It’s midnight in Mexico, and my husband and I are sitting silently in the back seat of a small gray car, about an hour and a half from where we want to be – Tulum. We’re on edge, because we’re pretty sure the two guys in the front seat, whom we met at the Cancun airport a few minutes ago, are scamming us. Neil is calculating whether he can take them, should things go south. I’m wondering why, in the middle of Highway 307, there are speed bumps the size of large turtles that cause cars to slow to a crawl.
It’s a rough start to a honeymoon.
We chose Tulum, which is in the state of Quintana Roo on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, because it offers a relaxing beach vacation, with the requisite sugary-white sand and blue Caribbean, along with just enough non-beach activity to stave off lethargy. I was drawn to the idea of exploring ruins, snorkeling in caves, and navigating a sophisticated food and cocktail scene in an area mostly devoid of megaresorts. But now, as we ramble down a dark highway looming with palatial all-inclusive resorts that completely block any kind of ocean view, I’m wondering what I’ve gotten us into.
Our flight was delayed about five hours by a winter storm in Chicago, landing around 11 p.m. at Cancun International Airport. Long story short, the guy from the rental car company who was supposed to meet us at Terminal 3 wasn’t there. Unable to reach anyone by phone at the rental car office, we were trying to figure out how we’d get to Tulum. Around us, the terminal lights were actually turning off.
That’s when a guy wearing an airport badge offered to help us. He picked up an airport phone and managed to get through to our rental car company – or so he said – and reported that it was closing and had no cars. He told us that taking a $195 cab was our only option. After pointing us to an ATM, he led us to that gray car, put our luggage in the back and then hopped in the front passenger seat (where, oddly enough, a box of pizza awaited him). “You’re coming with?” Neil asked, confused. He said his boss told him he had to. He said he was the airport’s head of hospitality, or something to that effect. His job, he explained with a smile, was to allay visitors’ fears about Mexico. We smiled back, nervously. “That’s not how it works in Chicago,” I said.
After a long, quiet drive, we arrive safely at Azulik, the oceanfront, cliff-side Tulum hotel we splurged on for the first two nights of the six-night trip. The middle of the night isn’t the ideal time to check into an eco-friendly hotel that prides itself on not having electricity, but the staff kindly guides us by flashlight along a raised wooden path, through palm tree fronds, delivering us to our room, a graceful circular bungalow lined with mirrors and windows, rather than walls, and topped with a thatched roof. As a woman lights small candles around the space, we step outside on the patio to breathe in the salty, humid air and listen to the roaring waves. Then we crawl under the bed’s white mosquito netting, exhausted.
– – –
The sun has risen high above the Caribbean by the time I grant my eyes permission to open. I slip through the transparent netting, scratching the bites it failed to avert, and step onto our patio. The crystalline sea stretches out for miles in every direction, crashing on the slate-colored rocks below. We chose this hotel for this very view. The online video we watched, with its pan flute soundtrack, enticed us as it zoomed in on beautiful guests luxuriating on private seaside terraces. Neil joins me, and we try out our many outdoor furnishings, first lying on the patio’s circular swinging bed, then perching on a wooden swing and finally lying supine in our outdoor mosaic-tile tub. Then a team of workers starts banging around on the patio next door, and we take that as our cue to head out.
We rent bikes from the hotel and ride about 10 minutes into town, known as “the pueblo,” where the locals live. Although much of this area feels like a small, sleepy, dusty community with rows of squat, flat-roof homes, it doesn’t take long to spot the hipster element – an uncanny number of beards and man buns – that recently inspired New York Magazine to proclaim Tulum “the Williamsburg of Mexico.” At Ki’Bok cafe, a friendly, bearded man who may have a California accent serves us iced Americanos to rival any. More tanned, bearded hipsters at the neighboring Batey drink all-natural mojitos made with fresh sugar cane rather than sugar. Even a billboard sports a fair-skinned bearded man donning a fedora. “That’s what they think we all look like!” whispers my husband, his own vacation beard starting to show.
We stop by the Tulum outpost of America Car Rental, the same company we’d expected to get a car from in Cancun, and the man working there confirms that we were indeed scammed at the airport the night before. The rental car office was, in fact, open in a different terminal, and it did, in fact, have our car ready and waiting. The man with the airport badge whose job it was to keep visitors safe? He apparently was speaking ironically. The office has a single car available and rents it to us, tsking only once at our naivete.
– – –
After another night at Azulik (and another morning interrupted by workers), we trade in that glorious patio for one that’s more modest – and more private – at Nueva Vida de Ramiro, a hotel we reserved farther south in the town’s hotel zone. Our second-floor room is a spacious, comfortable bungalow (that style is quite the thing in Tulum), with alluring views of the powdery beach, azure waves and palm trees with dangling coconuts. A single road runs through this part of town, and to the west, it’s dotted with open-air bars, laid-back alfresco restaurants and jungle. To the east, it’s lined with more bungalows and white, sandy beach that stretches for miles. On our long daily walks, we notice that passersby – when there are any – tend to be couples, and one of them is usually in yoga pants. Like beards, yoga is quite a thing here.
We drive to the northern edge of town to the Tulum Ruins, which date to about A.D. 1200, and join a crowd of people walking through a passageway in the thick limestone wall that surrounds the community on three sides. Inside the wall, spreading before us are softly rolling hills, manicured expanses of bright-green grass and rocky Mayan structures of all shapes and sizes. The backdrop: that aquamarine ocean. A steep set of stairs leads to the beach, and dozens of people are splashing around in the sea. But rain clouds hover above, so we head back to the car.
The next day, the downpour continues, making for a great excuse to explore the area’s cenotes, which are freshwater sinkholes you can swim in. Dos Ojos, about a 20-mile drive north of the Tulum Ruins, translates to “two eyes,” for the two caves you can explore. We rent snorkeling gear and follow a path to the cenotes, skipping the first one, which is filled with laughter as scuba divers armed with flashlights dive in. We slosh through water and over pebbles to a second cave. Under low-slung limestone caverns dripping with stalactites, we’re the only people there, but we’re not alone. I can see silvery fish swimming below me, darting over the dark rocks. Above, in the dark cave, I catch the occasional flutter of a bat.
The rain stops the next day, so we venture out to Akumal, a town that, according to our guidebook, feels like Tulum felt about 20 years ago, before the tourists and development. If the resort-lined beach is any indication, I wouldn’t exactly call this place rustic. But the stop is, far and away, the highlight of the trip: We swim with sea turtles. At a beachside stand, we hand $20 each to a guide from Piratas de Akumal, who leads us into the water. We swim around, trying to see through the hazy waves. The guide calls out, “Tortuga!” (“Turtle!”), and says, “Coming up!” The turtle’s smooth head, with its wizened brown-and-white face, breaks through the surface, its flippers flapping. We watch it bob for a couple of minutes, swimming along, impervious to our own flippers, and then disappear underwater. Over the course of an hour, we see five more turtles, either swimming below us or surfacing for air. Our guide tells us that it’s actually a low count, but we’re both giddy.
By night, our biggest challenge is choosing where to eat. One night, it’s rabbit stew with fresh corn tortillas by candlelight at Cenzontle, a trendy spot where antique lamps and vintage picture frames dot the outdoor space. We get a taste of the craft cocktail scene here. The Ella Fitzgerald, with lime, pineapple, jalapeño, agave syrup and tequila, is like a message in a bottle: “Go beyond the margarita!” Another night, it’s off to La Zebra, a beachfront restaurant near our hotel, for empanadas with chili and lime-roasted grasshoppers (they’re more of a crisp texture than a flavor) and cochinita pibil, which is Mayan-style pulled pork roasted in a banana leaf that’s incredibly popular (and for good reason) around these parts. For dessert, there’s coconut ice cream. Whenever and wherever I can find it.
At the end of the week, we take one last walk along the soft sands and snap a final photo of that turquoise blue, and then pack up our bags and hop in the car, headed toward the Cancun airport. As my husband slowly passes over those speed bumps in the middle of the highway, we’re able to look back at our early misadventure with a little perspective. We agree that the $195 we paid for the ride here may have been a bargain. Left to our own devices, who knows what that rental car would have looked like after we drove full speed ahead over the first set of bumps? Scam or not, maybe there was some kind of safety element to that whole ordeal, after all.
– – –
Silver, a freelance writer, is the author of “Frommer’s 2015 EasyGuide to Chicago.”
– – –
If you go
Where to stay
Nueva Vida de Ramiro
Carretera Tulum Boca Paila Km. 8.5
Choose from 33 units, each with a distinct personality (we stayed at Deseo) and views ranging from ocean to jungle, with sizes varying from small room to full house. Prices are affordable, and service is top-notch. Rates start at $100 and go up to $750 around Christmas.
Carretera Tulum Ruinas Km. 5
Designed for couples, the rooms and patios are fantastic – unless there is a crew of workers 15 feet away. Request a quiet room before you book. Rooms start at $184 with a jungle view. Sea view rooms start at $224.
Where to eat
Carretera Tulum Boca Paila Km. 7.3
Craft cocktails and a creative menu with dishes such as duck carnitas, hibiscus-stuffed empanadas and rabbit birrea (rabbit stew), served alfresco in a flirty, candlelit setting where you can wear sandals but still feel fancy. Main dishes start at about $10.
Carretera Tulum a Boca Paila Km. 8.2
Gaze at the ocean while enjoying Mayan classics such as cochinita pibil (Mayan pulled pork roasted in a banana leaf) and strong margaritas. Entrees start at $15.