As I wake each morning in Tulum to the soft sounds of lapping waves and the eerie warbling of those black birds, I watch the sun slowly rise from my bed. The early morning light filters softly through the fine gauze of mosquito netting, the palm trees beginning as mere shadows, the sea just beyond still inky black. As the first rays gently spread, I am eventually able to make out the pale green of the wide palm fronds as they rustle in the sea breeze and the brilliant white of gulls against the now terra cotta-colored sky.
I lay there waiting for the colors of the sea to emerge. It is first a deep, dark jade, the last of the night’s stars shimmering on its surface. Gradually, the sun is there, turning the sea vivid hues of turquoise and emerald, and finally the palest teal and sapphire. I lay there dreamily gazing at the beauty of each Tulum morning, but what I am truly and very patiently waiting there for, of course, is breakfast.
I am beyond excited as the clock finally strikes eight. Leaping from bed, I slip on my bikini and quickly button up whatever shirt happens to be lying around. Padding downstairs, I’m barefoot, my favorite baseball cap shielding groggy eyes from the brilliant morning sunshine. Not typically a breakfast person, it is easily my most loved meal here. Coffee simply tastes divine while sipped from a chunky mug, feet dusted in that powdery white sand. Fruit seems sweeter. Each morning it’s a platter more breathtaking than the previous days’.
Papaya and mango are my favorite, teeth-achingly sweet, but brightened with a squeeze of lime. Just-pressed juices are so pretty. Jugo de naranja is the biggest treat, but a particularly healthy looking spinach-pineapple-kiwi concoction is the craziest green and utterly impossible to resist. Tangy, European-style yogurt is served alongside in dainty bowls, addictive, even without a luxurious drizzle of the intense, amber-hued Mayan honey that I am determined to smuggle home. Buttery croissants, baked on a questionable looking side street in Tulum town, are amazingly authentically Parisian, delivered each morning in true Mexican style on the back of a sputtering scooter. Debate soon ensues as to the pastry’s finest accompaniment.: a tasty tropical jam of unknown variety, or the gooey cajeta, an over-the-top sugary-salty, goat’s milk caramel?
Most days I don’t wander much further than the wooden beach chaise just steps from the hotel, miniature folding table pulled up alongside so my Cornonita is never perched too far away. But what of hushed conversations about a mostly undiscovered, thatched roof seafood spot on a hidden bay about ten miles nort? Even the slightest mention of whole fried fish will immediately motivate me, particularly if the spot is ‘secreted’ away on an enchanting stretch of wide, white beach. Once we’ve found it, Chamica is truly a tiny hut, roofing of palm fronds, nothing more than an oversized cast iron pan perched a top a driftwood fire where young local gals fry up gargantuan whole fish pulled minutes before from that very same, crystal-clear, reef-ringed bay.
We sat ourselves at one of a few beat-up plastic tables scattered randomly under the shade of a couple sea grape trees. Toes happily in the sand, a massive whole hog snapper was set before us, menacing teeth barred, skin golden and impeccably crisp. I flaked a small hunk and tentatively popped it in my mouth. Oh sweet-salty, greasy, fishy, goodness! My hands clasped together involuntarily, eyes widening, huge silly smile spreading across my face. I bounced a little bounce in that plastic chair, toppling a bit dramatically. This fish!
A gasp of pleasure escaped my lips, ending just soon enough to allow a freezing cold sip of Sol to pass between them. With physician-like precision, I separated the gorgeous white chunks of fish from his bones, devouring them with nothing more than the juice of a lime or blanketed in a soft tortilla and doused with hot sauce from a somewhat sketchy looking label-less bottle. If ever I thought heaven existed, it was there on that beach, digging into that whole fish, that warm winter day.
Four lanes of highway run right through the middle of Tulum’s downtown. This dusty stretch of road is lined interminably with ferocious speed bumps, incredibly jarring, particularly if you’re not paying attention. It is well worth braving those topes, the machine gun toting policia, and the town’s kamikaze taxi drivers, to discover what could possibly be the world’s best ceviche.
El Carmello is an unremarkable cement block restaurant with doors thrown wide open, plastic tables spilling out practically onto the highway. At first glance, your typical American sensibilities might caution you from ordering ceviche in a scruffy looking sort of spot like this. I’ve been known to risk life and limb (and Montezuma himself) for good food, but always trust a joint that’s this busy no matter how divey it may appear. El Carmello’s frenzied atmosphere, oompah music blasting, with bustling waiters jostling for space between cramped tables of adventurous tourists, Mexican families, and lunch hour workers all feasting mightily. Portions of seafood here are monstrous; whole fish glisten from the fryer, cauldrons of rust-colored fish stew smell insanely spicy, and tacos stuffed with crispy snapper grace almost every table in the place.
Each dish we order — and oh boy, did we order a lot! — feature pristine ingredients from the sea, in the most generous of portions, all at prices more reasonable than anywhere around. Hunks of tender octopus, meaty white fish, and nicely sized shrimp are cured in fresh lime, specks of fresh cilantro, and diced jalapeño are piled extravagantly… ceviche, a dish so remarkably simple, but easily one of the tastiest things I’d ever eaten. So worth braving those dreadful topes for!
You’ll find it nearly impossible to tear yourself from Tulum. With each romantic, rose-colored sunset, every time I sank my toes in that fine white sand or that blissful blue sea, with sip after sip of each crispy Mexican white wine and exotic tropical cocktail, and every single spectacular dish we ate… Tulum took hold in my heart. The mesmerizing sounds of those crashing waves and the rustle of the palms out my window, the beachy scents of orange blossom, the sea, and coconut all still linger in my mind, I can almost hear them and smell them now, days back.
We were scheduled to stay in Tulum six days, we stayed eleven. Next time, I might never leave.
Little black book: Tulum, Mexico
Hotel Jashita. Probably the most lovely hotel in the Tulum area, although approximately 15 minutes from Tulum beach and town. Jashitahotel.com
Hotel Coqui Coqui. A small, artfully designed yet somewhat rustic hotel directly on Tulum beach filled with fashionista and artsy types.Coquicoquispa.com
Hartwood Restaurant. Easily one of the world’s most atmospheric restaurants with gorgeous, simple fare utilizing local, seasonal Mexican ingredients prepared in true American fashion. Hartwoodtulum.com
Chamica. Thatch roofed shack serving only perfect, whole fried fish and outstanding ceviche located on Soliman Bay, about 15 minutes north of Tulum. No website, no phone.
El Carmello. Locals seafood spot located in the town of Tulum. No website
Kristin Jorgensen is one of Sonoma’s most passionate, food obsessed residents. In this weekly column, she covers all the delicious happenings, foodie events and restaurants in Sonoma, the rest of Wine Country and beyond. Email her with comments, questions, or your food related events at [email protected]