A Trip to Tulum
Hey listen—I’m not the most cultured and experienced world traveler. For example, this was my first experience traveling somewhere after you poop, the plumbing is so sensitive that you have to throw the poop-covered toilet paper into a trash can rather than flush it. I was assured this is a quite common “beach thing” by my travel compatriots who have gone more exotic places. Like anything else in life, you get used to it.
I’m talking about my recent week-long trip to Tulum, Mexico with my wife Miranda and two great friends Andrea and Rebekah.
Like the cultured interesting people they are, who walk around Earth with their eyes and ears open, they have passable tourist Spanish. Andrea is fluent, which was extremely helpful. I spent my time pointing at things and shrugging. I learned that the gracious people of Mexico who work in retail and restaurants tend to have little pocket calculators in which to type out numbers and show me so that I can understand what I owe them.
There is no airport in Tulum. You have to fly into Cancun, which is an established tourist zone with things like Wednesday night foam parties at Señor Frog’s. If you’re into foam parties, you’re better off in Cancun. Unless it’s avocado-lime foam, in which please feel free to proceed to Tulum.
The Cancun airport is the last stop where you can buy Reese’s dipped pretzel nuggets, get a nacho tower at Guy Fieri’s Flavortown, and drink a Jimmy Buffet endorsed margarita before getting in a van and taking you on your actual vacation with none of these things. Well, there are margaritas. But Jimmy Buffet isn’t involved.
Random tip, swing by Chedraui on the way to your resort and bulk up on snacks.
Our hotel booked a van to take us from Cancun to Tulum, which was nice, as I’m quite sure I don’t know how to make an international phone call, let alone communicate the fact we were coming in on different flights at slightly different times. “Bob Transfers” (the only internet presence they have is a TripAdvisor thread called “Anyone heard of Bob Transfers?”) charged $230 which they required in USD. A small blue sun-beaten laminated sign attached to the rearview window reminded us that a tip was not included. They brought us tiny bottles of Corona for the drive down, so a tip well-earned.
Note the Coronas were not present on the return trip, almost like they knew a week in Mexico kinda stamps out the desire for last-minute road beers.
The hotel was La Zebra, part of a small hotel group down there. (Hey, I like chains. Except for ones that Jimmy Buffet is involved in.) I booked it through a combination of asking Twitter for recommendations (thanks Ali!), general website quality, and Instagram stalking. Still, it felt like a roll of the dice. The dice came up with a critical hit as I can barely imagine a nicer place to stay. Our hotel room had a wonderfully comfortable bed, large useful closet, and walk-in double shower. Oh right, and a little open-air wicker trash can to put your shit covered toilet paper. They give you a very detailed tour of your room which is very clear on the point of the toilet paper. You get used to it, you get used to it.
The most important detail of this hotel room though is that it doesn’t just look like it’s on the ocean. Like the hero image on the website makes it seem like that, but when you get there you find out it’s really across the street and down the road. No, La Zebra is right on the damn ocean. Or Gulf of Mexico or whatever (it’s right on the edge). It was 30 steps or so through beautiful soft sand right from our porch to the water’s edge.
The water was warm and refreshing and even the ocean floor was sandy and nice. Even in though we were visiting in “high season” (peak tourists), we didn’t have to fight for a cabana. A day was easily made lounging around in a cabana and popping in and out of the ocean.
I guess seaweed is a big problem sometimes. Nasty red stuff that stinks and strikes swimming from the agenda. It wasn’t a problem while we were there. Instagram is your friend there since you can always look at timely location-based photos.
There is an actual city center of Tulum. We went there exactly once just to check it out. It’s covered in shops to sell things to tourists like us. Luchador masks, dream catchers, wooden animals, skull figures, and colorful linens. 90% of the stores were these same-y kinda junk stores (I bought a colorful belt and some little figurines for like $5 and I don’t regret it) and 10% very fancy posh stores also for tourists (I bought some fancy shirt from Italian fibers and sewn in Mexico for like $100 and I don’t regret that either).
We ate at Burrito Amor and had rather good grilled burritos. This is also where I learned that you don’t generally get triangular tortilla chips in Mexico but rather entire fried tortillas that you break up yourself.
I hear the nightlife is best in town. We’re not exactly nightlife sort of people so I can’t vouch for that. We stayed on the beach which is some 30 minutes away by car and largely stayed there.
We visited one place that literally called itself a “daylight” beach club, meaning it didn’t have lights so shut down when it got dark. It’s not that the beach has zero nightlife, it’s just in the form of very nice restaurants that close at 11. I saw zero dancing is my point (other than an instructional salsa dancing workshop). Definitely no foam parties. Although I did hear a group of 20 somethings talk about making out with other 20 somethings so if that’s what beach vacations means to you, it’s there. In fact, I found the density of attractive people a little unsettling and I’m glad I could be there to balance it out.
This is an important thing about Tulum: it’s mostly about the beach and THE ROAD. There is one road that goes up and down the beach for many literal miles. It’s mostly set away from the water such that the actual businesses are waterfront and the road itself is jungle-shrouded. THE ROAD is the only way to get around the beach, by car, foot, bike, motorcycle, giant truck, or little tiny four-wheeler designed to look like an American army jeep that you can rent (really). THE ROAD is very busy. THE ROAD is narrow and only kinda half-paved and quite torn up in a not-so-temporary way. It’s very dirty and dusty, such that when businesses open, the first order of business is wiping the dust away from everything. Most businesses are almost entirely outside, so everything is dusty. I don’t know what they do in the rain, it literally never rained while we were there.
If they turned THE ROAD into a boardwalk for walkers and bikers and somehow moved the road away a bit, it would be the coolest boardwalk in the damn world. The way it is now, it was a little stressful for me. I got more used to it as the week went on, but it still feels like the #1 opportunity for Tulum to improve.
What is so fascinating is that THE ROAD is absolutely covered head to toe in incredible things. Incredible restaurants. Incredible resorts. Incredible shops. Everything is integrated into this shaded-jungle one-with-nature aesthetic that every place has a different take on but still all feels cohesive. There isn’t like a Carl’s Junior halfway down it killing the vibe.
It’s almost like Tulum is just as defined by what isn’t there than what is. There is no mini-golf (or regular golf). There is no Dippin’ Dots. There is no zip-lining or go-karts or petting zoos or Italian Night at the resort. It’s touristy, but for relaxed adults. There was yoga on the beach, hot stone massages, and guest mixologists.
There are quite a few pharmacies. It’s nice to know if you get a cold or are having trouble sleeping you’ve got a place to go. I suspect the density of them has something to do with the fact you can buy cold bottled water, and more importantly, pain killers and viagra without having to beg a doctor. I wanted to play so I bought some “diet pills” which ironically looked like little pods of cupcake sprinkles. They mostly just made me want stare blankly and smoke cigarettes (I didn’t hate it). We also bought some muscle relaxers for the legit reason of muscle spasms and it was effective.
If you’re curious about “real” drugs, just walk THE ROAD at night. We were offered weed, PCP, ecstasy, and cocaine. We didn’t buy any of that, surprisingly, but I suspect it wouldn’t have gone well. I don’t think drug dealers are particularly well incentivized to sell tourists they’ll never see again a safe and quality product at a reasonable price.
If you’re on the beach during the day, you’ll be offered dream catchers at approximately the same rate of cocaine on THE ROAD at night. It’s low pressure though. Everyone wants to sell you something but they take being ignored or waved off pretty well.
Let’s talk food. There are some damn fine restaurants on THE ROAD. Again I’m not the most cultured dude (I actively like McDonald’s, if you need a measuring stick) so I’ll leave proper restaurant reviews for others. But we ate at places I found extremely fancy and high quality like Arca, Hartwood, and Bak.
Here’s the vibe at Hartwood. They are only open for dinner. They have solar panels, so their lights and music are powered by the sun. They cook by woodfire. So during the day, while the solar panels are charging, they drive around the peninsula buying fresh food, then coalesce in the evening to cook it for you. They take reservations somehow but do not have fancy machinery like a credit card machine. It’s pesos-only, which you count out with the flashlight on your phone. But it’s good as fuck, so they can do whatever they want, as evidenced by the monospace body copy on their website.
Having cash on you is the way to go. I can’t really speak to the safety of that (I’m a big man, so never feel particularly at risk of physical threats) but practically-speaking, having as much cash as you’ll need is very useful. Here’s an example of where not having cash on you is a pain in the ass. Before we went to Hartwood for dinner, we knew it was cash-only, but were short on cash. So we had to find an ATM, but weirdly, most of the ATMS on THE ROAD are USD only. So first we had to find one of those (they aren’t exactly everywhere) and withdraw USD cash. That’s $8 a pop plus 8% of the transaction (holy what what). Then you have to convert it to pesos, which is another ~8%. That’ll turn $100 into $75 just for the right to spend it, which is pretty rough. I would have liked to have converted money exactly once, but instead, we did it more like 4-5 times. Reminder: the maximum amount of cash you can bring into the country is $10,000 USD, but you’re one rich motherfucker if you’re blowing through that in cash on a vacation.
Ideally, everything would take credit cards. It’s pretty random. One little food court taco truck will take every credit card under the sun, including American Express and Diners Club cards (?!), but more commonly it’s Visa or MasterCard only, and most commonly it’s cash only (like cabs). Most places will take USD, but factor in an exchange rate. Again, just have pesos.
Random one for ya: Eat the Jícama. Everywhere. We had at least three different interesting Jícama preparations and they were all amazing. It’s a little lackluster in the States usually, so don’t miss it here.
Bak, another fancy restaurant on THE ROAD, had only been open a few weeks when we stumbled in. It didn’t even exist on the internet yet. It’s largely a steakhouse, and we had a wonderful surf’n’turf dinner where they prepared a good amount of the dinner tableside. I used the restroom at the end of the meal (I won’t remind you what you’re expected to do with the toilet paper), only to find out they didn’t have any water. Somehow the toilet flushed, but it didn’t refill and there was no way to wash hands. I wouldn’t have thought it too much about it until the chef went into the restroom right after me. “Oh sorry, we don’t have water yet” is a strange thing to hear at a restaurant you’ve just spent many hundred dollars at.
Here’s the thing about water. Nobody really has it. It has to be delivered. Huge water trucks deliver water by thick red hoses to all the businesses. Hundreds of big trucks down THE ROAD each day. Similarly with electricity. The beach is off the grid, so power comes from huge diesel generators some more hidden from tourists than others.
You know how they say “don’t drink the water”? Don’t drink the water. My guts got all busted up until I just stopped drinking anything that wasn’t bottled. Anecdotal, of course, but even the fancy hotel staff warn you not to drink tap. La Zebra provided carafes in the room, but I even stopped trusting that. I also have a bad habit of swallowing shower water so if you’re like me, watch that. Also anecdotally, our tour guide says he gets sick in the U.S. drinking water he isn’t used to, so it’s not a one-way problem.
Quick hits on food:
- Cetli had this incredible appetizer of cheeses they give you for free. The house special is this stuffed chili thing with a pomegranate cream sauce that was probably the best thing I ate on the whole trip. They are known for mole’s and we tried and liked literally all of them.
- Bak cooked a damn fine steak and the tableside prepped Ceasar salad was great. I was tempted to get the fancy Kobe steak they sear in front of your eyes, but we have a pretty nice steak joint right in Bend and I figured Tulum wasn’t exactly the place to go all-out on steak.
- I ordered a gin and tonic at Roseanegra and it came out like a dry ice volcano which I was super down with.
- Arca was perhaps the fanciest place we ate, but I was at my most sick here and wasn’t able to enjoy it much. I remember the Grilled Avocado was pretty wonderful. Culinary foam was involved.
- We did brunch at Mina. They have their own little alcove on the beach which was rad, but happened to be one place that was rather seaweed infested. I had some pretty straightforward pancakes.
Let’s talk La Zebra, the hotel we stayed at. Let’s actually call it a resort. I don’t know the difference exactly, but this place, while only having what seemed like a dozen rooms, had 3 bars, 2 restaurants, a rooftop pool, a beach club, and spa. That seems pretty resort-like to me.
At La Zebra, everything (food, drinks, spa treatments) were priced just like they would be in the United States. Margaritas are 10 bucks. Toast and jam is 5 bucks. This Mexican vacation isn’t going to be all about cost savings. Maybe it feels that way to New Yorkers, but not for most of us. Down the road was another beachfront hotel with $99 USD rooms and free breakfast (La Zebra is ~4× that without breakfast), so there were certainly more economical options. I also saw plenty of folks around with huge backpacks on, which I imagine we’re youngs staying at hostels and having Big Life Adventures with barely any money.
La Zebra’s main restaurant was OK. Since we were staying there, it just didn’t feel particularly special, nor was there any particular standout dish. It’s a cool space though!
The clientele at La Zebra was fascinating. You had our group of 40-year-olds, and we weren’t alone in our age bracket. There was a couple of MacBook-toting nerds there, checking Twitter and not totally unplugging, like me. Then some old couples clearly enjoying a retirement trip. Plus some families with babies and toddlers.
The largest contingent? Hot people. New York women seemed to be the main demographic.
We were graced with two topless sunbathers. One, a beautiful young brunette already so bronzed the sun wasn’t doing much. She only popped up occasionally to take smiley FaceTime calls remaining topless. The other was like an angrier drunker Frances McDormand who also took periodic topless FaceTime calls. I’m not sure which I enjoyed more.
There was half-decent WiFi at La Zebra. It didn’t do an amazing job of stretching to the rooms, but within the restaurant and lounging areas, it was perfectly fine. Phone service was not. At one point I needed to call my bank and the call dropped on me several times before I just gave up. It’s no better anywhere else on the beach. If you absolutely need to make an important phone call, go to town.
Sunday night is the most hoppin’ night. The only night with a live band.
We did one big excursion out into the peninsula, booked through the resort rather than something we booked ourselves on something like Tours by Locals. Our guide was Omar, who took us to Chichen Itza. Chichen Itza is a fascinating place, worth visiting if nothing else because it is one of the new seven wonders of the world. It gets a major strike though from me as it’s so absolutely covered in hundreds of fairly aggressive vendors selling junk that it really takes from the experience.
It’s not just the pyramid thing, which is amazing enough on its own (wait til you hear the weird echo’s it can make) it’s a whole area with lots of buildings. Temples and observatories and whatnot. The coolest thing is the ruins of the ballcourt. It’s impossible not to watch a dozen YouTube videos of what that game was thought to be like after seeing it. Apparently they sacrificed the winner.
The next stop was Ik Kil, bringing us to this important fact:
Centotes are cool as shit.
Cenote’s are like rainwater filled sinkholes. They are all different and interesting. Mostly freshwater, some a bit brackish. Somehow there is enough water movement and filtration happening that the water isn’t gross, it’s clean and clear and fresh.
Ik Kil was this ominous hole in the middle of the jungle where you can’t really see the bottom from the top. You take a set of stairs down (after a required shower) into it, where an incredible vine-laced swimming hole emerges.
Knowing what I know now, I’d probably only go around to different cenotes for excursions. I’d love to see some really remote ones off the general tourist circuit.
We also went to Gran Cenote, the close and super popular one, which was also awesome. We went right as it opened to avoid the crowd, and it was still a touch busy for my liking.
All in all, an absolutely tremendous trip that I’ll remember forever. I even got over the fact that you have to keep little baskets of poop paper in your room. Definitely, totally, completely got over it.