilometres) from Tulum, reachable by rental car and shuttle bus. Websites with information about Tulum include . Mimi and Richard Contreras' cabanas run about $75 a night, . Los Lirios Cabanas Hotel, $150, . Rates may vary by season and type of room.


Manuel Valdes can be reached at