2012/13: BEACH CLUBS OF TULUM (updated version)

by Mari Pintkowski

While lazily swinging in my hammock under a towering Tzlam tree at La Selva Mariposa, I contemplate why so many of our guests are at first drawn to the Riviera Maya to play in the turquoise waters and sink their toes into the silky white sand that borders the gleaming sea. After a few days in that paradise of sun and balmy breezes, they are ready to spend a few more days experiencing the mesmerizing Maya ruins only 20 km away, shop in the local thatched-roof shops along the Cobá Road, and then explore the three cenotes near the Cobá ruins, before coming back to La Selva Mariposa to float in one of our three cenote-style pools, sip a frosty margarita in their hammock, or luxuriate in our spa beside a softly flowing waterfall with the healing hands of our professional masseuse performing her magic. 

In the past it seemed like a natural flow for a vacation in paradise to progress this way. In the last few years, we noticed a change in this pattern. More and more tourists want to stay in the jungle for a longer visit, and alternate their days between the jungle and the beach. They are eager to choose a different beach club along Tulum's coast each day to investigate and sample the sun, sand, surf and cervezas. I decided that it was time to do some exploring myself and made a plan to do just that the very next day.

I put on my swimsuit, doused myself with sunscreen, packed my camera and notebook and set off down the Cobá Road. Within 15 minutes I was heading past the tourist mecca of Tulum and approaching the intersection on the beach road where Adonis Tulum Hotel is located. I turned left and drove 2.6 km past a blend of old and new hotels until I reached the first beach club on my list called Zazil Kin.

Zazil Kin is composed of a mixture of stucco-covered wooden stick houses and communal bathrooms painted bright Mexican colors topped with palapa roofs. Sandy paths meander through the cabañas and lead to a waterfront bar where a handful of low-slung chairs and lounges are shaded under umbrellas or palapas and a few sheltering palms. There is now a service charge of 50 pesos (less than $5) for the day. The young men are happy to place the lounges wherever you like. The atmosphere is a mix of calm yet lively, with the activities of an assortment of locals playing beach soccer just beyond the tall palms and an occasional small child toddling among the tiny palms. 20 peso beers, 15 peso soft drinks/water and freshly made cocktails for 25 pesos are plentiful and cold. No food is available on site except for the cups of fresh fruit sold by the boys who pedal their snacks along this strip. The beach is wide and the sand is soft and cool. The surf tends to be calmer here than at the south beaches because of the existing reef a mile or so off shore. You can park here and, after a day at the beach, you can walk to the Tulum ruins only ¼ km away.

If you want to sample some local seafood, just walk along the beach a few hundred feet away to the Playa Pescadores Restaurant that is operated by the local fisherman's co-op and order the freshest seafood around, accompanied, of course, by a cold Mexican beer.

A bit further down the road is a rustic sign indicating you are at Playa Maya, the public beach where the local fishermen pull their boats onto the beach when they are not out to sea. Park along this sandy road that is guarded by a policeman and wander toward the turquoise water. This is a good place to come if you just want to stroll along the beach and perhaps stop for a swim. You can even bring a cooler, chairs and umbrella if you want to stay for the day. The Dorados (members of the fisherman's co-op) operate 2-3 hour snorkeling/boat tours out to the reef for about $25 per person. Dive gear and drinks are provided on the tour. If you are with a group of five or more the rate is about $15 a person. I noticed that there are a couple of rustic jewelry stands in the area as well.

At km 1.9, just beyond Playa Maya public beach, I saw a large sign that said Paraiso. There is a well-marked parking area with an attendant and many taxis which are congregated just outside the entrance. They require that you bring your food/drink tab from their beach restaurant to show the attendant or pay 50 pesos. I parked under the palms and stepped out of the car, sinking my toes into the cool sand, and walked toward the Caribbean Sea. When I reached the beach bar and chairs, I was aware that there were some choices to make if I wanted to spend my day on this beach. Do I want sun or shade? Do I want a wide mattress or a lounge? The lounges rent for about 50 pesos, and the beds with a table, chairs and umbrella rent for about 200 pesos. There are showers near the new bathroom located behind the concrete restaurant beyond the beach area. Mediocre, overpriced food is served at the tables scattered around the bar or at your lounge area by friendly waiters dressed in pink shirts. Music with a festive beat is often blaring from the gigantic speakers at the back of the bar, so if you come to the beach for peace and quiet, rethink this as your choice. If you need a bit of diversion from the sun, wander over to the table set up with handmade jewelry, or have a massage under the swaying palms. The sea is often calm here and the beach is heavenly. I observed hip young people, as well as families with young children, stretching out on and around the mattresses with plenty of shade provided by the wide umbrellas. This is a good place to go with young children, rent the bed with table and umbrella, and camp out for the day. I jotted down a note to let my guests know that if they are interested in taking a lesson in kite boarding, Extreme Kite Boarding School is nestled in the trees at the south corner of Paraiso. They should stop in and talk to the friendly Italians who operate this school and, if the wind is blustery, they will more than likely see them putting on a show in front of Paraiso or giving lessons on the beach.

Driving south down the beach road, I came to La Vita e Bella at km 1.6. I parked in the lot in front of the weathered palapa covered-buildings, and walked past the reception area and public bathrooms on the left and through the large sand-floor restaurant that serves breakfast, lunch and dinner to hotel guests and the public. Out on the gorgeous white sand beach are lounges placed close together with palapa umbrellas stretched the distance of the hotel perimeter. Some of them were set aside for hotel guests and had a sign indicating this. I found one that suited me and before long a friendly waiter came up and offered me a menu. Currently there is no charge for the lounges if you eat and drink in the restaurant.

On the road again, I passed the Mezzanine at km 1.3. This is not a beach club, but has a chic bar and Thai restaurant that overlooks a cenote-style pool on one side and the sparkling Caribbean on the other. This little gem has an afternoon happy hour with 2x1 margaritas. I soon noticed that I was back where I began my journey north on the beach road. I continued past this intersection until I saw the beach club sign for Papaya Playa Project. After parking in a space between palm trees, I walked toward the sea and noticed a dozen or so mattresses under a shaded pergola and an assortment of lounges on the beach in front of the bar and three-story rustic restaurant. The management told me that many surprises are in store for the upcoming high season. There are kayaks and bicycles for rent, as well as kite boarding and dive trips. The bar features a happy hour with 2x1 drinks and has WiFi. Some promotions that you won't want to miss are the Sunblock Sunday with DJ and even a Kids Camp from 2 to 4 p.m. Music is a key element at the new Papaya Playa and they offer special concerts in their big theatre that are advertised along the beach road. A temazcal and yoga classes are also on the menu. The beach is long and invites you to stroll along the shore or do some body surfing in the rough waves that roll in.

When I drove the road from Tulum pueblo to the beach, I was handed a flyer at the tope that described the next beach club, Ana y Jose. This official-looking beach club, just 2.74 km from the beach road intersection, has a large parking lot and often has tour buses parked there while their passengers frolic in the sand and surf. If you see the buses, just pass by; if not, you might want to try this beautifully maintained place to pass a few hours. There is even a children's playground with a climbing wall at the back of the property. The bathrooms and change rooms are very nice as is the restaurant with seating indoors and out. The menu ranges from $6 to $18 US and, although the presentation is beautiful, the food is nothing to rave about. There are many comfortable lounges with or without shade and an active massage area that looked very inviting. They charge 100 pesos for a double mattress.

The next section of beach has a few beach clubs tucked away behind rustic signs and landscaping that seems to be growing right before your eyes. One such unsuspecting treasure at km 6.5 is Puerta del Cielo. Parking is inside the gates and seems pretty secure. The staff and amenities are welcoming, and food and beverages are served beside their pool or in a lounge under a palapa as you watch the turquoise waves crash on the shore of one of the most spectacular beaches in the world. If you prefer, waiters will come to the beach and take your food and drink orders and bring them to your lounge. This club seems to be deserted during the week, but busy on the weekend. There is no charge to enjoy the beach and swimming pool, but you are expected to spend some money on drinks or food.

Playa Azul is the next beach club I encountered on my journey. Park your car across in the lot on the jungle side of the road. Its restaurant, L'ola, offers an interesting menu. I ate the salmon and chaya sandwich with an interesting pesto topping. The beach sports a dozen or more lounges and hammocks, some under palapas, and others waiting for the serious sun worshipers to plop down and bake in the glorious sun. You can partake in beach volleyball or take a kite boarding lesson if you want a more active choice. This is another fun spot to watch the kite boarders do their tricks.

Zulúm is another beach club that welcomes the public. They have a variety of lounges, hammocks and beds as well as a pool and restaurant. You can take the offer of the "promotion" which includes lunch, towels, kayak and the beach for about 150 pesos, or just order from the menu and use the beach and chairs without charge.

A rather hip-looking beach club and restaurant opened a couple of years ago on a large stretch of beach that is called Ziggy Beach. They have lots of lounges, some under swaying palms that grow on this amazing beach. The comfy beach beds do not have any sun protection, but can be dragged under a palm if you like. There is no charge for the lounges, but it is expected that you spend some money in the bar or restaurant. We had lunch on another day at their restaurant, now called Restaurante Ziggy's (formerly El Bistro), were very impressed with the food and presentation, and the prices were typical for the beach. Beautiful new bathrooms lie across from the restaurant.

The beach gets even more spectacular as you drive farther south. Ak'iin is another beach club that operates under the same rules as the others: no charge if you order some food or beverages. There are often busloads of people on this beach.

La Zebra is not officially a beach club, but if you are having lunch during the slower times of the year, you may be able to snag a lounge or hammock to relax in and enjoy the view. I parked on the right side of the road in their parking lot and sank my toes into the soft, white sand that leads toward the reception area. The back wall is covered with a stunning zebra sculpture and a colorful mandala decorates the floor. I continued walking toward the beach on the beautiful boardwalk that leads directly to Lina's Mexican Cantina. They specialize in mojitos made with fresh sugar cane, and the menu offers very interesting and tasty Mexican fare.

Om is also a beach club/hotel/restaurant along this stretch of road as I traveled a little farther south (km 7.8). Om serves wood-fired pizza after 2 p.m. and a sparse menu before that. There are a few lounges in front of the restaurant, but they seem to be limited to the hotel guests.

Hip Hotel is now operated by Ana y Jose and is located along the palm-lined road at km 8. Park in front or across the street and walk through or beside the beautiful entrance palapa and toward the beach. There are plenty of lounges with thatched palapas to provide shade from the tropical sun. They have the same policy as most of the other beach clubs and do not charge for the lounges as long as you order food or drinks from the charming restaurant.

Las Ranitas is an older hotel sporting a new facelift. The beach is heavenly and the staff very welcoming. Let the receptionists know you are here to enjoy the beach club (no charge)/ restaurant and they will guide you to the lovely pool with comfy lounges, or straight ahead through the chic restaurant and to the sandy shore where palapa-covered lounges are scattered on this stunning beach. Beach service is provided by the restaurant staff.

Last, but not least, before you enter the Sian Ka'an Biosphere you will see two new beach clubs, Mestizos and next door is Rosa del Viento. Mestizos is a bit rustic, but is involved in some reconstruction at the moment. Rosa has a fabulous entrance with many pink oleanders soon to be blooming. Both are very large properties with plenty of lounges and inviting restaurants and bars.

Most properties along the south end of the beach have WiFi if you need to combine a little work with your day of relaxation.

I did discover after a long day of exploring the most gorgeous coastline in the world that "there is no place like home."

Mari Pintkowski and her husband operate a popular Boutique Hotel called La Selva Mariposa, located 15 min. from Tulum off the Cobá Road. Read more of Mari's stories about Mexico on SacBe.com or in her book, Embarking on the Mariposa Trail, www.amazon.com.

Mari Pintkowski