How to do Mexico's celebrity beach resort Tulum on a budget

Liz Dodd wanted to avoid the wealthy and waiflike in slebby Tulum... could it be done?

Liz Dodd
Friday 19 October 2018 14:39 BST
Imagine coming here – but on the cheap
Imagine coming here – but on the cheap

“I’m not going to fight you,” the yoga teacher said, rubbing the bruise on his arm that had formed when I aggressively kicked him as he tried to adjust my shoulder stand.

It was the last thing I wanted to hear a yoga teacher say, but I was struggling to unwind after a gruelling 18-month bike ride around the world, from London to China, then onto Canada and south down the USA and across Mexico. Moments after I sighted the Atlantic Ocean for the first time since leaving England in 2017, I tore a muscle in my back – knotted by months spent sleeping in a tent – by over-enthusiastically opening a door.

Tulum beach, loved by New Yorkers and Californians – but not backpackers

So I decided to end my epic trip by recovering at the yoga haven near Tulum, a collection of boutique hotels and quasi-ashrams on the Mexican riviera near Cancun, established as a wellness destination by itinerant hippies in the sixties and seventies. It sounded like a banana pancake paradise of scratchy beachside bungalows and vegan burgers. Except cycling around the world meant I was out of touch: Tulum’s beaches have been overtaken by Brooklynites and Californians, making it the last place in the world to visit on a budget.

The resort was once a hippy paradise on Mexico’s Caribbean coast. No longer

My hotel, Yoga Shala, offered the best budget package on the playa: a private hut on the exclusive beachside road – the “hotel zone” – with pristine shared bathrooms, two daily yoga classes and a continental breakfast for £40 a night (plus taxes of about £7). It wasn’t the free camping I was used to, but given the average boutique resort room in Tulum costs £100 a night, the average yoga class £17, and a modest breakfast £15, I was un-yogically smug about my daily saving of £109. Slightly further up the road, but still in the chic beachside hotel zone, Bambu Gran Palas offered double beds in single-sex dorms for £16 per night.

A vigorous morning vinyasa the following day meant that my breakfast had worn off by noon, so I set off along the jungle road in search of lunch, with some trepidation. Renowned for prestigious restaurants such as New Yorker favourite Hartwood, Tulum doesn’t do easy-to-find budget food. The night before, I’d gone out with friends from my hotel and ended up at Gitano, a prestigious cocktail bar that charged an eye-watering £15 per margarita.

A smoothie bowl from one of Tulum’s cheap and cheerful (yes, really) cafes

The staff at Yoga Shala suggested I try the Ice Cream Bar, a backpacker’s staple and the only place on the playa to charge Mexican prices: tacos, generously stuffed and augmented by a bar of unlimited extras like salsa and salad, cost £1 each. For dinner I headed to its sister restaurant, nearby hamburger joint Clan-Destino. Set in the jungle around a small cenote pool, its wooden platforms lit by fairy lights, Clan-Destino was a surprisingly romantic budget option in the heart of hotel zone, charging around £5 for a homemade burger.

The cheapest food in Tulum is to be found 10km away in the town itself, so the next day I set off by bicycle to explore. Most hotels rent bikes for around £3 a day, or you can take a collectivo minibus for around £2.50. I went immediately to Babel Cafe for a breakfast of chilaquiles – deep-fried tortilla strips in salsa, sour cream and cheese, that cost less than half the £10 it would have on the playa, then, after a morning spent souvenir shopping followed my chakras, to vegetarian and wallet-friendly cafe La Hoja Verde.

A green lizard basks 

“The sea is sick,” a local explained the next day as I looked out at the rusty water. Tulum’s famous beaches have this past year been invaded by Sargassum, a kind of noxious seaweed that washed in from the Caribbean and rendered the beaches unpalatable to all but the most tenacious tourists. Prices are lower and pristine loungers at celebrity resorts are open to casual visitors, but the sea is unpleasant to swim in, so instead locals hit gorgeous cenotes, natural sinkholes that time has turned into cool, still cave pools with crystal clear water.

Swim or snorkel in Cenote Dos Ojos

Gran Cenote is the most famous, but I’d been warned it could get chaotic so headed instead for the tranquil twin pools at Dos Ojos (£15 day pass, swimming only). The following day, a friend with a car ran us into the Sian Ka’an Biosphere, a Jurassic Park-esque ride along a bumpy road parallel to the coast. We left the car at the idyllic beachside restaurant and campground Ka’an Tulum, and crossed the road to swim in the mirror-still lagoon opposite. A boat ride around the lagoon taking in mangroves and manatees would have cost £75, but I was perfectly happy to practise my savasana for free in its cool water.

“This pose is all about surrender,” my long-suffering yoga teacher said on my final morning, as he gently guided me further into a seated pose called pigeon. I’d stuck to my budget and fought “wellness” at every turn, but for all its reputation as a playground for the wealthy and waiflike, Tulum had worked its magic. The last of the tension wound up in my bicycle-knotted spine give out, and I sank gratefully towards the cenotes.

Travel essentials

British Airways flies to Cancun from £362 return. Tulum is two hours’ drive away.

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