by Mari Pintkowski
While lazily swinging in my hammock under a palapa roof on the 3rd floor 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 their last few 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 Coba 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 new spa beside a softly flowing waterfall with the healing hands of one of our professional masseuses performing their magic.
In the past, it seemed like a natural flow for a vacation in paradise to progress this way. Last year, 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 Tulúm'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 Tulúm and approaching the intersection on the beach road where a large, nameless concrete 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 are shaded under new umbrellas and a few sheltering palms. The atmosphere is lively with the activities of an assortment of tent campers interspersed among the cabañas and tall palm trees. $2 beers and cokes are plentiful and cold, but no food is available. Aquatic Dive Center is located on the premises and the guides take tours out to the reef several times a day. 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 Tulúm 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 Mariachi Bar and al fresco Restaurant that is operated by the local fisherman co-op and order the freshest seafood around, accompanied by a cold Mexican beer.
A bit farther 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 fishermen'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 the Playa Maya public beach, I saw a large sign that said Paraiso Beach Club. There is a well-marked parking area and many taxis are congregated just outside the entrance. Unlike the last two beach clubs, I noticed a sign that said you could not bring in your own food or drinks. 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 $5, and the beds with a table, chairs and umbrella rent for about $12–$17. There are showers near the brand-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. Music with a festive beat is 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. 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. The children love the trampoline hidden among the palms.
I jotted down a note to let my guests know that if they are interested in taking a lesson in kiteboarding, Extreme Control Kiteboarding 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 é 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, lounges 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 asked for 75 pesos.
On the road again, I passed 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 Papaya Playa Cabañas and beach club. After parking in a space between palm trees, I walked toward the sea and noticed a dozen or so swinging mattresses under a shaded pergola and an assortment of lounges on the beach in front of the bar and three-story rustic restaurant. There were kayaks and bicycles for rent, and a bar that features a happy hour with 2x1 drinks and sushi. 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 Tulúm 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 its 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 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 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. I like this "club" best because it is quiet, has a very welcoming staff, decent food, and they have nice lounges under palapas, but no cushions, so bring one a rolled-up mats or extra towels. 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 recently reopened restaurant, L'ola (by owners and staff from the popular El Tabano, a bit farther north on the beach road), offers an interesting menu. I ate the salmon and chaya sandwich with an interesting pesto topping. The beach sports a dozen or so lounges and hammocks, some under palapas, and others waiting for the serious sun worshipers to plop down and bake in the glorious sun. Skip this one during busy holiday times, as the lounges with shade are reserved for hotel guests. This is another fun spot to watch the kiteboarders 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 $12, or just order from the menu and use the beach and chairs without charge.
A new, rather hip-looking beach club and restaurant just opened last year on a large stretch of beach that is called Ziggy Beach. They have lots of lounges, some under palapas and others under one of the swaying palms growing on this amazing beach. 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, El Bistro, and were very impressed with the food and presentation, and the prices were typical for the beach.
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. At km 5.5, I saw signs for La Zebra cabañas, salsa bar and cantina. I parked on the right side of the road in their parking lot and sank my toes into the soft, white sand that leads to the palapa-topped building with colorful lounges and hammocks scattered in front facing the shore. There are signs by the lounges that say Hotel Guests Only, but the hammocks are often available, and you will delight in the beachside service provided by the waiters from the bar. They specialize in mojitos made with fresh sugar cane.
Om is also a beach club/hotel/restaurant along this stretch of road, as I traveled a little farther south (km 5.8). 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.
Last, but not least, before you enter the Sian Ka'an Biosphere, lies an older hotel with a new facelift, Las Ranitas. 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.
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 Tulúm off the Cobá Road. Read more of Mari's stories about Mexico on www.sac-be.com or in her book, Embarking on the Mariposa Trail, www.amazon.com.