Our Week in Tulum

Tulum, the southernmost (so far) of the Yucatan coast’s prime tourist spots, has long been famous among backpackers for its white sand beaches and (formerly) supercheap beach cabanas to stay in. These days, the cabanas have mostly been replaced by high-end, low-rise “eco-hotels,” and the few that are still cheap aren’t very secure. But the beaches are still glorious, with clear turquoise water.

We spent a week in Tulum, expending our stay several times because there was so much to do and see. The first few days we stayed inland at a hostel near the Tulum ruins called Posada Los Mapaches. It had pretty cabanas set among bouganvilla flowers, outdoor hammocks, free bikes, friendly cats, and great breakfasts. But it also had a lot of noise from the highway next door and from other (partying) travelers.

After a few days, we  moved into the town of Tulum to a pleasant, fairly inexpensive hotel called Casa Rosa, where we had such luxuries as a private bathroom and cable TV. Finally, as a treat, we spent two nights in a nice beach-front cabin in the Sian Ka’an Biosphere reserve south of Tulum.

The center of Tulum isn’t particularly scenic, and the main street is full of hotels, restaurants, and souvenir shops for tourists. But go just a block or two back from the main street and you see real Mexican life. We ate with locals at some good little taco stands and watched a fiesta in a park where kids were lining up to receive their “Tres Reyes” holiday gifts from the (costumed) three wise men.

Tulum has some minor Mayan ruins, spectacularly situated on a cliff above the beach. Compared with other ruins in the Yucatan Peninsula, the Tulum site is small and mobbed with tourists (as well as basking iguanas). The day we visited it was too windy and rough for a swim, so after a quick visit, we rode our hostel bikes to the beaches south of the ruins for a long walk in the surf. Another day we took a bus to the nearby Mayan ruins in Coba. It was an important Mayan city dating before Chichen Itza, but not as much has been restored or signposted.

We had three excellent snorkeling days in Tulum. One was off the beach in the nearby town of Akumal, where we saw green sea turtles and a huge spotted eagle ray, while a wedding was taking place on the beach. Another was at the beautiful Yal-Ku lagoon near Akumal, where the water was super calm and there were lots of colorful fish. However, because the lagoon is an area where fresh water meets salt water, visibility in the water can be cloudy and there is no coral. Our other cool snorkeling day was in the freshwater Gran Cenote (see the separate post).

Another day we took a great day tour with a company called Cesiak to the Biosphere Reserve of Sian Ka’an, a huge (1.3 million acre) protected area of coastline, lagoon, and forest that has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. The name Sian Ka’an is Mayan for “where the sky is born.”

Our first impression on climbing to the top of Cesiak’s small headquarters building was that this was one of the most beautiful places we’d ever seen: the ocean and white sand beaches stretching out on one side of the narrow spit of forest, and the lagoon with its mangroves and islands on the other. Our second thought was that we had to come back and stay here—which we did, for two nights, even though it was a bit over our budget.

Cesiak’s day tour took us on a boat ride through the lagoon, stopping to visit a little Mayan temple and to swim in the clear water of a natural canal. Our guide was good, and we learned a lot about the area and its plant and animal life. We also saw tons of beautiful birds, including storks, herons, pink roseate spoonbills, and colorful flycatchers.

Really, if it hadn’t been for the rest of Central America calling to us, we might have spent the next three months right there, gazing at the sea.

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