Ta-ta, Tulum!

GPS was set to Zona Arqueológica de Tulum, but upon arrival, the crossover was still under construction. Following signs to the next Retorno, I backtracked to a bustling turnoff. This looked nothing like the Tulum I remembered from 5 years back. Heck, Tulum used to be all jungle 20 years ago!

But now, it resembled a spider web of agents in uniformed shirts carrying clipboards and shouting directions in Spanglish. Our rental car was stopped short of the road to the ruins, where we were met by Freddy, a representative for Santa Fe Beach Club, whose job it was to redirect us to his business.

According to Freddy, my choices were limited since cars could no longer advance. Either I could park nearby for $20 and walk 1 km to the ruins, or pay $40 a head, granting us: closer parking; National Park entrance passes; access to the Beach Club–including toilet and shower provisions, one drink (choice of water, soda, or cerveza), and a half-hour water tour, followed by reef snorkeling (all gear provided).

“No way!” everyone voiced emphatically.

All of us were content to walk to the ruins for a fraction of the cost. As I prepared to park in an already overcrowded lot, Freddy offered us a winning alternative: the same all-inclusive package reduced to $27 per person–a 33% discount–traditionally offered to Mexican residents. Score! and lesson learned. Always negogiate the price!

While the ruins piqued their interest, the prospect of snorkeling atop the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef (largest reef system in the Western Hemisphere) sounded especially promising to Noah and Nate. After I revised our initial itinerary–which would have included a stop at Yal-ku in Akumal, with snorkeling in a brackish lagoon surrounded by sculptures–I sensed their enthusiasm to swim in the Caribbean.

I followed Freddy’s directions to Tulum’s Hotel Zone, and turned into a narrow seaside road, offering access to scores of Tulum’s boutique hotels and yoga retreats.
Unfortunately, Tulum’s current popularity may prove unsustainable, as it’s recent explosion of tourism and new resort construction have overtaken the town’s current infrastructure capacity, turning it into a eco-nightmare.

Nevertheless, developers continue to exploit the bohemian chic of Tulum. Despite government crackdowns (knowingly rife with corrupt officials), illegal projects continue, laying waste to precious jungle habitats that were once home to endangered jaguars and sea turtles.

We drove to the término, reaching our destination…

Santa Fe wall

and luckily found a coveted parking spot along the mangroves by the beach entrance.

beach and ruins.jpg

We walked the remaining half mile to the National Park on a rutted lane shared by cyclists, and local vendors selling water and trinkets.

Tulum envisioned

Ordinarily, the surroundings are packed with tour groups and spectators, but we arrived on a calm day, without the usual hubbub.

castillo and tourists

castillo signage

In fact, the landscape was relatively quiet, and devoid of humanity…

Tulum vista

ruins 2

ruins 4

ruins

ruins3

Temple of Paintings

temple on the hill

except when I wanted an isolated picture of family.

Leah thru the gate

Leah and Nate.jpg

After meandering through 13th century wreckage for more than an hour, we turned our attention to the beach, where the turquoise water looked so inviting.

hilltop view

Ruins Beach is accessible from the cliffs above, but 500 meters south, lies Sante Fe Beach, one of Tulum’s original hangout spots before the tourism boom…

shoreline

and that was our next destination.

Sante Fe Beach Club

Per Freddy’s instructions, we sought out Captain Harrison, and lounged on PVC beach chairs under a delapidated canopy, waiting for our excursion on Brenda or half a dozen skiffs just like her.

Brenda

Leah stayed on land after realizing her bonine fix had worn off, but Noah, Nate and I eagerly climbed aboard.

Our captain motored out to open water,

Captain of Brenda.jpg

and offered a summarized history of the Mayans, and importance of Tulum…in Spanish.

temple by the sea

Soon, we headed for the reef, where others had formed a floatilla of snorkelers.

snorkeling over a reef.jpg

Noah and Nathan eagerly jumped overboard for an under-the-sea swim…



while I remained on the surface, shooting pelicans…

pelican chilling

and keeping track of my sons.

Nate snorkeling

Noah and the bird

Once ashore, it was time for a beer and a shower. Despite the primitive outdoor plumbing on the beach, we concluded that $27 a head was a better bargain than any of us could have ever imagined for a family vacation adventure.

3 amigos

The Other Side of Cozumel

My first Mexican vacation dates back to June 1975, when Mayan archeology was en vogue among discovery buffs and adventure seekers. Notwithstanding the primitive infrastructure and limited tourist facilities throughout the Yucatan Peninsula, the ruins of Chichen Itza and Uxmal were touted as the new off-the-beaten-path destinations worthy of exploring. And sleepy Cozumel was quickly becoming a lightning rod for scuba enthusiasts after Calypso dropped anchor atop the world’s second largest reef system mapped by Jacque Cousteau in 1961.

My unforgettable honeymoon exploits began with a flight to colonial Merida. After a few days roaming the Yucatan capital, my travel agent provided a wretched VW bug for cruising the crude roadways through the jungle to explore the nearby Mayan pyramids. Unfortunately, car shocks were not an available option, so cruising in the beetle became a bone-bruising experience.

The drive took Ros and me from ruin to ruin to Quintana Roo, with a proposed route down the coastline to Akumal’s picturesque Yal-ku lagoon and neighboring cenotes. But not before the bug broke down at noon on the border of a carved out town with a hard-packed dirt road reserved for payloaders and dump trucks. If only I could find a phone to notify the local agency in Merida…but not so fast.

In what was to later become Cancun City, there were only two available telephones in town: one belonged to the military police, and the other was located inside an established cantina, where we waited our turn behind a long line of contractors from Mexico City who had queued up to call home for supplies and payroll.

As luck would have it, my bride and I were befriended by the manager of the Sheraton Hotel–the very first hotelier to arrive on the Cancun scene–who overheard our predicament and offered to advocate on our behalf. Having identified himself as the only bilingual person in the vicinity, I thought I had discovered El Dorado.

We shared a meal of tamales and cervezas, and counted the electronic chimes gonging from the newly erected church tower, as day turned into night-for-day, with crews working around the clock in the hope of meeting an insurmountable deadline. I can’t remember if it was four or five or forever hours, but within that time frame our GM had located and negotiated with a local Mayan mechanic who had limited experience repairing diesel lawnmowers, and was willing to diagnose our car trouble on the spot.

After Fabio rebuilt our carburetor for $75, we were on our way, albeit ten hours behind schedule, but secure in knowing that a full moon would help light our way as we rumbled South to our next few stops.

At the end of our first week on the mainland, we reached a charming fishing village known as Playa del Carmen where we ferried across to Cozumel for what was to be the relaxing second half of our honeymoon. A ride through roiling seas did little for our confidence and constitution.

We checked into Cozumel’s exclusive El Presidente Hotel (because it was the one and only hotel up and running at the time). And without a minute wasted, we hopped on a rental scooter to discover our surroundings. Dressed only in swimsuits and sun protection, we set a course for Centro (town) on our 50cc moped.

With the sun on our faces and sea-breeze at our backs, Ros hung on for dear life as we cruised like Easy Riders for all of ten minutes…in the wrong direction. While I had asked the desk clerk for directions in Spanglish, his quick response in Spanish only left me guessing if I should make a left or right turn at the hotel entrance. So I made a left, and followed the road for five miles.

I still remember the event clearly. There was no warning, no barrier–only a road…then no road–just a drop-off of sand and rocks. A split second reflex to squeeze the brakes to avoid a wipeout was not without consequences. I pictured us in a time-lapsed, slow motion free-fall–my wife hurdling over the handlebars in a tuck position, and me rolling with the bike until it came to a stop in a black gravel pile.

My ears were ringing, making it hard to figure if the groans were coming from Ros or me. Instinctively, I kicked the back wheel off my bloody leg and tried to stand until I realized that my Technicolor world had been replaced by overlapping layers of yellow, magenta, and cyan–ever so slightly out of registration: clear signs of a concussion that I didn’t realize at the time, but none of that mattered at the moment.

My mission, compelled by a sense of urgency (and driven by excessive amounts of adrenalin) was to rescue my wife, who was presently lying beside the broken road, curled into a fetal position and sobbing. Fortunately, her condition looked worse than she felt. We managed to prop each other up, and limp back to the scooter to assess the damage.

We were in the middle of nowhere with a twisted bike frame and no means of calling for help. Our options were few and far between. Collectively, we mustered our strength and pushed the scooter back to El Presidente, where we both collapsed from heat exhaustion and shock. The concierge immediately summoned a doctor from Playa.

Meanwhile, two bellmen carted us to our room in a luggage carrier, where we were met by two housekeepers with wet towels, who oh-so-gently wiped down our blood-stained arms and legs. As we lay in bed waiting for medical assistance, the maids and bellmen–not knowing what else to do for us in our serious state–determined that fanning us would make us feel better, so each took turns waving a bath sheet from the foot of our bed until the doctor arrived.

Fortunately, our diagnosis was better than expected: our limbs and torso wounds were only superficial–analogous to second-degree burns; and my concussion was considered mild. As the doctor cleaned and bandaged us, he recounted that 90% of all accidents on Cozumel were scooter-related. As if to cheer us up, he considered us lucky that our injuries were far less serious than others he’s treated. True, but even so, the treatment seemed cruel and unfair.

Here we were, stranded on a quiet Caribbean island during our honeymoon, surrounded by clear turquoise waters in the thick of summer, and the doctor advised us against swimming for fear of infection. Instead, we were both confined to bed rest with no possible chance of intimacy. And to make matters worse, I was ordered to refrain from alcohol, except for tending to our cuts and scrapes.

For sure, those were the hardest seven days I ever spent in bed.

Stay tuned for Part 2 down the road.