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72 Hours in Tulum

Two hours and a world away from the megaresorts in Cancun, Tulum lures a laid-back breed of beach lover, nature fiend and sun seeker to its casita-dotted shores. Writer Ashley Harrell discovers what makes Tulum tick.

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Stepping off the plane in Cancun, take note of the beautiful people and their yoga mats. If you haven’t booked a shuttle or bus, follow them to the taxis and share the 90-minute ride south to Tulum.

Arrive in the downtown area—a grid of shops, parks and restaurants right off the highway—and hop out at El Camello Jr. for some mouthwatering fish tacos, grilled octopus or whole fried fish. Then grab a taxi to your hotel for $7, because every daytime cab ride in Tulum costs $7. With luck, you are staying at one of the hotel zone’s beachfront boutiques with its own stretch of soft sand and shady palapas. Recline, sip a salty michelada and bathe in the turquoise sea as needed. Don’t linger too long as you still need to find a bike before sundown. It’s the perfect way to visit the oceanfront Tulum Ruins, which are best attempted at crowd-repelling hours of 8 a.m. (opening) and 4:30 p.m. (closing).

In the evening, consider entering Maya Tulum’s sweat lodge for a Temescal ceremony. This toasty Mayan tradition will not only steam away your impurities, but it will bond you with fellow travelers. Proceed to Hartwood, where the cocktails are delicious and the farm-to-table menu changes daily. Finish the night with a stiff margarita at Mezzanine’s cocktail lounge or Ahau Tulum, a hip bar owned by a couple of Burning Man founders.

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Rise at dawn, order huevos rancheros on the beach, and head for the cenotes—underground limestone caves filled with water and considered by the Mayans to be sacred entrances to the underworld. Licensed scuba divers can get down with some pretty spectacular stalactites and a bat cave at Dos Ojos, which has its own dive shop at the entrance. Gran Cenote is another diving and snorkeling favorite, as is Cenote Cavalera, otherwise known as the Temple of Doom, where visitors make a blind, 10-foot leap into the azure water.

Opt for a hearty lunch at relative newcomer Simple, where shrimp, beef and chicken are expertly simmered in their own juices by a charismatic Spanish chef. After the feast, retreat to Be Tulum’s stylish beach bar and divine new spa, or head for La Vita e Bella for a Mayan massage, which focuses on the stomach and helps with digestion.

If you didn’t get into Hartwood last night—or even if you did—think about heading back. But if you’re looking for something equally delicious with less hype and more indigenous flair, direct your taxi driver to El Tábano. You’ll have to get up to look at a long and detailed menu scribbled on a giant chalkboard, but just go with it. Every dish at this place, from the Nopal cactus to the fresh catch in a red pumpkin seed sauce is creative and flavorful. Work it all off at Gitano, a mezcal bar with a big dance floor.

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This was not a day or rest for Mayans and it won’t be for you, either. After a Mexican-style hot chocolate and some stuffed French toast at Zamas, hop in a cab and ask for the Sian Ka’an Biosphere. You’ll want the whole day to enjoy this 1.5-million acre UNESCO world heritage site, where tours guided by naturalists include lunch.

The emerald-green wetlands brim with flora and fauna, and there are several ways to take it all in. Birders will enjoy kayaking through the lagoon, where roseate spoonbills, herons and ospreys are sometimes sighted. Bolder guests should swim the fresh water mangrove channels, which feel like a natural lazy river. (Tip: wear your life preserver like a diaper, and you can float even higher in the water.) On the ride home, ask your taxi driver to stop at the Muyil ruins, a relaxing site spread out on a twisting jungle path. A quick siesta before your final meal, and you’re off. If pasta’s your weakness, there’s nowhere better than Posada Margherita. Casa Jaguar offers stylish dining by candlelight, serving up Asian and Mexican fusion. In town, El Pequeño Buenos Aires is renowned for tender and juicy steaks.

Nightlife Sunday is an easier choice – you will go salsa dancing at La Zebra. For those who suck, lessons start at 6 p.m. The band arrives at 8. When you’ve had all the margaritas and spinning you can handle, return to your hotel, get online, and change your flight to next week.

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