Destination #1 on our year-long adventure – Tulum, Mexico.
State: Quintana Roo
Time Zone: EST
Here’s what Wikipedia has to say:
Tulum (Spanish pronunciation: [tu’lum], Yucatec: Tulu’um) is the site of a Pre-Columbian Maya walled city serving as a major port for Cobá. The ruins are situated on 12-meter (39 ft) tall cliffs, along the east coast of the Yucatán Peninsula on the Caribbean Sea in the state of Quintana Roo, Mexico. Tulum was one of the last cities built and inhabited by the Maya; it was at its height between the 13th and 15th centuries and managed to survive about 70 years after the Spanish began occupying Mexico. Old World diseases brought by the Spanish settlers appear to have resulted in very high fatalities, disrupting the society and eventually causing the city to be abandoned. One of the best-preserved coastal Maya sites, Tulum is today a popular site for tourists.
Why did we choose Tulum as our first stop, you ask? Great question. We have many friends who have vacationed here and told us that it was absolutely beautiful and totally relaxing. We’re meeting friends in Mexico City in mid-May so decided that this would be a good decompression destination.
We flew into Cancun from Tijuana, by way of the Cross Border Xpress – a secure walkway connecting the San Diego and Tijuana airports. We booked through Volaris, one of Mexico’s economy airlines, which, aside from being super inexpensive, was also actually quite comfortable. The flight was about four hours, after which we had to take a two-and-a-half hour bus ride to our final destination. Rather than taking a direct shuttle, we opted to take an ADO bus from Cancun to Tulum. It was totally comfortable and a nice way to see the landscape on our way down.
Where we’re staying
Hostel Che Tulum opened at the end of 2015 and has been the perfect first stop. The facilities are new and well maintained, breakfast is provided every morning, and they have a chef on staff who cooks special meals every few nights. I actually spent an afternoon with him teaching me how to make my favorite Mexican breakfast – Chilaquiles. You can read about that here.
We’ve spent most of our days with folks from the hostel, which has been a great way to explore the area, and to get ideas for things to do along our journey. The staff has been amazing, and it’s become our little social circle here in Tulum.
What we’ve been doing
The beaches in Tulum are some of the most beautiful that we’ve ever experienced. A coconut palm-lined stretch of soft, white sand, complemented by emerald ocean is the perfect places to relax on a towel and read a book, or take a swim in the waters. I’m admittedly more of an indoor cat, but even I was taken by the scenery. And with relatively easy access to beach mats or lounge chairs, we’d find ourselves staying for hours.
These fresh-water swimming holes line the Yucatan coast and are created by the erosion of the limestone bedrock, exposing the groundwater just below the surface. We visited three, each of which were completely different from the others.
- El Gran Cenote is, as named, the largest, and while relatively shallow, is perfect for snorkelers, or even scuba divers who can swim beneath the overhanging stone caves. At about $10 bucks (USD) to get in, it was the most expensive of the ones we visited.
- Cenote Xcacel is located off the beaten path – about a half hour’s drive from Tulum – and is much smaller than the first. Surrounded by jungle, it provides much-needed respite from the Yucatan sun, and for much of the time we had it almost entirely to ourselves.
- But our favorite, by far, was Jardin del Eden Cenote (Garden of Eden). We arrived at around 10am on a Sunday, paid our (cheap) admission, and found ourselves alone in a jungle paradise. Unlike El Gran Cenote, Jardin del Eden is mostly open to the sky, but surrounded on all sides tall plant life, which creates shaded areas, which are ideal for escaping the heat. The remains of the limestone roof sit on the cenote floor and are covered in rich, green moss, making this another spectacular habitat for snorkeling. On one end of the cenote, there is a small (12 foot) cliff for jumping. Maybe not satisfactory for the adrenaline junkies, but perfect for someone afraid of heights, who wants to feel like he accomplished something.
While they may not be as big as their counterparts in Chichen Itza or Teotihuacan, one thing they do have in spades is location. Overlooking an astonishing strip of vibrant coast line, it’s easy to imagine what made this region so desirable to the Maya who once inhabited it. Tip – GO EARLY. We’d been warned about the tour groups, which generally show up by 10am, which actually weren’t as much of an issue for us. But daaaaammmmnnn, it gets super hot and there is nowhere to hide. We spent about an hour walking around, at which point the sun one and we made a quick escape. While these ruins may not be as “impressive” as some others in the country, I think they are absolutely worth visiting. For one, walking through the remnants of a once mighty civilization always makes me feel a sense of awe that I don’t get elsewhere. But more importantly, it’s easy to become seduced by Tulum’s scenery or scene, and completely take for granted it’s history and culture. It’s worth reminding ourselves why this place exists at all.
Friends & Family
As I mentioned before, we spent a ton of time with the folks from our hostel. Some were traveling for just a few weeks, while others had already been on the road for months, or in one case, years! Some had just finished college and were preparing to enter the real world (the same one we’re escaping), and others have created ways to work for limited periods of time, in order to afford them the ability to hit the road. Unsurprisingly, the community of Americans was small, and most that we met were traveling for a few weeks at most, which put us in a unique category. We were also fortunate to have my sister-in-law, Cat, and her boyfriend, Antonio, come visit us for the weekend. Even though we’ve only been gone for a week, it was really terrific to have a small connection to home.
What we’ve been eating
Tacos. Lots of tacos. We’re paying anywhere from 8 to 12 pesos per (about $.50-$.75), and the fish is fresh and prepared perfectly. So far, the tortillas themselves have left something to be desired, but we’ll keep hunting. There are a lot of higher-end restaurants here in town, but we’ve been mostly avoiding them. Between cooking for ourselves at the hostel and eating locally around town, there’s plenty to satisfy us on a budget. Here are some favorites for your next visit:
This place came highly recommended by the staff at our hostel. It sits right on the beach, and the tacos are reasonably priced, compared to the other beach-front locations – 20-40 pesos p/taco. Please order the grilled shrimp tacos. They are amazing. We arrived around 11:30am, just before they opened, and snagged a mat on the beach. Six hours, five tacos, and four hours later, we finally departed for the equivalent of about $25 USD.
Zak: “Question. Where are the best tacos in town?” Locals we met: “El Rincon Chiapaneco.” ‘Nuff said. This place is down a side street, but was still full of a mix of both tourists and locals. We ordered a plate of nachos, since they’re one of the few places in town that makes them “traditional Chiapas-style.” Not too sure what that means, but they were delicious, so I’ll let it slide. We also ordered a couple tacos and an order of garnachas – a thick, fried cornmeal cake, topped with meat, beans, cheese, crema, and some type of sauce. Yes. Good.
If you’re looking for cheap, delicious seafood, this is the place to go. The small (but giant) plate of mixed ceviche cost 95 pesos. If we hadn’t been clued in, we would have surely passed it by, since it’s located down a side street on the other side of town (just a 15 minute walk).
One of Liz’s and my favorite travel challenges is finding off-the-beaten-path culinary treasures, that haven’t yet been overrun by tourists. Situated about 20 minutes north of Tulum, in Soliman Bay, Chamico’s is just that. If a few friends hadn’t been clued in, there’s no way we ever would have found this place. In order to get there, you’ll either need a car or a cab. This small, beach-on restaurant is known for their ceviche, as well as their whole fried fish – both of which we tried. The ceviche includes fish, lobster and octopus and comes accompanied by a bowl of tortilla chips – the perfect salty, crunchy complement. We also ordered the shrimp in garlic butter (Camaron Ajillo, I believe), which was so good we ended up ordering a second and packing it into any unspoken for plot of stomach real estate.
Tulum exceeded all our expectations. If you’re staying in one of the beach resorts, I could see it being easy to stick to that ultimate comfort, but for us, the experience was made through the people we met at our hostel and through exploring everything the area has to offer.