Beyond Cancun: A quieter Mexico
Beyond that is the Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve (www.cesiak.org), a Unesco World Heritage Site and home to a rich collection of mangroves, reefs and rare sea turtles who come to lay their eggs on the beach. Both day trips and overnights are possible from Tulum, with hikes and kayaks available to observe the wildlife. But costs are higher than local prices and the official cabins are the only form of accommodation if you prefer to overnight it in the Reserve. With Tulum's beach hotels sequestered to a single country road, Tulum is much more immersed in nature. There is one main grocery store but otherwise you are in the middle of nature, with the ocean on your left and jungle and the occasional house and restaurant on your right as you travel southward. The turquoise ocean and fine, white sand are out of the pages of a glossy brochure. In low season, from Mexican Independence Day (16 September) to early December, you could well score your very own piece of waterfront paradise. Low season also means low prices but some of the restaurants may have limited hours or be closed completely.
Two great eateries by the ocean that are open throughout the year are El Tábano and Posada Margarita. El Tábano (at Kilometer 6 on the beach road, just near the Maya Tulum Hotel; 984-134-8725) serves, from breakfast to dinner, local fresh, modern Mexican food in an open-air setting, across the road from the beach. The service is cheerful, helpful and very welcoming. Fresh flowers, wooden furniture, high thatched roofs and a relaxed staff make this a great place for a long breakfast, an escape from the midday heat or the perfect spot to drink the Mexican Petit Sirah over dinner.
Posada Margarita, (www.posadamargherita.com), which doubles as a small hotel, produces very tasty, if slightly expensive, Italian food by the beach. The decor incorporates local materials and art. As with all Mexican restaurants, your meal is preceded by a gratis helping of tasty chips and freshly made pico de gallo. Posada Margarita brings out a wooden block with four kinds of fresh bread, crudités of cauliflower, pistachios and cheese. Pasta, local fish and good wine are accompanied by the fresh ocean air and a view of the Milky Way if the sky is clear.
Although not close on the water, in town there are several places to eat, from French run cafes with fresh baguettes to tacquerias and more traditional family Mexican restaurants. Don Cafeto, (Av. Tulum No. 64 Lote 12) attracts lots of locals and the food is fresh and served quickly. A simple order of green salad and fish ceviche comes with pico de gallo and chips and a bowl of crudites including potatoes, carrots, peppers and half a bulb of garlic.
With all the edible treats, you might want to hire a bike to get around, and there is a great bike path from the ocean to the town. But bring a flashlight if you are out after dark as the beach road is not well lit. While in Tulum it is also worth swimming in any of the local cenotes - fresh water sink holes that make up the largest network of caverns in the world. Mayans consider them sacred places and they provide an important source of fresh water. For a small entry fee you can swim, snorkel or dive in fresh water and be surrounded by fossilized coral and limestone.
Contrary to what is often reported about Mexico, the Maya Riviera feels safe and open to tourists - there is an obvious police presence in both towns. Both locations make a great introduction to Mexico and with lots of English spoken it is an easy transition with rewards of white beaches, incredible food and a genuine welcome from the locals.