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When Spanish explorer Juan de Grijalva sailed past Tulum in 1518, he declared “the city of Seville could not appear greater or better” than the city he saw on the limestone cliffs. The town center has since moved inland and the original Mayan metropolis stands in ruins, but Tulum is still known for its beauty. The turquoise sea glows, the sparsely populated sugar-sand beaches stretch for miles, and the modest hotels that line them are built from stucco and bamboo with thatched roofs. The beach at night, exceptionally dark thanks to the lack of a local electrical grid, showcases a star-crowded sky that’s the cosmic equivalent of Fourth of July fireworks.

The word tulúm is a Mayan word for “wall,” but according to the guide who took us on a tour of the Mexican city’s ancient ruins, locals never called it by that name. Instead, they called it “Zama,” which means “city of dawn.”

This name makes more sense, not only because of its east-facing position on the Caribbean Sea, but because Tulum is not an especially walled-off or guarded-feeling place. Case in point: During my recent visit, the owner of the cash-only seaside restaurant Posada Margarita noticed my friend and me counting out our pesos before dinner. He suggested we send him money for the bill when we got back to Minneapolis. Seeing the look on our faces, he laughed. “It’s not cars or diamonds,” he assured us. “It’s just dinner.”

Small wonder that the heart-opening practice of yoga is so widely practiced here. Intrepid hippie travelers brought yoga to these pristine beaches well before the road from the inland puebla was paved, back when visitors could string up their hammocks almost anywhere they liked. Today Tulum is a haven for yoga lovers of all stripes. There are classes with talented local teachers and retreats with international yoga celebrities. Shelter options now include tiny beachside cabanas, solid-walled spacious casitas and airy bamboo treehouses.

While a yoga retreat in Tulum isn’t as inexpensive as it was in those early hammock days, my visit here revealed that a full week of classes and lodging can still be had for less than the cost of a weekend at a big city hotel. A small price to pay for the chance to deepen one’s practice in paradise.

Want For Nothing

Maya Tulum Resort

This elegant resort is the bedrock of the yoga community in Tulum. The first yoga-focused site in the area (the original owners helped build the paved road out from the puebla), Maya Tulum has been hosting retreats with master teachers for decades. It’s also the only place on the beach that offers all-inclusive stays, a nice option for those with a bigger budget who want to stay  focused entirely on their practice.

I’ll admit that Maya Tulum’s larger-than-life reputation led me to expect a sterile hotel environment, but these fears were unfounded. While one is certainly not roughing it here, the feeling is comfortable, not corporate. Our thatched-roof stucco casita was spacious and solid, with plenty of hot water and clean towels. It had a front-seat view of the ocean. Breakfasts in the airy vegetarian restaurant were fresh and satisfying, especially the pineapple smoothie made with nopales (cactus) and the omelet with chaya, a traditional Mayan green that tastes like Swiss chard. And the classes are hard evidence of Maya Tulum’s commitment to its original mission: They mean yoga.

There are two studios on-site: The large one is used for organized retreats,  and the small studio houses daily classes year-round. I took vinyasa flow, a couple of kundalini and variation-on-kundalini classes, and one unforgettable “moon salutation” class for women on their cycle. (That was taught by a supremely sunny, wiry man from Mexico City named Sem; he looked about 14 and had the cheerful wisdom of an ancient sage.) Each teacher taught with friendly competence, and all offered modifications, so the majority of classes felt suitable for beginners and seasoned practitioners alike.

The all-inclusive mind-body retreat includes meals, two classes a day and one massage service, but the wise visitor will schedule additional treatments. The chance to try traditional Mayan massage with practitioners who learned from their elders doesn’t come every day. If possible, schedule a treatment with Fabian, the gifted shaman who runs Maya Tulum’s temazcal sweat lodge ritual.

Location and contact info:
Maya Tulum

Rooms start at USD $105 during low season and USD $233 during the holidays. A three-day retreat starts at USD $650 during the low season. Ask about all-inclusive packages.

Build Your Own Yoga Retreat

Yoga Adventures Tulum/Coco Tulum

For the budget-minded yoga practitioner longing to go on retreat (which pretty much describes me whenever I’m not traveling for this kind of assignment), Christina Thomas is a guardian angel. A longtime yoga enthusiast, Thomas in 2008 left her hectic New York City job as an interior designer to live full-time in Tulum. She hasn’t looked back. “Tulum is a magical place that draws you in and slows you down,” she says.

Intent on sharing that magic, Thomas turned her creative attention to designing retreats; she is now co-owner and founder of Yoga Adventures Tulum, a travel service that helps people design their own visits. Would-be retreaters let Thomas know how much they have to spend, and she finds a way to get them on the sugar-sand beach for a week of daily yoga classes and lodging — for as little as USD $575.

Her approach depends on how many people are traveling.  Sometimes she helps small groups find a house to rent on or near the beach, sets them up with a teacher for daily classes at the house, and stocks the refrigerator with cooking essentials before they arrive. She can even arrange for a massage therapist to come to the house.

For those traveling alone, or for teachers traveling with a group, Thomas coordinates idyllic and affordable retreats at Coco Tulum, a hotel that hosts a set of rustic but clean and sturdy beachfront cabanas that run as little as USD $60 per night. Each tiny cabana has electricity, along with just enough room for a queen-size bed, a mirror and a mosquito net. The brightly tiled modern bathrooms and showers are shared, just up the sandy path.

The cabanas offer everything the no-frills traveler needs — a roof, a comfortable bed, a nearby yoga class — and nothing unnecessary. Think of it as glamorous camping, but instead of s’mores you get an onsite restaurant that serves Yucatan fare like fish tacos and pineapple jam along with North American comforts like bagels and lox. For those with a little more room in their vacation budget, rooms with private bathrooms are also available in the tower portion of the hotel.

Yoga classes at Coco Tulum take place on a sometimes-windy beachside platform that faces the sea. The view is gorgeous, but bring an extra towel for wiping off the sand that can coat a perspiring body like a sugar doughnut. Daily classes run December to May and are offered through Utopia Tulum, the yoga studio headquartered at Coco Tulum. (Classes are USD $10.) Thomas teaches classes by appointment during the low season.

Location and contact info:
Yoga Adventures Tulum
Coco Tulum

Peace on Earth

Shambala Petit Hotel

Shambala Petit Hotel offers the best of both sides of Tulum: the charm of a beachside cabana and the comforts of a luxury resort. Colorful images of Indian deities are painted on the stucco walls and orange fabric banners flutter in the palm-shaded breeze. Ten casitas open onto the beach, some of which are auspiciously named for a Hindu god. My second-story room was named for the god of creation, Albaba. The veritable bamboo treehouse had a king-size bed, windows on all sides and an open shower with a mosaic tile floor. It had electricity, but the candles in glass jars of white beach sand felt most suitable.

The accommodation is lovely, but what Shambala Petit possesses in even greater measure than beauty is hospitality. The proprietor, Roberto Hernandez, hosts breakfast in a small, elegant dining room with platters of fresh fruit and halved avocados for smearing on toast. He helped us navigate Tulum, sending us to the best local cenote (the underwater pools in limestone caves that cover the Yucatan), where we swam in cold, fresh water and ogled underwater stalactites through our snorkeling masks. And he sent us to the aforementioned Posada Margarita, where the fish is poached in seawater and the pasta is made fresh for each order. It felt like staying with a family of very hip and gracious locals.

Naturally, there is yoga at Shambala Petit. After all, this is Tulum. When there is not a scheduled retreat in progress, vigorous Ashtanga-style classes are offered at 8 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. in the seaside studio. This schedule left plenty of time to explore Tulum between classes, which necessarily included a shift on the shaded beach lounges and some splashing in the turquoise waves.

At night, Tulum yogis cede the beaches to the giant sea turtles, many of whom land here to lay their eggs. This is thanks in part to the hotel owners who turn off the generator-operated lights after 11 p.m., which prevents the turtles from mistaking them for the moon. According to some other night-owl guests, two of these impressive creatures came ashore during our visit. One was the size of a child’s wagon and, according to Lopez, has been laying her eggs on this stretch of sand for 10 years. Since the sea turtles in the Caribbean migrate to the Caspian Sea each year, I asked how she could find her way back. Hernandez explained that she could read the stars, as if they had Shambala Petit’s address printed on them.

I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised. I know I’m not going to forget my way back.

Location and contact info:
Shambala Petit Hotel
Carr. Boca Paila 7.5 km, Zona Hotelera, Tulum

Rooms start at USD $85 and include breakfast. Classes are USD $15. Excellent advice about Tulum’s local wonders is free.

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