Tried and tested: where to eat, drink and sleep in Tulum, Mexico
Tuck into inventive Mexican cuisine in secret gardens and sip mezcal by campfire; sleep beach-side in boutique hotels and jump into bright blue sinkholes. Bikes cruise down a winding road that leads through the jungle. Dreamcatchers displayed outside shopfronts turn in the breeze. Street signs reading ‘Be here now’, ‘Follow that dream’ and ‘Know thyself’ sit between resorts.   Welcome to Tulum, Mexico, the hippie-luxe town two hours south of Cancun on the Yucatan Peninsula. Despite its steady stream of international tourists, Tulum still hasn’t lost much of the boho charm that put it on the map in the first place. Most of its hotels are eco-conscious and nearly all of its restaurants seem to be at one with their surroundings. [caption id="attachment_43035" align="alignleft" width="1500"] Papaya Playa Project restaurant[/caption] Though Tulum is beachside, it’s more than just a beach town. It’s got ancient ruins, stunning cenotes and award-winning dining. If you haven’t thought about heading here, do. Here, some picks for what to try when you’re there. EAT $ Tulum is divided into two areas: a ritzy, beachside tourist zone and a downtown pueblo with more down-to-earth prices. It’s in the latter that you’ll find Burrito Amor. The vegetarian-friendly cafe is unassuming with open sides, foldable chairs and its most expensive meal is priced at a reasonable 185 pesos (approx. $13).   But don’t let any of that fool you, the food – burritos and salads – and drinks – juices, cocktails and beers – here are top-notch. [caption id="attachment_43030" align="alignleft" width="1500"] Tacos are served[/caption] $$ Mexico’s known for its street food, but if you can’t speak Spanish and aren’t sure what to order, getting to it can often be near impossible. Enter Charly’s Vegan Tacos. The establishment at the far end of the tourist zone has created a name for itself for its colourful, flavourful meals and homemade sauces served at wooden tables scattered in front of a food truck.   Start with the fried plantain bananas with tofu and garlic cream before digging into the porkless cracklings or soyrizo and cheese. $$ Also in the tourist zone is Safari. It’s another no-frills affair with a fire pit and Airstream trailer setup, and an undercover patio dining area to the side. Inspired by traditional Mexican recipes but adding a campfire twist, the restaurant uses all local ingredients and makes its tortillas from scratch.   Among its tacos, of note are the shrimp, served with mole verde green sauce, and the fire-roasted octopus. If you’re still hungry, try the yuca truffle fries. And if you’re feeling like a drink, sip on a mezcal. $$$ Its tagline ‘secret garden’ should give you some idea of what to expect at Cenzontle. The intimate restaurant, seemingly carved into the lush forest, is an enchanting retreat set back from the tourist zone’s busy main road.   Its concise menu consists of mostly meat- and seafood-focused Mexican meals, all with an inventive twist and prettily presented. Don’t miss the beef barbacoa with bone marrow sauce and the duck carnitas tacos. And, as with most restaurants in Tulum, don’t forget to bring mosquito repellent. DRINK                                                         $ Within the downtown pueblo, Batey Mojito & Guarapo Bar is known as the place for a night out. The popular dive bar has mojitos made with sugar cane juice you can watch being crushed in a converted VW Beetle, affordable prices – all drinks are about 100 pesos (approx. $7) – and live music most nights.   Sit at the front bar or at a picnic table in the back gravel area and choose from specialty mojitos like ginger, passionfruit and watermelon. Word of warning: they’re strong here. $$ You’ll find Gitano in the tourist zone. It was such a hit that its owners recently opened a second spot in New York City. One look at it and it’s not hard to see why. Tucked into the jungle, the restaurant and bar is lit only by candles and fairy lights.   The smoke and aroma of copal, an incense used by the Mayans for spiritual cleansing, wafts through the place. Go on a Friday and arrive at around 11pm when the disco and house DJs begin playing. Slide into a booth or take a seat at one of its three bars and order yourself a mezcal cocktail. $$$ If Friday nights are for Gitano, Saturdays are all about Papaya Playa Project. If you’re having dinner here first, arrive around 8pm. [caption id="attachment_43037" align="alignleft" width="1500"] Music at Papaya Playa Project[/caption] That should give you plenty of time to tuck into a delicious feed before the party kicks off around 11pm. If you’re instead arriving around then, expect a cover charge with its rate depending on the DJ or artist performing. If you’re coming with a big group, it might be worth getting bottle service at a booth. Once a month a Full Moon party is held here and goes until 4am. SLEEP $ Though newly-opened Holistika Hotel is only a few minutes’ drive from Tulum’s main pueblo drag, a stay here will have you convinced you’re in the heart of the jungle. Walking across its sprawling grounds, you’ll hear birds chirping, leaves rustling in the wind and little else.   There’s an on-site restaurant called Tierra, regular yoga and meditation classes, two massive pools and an art walk. Accommodation is separated into adults-only and family-friendly. With only 24 rooms, you’ll want to book ahead. [caption id="attachment_43038" align="alignleft" width="800"] Bedroom at Holistika[/caption] $$ A beachfront home-turned-boutique hotel, Casa Malca in the tourist zone has attracted the likes of Elle Macpherson, Leonardo DiCaprio and Cara Delevingne.   Designed and styled by art collector Lio Malca, who purchased the abandoned mansion in 2013, the hotel is filled with striking contemporary art. Sculptures of ants crawl across the ceilings.   A piece by American artist KAWS sits near the impressive doorway. Unmarked front gates and a secret underground pool add to its edginess. $$$ Where to even begin when describing Azulik Hotel? Designed with the idea of reconnecting with yourself in mind, the eco-friendly hotel created by a self-taught architect is a maze of 48 rooms – some ocean-facing and perched above the jungle’s canopy – a spa, a clothing-optional beach club, three restaurants and a neighbouring art gallery.   Structures, mostly made from bejuco wood native to the area, are connected by winding pathways and stepping stones over decorative pools of water. EXPLORE $ There are more than 3000 cenotes (sinkholes) on the Yucatan Peninsula but within Tulum, Grand Cenote is the most popular. Right outside downtown pueblo, it’s actually comprised of several cenotes all connected by wooden walkways.   The water is bright blue in some parts, light green in others, and jumping into it in the searing heat is a real treat. Pay the extra few pesos to rent snorkel equipment and see fish beneath its surface. Post-swim, dry off near the lily pond as you watch turtles swim by. $ Despite also being minutes from the downtown pueblo, Cenote Calavera, also known as The Temple of Doom, has surprisingly remained undiscovered by tourists. The cenote can best be described as ‘jug-like’ with its rocky roof seemingly sliced off to reveal a pool of fresh water below.   A ladder is installed in the largest hole and can be used to climb down, but the two smaller other holes can only be jumped into. If you’re lucky, you might spy one of the many iguanas that live around it. $$ The Tulum Ruins is one of the only archaeological sites in the world that overlooks a crashing sea below. The ruins provide a glimpse into the town’s powerful past as a thriving seaport. Open from 8am–5pm, the ruins can get crowded with tour groups so come early.   If you’re arriving by car, skip the expensive car parks next to the site – you’ll find free parking across the main street. If you’re interested in learning more about Mayan culture, opt for a guide. Otherwise, reading the information from a Mexico guidebook or an online site should do the trick.
Cuba in 10 days: the ultimate itinerary
From stepping back in time to explore the hallowed streets of Old Havana to enjoying the best mojito of your life on a beautiful Caribbean beach, a trip to Cuba is the experience of a lifetime. Whether you’re a backpacker on a budget or a luxury honeymooner, Cuba has something to suit every travel style. But in saying that, it’s important to have a solid itinerary mapped out before you leave. Here are our top tips on making the most of your time in this intoxicating country. Plan your accommodation ahead of time This isn’t really a turn-up-and-book-a-hotel kind of place. Making changes to holiday plans last minute isn't always easy in Cuba. With minimal internet access and certain go-to travel sites like Airbnb blocked once inside the country, simple tasks like booking last-minute accommodation suddenly become annoyingly difficult. Apps to download before you leave home First things first, download the apps. No, I’m not talking about Tinder, rather Triposo, CityMaps2Go and Google Translate. These three apps saved our behinds a number of times and all work perfectly offline. Triposo Triposo is like your portable travel guide. It grabs information from Wikipedia, Wikitravel, and elsewhere, and bundles it all together into a useful, easy-to-use offline guide, which you download prior to arrival. After you’ve downloaded the data pack of the country you’re heading to you’ll have activities, hotels, restaurants, maps and basic directions, all at your fingertips. CityMaps2Go Next, we recommend CityMaps2Go. Pretty similar to Triposo, as in you download a data pack prior to arrival. In this case we downloaded the entire road map of Cuba, making navigating the country super easy and convenient. Google Translate and Duolingo And lastly, Google Translate and Duolingo. New Year’s Eve 2017: among some other rather vain resolutions about chiselling a six pack and whitening my teeth, I vowed to learn Spanish for my impending visit to Cuba.   Via Duolingo I proposed to spend at least half an hour each day learning the basics. Come June and my New Year’s resolution was about as complete as Donald Trump’s wall, as I’d only reached a 7 per cent fluency rate. So unless someone was saying hello or goodbye, my Spanish was pretty useless. If in doubt just use Google Translate.   Now for the fun part. We split our trip up into two parts. Landing in Havana, we allowed ourselves five days and then bussed down to Trinidad for four days, then back to Havana for the final two. Havana ooh na na Touching down in Havana, we are buzzing and excited to sink our teeth into the city we’d read so much about. Lo and behold a 1950s Chevrolet Bel Air – slightly beat up but seriously impressive – greeted us on arrival.   Eagerly jumping in, our authentic Cuban experience had started straight off the plane. As our driver began to leave the airport we both instinctively reached for the non-existent seat belts, which I have to admit took some getting used to. The option to jump in a safer more modern car is always there, but make sure you negotiate the price before you commit to the journey. Where to stay in Havana We booked our accommodation – a casa particular – in the heart of the old town and found it via Airbnb. A common accommodation option throughout the country, a casa particular is a privately owned house that rents out either rooms or the entire place to visitors.   It had a bed and breakfast-type feel, with hosts offering meals, assisting with transport and giving local tips and tricks on what to see, eat and explore. For this leg of our journey, we booked a casa which consisted of the entire place, rather than staying with a family.   Alternatively there are loads of hotels to stay in but most are rather expensive and government-owned, which doesn't really help the Cuban people. We also found that hotels just kind of gave themselves their own star rating. Most claiming to be four star-plus, when in actual fact their fans don’t work and their light switches may electrocute you. So do your research. The best things to do in Havana Explore the cobbled streets of Old Havana We were taken back in time as kids played soccer in the street and old men played checkers on the side of the road. Horse-led carts cruised through the narrow alleys carrying fresh fruit and vegetables, while a man went restaurant to restaurant trying to sell today’s catch, lugging huge fish on his back. The absence of wi-fi – something we’re increasingly taking for granted in cities today – means that the streets were full of interaction, making for an extremely buzzing and lively city. [caption id="attachment_32537" align="alignleft" width="1000"] Havana, the capital of Cuba, is one of the oldest cities in the Caribbean. 'Old Havana' is a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982.[/caption] From Plaza Vieja, a giant square filled with bars, restaurants and music to Obispo Street, which runs all the way into one of Hemingway’s favourite bars, El Floridita, you’ll smash your 10,000 steps before lunch and that's only scratching the surface. Walk and relax at the Malecón The Malecón photographs better than a sunset over Waikiki and comes jam-packed with people-watching entertainment.   The eight-kilometre strip, which runs from Havana Harbour in the old town to the central business district of Vedado, is loved by both locals and tourists, who set up camp in the late afternoon to farewell the Caribbean sun with a rum and a rumba. Find a good spot, BYO rum and don’t forget your sunglasses. Take a day trip to Santa Maria del Mar With white sand and clear blue waters all around, this coastline is about a 30-minute taxi ride from Havana and will cost you about 25 bucks each way. The hardest part of your day will be deciding which beach bar to commit to.   The whole strip consists of small bars offering refreshments, beach umbrellas and chairs. Relax as the ocean laps on the shore accompanied by the distant sound of locals trying to sell hats, bracelets and massages. Meet the locals and learn to salsa Cuba is synonymous with salsa, and at night most Havana bars and nightclubs turn into salsa clubs. It’s up to you to ask for a dance. This might sound intimidating, but I found that more often than not, the friendly pros were willing to help a goofy westerner with two left feet like me learn the basics. [caption id="attachment_16882" align="alignleft" width="1000"] Local school children look especially cute in their uniforms[/caption] Treat yourself to luxury Four words...Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski. Yes it’s a mouthful, yes it’s expensive and yes the elevator is slightly frightening, but save this for your last day in the country as you unwind and relax. Disclaimer: we did not stay here – it’s around $400 USD per night.   We did however pay $60 USD to use its facilities, which include a panoramic pool terrace, where the city views and the infinity pool become one, a gym and state-of-the-art day spa that includes daybeds, an ice bath, a steam room, a sauna, a massage spa, relaxation areas and free fruit and water. I left feeling a million bucks and about five years younger. Trinidad If you’re an Instagram advocate, Trinidad will get your wall buzzing faster than a bee hive. This picturesque preserved colonial town is absolutely gorgeous, with brightly coloured buildings and cobblestone streets. Not to mention being located on the foothills of the Topes de Collantes national park and just 15 minutes from beautiful Playa Ancón. Where to stay in Trinidad Getting to Trinidad involved a six-hour bus ride from Havana and was actually pretty easy. We once again stayed at a local casa particular but this time opted to stay with a Cuban family, which gave us an interesting insight into everyday life. The host also did our washing, which was super handy. The best things to do in Trinidad While this this town offers a variety of activities for both the evening and during the day, it relies heavily on tourism, so you find yourself being almost overwhelmed by local touts. I would recommend spending three to four days here. A day for the beach, a day for the national park and waterfalls and day to explore the town (where you’ll most likely end up back at the beach). Hire bikes and ride down to Playa Ancón The gorgeous sands of Playa Ancón are about a 15-kilometre bike ride (mostly downhill) from the centre of town. The ride takes you through some truly beautiful countryside and small towns, giving you the option to stop and swim along the way.   You’ll be dodging small crabs that scurry across the road as you embark on the journey to the main beach. Once you’ve arrived, you can park your bike and (just like the beaches in Havana) hire a chair and umbrella for the rest of the day. Hike to a waterfall and swim under it Within an hour’s drive of Trinidad, there are hundreds of waterfalls and hikes ready to be explored. Vegas Grande is about a six-kilometre hike and a little hard to get to, but leads to one of the most picturesque waterfalls I have ever seen.   We got a local taxi driver from town to run us up the mountain and wait for us as we embarked on the journey. If you’ve seen The Beach, it’s pretty close to the scene when the three explorers struggle through the bushland to finally emerge into paradise. We were lucky enough to have it all to ourselves– besides the Cuban lifeguard who was napping anyway. Experience Disco Ayala What would you get if Calvin Harris went hiking and stumbled upon a huge cave? A nightclub of the most unique persuasion. Disco Ayala is a five-minute walk from the centre of town and kicks off at about 11pm.   This giant cave has been transformed into what is probably one of the coolest nightclubs in the world. Descending down the winding staircase, you’ll find yourself suddenly on a dancefloor surrounded by dripping walls, disco balls and great music. Explore and have a drink on the staircase next to Casa de la Música Like Havana, Trinidad has winding streets and alleys that could be explored for hours. Wandering around the cobblestone streets, it won’t be long before you’ll find yourself rather thirsty. The staircase next to the Casa de la Música offers fresh mojitos and live music and also acts as a gathering place for many tourists as it’s a wi-fi hotspot. Don’t forget to wear flats. The cobblestones are hard enough to negotiate even before adding alcohol.
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