Three Days in Tulum (and One in Playa Del Carmen)
I spent some time this weekend rereading posts about my time in Southeast Asia. The longer I’m back in the States, the more the experience feels like a distant memory. Reading the posts reaffirmed why I started this blog—not just to keep in touch with friends and family, but also to remind myself of the lessons learned and people met while abroad.
Here’s a post about my trip to Tulum last year.
My decision to fly to Mexico over Thanksgiving break was definitely a strong reaction to prove to myself that I wasn’t locked down by the ol’ ball and chain (aka my job). Initially, I was going to spend the break in Virginia, but my wanderlust tendencies got the best of me as my brain screamed, “What?!! That’s exactly what you said you wouldn’t do when you came back from Asia!”
So four days and a trip to Tulum later, here I am.
Pro-Tip: Bring Emergency Cash
My bank reimburses all ATM fees and international exchange charges, so my money management method while traveling is to withdraw cash from a local ATM in the country’s currency. Being that my flight landed in Cancun, the mecca for American spring breakers (so in my head, not really Mexico), I figured I’d be able to withdraw all the cash I needed at the airport and be on my merry way.
Despite talking to my bank on the phone when I put my travel notice on my card, I didn’t get the memo that a fraud notice was placed on my account until I was in Cancun sans cash and no access to my bank account. Luckily, I had brought two of my credit cards and was able to withdraw money in piecemeal via cash advance. It wouldn’t let me withdraw MEX pesos, so I ended up having to withdraw USD and exchange them at the airport anyway, getting hit with all sorts of interest charges and poor exchange rates.
Moral of the story: Always bring emergency cash with you.
Anyway, the whole ordeal took about three hours to resolve. My initial plan was to take the ADO bus from Cancun to Tulum (they have direct routes nowadays, unlike a year ago when you had to transfer from Playa del Carmen), but my bus wouldn’t have arrived until after 7pm and I’d lose an entire day. So I coughed up $80 for a taxi. And so it goes.
Welcome to Tulum: First Stop, Mama’s Home
Tulum is known for being a backpacker’s paradise and is divided into two areas: Tulum Pueblo (the town), and Tulum Playa (the beach). The beach is pretty expensive and has been taken over by resorts, so I opted to stay in town at Mama’s Home hostel. I cannot say enough great things about that place.
For less than $10 USD per night in the dorm, you get to stay in the heart of town near all the good restaurants. Juan and the rest of the staff are super chill and welcoming and more than happy to recommend the best places to go around town. Every morning, they provide a homemade breakfast (different each day) and in the evenings they have a community activity in their common area. Mama’s Home is not a party hostel (most people were in bed by 11pm), but it provided the perfect balance of social activities and relaxation.
Seriously, that breakfast though. It was better than a lot of the places I ate at, and that’s saying a lot.
Walking Around Tulum Pueblo
I spent the rest of my day scoping out the town. It’s pretty small, so you can walk the entire area within an hour or so. Most of the restaurants were located off of the main road (Av Tulum), so armed with a map of recommendations and my appetite, I ate my way through Tulum.
No, but seriously, Tulum ruined Mexican food for me. I will never feel the same way about a taco as I did in Tulum. Other blogs will swear by Hartwood and Honario, but here are my favorite places to eat around town:
- Hermana Republica
- Burrito Amor
- El Milagrito
And I have no pictures to show for any of them because I was too busy consuming the delicious food, as it should be.
American Football and Tinder
After spending the day gorging on amazingly fresh food, I saddled down at a craft beer bar and spent my Thanksgiving evening doing the most American thing I could think of: Watching the Redskins/Cowboys game as I swiped my way through Tinder.
There are several articles about how Tinder is actually a great way to get to know an unfamiliar country through the eyes of a local, and surprisingly enough, I had yet to use it in that way (I had always had pretty good luck meeting people in SE Asia). But since my time in Tulum was ultra condensed, I thought why not?
I ended up meeting a French transplant who had lived in Mexico for over a decade. He had traveled across Latin America before settling in Mexico and starting his own bed and breakfast in the jungle (which, by the way, I highly recommend). We spent the evening talking about traveling, and how as you get older, your priorities start shifting, and you crave more stability. I’m definitely starting to feel that, or at least I think I fear stability less because I feel more in control of what happens in my life.
While I don’t ever see myself as a luxury traveler or resort person, I’m not so sure I’m long for hostel dormitories either. I have at least 2-3 more long term travel stints in me, so it’ll be fun to figure out how my travel style evolves with time.
Diving at Cenote Dos Ojos
The next morning, I got up early to go diving in Dos Ojos! It was my first time cave diving, and man was the experience surreal. There isn’t really any wildlife, but the stillness and silence of the cave is so deafening. I found myself getting lost in my thoughts and then began thinking about how easy it would be for a stalactite to shake loose and completely demolish me. Or if something went wrong during the dive, you couldn’t really just float up because you’re in a cavern traversing through tunnels a lot of the time.
You know, things to think about.
Despite those thoughts, the dive proved to be meditating as always. 💁🏻♀️
The Beach and Tulum Ruins
After resting up, I headed over to the beach. The beachy part of Tulum is what most people rave about, and I may not have been in the “right” part of the beach (I went to Sante Fe Beach), but most of the area is privately owned, and thus inaccessible unless you are staying or eating at a resort.
Santa Fe is a public beach, and a boat man talked me into doing a snorkeling tour, which was fine. It’s hard to get into snorkeling after diving. Lesson learned.
Around 4:30pm, I headed toward Tulum Ruins. According to the website, it closes at 5pm, but I heard rumors that they continued letting people in after 5pm.
The rumors were 100% correct. I got there around 5:20pm, and they let me in, and I was one of the only people wandering around onsite. Tulum is the only Mayan city built along a coast, making the Tulum Ruins a unique site to see.
Biking Around the City to Cenote Cristal and Cenote Escondido
After enjoying yet another delicious homemade breakfast at Mama’s Home, I met two fellow solo female travelers from England and Canada. Both were interested in biking to cenotes, so we decided to spend the morning exploring the area together.
We rented a bike from a nearby shop and headed about 30 minutes south to Cenote Cristal and Cenote Escondido, two above-ground cenotes that were adjacent from each other. Both were gorgeous places with plenty of wildlife. We rented a snorkel and spent a good amount of time exploring. Both cenotes connect to nearby caves, which you can see when you look deeper underwater.
After lunch, the three of us split up to explore other areas of the town. I ended up heading north to Casa Cenote, which was much further than I anticipated. The road wasn’t really bike-friendly either, but the hard streets of Chicago taught me how to ride safely down the highway. Seriously, after dealing with traffic on Milwaukee Ave, biking up the highway was a cakewalk.
Casa Cenote was the largest above-ground cenote I had seen, with the waterway eventually connecting to the ocean. Even though I spent about an hour biking there, I decided to also sign up for a 3 km snorkeling tour. It was well worth the money, as I got to swim through mangroves and see more remote parts of the cenote.
Then, of course, I had to do bike the 12 km back to the town, and by the time I reached my destination I started entertaining the thought of doing a triathlon. This is my idea of a great vacation and this is why I can’t do resorts.
Playa Del Carmen, Kentucky, and Mexico City
On my last day, I decided to head up to Playa del Carmen before having to catch my flight home via Mexico City.
I caught a colectivo (public transit van) up to Playa (an hour north of Tulum) and ended up meeting two Trump-supporting Americans from Kentucky on the ride up. Ironic, right? Because I was partially curious and partially too lazy to figure out what to do in Playa, I ended up spending the day with the Trumpers. One was a former Marine-turned-consultant and the other drove a railroad train. They met at a time when the ex-Marine was a cop and pulled the train driver over for driving under the influence and they’ve been best pals ever since. They reminded me of people I grew up around. We spent the day talking about politics and diving. It wasn’t terrible.
Eventually I left Playa for the Cancun airport for my flight to Mexico City, which is the last time I ever spend the night at an airport. I got to Mexico City around 10pm and thought I could just chill there until my flight back to Chicago left at 7am. Nope. Too old for that. Airports should invest in capsule beds, because I was desperate enough to spend any amount of money to sleep in one.
Overall, I loved Tulum. The vibe was a bit different from Asia since most of the travelers seemed to be traveling in groups or couples (non-solo travelers are usually less likely to invite solo travelers into their groups), but I made it work. I wish I had more time to explore, and I think that next time I’ll save for medium-term trips (2-3 weeks?). Will I go back to Tulum? I’m not sure. But there’s definitely much more of Mexico and Latin America that I’d like to explore. Next stop: Guatemala.