Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Eating in Tulum, Mexico

After three days in Mexico City, it was time to head for the coast. Brilliant white beaches beckoned and we had a lot of sitting around to do. Tulum was our destination and after an exhausting plane ride - there is absolutely no need to cheer every time we hit turbulence, okay? - we were rewarded with just the sound of the waves crashing outside our beach hut. 

Eating well and cheaply in Tulum, particularly down the stretch of beach we were on, was tricky. Lined with eco beach huts and boutique hotels, they catered for the tourists for tourist prices and on our first night it was quite the shock to have spent £40 on dinner, compared to the usual £10. 

With one eye on the budget, we decided to get a couple of bikes and do some cycling. 7km away, the town of Tulum was small but down some deserted side streets we found what we were after. A taco stall. 

For £1, I got two panuchos, said to be a speciality of the Yucatan region. The tortillas are split and deep fried, then stuffed with refried beans and topped with chopped chicken, pink pickled onions and slices of avocado. Squirty bottles of salsa were already at the table, the green being incendiary and the red milder. 

Sat under the shade in the sweltering heat, it knocked the socks off the £15 pasta dish we'd eaten by the beach the night before at Posada Margherita. Another day, on the edge of town an unassuming red fronted cafe was dark and disorientating inside. Having sat down, we realised there was no menu and the lady beckoned us towards the kitchen so we could point at which dishes we wanted. I picked the most interesting-looking which turned out to be meatballs with potatoes in a smoky chipotle sauce.

The meatballs were light and fluffy, the smoky tomatoey sauce lingering at the back of the throat with a suggestion of heat. A huge bucket of tamarind drink, sweet and sour at the same time cooled me down.

Chicken braised in a green sauce was tangy with lime and tomatillo, served with rice and beans on the side. A closed steamer tray stacked full of soft floppy tortillas turned out to be the best of the trip; delicate yet pliable, they made an excellent scooper. We paid up our £3 each and cycled off slowly, our bellies full.

I had wondered where all the beach barbecues plentiful with fish were and we never found them so instead we asked our snorkelling guide where the best fish restaurant was, for locals. He pointed us to a hotel, affiliated to where he was working and once that was out of the way he also wrote us down 'El Camello', in Tulum town. It wasn't much to look at but when we were there, and we went twice, it was always busy. 

Whole fried fish was deep fried and served with black beans, rice and salad. While we were eating it, a couple of men sauntered in with a couple of fish straight off the back of their pick up truck.

I kept seeing 'coctels' available so this time we decided to try one, 'mixto'. Our server was skeptical as it contained raw oysters, but we urged him on. A huge cocktail glass emerged stuffed with octopus, huge prawns and raw oysters. It was doused in lime juice and salsa, and topped with avocado and a little onion with coriander. 

Served with Saltine crackers (as it was everywhere we went, and is apparently traditional elsewhere too), this was tangy and fishy. It was pretty overwhelming and after a couple of mouthfuls each, we were pretty done. We didn't want to prove the nice waiter wrong so we ate it all up.  The one we ordered was a small, and later on I saw three petite Mexican ladies share a huge boat of it. We were humbled.  

At another visit, we tried the small ceviche. The Mexicans have a strange idea of small, but we weren't complaining. We stuffed ourselves silly piling the onion, tomato and coriander mixed with prawns high on totopos with salsa.

I fished out tiny crabs and an incredible number of prawns from this seafood soup, and it was so addictive I carried on until well past my totally-stuffed limit. All I could do afterwards was sip a tequila and flop into a taxi. Each meal cost us about £12 for two with beers.

Other places we visited that were on the stretch of beaches were El Tabano, a lovely restaurant specialising in Mexican home cooking set on the jungle side. Hartwood, at about 7.5km was also beautiful, set under pretty trees, with delicious American-Mexican food cooked in a wood-fired over. Both were roughly £25 a head and on the 'splurge' end of our spectrum.

Hottest salsa of the trip was also the most unexpected. Hungry after a long and sweaty walk down the beach, we wandered into a boutique hotel and were the only diners for lunch. A dark red oily salsa was offered with caution and upon taste I knew I was in serious trouble. Stars littered my vision and I could only curl my toes in horror, rendered speechless. The fish tacos were amazing (though expensive) and I am only sad I didn't take a picture, or write the name of the place down. Sorry. That's terribly unhelpful.

Travel Tips:

- We flew with Volaris, then got the ADO bus - which is actually a very nice air conditioned coach - from Cancun airport to Playa del Carmen (about 1 hour). There you can get a colectivo to Tulum town (another hour). This is much cheaper than a taxi all the way - the ADO bus was around 200 pesos (£10) and the colectivo 40 pesos, £2 - whereas taxis can be about US $150. It's also more interesting watching these colectivos pick up seemingly random people on the side of roads.

- On the return though we discovered an ADO coach from Tulum town straight to the airport; the last one is at 11am every day.

- Opposite directly opposite the ADO bus station in Tulum over the roads of traffic was a great hole in the wall place that do tacos and tortas of only carnitas - they will wrap you up a torta for your journey.

- You can cycle up to the Mayan ruins, there were plenty of bikes to hire. Bring a sweat rag though as it is HOT.

- Taxis in Tulum are plentiful and cheap. They all knew where 'El Camello' was and most are friendly and will suggest you a nice place to go and eat.

- We didn't find anywhere to get drunk on the beach at night. I KNOW. Goddamn we tried too. Mezzanine Thai Bar was a nice cocktail place with a terrace though.

- We stayed at Posada Lamar, which was a lovely beach hut. The beach huts are simple and the toilet and shower open plan so, er, make what you will of that. They only serve breakfasts. Ahau Tulum looked lovely when we walked around it, so I would head for them if I were to return. Accomodation isn't cheap in Tulum.


Katy Salter @ Pinch of Salt said...

Isn't Tulum beautiful? I went there on a day trip from Playa del Carmen and was a bit shocked to find a branch of Subway in the car park of the ancient Mayan ruins! Is it still there? Didn't eat there I hasten to add. You timed this trip well with the London weather!

Ute@HungryinLondon said...

I loved Tulum, the prettiest part of Yucatan by far! When I was there I really struggled to find good food, not only in Tulum but also in other parts of Yucatan. After my Mexico holiday I actually decided I don't like Mexican food. You clearly were more successful, and seem to have found a few nice spots.

Chris Pople said...

Great photos - it all looks so colourful. That's some serious eating you did there. You should be proud.

Mr Noodles said...

Great post but one that makes a bit sad, as I know unless I get out To Mexico, I won't get to sample food like this.

PS: I like the Mexican idea of small!

Farrukh said...

Looking tasty!

The Perfect Trough said...

Great review. On the landside of Tulum village main street (west?) there's a great adobo pork taco place - about $1 each and full of locals.

We mistakenly ate at Posado Margherita! Totally bland pasta, neverending Yank portions meant for doggy bags, rip off...terrible!

Hollow Legs said...

Katy - Yep, Tulum is so beautiful and unspoilt. I don't remember the Subway, but it was perhaps because I was expiring in the heat...

Ute - Oh really? It took more effort in Tulum, but we got there. Shame it put you off.

Chris - thanks! yes, I loved the colours; such colourful crockery.

Mr Noodles - i know :( Get yourself out there!

Farrukh - thanks!

Perfect Trough - Yes! I think I know which one you mean. We didn't find Posada Margherita too bad, just average and a bit pricy in comparison. Still, you live and learn (...not to trust Trip Advisor).

Anonymous said...

Only been to Mexico once, Oaxaca; put it on your list.

J@Feasttotheworld said...

Love the look of the beaches and the food on this post. The 'Coctels' sounds amazing! I love octopus and raw oysters so that just sounds like a real treat. Now I will just need to find a good restaurant in London that serves food like this, or travel to Mexico myself.

Rob_Hyde said...

Just got back from Tulum myself. El Camelo's portions were HUGE. we also made a mistake with ordering and ended up with NINE tacos when we thought we were getting 3. Was still hard to break the $10 barrier though.

Most authentic / reasonable food we found along the Playa was 'sunset lounge' just before the exposed bit of beach. Considerably cheaper than a lot of places along that stretch, and they did pretty decent steak tacos with an insane habanero salsa.

There's a place called Cetli which perhaps has no rights being where it is, on an anonymous backstreet off the main road.
Best food I ate when we were there, possibly one of my top 10 meals I've eaten anywhere - the owner Claudia makes you feel like a guest in her house instead of a patron. Everything we ate was incredible, and it still worked out about 40% cheaper than the usually fairly average/pricey food down on the playa.

Hollow Legs said...

Hi Rob!

Rather late reply but... I wish I'd known your tips before I went! Sounds ace.