Tulum, Mexico

Photo: Bjørn Christian Tørrissen [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Photo: Bjørn Christian Tørrissen [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Tulum, Mexico. You’ve been dreaming about this trip for months. You’re going to explore the Mayan walled city and enjoy the view from the 40-foot cliffs. You’re excited to kayak through the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve to see crocodiles and sea turtles, ocelots and tapirs, and maybe even a jaguar in the wetlands. You want to snorkel through the underground cenotes. And, most importantly, you can’t wait to relax on the gorgeous beach and stare at the clear-blue water. With a Corona or a margarita in hand, of course.

These are all excellent reasons to head to where the jungle meets the beach on the southern end of the Riviera Maya. With winter temperatures in the upper 80s and none of the craziness of Cancún, this formerly sleepy little beach town is the perfect post-holiday escape. But lately, there’s another reason people are flocking to Tulum’s Boca Paila: gourmet restaurants.

Hartwood Restaurant should be at the top of your list. When the New York owners–Brooklyn, to be exact–decamped for Tulum, they created a laid-back restaurant with two walls, palm trees growing through the roof, and views of the starry sky. Light comes from candles, the menu is on a chalkboard, drying chamomile hangs overhead, and all of the cooking is done with sustainable energy. Think solar panels, a wood-burning oven, and an open grill. The menu changes daily, but everything–from a grilled watermelon salad and grilled octopus with kale to the grilled fish of the day with tangerine and marjoram or the agave-glazed pork belly–is delicious. Dessert, like corn ice cream with mango, is served in mason jars. Arrive early and bring cash.

Photo: Casa Jaguar Tulum
Photo: Casa Jaguar Tulum

If Hartwood is laid back, nearby Casa Jaguar is downright bohemian. The restaurant’s sleek concrete is nearly hidden beneath distressed wood, jungle plants, and a thatched roof. Start with a tasty cocktail, like a Lychee Sky with vodka and rosemary or a Summer Roar with mezcal, passion fruit, and mango. Then move on to the Asian-Mexican fusion dishes. Begin with shrimp Viet Kong rolls or zucchini cream soup. Eat mango ceviche or share a whole fish wrapped in hoja santa with curry and peppers. And douse yourself in bug spray and order another cocktail when the live music begins.

Looking for something a little more romantic? Head farther south along Boca Paila. Go past the boutique hotels, the beach bars, and the little shops. When it’s dark and quiet, you’re heading in the right direction. Eventually, when you find a path lit by bulbs in conch shells at kilometer 10, you’ve reached your dinner reservation. Hechizo means enchantment in Spanish, and you’ll be cast under its spell immediately. The beach-chic dining room has white furniture, orange-and-white paper lanterns, and a view of the water. The chef has cooked in well-respected restaurants around the world. You can order a five-course prix-fixe meal or à la carte dishes. A roasted beet and mandarin salad; pepper escargots; a trio of corvina fillet, scallops, and prawns; and the almond spice cake are all standouts. And try Monte Xanic Chenin Colombard, a Mexican white wine, with your meal.

In your first three days of vacation, you’ve enjoyed Tulum’s perfect weather, white sand, and delicious food. In fact, you’re eaten better than you ever have on a beach vacation. And this is only the beginning. If you keep this up, you may have to go shopping for a bigger bathing suit by the end of the week.

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