Located just a two-hour drive south of the Cancun airport, Tulum is one of those mystical places completely untouched by mega resorts. Boutique hotels, fashionable shops and mind-blowing restaurants pepper the town’s single road, stretched lazily along the coast of Quintana Roo. And despite the surge in tourism over the last decade – and the businesses built to accommodate it – Tulum offers an intimate, eco-friendly snapshot of a Mexico you won’t find anywhere else.
Just ask Daniella Hunter, originally from the U.K., who moved there with her family several years ago to open up Sanara Tulum, an eco-resort featuring the now renowned Real Coconut restaurant. We sat down with her at Superba Cafe in Venice to talk about her adopted home, and the new outpost of the restaurant, which will open soon in the Gas Company Tower in Downtown LA.
I think almost everyone dreams of moving to a resort town and opening up a little spot on the beach – but you actually did it! When exactly did you decide to make the move?
Friends who I knew from a trip I’d taken to Egypt had moved to Mexico and were managing a dive center there. I was a single mother with a young baby at the time. Rather than figuring out working in London and childcare and all that, I thought…I’ll pick up and go to Mexico. I carried on teaching scuba diving and started doing underwater photography. That began my love of the area.
Years later, after I’d returned to the UK and met my partner, Charlie, we were coming to L.A. and I said, ‘Let’s stop in Tulum and see what it’s like.’ It had changed so much. There was so much more infrastructure, and we decided we could have a family there. Why bother with the traffic, school runs, and the mess of living here? So in a space of three months we packed up and moved to Tulum.
Did you always have the idea of opening up a resort?
At the time, we didn’t plan on opening a hotel. It wasn’t a big focus for us. We knew we could continue to work there. We were part of this movement of people – sort of a bohemian crowd of writers, bloggers, photographers – who wanted to move to Tulum and have a business there.
Then a friend offered to sell us a piece of land in Tulum, and we had this “if we build it, they will come” mentality. We could host friends, and friends of friends. We came up with the plans, and we built the first part of the hotel in a year.
We had a fantastic architect – Studio Arqs, they’ve gone on to win several awards within Mexico and South America – and the crew worked incredibly hard to pull it off.
There’s something about Tulum that feels untouched, more intimate. Why do you think that is?
Tulum is like a living canvas that we can paint on, and it’s our responsibility to paint it in harmony with what’s already there. We can create the buildings, but it’s about the community and the ethos. When people come to stay in Tulum, they’ve already decided to not stay in Cancun. They want something more meaningful.
Tulum is also really unique because of its layout. That road [that runs the course of Tulum] was originally put in by the woman who owns Maya Tulum, that was the gateway, the first property there. We met her a few times and she told us: ‘I didn’t know at the time, I was just putting the road in’ (it’s just 100 meters from the beach); and that completely determined how Tulum developed and grew. No big corporation could ever come in and buy up 500 meters of beachfront property, because it wasn’t clear enough to do that.
I saw that you wrote the menu for The Real Coconut and immediately started getting bookings before you even really broke ground. What was your idea behind the restaurant?
I’ve always loved Mexican food. Who doesn’t love guacamole? But you’re canceling out all the goodness of the guacamole with these deep fried corn chips. My housekeeper had taught me to make tortillas with the masa, the dough, and I’d been working on baking with coconut milks, making little cakes and things. So, I thought, I can try to make tortillas out of coconut flour. I was obsessed with figuring out how to do this.
I did a couple coconut dinner parties, making coconut cheese and everything, and everyone loved it – and asked when I was going to do another one.
With that, I thought I might take the front corner of the road [at Sanara], and create a little café for the guests staying at the hotel. We opened the restaurant one morning and said we have three breakfasts and two lunches, all using the coconut recipes. I thought, worse comes to worse, I can switch back to using corn.
Gradually we added more things and added a dinner menu. Everyone was like, “This is amazing!” People were booking the hotel because they wanted to try the restaurant. Then non-guests started coming, sometimes two or three times a day. It was surprising!
It’s true that I’m never exactly thrilled to put on a bikini after eating a bunch of Mexican food. Do you think people were feeling better physically and coming for that?
Yes! Some people were of course celiac or gluten-free, but then other people didn’t care about the healthy side of it. They loved the food and the location and became avid fans. I always knew when I travelled that, even though I was getting the benefit of a vacation, I would feel worse because of the food.
I never want to create a meal in my restaurant that gave guests that bloated feeling. So I always consider that – when you combine this and that will it still be good, or will it be too heavy? It’s all about balance.
It’s almost impossible to overeat at our restaurant. I think that’s because it’s really high quality, your body knows it’s getting what it needs, and because of the way we’re playing with putting things together. You’re satisfied but not overly full.
So now you’re opening a restaurant in Los Angeles? That seems like the perfect crowd for another Real Coconut.
We knew there was a demand for it, and we get requests all the time. At the initial stages, it was hard because we had this beautiful space and concept in Tulum and how do you translate that into something really commercial?
I was a bit anti at first, but I knew at the core of it – because people connected so well with what we had in Tulum – that we had the opportunity to nourish and feed people in other places; and I couldn’t ignore that. It’s my streak too, I like expanding.
Where can Angelenos get their hands on some of these delightful dishes?
We’re opening with We Work. It’s in the Gas Tower, the big Deloitte building. We Work has three floors within there; it’s a 52-story building, a huge space.
We’ve gone in and helped change the culture of the building. They have a big space downstairs in the lobby where we’re putting the restaurant in collaboration with We Work, and it’s open to the public.
We also sell our chips and wraps at Whole Foods Market.
Seven Spots Daniella Loves in (and out of) Tulum
The Beach Style Boutiques
Tulum has become full of great fashion boutiques, many of which are run by friends of mine. They tend to be on the main beach road: Katie James’ byJames brand, and Cynthia Conrad. I started my own line, too: Daniella Hunter features robes and things we have in the hotel, like our beautiful bamboo sheets.
The Organic Market
When I first went to Tulum, you couldn’t really find an organic market; but Frutas y Verduras Pool has amended that. You can also find incredible spices there, like copal, a sacred Mayan resin that they burn for all sorts of ceremonies.
The Most Interesting Ruins
In Coba you can climb the ruins, and on your way out there are a couple of villages where you can get dream catchers and baskets made by hand.
The Sage Advice
We love to visit a great friend of ours, Abuelo, one of the Mayan Elders. He lives in a village outside of Tulum. He’s a healer, but also incredibly sage, a beautiful spirit and soul to spend time with. The village adjacent to his is home to other incredible Mayan elders, and they’ve invited us to share their harvest with them.
The Street Fruit
The fruit sold on the side of the street is probably the best fruit you can get. Pineapple season, you’ll go nuts. Rambutan is also really great; it’s like a hairy leche, these red things, they’re amazing.
The Trip Out of Town
If we want to get away for a night we go to a another hotel called Jashita, 10 minutes outside of Tulum, in Soliman Bay. It’s a completely different experience.
The Best Ceviche
While you’re in Soliman Bay go to Chamico’s! Hartwood has become really famous in Tulum as far as excellent fish and ceviche; but this place is amazing and not as well-known.
Jashita Hotel Soliman Bay