Tulum-azure-sunsets

Tulum, set at the tip of Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula overlooking Cuba and the Cayman Islands, was one of the final Mayan strongholds before the fall of their civilization; wandering down its long stretches of dazzling white beaches, it’s easy to see why. Tulum’s unspoiled wilderness took me by surprise – it’s a stretch of protected coastline just an hour’s drive south from the port of busy Cancun, where high rises and hoards of spring-breakers dominate the shore.

If you want to get the best out of the town, pull off the main highway and head towards the “Hotel Zone”, a main street around ten kilometers long where the real charm of Tulum emerges. There you’ll find a series of tiny boutique and eco-hotels, organic restaurants, yoga retreats, fresh coffee and ice-cream shops as well as a breathtaking UNESCO nature reserve. Here, the beaches are covered in a glowing mist of pinks and purples when the sun rises and falls. I embraced Tulum’s relaxed, bohemian vibe, and moved out of my upscale hotel and into a wooden eco-cabana with a hammock on the beach – in this setting, nothing else would have felt right. Needless to stay, I never made on the first plane ride home.

THE RUINS You’ve probably already seen them on postcards, but a visit to Tulum (which means “wall”, although locals name it Zama for “dawn”) would be incomplete without paying a visit to the ancient Mayan fortress city. You have to hand it to the Mayans – they knew how to pick their haunts. Nestled above the white sands and turquoise waves, the ruins are scattered throughout the hilltop, and patrolling the grounds is an army of oversized iguanas who will stare at you with defiant ancient eyes, challenging your presence in their territory.

CENOTES SAC ACTUN The whole of the Yucatan peninsula is pierced with cenotes, natural sinkholes in the porous limestone that lead to the world’s largest underground river and cave systems. There are many to choose from near Tulum, but Sac Actun has just been opened to the public and remains off the beaten track. Be prepared to swim through chilly water where calcified tree roots descend from above and skeletons of centuries-old mammals still lie dormant on the riverbed. The ashy grey passages are perfectly silent save for the sound of dripping stalactites that morph into strange shapes in the dim blue light. Mammoth bones have been found here, as well as the skulls of sabre-toothed cats. Call David Peraza Novelo (+5219841385193), the manager of the cenote for an inside tour.

HARTWOOD RESTAURANT A culinary treat befitting Tulum’s outdoor living philosophy, this open-air restaurant relies only on solar power to run its bustling kitchen with all food prepared by hand over blazing fires and grills (electrical appliances are forbidden). Its menu changes daily depending on which local ingredients are available, but owner and chef Eric Werner (who packed up from Williamsburg, New York to make Tulum his home) makes sure that the menu’s limited ingredients don’t compromise the inventiveness of the dishes. We went for a jicama salad bathed in a sweet pale green mint sauce, delicate slow-braised short-ribs and a tender salt-crusted river fish with seared vegetables.

SIAN KA’AN NATURE RESERVE The vast underground lagoon of the Yucatan Peninsula empties out into the Sian Ka’an nature reserve, creating a biosphere of both land and water, where tropical lowland forests, wetlands and coral reefs teem with mammal and bird species. It’s the largest protected area in the Mexican Caribbean (approximately 1.3 million acres), so there is plenty to see, including all five of the wildcats typically found on the peninsula: margays, ocelots, jaguarundis, jaguars, and pumas. Watch out for your fingers.

Words and images by Alexa Firmenich, who is currently living in Mexico City.

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Words and images by Alexa Firmenich, who is currently living in Mexico City.

SAN MIGUEL DE ALLENDE

As the arid Mexican sun began to sink below the valley’s edge, pinpricks of light illuminated the town from below and I took another satisfied sip from my tamarind margarita. After a three-hour drive from Mexico City and a stumbling walk up uneven cobblestones, I had made it to the Rosewood Hotel in San Miguel de Allende just in time for sunset.

San Miguel de Allende is one of those towns which you struggle to prefer by night or by day; by night, an evening stroll leads you past its numerous boutique hotels, sumptuous restaurants and host of chic stores along brightly lit streets. By day, sunlight illuminates the vermillion reds, ochres and cobalts of colonial homes, and the tranquility of leafy courtyards can be felt by peeking through cracks in old wooden gates. The architecture is an intricate blend of Spanish tradition, Neo-Gothic pink limestone, and ornate baroque.

A city like this invites you walk a pace slower. Its sleepy backstreets don’t do much to betray the fact that San Miguel de Allende was once a hotbed of dissent for Mexican revolutionaries. It was here that crouched over splintery tables covered in glasses of pulque liquor, General Ignacio Allende began conspiring against Spanish rule. Founded in 1542, the village originally sprung up as a commerce and trade route during Mexico’s silver boom. Today the city has been carefully manicured (some may say perhaps a little too carefully) into a cosmopolitan and charming UNESCO world heritage site.

San Miguel has a strong art scene (the first art school in Latin America was founded here): take Fabrica la Aurora, an art and design centre set inside a converted textile factory a 10 minute walk south of the city. Here, many high-end galleries fill spaces with Mexican and international talent alongside stores selling artesanías, antiques, artwork, furniture and clothing. I found myself promising that once I had settled into a home in Mexico City I would be back, manning the wheel of a pickup truck and filling my small apartment downtown with Mexican textiles and furniture. For now though, I am content with my margarita and the setting sun.

Words and images by Alexa Firmenich, who is currently living in Mexico City.

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