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Tulum, Mexico

Updated: Oct 5, 2023

Tuesday, February 25, 2003 Tulum, Mexico I look up while swinging in the net of the hammock, one foot in the sand. The palm leaves are giant, 6 and 12 feet long. I’m counting the stars beyond but the breezes blow the spiky leaves, blackening some stars, revealing others. The air is warm and the Caribbean Sea just twenty feet away. It’s humid, almost sticky, even now at night. I look up, to see shadows of coconuts about to drop. Maybe there are 20 in this tree but most are small, hopefully not ready to fall. Swaying, I haven't a care in the world. In this peaceful paradise the birds are sleeping, insects chirp and the wind steers the rolling waves to shore.

The concrete paths twist around the base of the various palm trees. Square orange lamps at strategic places in the sand light the way. Tiki torches flicker, reminding tourists of a primitive time. I’m now in the hut where the dry thatched roof rattles like rain, a constant hush all night long, the perfect place to sleep.

Wednesday, February 26 Tulum, Mexico The birds hoot and sing from their perches yet invisible in the foliage. This room is small, a twig shelter on the beach with dried palm leaves for a roof. This one is more expensive than the others since it has a shower. The whole place reminds me of Gilligan's Island.

Four ropes hold the bed in mid air. I want to swing high, but the rickety structure is confining. The entire place shakes when the bed hits the wall. The mosquito net swings to catch a spider web. It seems I have disturbed the spider. A single strand of web catches my head, and I see him scurry on his invisible path toward one of the four ropes holding the bed.

I am with Dawn, my neighbor and good friend. She is a professor on spring break vacation. She is ready for the day. At breakfast I don’t touch the beans, but the mushroom omelet is good. And the fresh orange juice is worth the flight. The coffee is only OK. Like many scenes on travel agency brochures, the view from the table has palm trees leaning and reaching along the shoreline toward the ocean.

The Mayan ruins down the road at Tulum are the main attraction here. We wander around, through old stone temples and courtyards. Iguanas are everywhere, huge, giant lizards waiting to catch your snacks. They sneak up and can accidentally TRIP you! I watch my feet in the grass. They look like rocks. I wonder if they bite. Every tourist takes ten or more lizard pictures.

The ruins overlook the beach and the most beautiful clear blue water. No wonder the Mayan people built their temples here. Butterflies decorate the ancient stones, and human families are tanning in the sand along the beach. The heat and humidity eventually pull everyone into the ocean.

In town we eat tortilla chips and “Bandera”salsa or flag salsa, diced tomatoes, onions, cilantro and jalapenos, the colors of the red, white and green Mexican flag. YUM! It’s a magical combination, chopped and held together with lime juice and garlic. The margaritas quench the heat of the peppers and the salty chips are loudly crunchy. It’s hard to hear the conversation. I can’t get enough of these chips and will bring home a heftier waistline as a result. Roasted carrot wedges with grilled onions are a surprise. Marinated in a clear liquid, they are an unexpected addition to our lunch but good even with nachos and guacamole. Yum.

Thursday, February 27 Near Tulum, Mexico We rent bikes, first riding through a neighborhood with brightly colored tissue-paper flags cut in patterns like rectangular snowflakes, strung across the street between the homes. I have to stop my bike to take a picture. A child watches from a rooftop and tells me his mother made them.

Along the two-lane highway we bike about 7 kilometers. I look for the Yucatan toucan but don’t see one. The smells along the roadside are sometimes interesting. "No Dumping" the sign reads as if explaining. Ahead is the Grand Cenote. A few dollars later and we are through the gate. We change into swimsuits in a large one-person bathroom and rent snorkel gear for our next adventure.

It is definitely a mermaid cave! I want to scuba deeper into the darkness. This is a sinkhole leading to underground rivers that take fresh water from the hills and inland rivers and lakes out to sea. I must draw a picture of Dawn snorkeling among the stalactites in the cave. She becomes a fish, swimming ahead so I follow trying to keep up, sometimes too close to her kicking flippers.

What a wonderland it is below the surface of this crystal clear water. Little fish sparkle in the distance and others swim near looking for food and at us. I follow and watch several up close. In a fit of excitement, I turn and head toward the darker side of the cave. It suddenly gets too dark so I lift my head -- too quickly. I hit my forehead on the rock ceiling. OUCH!

Dawn and I loop around several times. I find it thrilling to swim into the blackness. I love this place and will come again and try scuba diving to the sea as we learn the experts do. We ride our bikes back along the highway all the way back to our sandy beach, our palm trees, our cabana. Another rest in the hammock is required before bedtime.

Friday, February 28 We are up early, drinking orange juice that the man spent a half-hour making. There are pillows on a bamboo mat at low tables -- the perfect spot. The table’s centerpiece is a conch shell. Artistic touches are everywhere, in every direction interesting mobiles hang, hiding in the trees, above the bar, dangling by the tables. Small seashells and seeds and driftwood turn, define and change their shape in the breezes. I take pictures of those.

We spend more time in the hammocks, and soon we are boarding a big luxury bus heading further inland on the two lane highway. It is a boring three hour ride, but we sit in the front seat by the driver. Not much to see out the windows but thick jungle lining the road, an occasional village and more tourist shops as we get closer to Chichen Itza, the largest Mayan ruins in the Yucatan. Every time Dawn puts her feet on the barrier ahead of her seat, the bus driver flinches and waves his arm. I am just beyond his view with my feet up and comfortable. The countless speed bumps are, however, painful and many.

We finally arrive at Chichen Itza where an older Greek couple asks if we know where we are going. We share a cab for the 3 kilometer ride to the town of Piste. From here our Greek friends can find their way to Chichen Itza.

But Dawn and I first book a room at a budget hotel on the main drag. The mildew imbedded in the walls of our room looks strangely like flowered wallpaper. Of course the large insect that fled the scene by my bed was not quite as lovely. It will do for one night, I hope.

Friday, February 28 Piste, Mexico Continued. . .

Just before the sun sets outside the budget hotel in Piste. Dawn and I wander through the town of Piste to the end of the strip. The luxury hotels appear to wait for bus loads of tourists from Cancun that never come. Such tourists, as one person described them, have long finger nails and wear visors with "Cancun" sparkling in sequence across the front.

At the far end of town there is an old church. The setting sun outlines the two bell towers against pink and peach skies. The building is boarded up but across the plaza by the basketball court there is a newer church. Those doors are wide open. We wander in and sit in the second to last row. The altar is far away. This church is the size of a gymnasium, modern concrete architecture gives it little personality. The town must have outgrown the old church.

A woman rushes around behind where we sit. Soon she has unfastened a rope which she pulls with all her might. One of two bells in the towers rings, calling the town's people to mass. The woman, framed by the doorway, wears a traditional white Mexican dress. The front is colorfully embroidered with a jungle of flowers in true Yucatan style. The bell resonates above us for a moment, sounding similar to a tin can. The woman gives us a smile. A few of her teeth are definitely missing.

On our way back to the low budget hotel, we take the back road through neighborhoods where the houses have many open doors and windows. Lights are turning on inside as it gets darker outside, illuminating swinging hammocks in the front rooms, plastic flowers and books on the shelves and pastel paint on the walls. Each home is cozy and welcoming even to our foreign eyes as we pass by in the alley. Not many tourists wander away from the turquoise ocean water and tourist shops. We are glad we do.

Finally in darkness, we continue 3 kilometers beyond the hotel to the Chichen Itza ruins to see the nightly "sound and light show". I sit in the grass because there is a cloud of cigarette smoke above the people in plastic chairs in the audience. The grand pyramid, as tall as a sky scraper, is lit up in a brilliant neon purple. It is unrealistically glowing and at the same time the stone wall above the ancient ball court flashes silhouettes of Mayan warriors fighting. The sound effects are men yelling and swards clanking. This must scare the jaguars in the surrounding forests. The announcer tells the mythical stories over a loud speaker in Spanish as spotlights flash near and through the temples. The drama continues and "El Castillo”, the grand pyramid becomes neon pink. Then I see a shooting star! I wonder — if only the Mayans could see this place now. Dawn has rented the headset with the English translation. Maybe she had a different experience.

Saturday, March 1, 2003, Piste, Mexico

The next morning, I wake up to the churning and wobbling of the ceiling fan above my bed. My eyes then met the eyes of a German man who is on his tip toes looking in through the open window. "Good morning," I say to him. He says, "Good Morning" and disappears. At least no small animals or insects bothered me during the night.

We have breakfast at the restaurant across the street. Four tables sit on the sidewalk inches from high speeding trucks in the road. One carries a load of innocent and noisy pigs. The sight makes me cry, all wedged and jammed in together. Being vegetarian, the breakfast quesadillas taste meaty. Maybe lard? I order the "fruit plate" since it looks good at the next table, bananas and watermelon. Yum! Dawn and I both have Mexican "bandera" (flag) omelets with tomato, onion and green pepper!

We spend the day wandering around the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza and climbing to the tippy-top of the grand pyramid. Just as herds of Cancun tourists are squeezing in through the main gates, we inch past them on our way out. We then catch the three-hour bus to Cancun at 2 PM.

In downtown Cancun, we hop into a taxi and speed to Porto Juarez where we take a ferry over to Isla Mujeres, the Island of Women.

After settling into the best little hotel, that evening we are roaming the island's streets. It happens to be "Carnival" (a spring festival) meaning young girls (and old girls) are dressed in orange, blue and red tutus with feather trimmings. They wear gold shoes and headdresses and dance to loud music on every street. Giant speakers on the backs of beat-up pickup trucks are controlled by proud men, blasting rhythmic salsas. It’s like New Orleans, a 24 hour street party!

We walk to North Beach where we turn left. We are soon content in the swings that hang at a bar near the waters edge. This is the best way to drink margaritas and eat crunchy tortilla chips with salsa “bandera", right here on the beach, in swings! I have to be careful not to get too excited. Smacking into the bar is easy to do. Maybe this is how the bartender knows when patrons have had too much. Thick wood seats roped to the overhang above hold us in our conversation.

Sunday, March 2, 2003 Isla Mujeres, Mexico

The next morning we rent bikes and ride fearlessly around the island. On the way we stop to visit the turtle farm to view the sea turtles. Oh my gosh. They are soooo cute! So so so cute, swimming frantically around blue circular pools. This save-the-turtles operation rescues the eggs before the little ones hatch. They raise the turtles and set them free when they are hearty enough to have a chance of survival.

Soon above the bushes on the left side of the road, a large white stucco house in the shape of a giant conch shell(!) appears. I stop my bike to take a picture. What a fun place for a mermaid, I think. Someday I will buy this house! A mermaid must own it.

Back in the center of town we are surrounded by dancing women with feather headdresses and silver shoes. We return the bikes and take the long way back to the hotel along the beach. There are several bars where the waves slowly creep up to the bar stools -- I mean -- bar swings. We have to stop for more salsa “bandera”, margaritas and those fantastic crunchy tortilla chips.

Monday, March 3, 2003 Isla Mujeres, Mexico

The next day is our last full day in the Mexican sun. We book a day tour to Isla Contoy. At 8 AM, after excellent coffee at a small cafe next door to our hotel, we are trying on snorkel masks and fins. Soon we are slathered in suntan lotion as the motor boat roars out into the vast light blue waters. The Caribbean Sea is so beautiful -- hues of blues and greens everywhere. In the distance, Isla Contoy and its many palm trees await our arrival.

But first the boat stops, and we dive in to explore the coral reef with the snorkel gear. It is somewhat of a shock to lean overboard and go from dry breezes to wet, wet water. But everyone does. Our tour group is twelve people not including the captain and his mate. We are four people from Italy, four girls from Mexico, a couple from Germany and Dawn and I from Michigan. We smile and nod at each other mostly.

The reef is a beautiful underwater universe. I end up on my own, swimming down to the sandy bottom and back, practicing my snorkel techniques. The rest of the group is ahead, hovering over the thickest coral. I am worried I will accidentally kick the wildlife or another snorkeler so I stay nearer the boat. The water is clear but slightly murky, dark and confining compared to the Red Sea where I had snorkeled last. This is wonderful for Mexico, but not nearly the rainbow I imagine from the writeup. I find more fun testing my breath, diving to the sand and following the bigger fish than getting up close with the choral.

After another hour in the boat we are soon ashore at Isla Contoy -- quite a lovely place. Dawn and I immediately head down a sandy path and explore the more remote edges of this island. A short trek and we now know more than the ten other members of our group who huddle on shore near the boat, waiting for the grilling to begin.

After we climb the blue lookout tower that looks like an army garrison, Dawn and I are with the others on the beach waiting for lunch. Free beer, actually it is included in the price of the tour. We have a few Coronas and feel at ease in the sunshine. I am not interested in the large fish smashed inside the giant two-sided grillers. Instead, I perform a personal ceremony for them having sacrificed their lives. I overhear the others saying they are tasty.

Instead I eat guacamole and those crunchy chips and all the other fixings, just not the fish. Lunch was great. But the highlight of the whole trip to Mexico was meeting, befriending and admiring the sting ray. I never did get his name but he had such a personality and somehow spoke with such clarity as if to say, "I know you are all here to eat fish and drink beer and play in the sunshine. You are welcome to use my beach as long as I get the leftovers. I promise to be on my best behavior and you must promise to leave me whatever you don't eat."

It really is like he can talk and like this black triangular thing, swimming in the shallow waters at our knees could win the hearts of humans worldwide! He is the sweetest, most handsome and adorable sting ray I have ever met. He is so nice. It seems he likes to be pet and swim at close range so that one's hand and fingers can caress his most divine back. The best I can describe is the feeling of one of those IHOP pancakes where the edges are crispy and the center is soft and full of syrup! This is exactly what a sting ray feels like as he floats along. The edges of his being are a little rough while his entire backside is so soft and squishy! Super squishy! I want to lie in a big hammock made of him! He is so sweet.

Nearby there are two star fish who don’t have quite the same personality, but they actually move around on the sandy sea floor under the sparkling surface. I take their picture wondering if they have any idea how cool they are.

Another beer later and we are back on the loud speedboat heading back to Isla Mujeres. From there, Dawn and I beeline to our favorite swing set on North Beach. Later we have dinner and are soon fast asleep, warm with a sunburn and tired, so tired.

Tuesday, March 4, 2003 Isla Mujeres, Mexico

The next morning we are up early having breakfast at the Redeye Cafe. Two hours later on liftoff heading back to subzero Michigan, I gaze out the little round window next to me, down and down to the Caribbean Sea. There they are — a wall of five-star hotels lining the narrow strip of land — the famed "Cancun". A solid high-rise barrier of hotels, blocking the views, blocking the adventures of Mexico. The tiny tourists sit at swimming pools inland from the beach maybe wearing sparkly hats. I think they came all this way only to miss out on most of Mexico's charm.

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