by Carmel L. Mooney
If climbing coconut trees to pick coconuts in the morning in search of coconut milk for your coffee sounds like an adventure and dining every night on the beach with the wild jungle as a backdrop sounds like fun… if snorkeling in the world’s second-largest barrier reef with rays, barracudas, damsels, angelfish, turtles, lobster, and dolphins among vibrant staghorn coral and sea fans, whets your appetite… and waking up to the sounds of monkeys, while giant iguanas and hermit crabs scamper by – sounds intriguing… then EcoTulum has three wonderfully exotic and amazingly unique sanctuaries on the Mayan Riviera just waiting to create a heavenly escape. Even better, you can enjoy wonderfully unusual and purifying, magical Mayan spa treatments on the beach at the jungle’s edge in the Mayan Spa and Wellness Center shared by all three resorts.
Away from the usual busy resort cities like Cancun or Mazatlán, but close enough to civilization for security, the three EcoTulum resorts of Zahra, Copal, and Azulik await families with a yearning for exotic adventure and an appreciation for nature that is too beautiful for words. Each of the three resorts positioned in a row along the Tulum coastline offers something unique but Zahra was our resort of choice as it is the most family-friendly. Cabanas on the beach, a private beach for guests, and a relaxed and friendly restaurant on the sand were the reasons we fell in love… with Zahra. All three EcoTulum resorts are favorites with tourists from all over the world.
Most days we had breakfast served in our cabana as we gazed outside at the cobalt and turquoise water while playful iguanas and hermit crabs watched curiously. The kids played and we relaxed. The tropical breezes filtered through our cabana refreshing us on even the most humid and tropically warm days. But little time did we spend in our cabana as we were called by all the wonderful activities in the areas surrounding.
Guided snorkeling tours, cenote dives, exploration, spa treatments, wildlife refuge hikes, Mayan ruins, and pristine white sand beaches called to us every hour of every day. We even managed to take a day trip by bus and by ferry to the magical island destination of Cozumel and Playa del Carmen, two of the Yucatan’s most favored vacation spots by tourists and cruise ships.
In the little town of Tulum we enjoyed watching local artisans creating their specialties, we sampled local food and did some of the typical bargain hunting all tourists do. We explored the magical and mystical Mayan city and ruins on the outskirts of town – the only Mayan city ever built next to the ocean.
Some mornings and afternoons, we enjoyed body exfoliation treatments like being wrapped in cocoa or Mayan clay as well as holistic and Mayan massages. Irresistible chocolate body treatments, indigenous sweat lodge steam baths, floatation tanks, and Mayan baths all added to a unique cultural experience that balanced and relaxed the body’s physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual states.
For the health-conscious family, daily yoga classes are offered as well as two restaurants and bars offering delicious but healthy and refreshing fare such as fajitas of pineapple, nopales cactus and vegetables, lean filet mignons, numerous fresh fish dishes, and even more common selections like burritos, tacos, guacamole, and salads. Delicious desserts like mango mousse, flan, and crepes rounded out the evenings as mariachi bands drowned out the crashing of the waves and loud calls of the wild in the jungle. Our kids loved the fish fingers and the mango mousse. They were hands down, the favorite of the younger ones in our clan.
Tulum is comprised of three areas: the hotel zone, a small strip of several hotels and cabanas, a small town, and an amazing archaeological site with ruins. The hotel zone lies on some of the finest beaches in the Caribbean.
We flew into Cancun International Airport, approximately one and a half hours from Tulum. We had our resort book a transfer through a tiny local van company that picked us up and took us to our resort. Although a bit pricey, the cost would be considered worth it to most guests simply for the convenience of air conditioning, a safer ride than most taxis, and room for luggage. For those on a tight budget, a bus can be taken from the Cancun bus station to Tulum for only a few dollars per person. I would recommend this if you have little baggage as the buses are crowded and noisy.
English is spoken to some degree by most but not all. But one can do fairly well knowing a few Spanish basics with an excellent phrasebook and a good understanding of pesos and Mexican currency. Many locals speak Mayan, as well as the culture, is deeply ingrained there. Tulum is also not far from Guatemala and Belize.
Tulum’s bank is not the best and there were no convenient places to change money. I recommend taking about $200-300 in one-dollar bills for spending money and tips for a family’s one-week stay. You’ll do better bargaining with the locals with one’s. And dollar bills seem appreciated for tips. Most everything such as the cabanas and food and spa treatments, except excursions, can be paid for by credit card at the resort. In town, some of the larger stores and restaurants accept credit cards although restaurants on the beach in towns such as El Paraiso do not.
Playa Paraiso is a wonderful place just a mile or two from Zahra, to take a day trip to the beach where the smooth surf and excellent snorkeling are paired with several small local restaurants. There a family can pay $8 for a shaded sunbathing spot on a huge round cushion on the sand and several drinks come along with the package for the day. If you explore the ruins nearby, you must go early for two reasons. The crowds from Cancun, the cruise ships, and other cities arrive in the late morning by the thousands, and by late morning it is uncomfortably hot on the grounds of the ruins with little shade or place to sit. Our family spent an entire day playing, snorkeling, and making sandcastles on Playa Paraiso. There were lots of other kids and it was a great experience.
You will find being on the equator, that the sun rises very early and brightly and you will need much more sun protection than you ever thought you would. An SPF factor of more than 45 is a necessity for anyone fair to medium and I encourage you to bring twice as much as you normally would need at a California beach. Even with a tremendously high SPF you will either tan or burn depending on your complexion. With the white sands and humidity and sweat factor, large quantities are a must. Excellent hats at cheap prices are for sale everywhere – wait till you get there to buy one. Pack light; mostly swimwear, shorts, t-shirts, or sundresses are worn.
A few realistic things to consider that may sound negative but are not, are as follows: The cabanas operate on a generator so bring flashlights or candles for night. Mosquitoes can be a problem some years although we were not bothered at all by them in May. Ask about current conditions and go prepared with repellent, although we needed none. The cabana beds have mosquito netting.
Most transportation is safe although the highway between Tulum and Cancun was a bit hairy and everyone sped excessively. Most injuries of Americans do occur in taxis or by tourists renting mopeds and not understanding the passing laws on the freeways and roads.
Use extra common sense and caution; refrain from wearing expensive jewelry and flashing money in public places, travel during the daylight hours when sightseeing, and you may even want to copy, from the Internet, the name and phone numbers of some American English speaking doctors in case of an illness or if traveling with someone with health issues.
I recommend taking your life jackets for water fun as certain areas of the surf can be unpredictable. I’m glad I did, although the water in most areas is shallow and gentle.
Drink only bottled and purified water which is available in town at grocery stores and Zahra. Be prepared mentally and physically for cultural differences and experiences such as showers of brackish water, wild bugs, and animals throughout.
But most of all, if you are a family seeking adventure and fun in a thoroughly cultural and educational experience at a very reasonable price, plan to go. Pack your bags and an adventurous spirit for the trip of a lifetime to Tulum, Mexico.
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Carmel L. Mooney is a travel columnist and the editor of Road Trips for Couples.