Tulum Revisited

By Kathleen Kemsley © 2021

As a general rule, I do not visit the same place twice.  The world offers so many incredibly varied destinations, that why would you return to any place for a second look?  But I’ve learned to “never say never,” and so, in 2016 I made the decision to return to Tulum. 

The perpetuating factor was that I had arranged to meet a small group of friends in Cancun as a launch point for an exploration of Cuba.  The trip to Cuba itself was only a week long.  After coming all the way to Cancun, I thought about what else could I do while I was there. 

In 2007, my husband and I had taken a long camping trip along the Ruta Maya, four months and 4000 miles, through Yucatan, Belize, and Guatemala.  During that marathon drive, we spent a night at a campground near Tulum, visiting the photogenic Mayan ruins at the edge of the Caribbean Sea.  At the time, the town of Tulum – small, sleepy, and traditional – seemed like an attractive place to spend more time.  But we moved on to the towering pyramids at Coba the next day, then continued south to the border of Belize. 

So, with some time to spare before the Cuba trip, I decided to return and explore Tulum further.  My friend and I met at the airport and flew into Cancun late one night.  We negotiated with the Super Shuttle people to get a ride for $20 from the airport to Hotel Encanto, a cheap B&B (minus the breakfast) in a residential section of Cancun, far from the over-touristy beach resort area.  At $36.00 the lodging was a good value which included a/c and a fan, a tiny bathroom and a pool.  My friend wasted no time plunging into the pool.  In the morning I crept out the gate and went walking in the quiet neighborhood, stopping at OXXO to get coffee.  Upon returning, we loaded up and took a taxi to the bus station. 

We had some time before the next southbound bus, so ignoring the Subway and other chain restaurants inside the station, we went outside and ordered a couple of tacos from a street vendor.  I walked across the street for a large cup of freshly squeezed jugo naranja, which I shared.  Then we boarded the bus. 

Three hours later, we arrived at the Hotel Pacha Tulum.  The room that I had reserved online had two beds as I had requested, however they were pushed together.  I quickly moved as much space as I could between them (about 6”) because I had already discovered that my friend’s snoring was loud enough to disturb my sleep.  Thank goodness, I brought heavy duty ear plugs. 

The next day we caught a collectivo (small public bus) that carried us the three miles to the Tulum ruins.  As I recalled from my previous visit, the ruins on the Caribbean coast were not anywhere near as stunning as other Mayan ruins elsewhere on the Yucatan.  They had not been a ceremonial center for the Mayan civilization, as Uxmal and Chichen Itza had been; and the low, grey and black buildings lacked the majesty of the pyramids and grand palaces of other Mayan cities.  Instead Tulum housed the remains of some kind of coastal lookout complex.  Walled ramparts surrounding the site on three sides, defending the settlement from any attackers.  The Tulum ruins contained an observatory where ancient inhabitants (with a well-documented knowledge of astronomy) could chart the seasons and keep the calendars.  There were some small temples and a palace of sorts.  The main attraction of the Tulum ruins, besides their photogenic location at the edge of the Caribbean Sea, was their proximity to the heavily touristed areas of Cancun and Playa del Carmen. 

We had not managed to arrive at the ruins early enough.  At mid-morning, the site was already overrun with masses of humanity milling around.  After taking a cursory walkabout and snapping a few photographs of iguanas reclining on the ancient walls of the seaside site, we departed by foot and walked south on the beach until we had escaped most of the crowds.  We bought lunch at a beachside restaurant, then went swimming in a turquoise Caribbean.  I was a little self-conscious about taking my clothes off, imagining everyone was looking at my less-than-perfect fifty-something-year-old body in a bikini.  But then, I looked around and realized that all the women on the beach wore bikinis, even the fat mammas and grandmas.  No one really cared.

Back at the Hotel Pacha Tulum, at the front desk clerk’s suggestion, we signed up for tomorrow’s day trip to the Sian Ka’an Biological Preserve.  Designated a World Heritage site in 1987, the 1.2 million acre preserve protected miles of untouched coastline, jungle, marshland, and islands.  It was rumored that the jungle hid hundreds of unexplored Mayan ruin sites; the area was also home to monkeys, foxes, pumas, caimans, ocelots, raccoons, and tons of birds.  

The cost of $125 each seemed a bit steep, but it turned out to be a full day trip, rich with eco-friendly activities.  We boarded a boat to cruise the mangroves along the shore where we spied crocodiles, then to the deeper water offshore for dolphins and sea tortoises.  At one point, we stopped for a swim in waist-deep crystal clear turquoise water with dazzling white sand under our feet.  Eventually, the boat carried us to a remote outpost within the mangroves for a huge lunch of fish, rice, salad, fruit, beverages, and dessert.    

Over lunch, I befriended a garrulous woman from British Columbia.  She hardly shut up all the way through lunch and talked a blue streak in the van riding back to the hotel.  My travel partner later opined that she was flaky.  She was a nurse who spoke at least 4 languages, and had traveled the world by herself…hardly flaky in my eyes.  But my friend also thought the boat driver speeded recklessly, while my urge was to tip the guy extra because he spiced up a long, uneventful ride back to land from the restaurant. 

The next morning we rented bicycles, pathetic one-speeds that had seen better days in the 1980s.  The cost was 80 pesos per day, or about five dollars, not a bad deal, but also not a means of traveling in style.  I suggested we ride to Gran Cenote, down the highway away from town, because traffic was light and we could get used to the bikes. 

Cenotes are deep water holes that occur naturally in the limestone all over the Yucatan.  The Mayans treated them with reverence, as they provided the most dependable source of fresh water in the riverless region.  The Mayans also occasionally used cenotes as a receptacle for sacrificial religious items to bribe Chac, the Rain God.  I had visited several cenotes on the previous trip to Yucatan, but there are literally hundreds of them dotting the peninsula, some well-marked and some kept secret. 

Gran Cenote was a 15 minute bicycle ride west of our hotel.  After using the changing rooms at the surface, we followed a steep stairway down into the hole.  Plunging into cool clear water, we swam around the edge of the huge limestone cavern.  Giant ferns drooped over the water; moss and vines hung from the ceiling.  A shaft of sunlight pierced the gloom of the underground cavern.  Tiny fish shared the swimming hole with us.  How did they get in there? I wondered.  Fortunately there were only a couple other people in the water – we had departed early in the day – and so it was a quiet, stirring and inspirational experience. 

Returning to town when the crowds began to arrive at the cenote, we bicycled down the main street of Tulum.  The last time I had been there, no tourist infrastructure existed in Tulum Pueblo; it was a sleepy Mexican village with nothing to attract visitors.  In the ensuing ten years, things had changed quickly.  Main Street in Tulum was now dotted with backpacker hostels, bars, and tourist-themed restaurants, complete with touters standing outside holding a menu and calling to passersby in English to “come look, good food, cold beer, almost free.” 

We opted for a non-tourist restaurant in the old style of small Mexican towns everywhere.  Sitting at a rickety table outside on the patio, we were served a roasted half chicken, along with a pile of home-made tortillas and condiments: cabbage, tomato, pico de gallo, several types of salsa, cilantro, and lime.  The whole meal cost us two dollars each.  At some distance down the street, I could hear the blast of music playing in a “disco bar.”

During a run at dawn that morning, I had noticed a new subdivision being carved out of the jungle between the town of Tulum and the coast.  The sleepy local village of Tulum that I remembered from the visit in 2007 was quickly disappearing.  It was not exactly a center of mindless partying and consuming vast quantities of alcohol, a la Cancun. At least there was no Señor Frog’s.  Rather, Tulum was reinventing itself as a low-key alternative to Cancun, complete with eco-lodges, yoga resorts, and handfuls of dreadlocked hippie kids populating the hostels. 

As we rode our bicycles along the beach after lunch, we checked on lodging options.  Quickly, we ascertained that the beachfront boutique hotels were way too fancy for our budget.  Some places went for upwards of $500 per night.  Yes, these hotels came complete with white sand beaches and hammocks hanging from palm trees, next to the sparkling Caribbean Sea.  But their gated courtyards and hotel-guests-only restaurants  smacked of exclusivity.  I much preferred a hotel nearer to what I considered the real Mexico.  Our Hotel Pacha Tulum, with its colorful walls, open courtyard, clean but basic bathrooms, and proximity to Tulum’s still somewhat funky main street were infinitely more enjoyable.

Two Sides of Cuba

By Kathleen Kemsley (c) 2021

Cuba, only 90 miles from Florida, felt like it was on the other side of the world from the ultra-modern United States. Or on a different planet.  There was no McDonalds, no Starbucks, no advertising billboards.  No internet, no smart phones.  The women dressed up in high heels and last year’s fashions if they had them.  But the men, wearing shabby black pants, stood on the sidewalk early in the morning talking in small groups about politics.  They didn’t have cable TV.  Most didn’t have cars or even bicycles. 

Dogs ran loose on the streets, cleaning up any rotten food or scraps they could find.  Cats too ran free, keeping the rodent population low.  No one had a front yard or back yard.  The buildings in the neighborhood where we stayed in Havana had belonged to rich people in the 1950s: wealthy foreigners or the Cubans who had become wealthy in their service.  After those folks were thrown out of the country in 1959, the government redistributed their houses to families.  Free.  The catch was, a house had to be passed on to the kids.  People couldn’t buy or sell them (because they belonged to the government). 

There were, therefore, a couple of unintended results: (a) the families, now into their third generation since the revolution, were crammed into the houses like sardines; and (b) there was very little pride of ownership. Facades crumbled, paint peeled, fences rusted and gates broke.  Sidewalks cracked and heaved to the point of threatening danger to walkers.  Nothing was being maintained because, why should they?  The government was the owner, not the resident.  

The exception was those homes that had in recent years been turned into B&B’s such as the one where my small group of travelers stayed. The family lived on the top floor.  The lower floor, consisting of 5 bedrooms, a dining room, and a small living room, was for guests.  Our quarters were large, well furnished, and air conditioned, with a sparkling tiled bathroom twice the size of my bathroom at home.  On the terrace, they served us a full breakfast of scrambled eggs, toast, fruit, coffee, and juice, while in the house, the host family ate beans and tortillas.

In Havana we were guided by Rosia, 27, a woman who worked for the government and provided the “official” information about the city and its history, often reading off a printed sheet of “facts.”  She explained that there were two types of peso in Cuba.  Cuban Pesos were rationed to everyone equally regardless of their occupation.  Doctors earned the same as trash collectors.  These pesos were used to purchase staples such as beans, rice, milk, and cheese.  Only Convertible Pesos could be spent on luxuries such as gas, cell phones, and new clothes.  To earn Convertible Pesos, the government allowed people to practice small-scale capitalism, trading goods to tourists, with individual profits carefully accounted for and taxed. 

We went first to the cathedral area, where 1950s cars hauled around tourists.  The engines had been replaced with Russian-made diesel engines and thus kept running long after their original parts wore out.  Since gas cost $5.00/gallon, very few local people had money for a car, other than those who hired them out as taxis. 

Black women dressed in colorful gaudy dresses to simulate Caribbean dance hall floozies of yesteryear, smoking cigars and acting forward with men.  Visitors had to pay them to take a picture.  Other hustlers included a three-piece band that walked up to tourist groups and started blaring “Guantanamera” and then demanding payment; boys on three-wheeled cycles who would pedal overweight tourists across the square; and vendors by the statues whose card tables were piled with books about the revolution. 

Next we were led by the government mouthpiece, Rosia, past a couple tall buildings with giant metal sculpture images of Che and Fidel on their fronts.  Then it was on to an urban park featuring a serene river, with overhanging trees, that was totally trashed.  Again, no pride of ownership. 

Along the way, I asked Rosia whether Havana had any crazy, alcoholic, or homeless people.  ”Very few,” she said.  “The party takes care of everyone, houses everyone, there are none who don’t have somewhere to live.”  The way she said it, sing-song, made her sound like she was quoting directly from a communism pamphlet.  Discussing it later, my friend and I agreed that she was either outright lying, or she had her head in the sand.

We drove a couple hours west of the city the next day to visit the Vinales Valley, a fertile dale lined by dramatic limestone cliffs. There they mostly grew tobacco, along with family-sized (non-commercial) supplies of vegetables, fruits, coffee, chickens, pigs, horses, goats, and sugar cane for making rum.  We went to a cigar and rum house.  One of the owners, whom I thought of as Mr. Guapo, demonstrated how to roll a cigar.  He was swarthy and good looking, with a devil-may-care wicked smile and a laugh on his lips.  The women swooned, and several of them were persuaded to buy a cigar that they probably would never smoke.     

I rode back to Havana in the front seat of a taxi with another Mr. Guapo, a taxi driver named William.  He spoke almost no English, and some of the other women thought he was crude and played his music too loud.  But I indulged in a little flirtation, knowing that it was all a game to Mr. Guapo.      

We departed Havana the next morning bound for Playa Larga.  It took most of the day to get there, due to stopping to search for a rare hummingbird in some guy’s back yard.  I walked through the beach town the next morning, past many small houses that have all been hopefully converted to B & B’s, but looked sadly vacant of tourists. 

Along the road, we stopped at a museum in Giron, where the Bay of Pigs invasion was memorialized with a Russian tank and plane.  They’re very proud to proclaim that they repelled the attempts of the USA back in 1961 overthrow the communist government.  But across the street, at little stands next to the bathrooms, locals sold earrings, baskets, and ceramic figurines.  So much for the revolution and power to the people.  All they really wanted lately was a way to make some extra pesos to spend on new clothes and beer.   

Then it was on to the end of the road in Trinidad.  Late in the evening, I collapsed into a clean bed at Casa Colonial Torrado, vintage 1830 and very nicely preserved.  The next morning, we went to the local artisan market.  There more vendors hawked trinkets.  “Look Lady, you like?” they called plaintively.

I loved the vintage remnants of a bygone era in Cuba.  But the persistence with which destitute residents tried to scrape together a few extra pesos was hard to resist.  Yes, I paid too much for an enamel bracelet.  But perhaps, for those fifty convertible pesos, someone’s daughter might get a new pair of shoes.