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Unspoiled and unhurried, Tulum, Mexico rewards the laid-back traveler

A family takes its first warm-weather vacation and discovers the singular pleasure of doing a whole lot of nothing

Mayan ruin El Castillo is that rare archeological site with a great beach  for swimming.
Mayan ruin El Castillo is that rare archeological site with a great beach for swimming.(Shutterstock)

I WAS ASLEEP. As sometimes happens when I lie down with a book — OK, as usually happens — I'd dozed off. But this time instead of opening my eyes to find a nearly empty wineglass at my bedside, I was in paradise.

Outstretched on a chaise lounge beneath a rugged umbrella of dried palm leaves, I was gazing upon an emerald ocean and sand so fine and white it could have been cake flour. As my two children tumbled gleefully in the crashing surf, a tawny young woman who'd misplaced the top of her tiny bikini strolled past.

I turned to my wife, who was grinning as she stirred a green agua fresca.

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"We did it," I said.

After years of talking about going someplace warm to escape the tundra that is New England in winter, we had indeed done it, packing a few T-shirts, a pad of paper and pastels, and the Kindle, and decamping to Tulum, a beach-town-turned-resort on the east coast of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. It was like heaven on earth, with ceviche. But for the same reason we hadn't pulled the trigger on a tropical vacation before, we almost didn't this time.

A roadside stand selling agua fresca.
A roadside stand selling agua fresca.(Douglas Young)

The problem was where to go. Paralysis always set in when we started to plan our getaway. Were these utopias really like the pictures on the postcards? We didn't want to choose unwisely and end up in a charmless seaside stockade sharing an ice machine with suburbanites whose idea of fun is an all-you-can-eat buffet and unlimited Wi-Fi. I'm not opposed to creature comforts, believe me, but Michelle and I were looking for something else.

Friends had suggestions that were all over the map: the barrier reefs of Belize; a jungle lodge in Costa Rica; one of Chris Blackwell's chic Jamaican hideaways; the serene archipelago in the Bahamas known as Turks and Caicos; and Tulum, a trendy outpost whose eco-friendly vibe and pristine beaches sounded too groovy to be true.

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The beach is what this was all about. We weren't interested in adventure or even sitting upright. The plan, enthusiastically endorsed by our children, who are part seal pup, was to find a beachside bungalow and kick back. Our eight-day trip would be the opposite of demanding. We resolved to occasionally put on sandals and explore — visit the Mayan ruins, wander Tulum's honky-tonk downtown, and maybe take a dip in one of the freshwater sinkholes that are ubiquitous in the Yucatan — but otherwise we were intent on lounging by the turquoise water and lowering our heart rate.

FROM BOSTON, you can fly to Cancun, the tourist hub of the Yucatan, in just four and a half hours on JetBlue, but we didn't do that. Not because we enjoy schlepping through the Atlanta airport, but because by the time we settled on our destination, direct flights that worked with our dates were either booked or too expensive. Still, it's not a long haul. We left Logan Airport in the morning and by midafternoon were looking up at palm trees heavy with coconuts.

The 90-minute drive from Cancun to Tulum is unremarkable, a long highway lined with toucan-colored billboards mostly advertising mega-resorts and water parks. (One of them, a "natural aquarium" called Xel-Ha, caught our eye, and we put it on the to-do list.) There are a few ways to make the trip: Rent a car, take a bus, or, if your hotel offers such service, arrange a private shuttle. Ours did, and it seemed like a good deal: $180 for the four of us, and that included taking us back to the airport at the end of our stay.

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The Tulum of 20 years ago was what Fodor's might refer to as a hidden gem, a refuge for backpackers and bohemians not bothered by a lack of indoor plumbing. That was before celebrities like Reese Witherspoon and Cameron Diaz showed up with their yoga mats. Now there are accommodations for every income bracket, from luxury resorts with infinity pools, air conditioning, and flat-screen TVs — these places, like Ana y Jose Charming Hotel & Spa, will set you back several hundred dollars a night — to lower-fi hideouts that emphasize "ecological sustainability," which is another way of saying shared bathroom and ceiling fan.

We opted for something in between. We stayed at Hip Hotel Tulum, a collection of rustic bungalows on the beach side of the Zona Hotelera, a bustling lane of hotels, spas, and restaurants that's kind of like Route 1 in Ogunquit, Maine — if Ogunquit, Maine, were in the jungle and everyone spoke Spanish. We chose the place not for the name or the amenities — there's no pool, AC, or TV, and only limited Wi-Fi — but for the intimate wood-frame bungalows, which are a Frisbee toss from the water and have four-poster king-size beds, small bathrooms with two shower heads, big windows, and porches with chairs and hammocks. (At a cost of $240 per bungalow per night, we splurged and got one for us and one for Julia and Beckett, then 14 and 10.) If you don't want to listen to the relentless whoosh of a rowdy ocean all night, stay closer to the road. But if you're a fitful sleeper like me, you'll appreciate Mother Nature's white-noise machine.

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Breakfast was included and, happily, the solicitous staff fixed delicious chilaquiles, a Mexican morning repast of tortillas with green salsa, cheese, and refried beans, served with fresh-squeezed orange juice and cafe con leche. Our kids aren't terribly adventurous eaters, and they were even more cautious after a friend of ours shared a grim story about the epic dysentery she endured after eating street food in Mexico. (On the advice of just about everyone, we avoided uncooked vegetables and water that wasn't from a bottle.)

Eric Werner’s acclaimed farm-to-table restaurant, Hartwood.
Eric Werner’s acclaimed farm-to-table restaurant, Hartwood.(Douglas Young)

Beach bumming began early each day, at least for me and the kids. When Michelle moseyed off to yoga — it's as close to an industry as there is in Tulum — we organized ourselves under one of the palm-roofed palapas and gawked at the crystal blue Caribbean. Because immaculate beaches — at least 7 miles of them in all — are the bulwark of Tulum's robust tourist economy, many hotels, including ours, dispatch squads every day to rake seaweed into piles and bury it.

The water was glorious — it's between 75 and 80 degrees year-round — and the waves were impressive. Beckett could ride the swells all afternoon, but boogie boards don't fit in the overhead bin of an airplane, so on the second day he and I hopped in a cab — they sputter up and down the Zona Hotelera all day — and headed to Chedraui, an enormous warehouse-style supermarket 10 minutes away. It's like Target but with more tomatillos and, thankfully, lots of beach accessories.

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Most days, while the children swam or read, Michelle and I swam and snacked, and here's a secret: I can work up a mean thirst doing nothing much at all. It didn't take long for Carlos, one of the attentive servers at the hotel restaurant, to discern that "Mr. Mark" had a taste for cold cerveza and ceviche, a medley of raw fish cured in citrus, chili peppers, onion, and ample cilantro that is my desert-island dish. I can eat it always, and did in Tulum.

Fresh fish is a staple of the local cuisine.
Fresh fish is a staple of the local cuisine.(Douglas Young)

AT SOME POINT, needing a respite from the sun, we rented a car. Our first foray was to a walled fortress — or what's left of it — built 800 years ago by the Mayans. The ruins, a 15-minute drive from our hotel, occupy a dramatic promontory overlooking the ocean, and even on a broiling hot day, it's fascinating to walk around and contemplate what happened there all those centuries ago. (The short answer is that the Spanish arrived.) But a bit of advice: Be there when it opens at 8 a.m. to avoid the inevitable crowds; don't worry about the unblinking, spiny-tailed iguanas that are everywhere; and bring your bathing suit, because this is the rare archeological site that has a beach, and it makes for a memorable — and super-refreshing — swim as you bob up and down in the shadow of the iconic El Castillo.

We were in the car again the next day, bound for Xel-Ha, the water park we'd seen advertised on Highway 307. It's not cheap — $89 for adults and half that for kids 5 to 11 — but snorkeling with your children in a natural inlet of small caves and grottoes inhabited by rainbow-colored fish is priceless. (The look on Julia's face when a stingray suddenly emerged from the limestone silt was worth every penny.) There's also cliff-diving, zip-lining, and swimming with dolphins, which we skipped because it bummed us out to see Flipper and his buddies performing tricks for tourists.

On our way back to the hotel, we stopped briefly in downtown Tulum, where busted sidewalks and cinderblock buildings with peeling plaster are a reminder that Mexico is more than candlelit cabanas and kite-boarding. We checked out the folk art at Mixik Artesania, a cool shop on the main drag, and the collection of pottery and ceramics at Casa Hernandez Gallery. By then the kids were famished, so we stopped at La Nave, an open-air Italian place with perfect thin-crust pizza. Michelle and I slaked our thirst with cold sangria and took advantage of the Wi-Fi to send the grandparents a picture.

There are plenty of fine-food options in Tulum, and we tried as many as our wallet would allow. Travel writers always hype chef Eric Werner's farm-to-table menu at Hartwood, but the result for the rest of us is a long wait. No doubt it's worth it, but I didn't come this far to stand in line. We had an excellent meal at Posada Margherita, with its concise menu of fish wrestled from the ocean that afternoon and handmade pastas, preceded by a platter of bruschetta, focaccia, and cauliflower. Also worth the visit was Simple, chef Ricardo Zapata's open-air restaurant with a canopy of palm trees and candlelight so dim I'm still not sure if I ordered the red snapper or the mahi-mahi. And there was a relaxing dinner (with superb cocktails) at Casa Banana, where a foosball table on the sidewalk outside was perfect for two children impatient with parents who like to linger with a whiskey after their meal.

The author and his wife, Michelle, post-massage at the Mayan Clay Spa.
The author and his wife, Michelle, post-massage at the Mayan Clay Spa.(Mark Shanahan)

IT WAS HAPPENING. The fiesta we had imagined for so long was in full swing. I tend to be a bit frugal and sometimes get uptight about money, but I wasn't doing any math in my head. We were just having fun.

In our final days, we planned to visit the nearby Sian Ka'an Biosphere, a 1.3 million-acre reserve of tropical forests, mangroves, marshes, coral reefs, and a collection of Mayan ruins. A boat tour costs about $80 per person, and for that you might catch a glimpse of one of the exotic critters — crocodiles, black howler monkeys, spotted paca — that make this untamed place their home. But we didn't go. Nor did we suit up for a swim in one of Tulum's many cenotes, the clear turquoise pools of mineral-rich water that, according to the Mayans at least, possess healing properties.

We weren't being lazy or cheap. We just knew it would be awhile before we could roll out of bed and onto a beach as spectacular as the one right outside our screen door again. On the last day, Michelle and I shuffled to the Mayan Clay Spa for an hourlong his-and-her treatment administered by a couple of well-groomed guys who looked like they'd aged out of Menudo. Naked on cots in an oil-scented lean-to in the jungle, we were smeared head to toe in yellow clay and then pressed and pulled and pummeled.

Whether toxins were extracted and replaced with vital minerals, I'll never know, but the massage more than delivered on its promise of an intense state of relaxation. Michelle and I were useless for hours afterward, and that was OK, because we were on vacation.

WHERE TO STAY

A view of the author’s oceanfront accommodations at the Hip Hotel Tulum.
A view of the author’s oceanfront accommodations at the Hip Hotel Tulum.(Mark Shanahan)

You can spend a lot of money on a place in Tulum, but it's not necessary. Some hotels cater to travelers who want all the comforts of home, while other places are more straightforward.

> Ana y Jose Charming Hotel & Spa

This upscale hotel on the beach was among the first in Tulum to offer air conditioning. The muy romantic ocean-view suites have marble floors and TVs. What more could you want? A room with a king-size bed and whirlpool, starting at $335 night. 998-889-6022; anayjose.com

> Hip Hotel Tulum

Spacious rooms with a king-size bed, private bathroom, and balcony overlooking the garden start at $220 per night. Bungalows on the beach are pricier. The hotel has a decent restaurant, and a tasty, filling breakfast is included. 998-880-6022; hiphoteltulum.com

> Coco Tulum

Next time, we might try this eco-friendly hotel, which is less expensive but still interesting, with palapa-style bungalows on the beach. The shared bathrooms are clean, with modern basins and rain-shower heads. Recent additions to the hotel include a suite and 12 rooms with private bathrooms. Rooms start at $165 per night. 984-157-4830; cocotulum.com

WHAT TO DO

> Xel-Ha

Located about 6 miles north of Tulum, this water park built around a natural inlet offers snorkeling, tubing, and swimming with dolphins and manatees. The all-day pass isn't cheap, but it includes unlimited food and drink. Check the website for online deals. 984-875-6000; xelha.com

> Mayan Ruins

An unusually scenic archeological site, the ruins are a nice walk that culminates at El Castillo, a pyramid-like structure atop a 40-foot cliff overlooking the Caribbean. The place is open all day and has a modest entrance fee.

> Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve

A sprawling reserve of tropical forest, lagoons, and marshes that's great for snorkeling, bird-watching — there are more than 250 resident species — or just exploring. 984-141-4245; visitsiankaan.com

More from the Globe Magazine:

How to fall in love with Los Angeles

This winter, consider a culinary and cosmopolitan weekend in chilly Montreal

A family adventure in the jungles of Puerto Rico

Unspoiled and unhurried, Tulum, Mexico rewards the laid-back traveler


Mark Shanahan is a member of the Boston Globe staff. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.