Paul Bentley was fresh from a long New York winter when he arrived at the end of a dusty road in Tulum. It was 2007. The West Australian chef had been working in Manhattan for a decade, mostly at Daniel, the tony Upper East Side French fine-diner, and it was time for a change. "The economy was starting to wobble, so I wanted out," he says.
He'd considered a move to Europe, then saw an ad online that read: "Live and work in Mexico."
"Until then I'd never heard of Tulum, but I thought, wow, that looks like a good place to hang out for six months."
Street art beside El Canastón.
Two hours' drive south of the resort city of Cancun on Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula, Tulum is famed for its spectacular clifftop Mayan ruins, beautiful beaches and laid-back vibe. The town is surrounded by jungle and fringed by white Caribbean sands.
"I started work in a beach cabana called Zamas - it was a hippie restaurant, back before there were any high-end resorts here. The kitchen didn't even have a fridge."
The pace of Tulum suited him, though the restaurant didn't. Within a year he moved west to the city of Guadalajara, known for Mexico's finest tequila and good times. In 2015 he opened Magno Brasserie, a French-Italian fine-diner voted the nation's best new restaurant last year by Gourmet Awards Mexico. And, like many expats, he headed back to Tulum whenever he needed R&R.
"Today, there are a lot of New Yorkers here," says Bentley. "It's only three hours' flying time, and they like its hippie, laid-back nature. And, in turn, they've given Tulum a sort of hip, New Yorker vibe."
The cashed-up bohos have also sustained the development of boutique retreats along Tulum beach. Typical of these is Mi Amor, which opened in 2015. It's set high on a cliff overlooking the ocean and accommodates just 34 guests. Last year, its owners wanted to make a splash with a new restaurant and turned to Bentley. Could he do in Tulum what he'd done in Guadalajara with Magno?
Bentley was happy to oblige, opening Mi Amor Restaurant last May. He was also delighted to be back on his old stomping ground, and now bounces between his two restaurants every month.
"Tulum is not Cancun. It's not built up with hotels, it's not wall-to-wall resorts - it still has the laid-back feel of a Mexican beach town. Sure, you can find an upmarket resort serving a five-course tasting menu. But is that really what you want on a beach?"
The huachinango frito at Chamicos.**
"Turn off the Carretera road from Tulum to Cancun, and head down a dusty track leading to the beach. You'll arrive at a bunch of palm trees, hammocks and plastic Corona tables - and that's Chamicos. Order fried fish or local ceviche and a bucket of beers. Then sit in the hammock and drink your beers, eat your food, take a nap and repeat. If you pass out, they just leave you. When you wake up, they'll ask if you want something else to drink or eat - and you just nod off again. The ceviche here is really good, and so is the huachinango frito, a whole fried fish. They cut slices running down the fillet, then add salt and pepper, sometimes a little flour, and fry it. They give it to you whole with tortillas and a bunch of salsas. The week that I go to Tulum each month, I generally disappear for a day at Chamicos." Soliman Bay Rd, Tulum
"These guys are from Bondi. Australian people making burritos in Mexico - it's funny, right? Paula and Cameron Davis run an inexpensive restaurant with no walls and a really relaxed vibe. A lot of people who work at Tulum's hotels go to chill out here. I love the steak burrito, done with a rib-eye on a flour tortilla with beans, rice, tomatoes, onions and about eight or nine salsas, ranging from super-mild to the stuff where you add two drops and it's instant death. My tolerance for chillies is pretty good, but I'm not completely pro when it comes to the hottest stuff. There are people here who eat habanero chillies whole, and they hurt." Av Tulum Pte Mz 3 Lote 5 Local 1, Tulum Centro, burrito-amor.com
Ceviche at El Pez.**
"This is a beachfront hotel built in the Mexican palapa style, which is an open-sided dwelling with thatched roof. The chef is a friend from Guadalajara, Francisco Ruano. He does contemporary Mexican food with a lot of soul - familiar flavours done differently. El Pez is really all about fish, so Francisco does a lot of ceviche and an aguachile made with young coconut, which I love. His tacos are excellent, too. For me a good taco needs a really good masa harina - ground corn kernels that have been soaked in lime water. Making your own masa is a step in the right direction, but it's also important to maintain a proper ratio between sauce and meat and taco. El Pez is a lively place to go for lunch. The cocktails are super-summery, made with freshly squeezed juices. Try the Kon Tiky, plantaininfused golden rum with blended pineapple, banana, horchata, passionfruit and orange. Failing that, just go bang some beers together and order plates to share." Carretera Tulum-Boca Paila Km 5.5, Zona Costera, tulumhotelpez.com
The entrance to Gitano Tulum.**
"Gitano's is a jungle-side bar made from recycled wood. It's on a strip of hip new restaurants and bars that are often referred to as 'jungle-chic'. Actually, everything is 'chic' in Tulum: there's jungle-chic, eco-chic, hippie-chic. Mi Amor is love-chic, apparently. Gitano's is pretty serious about mezcal, with a cocktail menu dedicated to the stuff. The Gypsy Disco for instance is mezcal, añejo rum, lime, house basil and grenadine. You can order meals after 6pm, which is a good time to go. It's especially beautiful at night when the trees are lit up with strings of lanterns." Beach Road Km 7, Boca Paila, gitanotulum.com
Mi Amor restaurant.**
"Mi Amor is an adults-only hotel, cool and casual. We're talking high-end amenities and great design, with the restaurant perched on the rocks looking down on the ocean. At Mi Amor we stick to the philosophy of Magno Brasserie, which means product, flavour and technique. Presentation comes right at the end because that's the easy part. Magno is French-Italian with Mexican ingredients, whereas at Mi Amor we do ceviche and tostadas - the sort of food you're looking for when you go to the beach in Mexico. We serve a grilled fish with a sauce made from roasted pumpkin seeds - a local Yucatán dish - with roasted zucchini and pickled zucchini blossoms. We also have a lamb birria tostada, which is a braised lamb with six types of chilli. In Tulum, we try as much as we can to use the local fishermen - the trick is knowing when they'll be out on the ocean. If there's a football game, a wedding or a birthday party for a 15-year-old - well, they won't be fishing." Carretera Tulum-Boca Paila Km 4.1, Zona Costera, tulumhotelmiamor.com
Mulberry Project pop-up
Mulberry Project bar.**
"This is a beachfront shack sitting right in front of La Zebra hotel. It's like it has washed up on the beach, a place where you can just kick back to drink cocktails while listening to cool music. The owner is Jasper Soffer, who uses a rotating staff of bartenders from his New York bar, Mulberry Project. It's all bespoke cocktails - fresh juices, infusions, that sort of thing. Jasper is a friend, and he does our cocktails at Mi Amor; he also has a pop-up in Colombia, and did one in Brazil. He runs Tulum from about November and will finish at the end of April. They have a cocktail menu but the mixologists are keen to get you choosing a liquor base and a bunch of ingredients from a chalk board. You can end up with something you've never dreamed of." Carretera Tulum-Boca Paila Km 8.2, Zona Costera, mulberryproject.com
Mur Mur open-air restaurant.**
"Mur Mur is an open-air restaurant in the jungle. The chef is Diego Hernández, who also has restaurants Verlaine in Los Angeles and Corazón de Tierra on the Baja California peninsula, which is 39 on the Latin American 50 Best list. Diego is all about local product cooked over the fire, so he has a griddle and a woodfired oven. They do a beet salad where they char the beets in coals: you end up with the texture of burnt, crisp skin, but it's soft and sweet inside. They slice it up and serve it with crema acida, which is like a sour cream. It's only open at night, so expect candles, firelight and music. There's also a lot of really good mezcal. Pretty much every time I've gone there we've ended up drinking mezcal. It all goes pear-shaped after that." Quintana Roo 15, murmurtulum.com
Tacos de canasta at El Canastón.**
"This colourful roadside stand sells tacos de canasta - steamed tacos kept warm inside a giant basket. They do great breakfast with fresh juices like jugo verde, which is celery, apple, Mayan spinach and grapefruit or orange juice. For breakfast I'll usually go with tacos al vapor, especially the chicharrón prensado, which is pork crackling that's been braised in a spicy red sauce. It's a breakfast of champions - generally what you want after a night on the mezcal." Satélite Sur and Neptuno Ote
Tortas and tostadas at Taqueria Honorio.**
"This is definitely one of my favourite spots in Tulum. It's a proper experience - an authentic Mexican experience - and their tacos are the bomb. It's basically a food stand in someone's garage, and it's family-owned - you know, a few old ladies who make the tortillas while the guys chop up pieces of pig. It's the sort of place where taxi drivers, school kids and construction workers go to eat. They still do traditional cochinita, where they wrap the pig in banana leaves and cook it underground. They also do a turkey that's braised in recado negro, a spice mix made from burnt chillies from the Yucatán. They cook it all overnight, then open at eight o'clock to a long queue of people, and sell tacos until they run out. Don't pass on the Mexican trifecta: a Coca-Cola, a taco of cochinita and a lechón torta - baguette-style bread filled with suckling pig. Mexican street food and Coca-Cola is the perfect pairing." Satélite Sur y Andromeda Ote, facebook.com/taqueriahonorio
Gorditas de chicharrón at La Zebra.**
"La Zebra is a sister property to Mi Amor. It's on one of the best beaches in Tulum - we're talking broad swathes of white sand and turquoise water. They do great Mexican food with a modern edge, including dishes like grilled fish with mead, and tuna with crisp bacon. They also do awesome Mojitos using a machine that crushes the sugar cane to extract the juice. On Sundays, La Zebra holds a salsa party with a live band, which is epic. They do classes first, and then after that it's a full-on salsa party. It basically ends up with people dancing all over the place, helped along by a few Mojitos." Carretera Tulum-Boca Paila Km 8.2, Zona Costera, lazebratulum.com