Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Mexico Part III: Tulum


Day 1: Isla Mujeres to Tulum. No problem. This was a piece of cake. Ferry to Puerto Juarez, or I guess it’s technically Grand Puerto (70 pesos per person one-way). Taxi to the Cancun bus station (30 pesos…don’t bother with the collectivo). Caught the bus to Tulum (92 pesos each on ADO, the nice bus company with reserved seating and extra loud kid’s movies) which stopped once, in Playa del Carmen. Once in Tulum we ate lunch in town because we knew there weren’t going to be a lot of options once we got the hotel zone. We picked a restaurant across the street from the bus station which was very good. I had sopas and my wife had tacos. Maybe the best food in town (can’t remember the name but there were waterfalls on the menu) Our waiter claimed he used to make $3000 a week picking tobacco in Kentucky. Sure you did. Caught a cab to our hotel (50 pesos).
Hotel : Coco Tulum. Yikes. Where to begin. After much TA research I picked this place because it was inexpensive, but seemed to be well reviewed. No fan. No AC. I knew all of this going in. I thought I could handle it. But if they don’t offer these electricity-based amenities, why was the very loud generator going full steam all day long? It ran from 8AM to 11PM with some breaks. Hardly tranquil or peaceful. I did not feel like Robinson Crusoe marooned on a beautiful tropical beach. There is nothing “eco-chic” about a gas generator. All their talk about sustainability, wind power, solar power was a lot of BS as far as my visit was concerned. Wifi only worked if you sat outside, in front of somebody else’s room. I don’t necessarily need wifi, but don’t tell me you have it in the room when you don’t. There’s more…The people who designed the cabins seem not to understand the basic physics of wind. It doesn’t matter if you have a nice big window facing the beach and the ocean breeze if you don’t have a window on the other side to create a draft, right? Four nights in an oven. This was the part of the trip I booked (not my wife), so good times for me. Tried to stay positive.
We walked down the beach to the Playa Azul hotel, which is a sister property with beach chairs and umbrellas you can use for free. Very nice. Also a nice beach bar and restaurant. Prices are much steeper than Cancun or Isla Mujeres. Then we walked up the beach, in the direction of the ruins. Some very nice rustic hotels and some hotels plagued by seaweed stink. Had a beer in Turtle Cove at the Sandbox. Nice place with an interesting menu and locals net-fishing in the water. Kept walking. Stopped for another beer and a snack at Mateos, a very popular restaurant on the street (not the beach). Good service, decent prices, and mosquitoes. Couldn’t stay since we left the bug repellant back in the room. Pitch dark. We walked back to our hotel along the road. Very unnerving. Late at night we strolled the beach looking for turtles…and actually found one making her way up the beach to do her thing. Amazing experience to watch. We stayed for 2 hours, until she’d buried all her eggs, but had to go to sleep (1:00 AM) before we could watch her crawl back to the ocean. Saw her track back to the beach the next morning so we know she made it. Went to sleep sweating and woke up in a stupor. I will never again in my life get a room in the tropics without at least a fan. What was I thinking?
On a positive hotel note, my wife was nervous about the shared bathrooms but they were always very clean. The staff cleans them constantly. Maybe there’s hot water. I never even considered turning that knob. The hotel grounds were also very clean and there were hammocks everywhere. Great place as long as you don’t spend any time in your room. Potentially during a different time of year this hotel could be a good option, even the garden view rooms. We knew it would be hot and I can’t blame the hotel for that.

Day 2: Took a cold shower to shake off the heat coma from the night before. Caught a cab from our hotel to the Grande Cenote (100 pesos). Really nice experience. It cost 100 pesos per person. Bring a mask and snorkel. Crowded. Lots of birds and bats and little turtles and fish. Cold and out of the sun. Perfect for us. Highly recommended. Cab back to Tulum town (50 pesos). We had lunch at an Italian restaurant (not the one by the traffic light) that sold homemade bread. Good meal. Cold beer 2 for 1. Walked to the San Francisco market for supplies and ice. Cab back to the hotel (50 pesos). Went to Playa Azul and sat on the beach. Came back to the room and the hotel had no power (the generator was broken…but what about wind, solar?). Once it got dark I asked the front desk for a candle but she didn’t have any even though the room came with a candle lantern. Another guest gave me her candle, which was very kind. I asked about a refund for the next two nights and was basically laughed at. Then they got the power going by fixing the generator. Went to sleep at 11:00. Couldn’t hear anything except a loud mechanical roar. Hot stagnant air in the room, and upside down cockroaches on the bed. Yikes. Missing Isla Mujeres badly. If you stay at Coco you must have a ocean front room or forget it. Talked to somebody who had an ocean front room and he said the heat wasn’t a problem and he couldn’t hear the generator. We paid $45 a night and he paid $65.

Day 3: Decided to do nothing but hang out on the beach. Took a long walk south along Tulum beach. Pretty. Looked for a place to eat dinner later and everything seemed quiet. Thunderstorms and some rain which was wonderful. Walked to dinner north along the beach and once again encountered rank seaweed that literally singed my senses. Some of the hotels must be really struggling because the smell is awful. Went back to Mateo’s for dinner which was great. Another sketchy walk back along the road. Went out later at night to look for turtles again but didn’t see any. Worst night of sleep in my life. Only stay at Coco if you are very tough ( I thought other TA posters were exaggerating the heat but they weren’t at all). Not enjoyable. Almost drown in a pool of my own sweat. Made me wonder what that mattress has going on inside of it. Miserable.

Day 4: Woke up and stared at the wall for an hour. Then caught a cab to the Tulum ruins (60 pesos, down from 70, but up from the 50 we were offered the day before) At the entrance from the hotel zone we bought ice cold water based on TA recommendations (20 pesos). At the gate where the taxis let you off there is a kiosk that looks official and important but is really staffed by a salesman who will offer you guided tours of the ruins and the beaches. He told us we’d have to pay to access the amazing Tulum ruins beach. That was a lie. The beach access is free with admission to the ruins. It was hot and crowded at the ruins but very beautiful and well worth seeing (51 pesos per person, but you can sneak in if you’re really soulless by walking in the exit). Plan on swimming. The beach is incredible. Beautiful water and the ruins behind you. And aggressive iguanas invading picnics. Caught a cab back to our hotel (50 pesos). Went back to the Playa Azul beach club and relaxed. Stopped the guy selling fruit and told him I wanted some pinas. He quoted me 80 pesos—7 dollars for about 5 pieces of pineapple. When I told him he was insane he gave me a story about how he walks up and down the beach in the hot sun (which he does) without water. I saw him hanging out at our beach bar the day before sipping ice water, but who knows. But 80 pesos! Ridiculous. Talked him down to 30 and still felt like I got ripped off. Tried to drink the juice out of the bag to make sure I got my money’s worth and it went all over my face. Not sure what to make of that whole experience. Went back to the hotel and watched a beautiful sunset and lightening storm. Had dinner at the Playa Azul restaurant and was very impressed by the food quality and service and atmosphere. Ceviche was amazing, as was the flank steak. Go there. Walked home in the pitch dark again, this time along the beach. No turtles. Slept that night without the mosquito net which helped a little…though we both got bit a few times. Powerful early AM storm also cooled things down. Still a brutal struggle to sleep.

Day 5: 8:00 AM generator wake-up call. Took a shower, packed and left Coco Tulum. 50 peso taxi ride to the bus station.

Final thoughts on Tulum…It is a lot more expensive than other places we visited so far on this trip. But you do get isolation if that’s what you’re looking for. A very different vibe than IM or Cancun. A very honeymoon, couples, romantic vibe. I can’t, however, imagine going there for a honeymoon and staying in a budget cabin since the thought of physical contact in a stuffy AC-less, fan-less room is hard to imagine, even if the person sharing your bed is very special. I’m sure Coco Tulum isn’t specifically at fault. Other hotels in our price range had similar issues with electricity. For people on long-term trips, who are watching closely what they spend, Tulum is a difficult situation this time of year. From what we experienced, read, and observed, the cabana hotel area doesn’t offer great value for your money. We would gladly have spent more money for a room with AC and reliable electricity, but I’m not sure that exists on that stretch of beach. The isolation and natural beauty appeal to all kinds of travelers, but the sleeping options for frugal travelers are grim..if you stay in the hotel area. Staying in Tulum town is a cheaper option, but then you still have to rely on cabs go anywhere, and that adds up. Our hotel recommended renting bikes (shocking that they happened to have 2 available), and a few people do rent bikes. But with the heat it just didn’t make sense to us. Maybe during cooler seasons bikes are a good option. But the people we saw pedaling to and from town generally looked like they were about to fall over and die. Riding bikes to the ruins, however, is probably a nice shady trip if you go early or late. There is really no real Mexico-priced food available in the hotel zone, and no mini-marts to self-cater. Also of note. Other hotels we saw, potentially higher-end than ours, offered things like organic margaritas, crystal therapy, and bikini bootcamp, very LA / Sedona, if that helps paint the picture for you. It was odd to see non-native people hawking jewelry. A very Bohemian ex-pat local community, at least near the beach. In short, the hotel zone of Tulum that we observed is a mix of modern-day hippy-eco-foodie-yoga-chic sensibilities we have not seen in other places we’ve been on the Yucatan. And this is all great, but where were they all staying? That’s what we couldn’t figure out. Clearly, if you plan on spending some real money in Tulum, your experience will be very different than ours, but other than accommodations I’m not sure what you would spend your money on. Overall, I was surprised that I didn’t fall in love with Tulum and I’m sure many people will tell you it’s better than anything else on the Mexican Caribbean coast. I’m glad we saw the turtle and the ruins and the Grand Cenote.

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