A Different Vibe

Casual chic prevails in laid-back Tulum

By: Maribeth Mellin

A drumming techno beat pulsed in the background as we devoured spicy beef salad with mint, shrimp pad thai and green curry under kite-shaped white awnings. Slim girls in skimpy thongs sunned on white sand beneath the restaurant’s deck. Puffy white clouds sailed above a milky green sea.

When I commented on the vibe at chic Mezzanine, the manager said, “We’re thinking Ibiza here. It’s definitely about the music and great food.”

Ibiza? In Tulum? The same place where a friend and I lingered under a fisherman’s palapa on a deserted beach for a week, joking that we were trapped in an enchanted jungle? Just shows what a decade or two can do. My remote beach hideout, with sandy streets and a few simple campgrounds, had morphed into a hip hangout for international trendsetters.

Everyone under the sun was in a lackadaisical mood, it seemed. At least Tulum hadn’t lost its laid-back vibe. My companion happily sipped Indian mango lassi while I looked around. Mezzanine isn’t just the coolest cafe on Mexico’s Caribbean coast. The cliff-top complex includes a hotel with four chi-chi poolside suites. I peered into the suites (which were all occupied) and imagined indulging in a rain shower followed by a Kama Sutra oil massage on the white-on-white platform bed facing the sea. Problem is, there’s so little privacy from anyone wandering over from the restaurant. Solution each suite has a loft with futon couch and jungle views away from prodding eyes.

One would think guests paying nearly $200 per night would want to nap to the sound of crashing waves whenever they wished without the background chatter and music from the restaurant and bar. But what a place to crash after an all-night bash with a DJ straight from Spain.

Mezzanine has become the hot nightspot for world beat fans staying at yoga retreats and hideaway hotels along the coast. As I toured new-age Tulum after dragging my friends out of their lassitude, I realized the Europeans and North Americans drawn to this legendary outpost have morphed from budget backpackers into stylish world travelers seeking massages for their chakras and lessons in lucid dreaming.

Such esoteric treatments are available near Mezzanine in the Maya Spa at EcoTulum Resorts, three cabana-style inns with varying rates and amenities. My friend Heidi, who lives in crowded Playa del Carmen, cheerfully led the way along a maze of pathways linking the properties. We passed a couple lounging in a hot tub overlooking a startling white beach before reaching the spa tucked amid palm trees. The crystals and fluttering curtains looked like something straight out of Big Sur; the therapists radiated tranquility. Heidi and I agreed we could happily hang out here for a few days.

We moved on to Ana y Jose, a Tulum treasure for the past 25 years. The $20 per night basic cabanas are long gone, replaced by cottages with stylish rooms and suites. There’s a temazcal on the beach and an Om Spa, where therapists soothe sunburned bodies with cool aloe vera and papaya wraps. The beach is a gem, with freshly raked white sand washed by shallow, translucent water, and the hotel still has a family-owned vibe that encourages loyalty.

Moving on, Heidi was eager to show me her favorite hideaway. Civilization slipped away as we drove south on the rutted road past Tulum’s cluster of rustic hotels and Euro-chic inns. We traveled down the Boca Paila Peninsula into Sian Kaan, a 1.3-acre biosphere reserve and UNESCO World Heritage Site protecting coral reefs, white-sand beaches and lagoons. Scarlet macaws squawked overhead as we parked at Boca Paila Camp, run by the Centro Ecologico Sian Kaan. Like the nearby Sian Kaan Visitor Center Eco Lodge, the camp emphasizes sustainability and offers kayaking along canals built by the early Maya, birdwatching and night hikes on the beach. From the rooftop of the camp’s main building I could see tents poking up through palm groves and no other signs of humanity. Just the macaws and an endless panorama of dense, low jungle and brilliant blue sky and sea.

Now that’s the Tulum of my memories.


Tulum is immensely popular and advance reservations are advised everywhere. Most hotels do not have air-conditioning and use solar power or generators for energy. Sea breezes and fans keep things fairly cool except during the sultry summer days and nights. Tell clients to bring bug spray and plenty of sunscreen. Commissions vary.

Ana y Jose

Boca Paila Camps

EcoTulum Resorts


Riviera Maya Information

Sian Kaan Visitor Center