Black American Artists Find Solace in Tulum
By Alyssa Pinsker
Once a rustic jungle town only known for its Mayan ruins, Tulum is located on the Caribbean coast of Mexico just an hour and a half south of Cancun. In 2020, it was becoming a refuge for Black American artists during the most recent wave of racial injustice in the United States.
During COVID, it became a hot destination for hip, young creative ex-pats from all around the globe. This international influx of artists certainly upscaled Tulum even more like an International Haute bohemian spot and brought with it
Burning Man-style festivals coupled with Mayan psychedelics to acknowledge the indigenous roots of the area.
Thus came “Tuluminati” parties, featuring ornate festival clothing and rituals set to deep house music with anything from fedoras to gold Mayan headdresses. Tulum is also a hotspot for healing, yoga, and art.
With such welcomed gentrification came many restaurants and clubs from NYC and Miami such as the Manhattan celebrity favorite mezcal bar, Gitanos, which started in the jungles of Tulum, featuring Michelin star trained chefs like Cesar Castaneda’s NU and IZTIK.
Tulum has all that the sun, sea, and sand has to offer: thousands of acres of preserved natural splendor, 6000 majestic cenotes, and the Instagram favorite stunning pink sea nearby.
The Yucatan has made an effort to preserve not just Mayan history and ruins, but many eco-attractions.
There is also a craft coffee and cocktail scene along with the classic staples of Latin dancing, nightlife, karaoke, daytime water sports, and boating amongst the dolphins.
Tulum translates to “wall” in English, and there are still ruins from the 13th century throughout the city. The views from these old fortresses are strewn along sandy beaches, miles into the Caribbean sea, of which they were originally meant to oversee.
The high cliffs that the city was originally built on have provided a safeguard for the limestone temples since its likely (but still disputed) inception around 1200 AD.
Because of this, the ruins of ancient Tulum, while not a UNESCO World Heritage site, are arguably one of the best-preserved examples of Mayan architecture on the planet, and it’s right downtown in the Tulum Archaeological Zone.
The views from El Castillo, the city watchtower that rises over the limestone ruins atop a 39-foot cliff, is a must-see for any visitor.
The Tulum Archaeological Zone is open to the public each day from 8 am to 5 pm and is about 10-15 minutes from the city center. A short pathway leads directly from the ruins to white sandy beaches that stretch on throughout the peninsula.
Clean, Soft Sand
Often the strongest draw to the Mexican coastline is the sunshine, continuous miles of clean, soft sand and the surrounding glimmering turquoise waters, and Tulum features these fully preserved natural attractions on the East Mexican Coastline.
Unlike its busy neighbor to the north, Cancun, despite its growing popularity, Tulum can still provide beachgoers a quiet oceanside jungle respite with a wide variety of offerings.
Sections of the coastline range from large resorts, such as the blissful Bahia Principe Grand Resort where we stayed, equipped with lively restaurants, boutique hotels, and shaded cabanas, to the almost completely reclusive serenity that can be found on numerous more deserted and secluded portions.
For those not staying at hotels with private beaches, Paradise Beach (Playa Paraiso) is a public white sand beach.
This beach has been consistently voted as Mexico’s top beach by various outlets and has beach chairs and loungers for rent from a nearby club-like El Paraiso Hotel Tulum.
El Paraiso Hotel Tulum
Rare in most parts of the world, but always nearby in Tulum are its many cenotes: limestone sinkholes that are formed when bedrock collapses and exposes small amounts of freshwater below. These pools often offer world-class swimming and diving opportunities through crystal clear or deep blue water with dramatic open-air views of the exposed sky high above.
The Yucatan peninsula is home to more than 6,000 of these underground water caverns, with hundreds around Tulum alone.
Although most are very small and inaccessible, the numerous options are open to the public and have become so popular that “cenote-hopping” is a common activity.
We visited nearby Cenote Azul because it was close to our resort and easily accessible by catching a collectivo (shared van) for around $2-3.
The waters were crystal clear, it was completely open-air, and we had to wait to get in due to COVID (February 2021), but once inside, there were palm tree-shaded cenotes and a sense of tranquility and peaceful silence despite the relative crowds.
For my first cenote hop, it was a beautiful introduction.
Las Coloradas, which means “blush-red” are natural pink lakes near Tulum! The pink color is caused by mass amounts of red-colored algae, plankton, and brine shrimp that do particularly well in heavily salt-filled waters.
The sun shines on these organisms, creating the color in the water.
When the blue and white clouds reflect on this pink lake, the images are stunningly unique! Las Coloradas is only a little over 3 hours drive from Tulum, but for photographers, it is totally worth the drive.
The lakes are part of the Río Lagartos Biosphere Reserve, a protected area spanning around 150,000 acres.
Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the largest protected area in the Mexican Caribbean, and is the largest coastal protected area in Mexico.
It’s about an hour and forty-five minutes from Tulum. It means “gates of heaven” in Mayan. The Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, located within the park, is the second-largest barrier reef in the world.
Five species of big cats are found in the park, as are twenty-three Mayan archaeological sites!
Boat tours are available through the wetland sections of the park. You can float on a river of ancient Mayan canals on crystal clear water.
Thousands of sea turtles lay their eggs along the beach after sunset each night between May and October, and these turtle nesting sites along the Tulum coastline can be a fun activity to enjoy during “turtle time.”
I am a foodie, so most of my time was spent soaking up the sun and ocean and checking out the food scene.
My favorite food discovery while in Tulum was cajeta sauce, which is similar to dulce de leche except cajeta uses goat’s milk and not cow’s to make the caramel-like topping.
I ate churros and cajeta once a day at Bahia Grande Principe (and then worked it off with Salsa and yoga of course.)
Tulum has recently become one of Mexico’s gastronomical hubs. Award-winning fine dining is prevalent throughout the city. Arca is a popular upscale dining option.
The restaurant incorporates traditional wood-fire or open-flame cooking methods into their food and offers a pristine jungle setting.
This restaurant serves inventive dishes in a fun atmosphere with lots of small plates and excellent cocktails.
Verdant is another upscale option that offers locally sourced cuisine in a style that mixes both French and Mexican cooking. The restaurant has its own herb and vegetable garden, set in an eco-friendly environment.
Another fusion restaurant is Itzik Tulum, co-owned by chef César Castañeda and a group of seven friends (who incidentally got matching tattoos to seal the venture.) Castañeda is a Michelin star chef and is also one of Mexico’s Best Chefs Under 30, as cited by Gourmet Magazine.
Iztik is a fusion restaurant blending Middle-Eastern and Mediterranean flavors and flair with sustainably sourced local Mexican Caribbean ingredients and a killer mixology menu.
Castañeda is also behind NÜ Tulum which is a blend of modern and traditional Mexican cuisine in a lush, green jungle setting with ambient candlelight.
At the other end of the scale, street food is common and a fun option in Tulum. I can’t guarantee gastronomical safety, but roadside tacos, coffees, fruits, coconut waters and desserts are popular choices for the locals and tourists alike.
Urban and Artsy Downtown
Downtown Tulum is an urban artsy mecca with an eco-vegan focus full of young, health, and earth-conscious upwardly mobile bohemians in dreads, rave gear, and mumus.
It has plenty of options for coffee, cocktails, smoothies, gelatos, tamales, and street artists selling their homemade jewelry and clothes on the main drag, Avenue Tulum.
I stocked up on homemade Milagros, miracles, where each steel miniature represents a dream to come true, and are nailed to a cross or Corazon.
There was also an organic beauty shop called La Madre Tierra with beautiful feng shui full of handmade lotions, potions, soaps, and candles and incense made from “copal” which I am now obsessed with—it smells like a cleaner sage and I want to go back just to stock up on them.
I spent my last pesos on their candles and copal. Tulum’s world-renowned craft coffee and cocktails scene is evident on the drag too, with Botanica Garden café, which is a great place for laptops and daishikis as well as a garden background on the bustling urban street. Get the ferraro rocher gelato at Origami Gelato on Tulum Beach Road.
Gitano is a super trendy gorgeous mezcal bar and restaurant with a flagship in Tulum and is now in New York City and Miami.
It has a speakeasy vibe. They have live music two days a week and a DJ and dancing on the weekends. The décor is my favorite, lush greens with pink neon and soothing deep wood.
Smoky mezcal uses a wood-burning process in underground pits and clay pots for distilling, rather than the industrial ovens and copper pots for tequila. Gitano offers more than 50 mezcal drinks, all using local ingredients.
The restaurant features a lush jungle setting and twinkling lights and is an ideal date night spot. Dishes include a popular avocado appetizer, wood fire ribeye and lobster tostada. My favorite is their simple Gitano margarita.
Papaya Playa Project is a beachside bar that is chic by day for beach rentals and by night they host hip DJs and musicians.
Saturday nights are typically packed regardless of the season, with sometimes thousands of visitors.
Tuluminati parties in the jungle are invite-only, and unfortunately, we didn’t have enough time to experience this festival life, and Burning Man is not my scene.
You have to make friends with young, hip ex-pats for the invite. An exciting, only-in-Mexico experience is lucha libre, Mexican wrestling, but it’s rare to catch one (we weren’t able to) and hard to find a calendar, this is the site for local matches.
Bahia Principe Riviera Maya Resort, where we stayed, is an all-inclusive resort located 20 minutes from the Tulum city center incorporating authentic Mayan architecture. The all-inclusive has 3 pools, 5 restaurants, 7 bars, a full spa, a 36-hole golf course, and private white-sand beaches.
We were happily surprised to see a full daily schedule including yoga, salsa, bicycle tours and more with a charming and enthusiastic staff who become your best friends as they host karaoke, rock show, magic show, dance nights every night, and during COVID.
This was like living in a dream world, to be able to party, sing and dance with our new group of International friends with masks and proper distance! (Oh, quarantine days). Incidentally, this is why Tulum became such a hotspot for influencers, creatives seeking to escape the U.S.’s version of quarantine.
There is unlimited dining at the restaurants which are: Tequilas traditional Mexican buffet where we first experienced the cajeta sauce, enchiladas, and steak tacos. Then there is the formal dress required.
Don Pablo is known for its steak and seafood and elaborate pina flambe, flaming pineapple, dessert fired up on a gas stove at the table.
Wine and cocktails are unlimited. Le Gourmet restaurant is French-themed and upscale with a beautiful presentation.
There is a Japanese restaurant, Mediterranean, and even an Indian thali restaurant, which are all worth partaking in for a fun night out in the resort. Since there are two campuses, you can experience all of them or just the five on your campus (and seven bars.)
Bahia Principe Riviera Maya Resort
The resort also includes two beautiful lounge pools where many of the yoga and dance classes take place (and of course the requisite pool foam party or contest to walk on a slippery pool bridge.)
There are children’s activities, one hour per day of snorkeling, kayaking, catamaran tours, and other water rental activities, sports areas, a fully-stocked gym, unlimited alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages including a pool bar, a sun deck with whirlpool, tennis courts, and theater access.
Rooms range from the Junior Suite, featuring one king bed or two full-size beds, with rates starting at just $83/night, to the Premium Superior Ocean Front, featuring much more space and beautiful ocean views, with rates starting at $115/night.
We felt so comfortable at the Bahia, especially with our new friends Armando and Eder from hospitality and those we met at activities, we honestly didn’t venture out too much past the resort.
I know that is a cliché for travelers, but as someone who has lived from Tokyo to Paris and traveled India backpacking, stayed at a 7 star in Dubai, I believe in slow travel, and the importance of nesting if you only have a few days. You can always go back!
If you are lucky enough to experience a true Temazcal sweat lodge, don’t miss out. We could only find them on Viator to be booked with a Shaman and many hotels can help you procure this treatment or offer as part of their amenities.
This is a traditional Mesoamerican and particularly Mayan, form of healing. Participants enter a low-heat sweat lodge, typically constructed in an igloo shape. It is considered a cleansing ritual and a spiritual experience.
Lastly, the most photographed site in Tulum is likely Ven a La Luz, meaning “come into the light”, is a giant wooden sculpture depicting mother earth whose open torso is filled with lush greenery.
This opening serves as an archway for views to the Ahau Tulum resort hotel and another popular spot, Raw Love smoothie café. was created in 2018 by South African artist Daniel Popper for the first annual Art With Me festival in Tulum, and in 2019 was permanently installed as the entranceway at the Ahau Tulum resort hotel.
There is so much to see and do in Tulum, it is seemingly the most popular destination in the world right now for artists, healers, creatives and other digital nomads even after quarantine.
I hope you enjoy your time in Tulum, I will be back as soon as I can, laptop in hand, and maybe will check out a Tuluminati party.
Alyssa Pinsker is a luxury travel writer, influencer, and media coach. She has written for Fodors, Lonely Planet, BBC Travel, Cosmopolitan, New York Post, and more. She has lived in Japan, France, India, Switzerland, and Ukraine and traveled to just 42 countries so far