Travelling internationally for the first time since covid hit, my wife Christina and I spent 5 days in magical Tulum, Mexico. Riding motorbikes, high-diving into cenotes and exploring ancient Mayan ruins, this was an adventure of a different kind.
Read these journal entries I wrote on the journey and check out quick video to give you a taste too!
Christina and I landed at Cancun International Airport around 6am, having flown for the first time in about two years. Taking this trip to Mexico, although a last-minute decision, was not one taken lightly, being still in the throws of a pandemic. Although we were fully vaccinated, it didn’t make the steps we took to leave LA any less rigid, wearing two masks on the plane (a cloth one over our mouths and a hard plastic shield over our faces), being serial hand sanitisers and being sure to be tested in the days leading up to the trip. We desperately needed to leave the aggression of Los Angeles, but weren’t about to take any chances.
Breezing through an empty customs in no time at all, we exited the terminal to a sea of shuttle drivers. Each were holding passenger or hotel names written on brightly-coloured cards or, for the fancy among them, on high-tech tablets. Finding ours, the two of us boarded our empty shuttle and made our way to Tulum. Despite having almost no sleep at all on the overnight plane trip over, I felt surprisingly alert, eager to take in the surrounding Mexican landscape. This was Christina and my first time to the country and we were both surprised at just how similar this part of it felt like South-East Asia. The lush jungle surrounding weathered concrete buildings, strangled by a maze of power lines and Coca-Cola posters. The hot, humidity, demanding rivers of sweat, whether you liked it or not. The layout of the city, incongruously mixing small shops with residential with jungle. Hell, even the road signage felt similar. Having spent a lot of time in that part of Asia, we felt instantly at home.
We were travelling to Tulum, a lush, coastal town, known for its access to ancient Mayan ruins and its clear water sinkholes & caves called cenotes. It has been described to us by several friends as “magical”, so we reasoned what better place to melt away your worries, relaxing and enjoying nature. Given I had just returned from three weeks, hiking 234 miles (377km) of the John Muir Trail (JMT) across the beautiful Sierra Nevada mountain range and was struggling with being back in Los Angeles city life, it sounded just about perfect.
The drive would take bout 90 minutes, so I managed to squeeze in about 45 of it sleeping, waking on the approach to Zamas Hotel in Beach Town around 8am. Tulum’s beach is roughly divided into four sections, each with their own characteristics. The North Beach Zone is up-market and closest to Tulum’s famous Mayan ruins. There’s Middle Beach, Tulum’s most popular and hip area, boasting a tonne of shops and restaurants. Then there’s the South Beach Zone, Tulum’s quietest area, perfect for families and those who don’t mind having to bicycle to restaurants and other some conveniences. Then, between the North and Middle Beaches is Beach Town, where we were staying. It has the convenience of shops and restaurants, but without the chaotic bustle you sometimes find in Middle Beach.
At the hotel, we were greeted by our bubbly, earnest concierge, Lillyana who recommended a place top eat breakfast while we waited for our room to become available. We loved Potheads right away, with its bohemian-vibe, mixing its wooden tables & jungle surroundings with bold, brightly-coloured murals splashed across the walls. The fairly dense breakfast menu catered to healthy eaters and to those looking to indulge alike, so I decided to do both, ordering scrambled eggs on toast with sausage, followed up with a green “Jungle Juice”. Honestly it was one of the best breakfasts I’ve had in a long time.
Afterwards, we headed back to the hotel, where we were grateful to find our room ready for check-in. We were guided to our cosy thatch roof cabin, with two double beds, air conditioning and a huge bathroom, reminding us of our honeymoon hotel in Bali. From the two hammocks hanging from our front porch, we could soak in the sounds of the ocean, stealing sea views through the surrounded topical garden.
After settling in, we headed out to rent some bicycles and rode 30 minutes through the Pueblo, or downtown, to our first cenote. Cenotes are natural sinkholes or caves, formed by collapsing limestone bedrock that exposes the groundwater beneath. Cenotes were used back in the day by the ancient Mayan people for water supplies and occasional sacrificial offerings. These days they are flocked to for their unique swimming experience, offering often spectacular limestone formations and/or caves to explore.
The Cenote Calavera was busy when we arrived, but I didn’t care. I was definitely in need of washing away the plane trip and several hours of tropical sweat with the warm water of this famous swimming spot. As we entered, signs warned not to allow any skin cream chemicals to be mixed in the pristine waters, so we were glad we hadn’t lathered up on sunscreen yet.
The cenote itself was a small swimming hole, accessible by a single ladder or, more commonly, by diving in from a rock platform a few meters above. Not to turn down an opportunity to challenge myself, I took a deep breath and leapt into the warm waters below. Underwater, shards of sunlight from holes in the rock above carved dramatic beams, like illuminated walls I could ‘ghost’ right through. Surfacing, I was spellbound to I was surrounded by a cave that continued below the visible rock platform above. I swam inside, taking in the slumbering bats and lime formations layered on the walls. It was beautiful and I could finally start to get a sense of why this was known as “magical” Tulum. I felt cleansed just being in there, spending the next hour or two diving, swimming, floating and just enjoying knowing that this was to be the first of many cenote experiences on this trip.
Riding our bicycles back through downtown Tulum, we decided to stop for a late lunch at a tiny outdoor vegan place called Liefs. We were seated on a quaint two-person table, surrounded by only a green minivan that was its tiny kitchen and the lush green hanging vines that decorated the place. I indulged in a delicious burger and Christina some tacos. The food was exceptional and the waiter, a sweet, friendly Latino woman in her twenties, who offered some suggested cenotes for us to visit while we’re here.
Heading back to the hotel, we sat on the beach and ordered a couple of “welcome” margaritas on the house. And although they tasted quite tart, it certainly got the holiday party started, continuing down the street to the nearby Mina restaurant, where we ordered a few more, as we sat on the beach and talked about life. This was, after all an early five year wedding anniversary trip (little did we know that we would celebrate again in September, hiking across the island of Catalina on the TCT) and I had actually hoped to surprise Christina with a vows renewal ceremony while we were here. Things weren’t unfortunately going to work out that way, given our spontaneous leaving and limited budget of the trip, but I really felt strongly about marking this landmark wedding year somehow. That’s when it hit me. A tattoo to represent the two of us! Two stars in the sky, a callback to our wedding day theme. I was excited, and so, it seemed was Christina. Who knows? Maybe she will be join me for one of her own!
My hiker hunger from the my JMT thru-hike still present, I ordered a club sandwich and started researching places in town to possibly get it done. This trip was going to be fun.
After a much-needed sleep in, we made our way back to Potheads to start the day with another amazing breakfast (think I’m starting to see a pattern forming here). As we ate, smoke begun billowing out of the corner of the restaurant, quickly engulfing the place (and us) in what turned out to be Palo Santo vapour. Traditionally Incan, this smoke is used as an energy cleanser and is not the coughing kind, but rather the good vibes kind. We would soon begin to realise a lot of restaurants burn this ‘holy wood’ as a way to bring good fortune to their business. Besides, it made for some really cool, dramatic light formations throughout the cafe.
Having a less than comfortable experience on sketchy bicycles yesterday, we decided to hire today’s from the only other place in our area that offers rentals. No dice. Unfortunately they were fresh out of locks, so back to our favourite ‘squeaky wheel, hurt your backside’ place to nab our transport for the day. A surly woman grunted to greet us and I laughed to myself at the irony of her t-shirt which read, “Follow your dreams”.
Riding two freshly-battered “vintage” bikes, we cycled 25-minutes down a vibrant green jungle-lined road to reach the Tulum Archaeological Zone, the ancient Mayan ruins Tulum is famous for. I had been excited about seeing these ruins since Christina and I first started talking about visiting some years back. One thing I hadn’t counted on however was the aggressive crowds of people. I have just returned from three weeks of solitude on the Sierra Nevada mountains, hiking the JMT and was still adjusting to being around people at all. Being a tourist attraction, I of course understood some level of flexibility around crowds would need to be embraced, but there was something about how flippant everyone was being with personal space that really made me uncomfortable. I mean, we’re still in covid people!
Personal boundaries and sweltering heat aside, the temples themselves were fascinating. A small city, rich in Mayan history, well-preserved in many sections and standing in lush jungle, right on the cliff’s edge of the ocean. Those Mayans knew where to build!
After leaving the ruins, we rode our bikes towards a cenote Christina really wanted to visit. It would after all be the perfect way to wash the crowds and river of sweat from today’s ruins experience. Quickly though we realised that the highway that lead there wouldn’t be safe for two bicycles to ride 30 plus minutes each way, so we regrouped and looked at other options. Our best bet was taking a shared bus, or Colectivo there and back again. These white vans are everywhere in Tulum and are perhaps the cheapest option for getting around. We locked up our bikes at a nearby 7-Eleven, boarded and waited…and waited…and waited. After 45 minutes of waiting for the bus to be full enough for the driver to want to leave, we decided we’d had enough of being around the bustle, so grabbed our bikes and head back to our hotel.
Sitting on beach deck chairs, we took in the ocean air and reminded ourselves of what we wanted this trip experience to be. Quiet. Connecting with nature. Re-connecting with each other. We put our feet in the warm waters of the Caribbean Ocean for the first time and it was like all the chaos was washed away in an instant. The brown water and seaweed (both common at this time of the year) aside, it was pretty clear why Tulum is a world-renowned lavation spot.
With a boost in our energy, we once again straddled our metal torture cycles and made for Middle Beach about 30 minutes away. There we explored the abundance of shops restaurants on offer. Of them, the restaurant K’arma particularly stood out, with it’s bold tree-themed decor. I decided to book a “romantic” table for an early anniversary dinner tomorrow night.
Then, after working up an appetite, we found ourselves at Aua de Mar, right across from Tulum’s famous Ahau Hotel. Christina felt like nachos and the menu offered these and an atmosphere that was really our speed. With it’s softly playing chill music and gourmet menu, placing creative spins on classic dishes, you could easily mistake yourself for sitting in a cafe in Byron Bay, Australia or Ubud, Bali. I quietly sipped a Negra Modelo beer and just watched the world go by. When the nachos finally did arrive, we were presented with a large plate, exhibiting a work of art. Two cheeses melted over refried beans, sausage, chicken, roasted chilli peppers and small teardrop-sized dollops of guac, all supporting the mountain of yucca chips below them. These were damn-near the best nachos I’d ever had in my life!
Satisfied by a stellar meal, we continued exploring. Christina tried on clothes, including a cha-cha-cha half-top that would have looked right at home on a Rio burlesque stage, but of course she looked amazing in it. We then stopped at the Chai House for, well, a chai. Christina finds these hard to find, at least good ones, so we figured we just had to try a place that claimed the drink in their very title. They were yet to officially open for the day, but the bartender was kind enough to allow us to sit at the bar, while he made her one anyway. Originally from Brazil, he had moved to Tulum because he loved the lifestyle there. We could see why, and picked his brain ad nauseam for tips on making the move. Who knows, maybe a change in lifestyle is just what we could use right now. 🙂
Riding back to our hotel, we spent the late afternoon laying in our patio hammocks, looking out over the ocean as the setting sun behind us painted the sky’s bold cloud formations oranges and blues. It was the perfect time for some light exploring, making our way to the nearby Mateo’s Sunset Lounge to enjoy a view over a quiet drink. Only our table had no view and the quiet, well, I couldn’t hear the quiet over the house music playing at Coachella levels over practically bleeding speakers. Before the waiter came to take our order, we were already out of there, landing at Mivida, where we revelled in the quiet atmosphere. Seated in the a small thatched hut on the beachside of the main room, the restaurant had all the makings of a the kind of tropical holiday dining experience you hope for. Sandy beach floors, palm trees, ocean views. We loved the ambience, enjoying a glass of red wine as lightning lit up the dark skies around us. It was however a shame about the food. Christina ordered shrimp skewers and I the filet mignon with a Greek salad. It was all well-presented and tasted good on the first bite, but unfortunately left us both feeling a little queasy afterwards. Still, it was a superb atmosphere, and the nachos from earlier would be a hard act to follow.
Lightning, wine, the ocean and a day of Mayan culture and exploration. We were finally starting to find our groove in Tulum.
This morning I made a point of waking for sunrise. Our hotel name, Zamas, translates to “Dawn” and I wanted to experience why. Sitting on the beach rocks, looking out as a fiery tangerine sun rose over the ocean horizon and surrounded by dead quiet, save for the breaking waves and a gentle breeze, was a glorious way to start the day. In moments like this it’s easy to forget we’re still living through covid. Since we leave in a few days we needed to get ourselves tested for the flight home. So, after breakfast again at, you guessed it, Potheads, we made our way to the nearby portable testing facility. Living in Los Angeles through 2020, both Christina and I are used to being tested regularly. And although today’s was a little…aggressive, we were out of there in no time.
Afterwards, we decided to rent a car for the day, so we could explore some cenotes and Mayan ruins outside of town. I took a 45-minute morning walk to the Pueblo to find our best rental option before picking up Christina and being on our merry way. Our first destination was the ruins at the Cobá Archaeological Zone 45-minutes away and the drive couldn’t more more simple, travelling the very straight road pretty much from one town to the next. Along the way, we stopped for an early lunch at a restaurant called Ju’l K’iin. It was a small Mayan food restaurant hidden in the back of what seemed to be a resort, surrounded by jungle in the middle of nowhere. When we sat, we were humbled to find that the menu was completely in Spanish and the server spoke no English. So far on this trip we’d been fortunate to get by without learning the native tongue in most places. It caters to tourists. Here though, our lack of the language made me feel honestly a little ashamed that we’ve lived in Los Angeles for coming on 8 years and learned nada Spanish, especially now being in a country that speaks it. So having Google image-searched dish names to make our selections, we eventually were treated to one of the best meals we’d had so far on the trip.
We eventually arrived at Cobá in the early afternoon. Strangely there was a line to get in, but nobody asking for tickets, so we found ourselves scoring free entry. Mercifully the crowds were far less intense than Tulum’s ruins, perhaps because it is more spread out, or perhaps because it was further out of town. Whatever the reason, it helped create a peaceful experience, trekking through what felt like miles of stunning lush jungle tunnels from one ruin to the next, climaxing at the largest Mayan pyramid in the Yucatan Peninsula, Nohoch Mul. An impressive sight, with its 120 steps carrying climbers 42 meters (137 feet) to views of the thick jungle surrounding it. Unfortunately, due to covid closures though we were prevented from having the climbing experience ourselves, disappointing particularly Christina to no end, but still, we soaked in its majesty from below and was just glad to be exposed to such rich Mayan history.
As we rested on a bench, overlooking Nohoch Mul, we were visited by a bright orange-coloured butterfly, who landed on my day pack and decided I was going to be it’s new home. Despite standing and walking around, it comfortably rested, not moving at all. I lifted the pack to my face to take a close look. Yep, it was still alive. Strange that with all my movement it stayed, perfectly calm, perfectly still. Not looking uncomfortable or skittishly flying away at the slightest breath. Was it sent from the Mayan gods perhaps? A butterfly blessing, Christina called it.
Having some cenotes we still wanted to visit in the afternoon, we hired a bici taxi, or bike taxi, to take us back to the entrance. Sure enough, even with a bicycle riding at top speed across a bumpy rocky road, our orange-winged friend peacefully rested on my pack. At this point I was convinced it was dead, but as we pulled in to a stop at the park’s entrance and stood up from the bicycle, its little wings spread and it gently flew away. It was almost like it sensed we were leaving its home, so parted ways with us. And in this paradise, who can blame it?
Our first cenote for the day was a a 15 minute drive to Cenote Tankach-Ha. Upon arrival we were asked to shower, cleaning any impurities from our bodies, before descending 17 meters (56 feet) down a slippery wooden staircase into a dark cavern entrance below. What was inside took my breath away. A massive cave of limestone stalactites blanketing the walls like teeth and water – the crystal blue kind. If it wasn’t for a handful of flood lights peppered throughout, we would have been standing in pitch darkness. You could almost imagine the lights suddenly failing, standing in what could be a terrifying horror movie stage. But right now it was beautiful. On the staircase, two wooden platforms extended out, offering visitors the chance to test their courage by diving into the icy waters below. The lower platform was 5 meters (16.5 feet) up, but may as well have been 50, feeling way higher in person than it sounds in writing. The second was a ball-dropping 10 meters (33 feet) high and if the vertigo turning my legs to jelly didn’t phase me, the ceiling stalactites almost bumping my head as I peaked over the edge certainly did.
We made our way down to the water and gently swam, fending off the cold with beaming smiles that nothing could dampen. I was equally at peace, floating in the cold, blue water and wrestling with tinges of fear, knowing below me dropped from 4 meters (14 feet) deep all the way down to 35 meters (114 feet). These cenote caves draw not only for day swimmers like us, but scuba divers from all around the world, providing a unique, natural diving experience unlike any other, navigating limestone pillars spearing up and down in the deep underwater cavern tunnels. And although we shared the space with other people, there were so few it almost felt like the cave belonged just to us.
But as I swam, the pull of those platforms on the staircase above began tapping me on the shoulder. I have an adventurous spirit and will be damned if I didn’t at least try the 5 meter jump. So up I went. Standing on the platform, I fought back nerves as they begged me to just go back to the safety of swimming. Although I do a lot of mountain hiking, a fear of heights is something that I struggle with. Now I know 5 meters is hardly considered “heights”, but standing up there, with all that down below me, my body didn’t really know the difference. I felt my hands tighten on the wooden railing beside me, as I recoiled. As I looked down at Christina floating in the waters below, beaming back at me with a big smile on her face, I knew I had to find a way to make this jump though. There was no way my wife was going to see me bail on just 5 meters! So I took a deep breath and thought about being elsewhere for a moment. Before I knew it, I was in the air, plunging into the frigid cenote waters. I emerged to the surface and laughed. Smatterings of applause echoed the cavern from onlookers. Hell, that was fun!! Moments later I was up there again, leaping from the platform like I had been doing this all day. My third time up, confidence building, I decided I was ready for the next challenge, so ascended to the 10 meter platform above. It ain’t no thing, right? It’s basically an itty-bity extra five meters up. After making the first platform my bitch, this wouldn’t be a problem. But as I stepped onto the slippery wooden plank my bright toothy smile quickly disappeared. This was high as f*#k! Nope. Not today!!! I made my way back down to the safety of the waters, tail between my legs as disappointed spectators below nodded to me in an unspoken understanding.
But as I continued to swim, I couldn’t help but think about that 10 meter platform. Not so much that I wanted to jump it, but about how it had gotten the better of me. It had become a personal challenge, so it felt like I’d let myself down somehow. And that…that was not ok. That was not how this day was going to go. I stood to my feet, marching right back up the endless staircase to the cave’s ceiling, stepping out onto the platform once more. As I did so, all the swimmers in the waters below stopped talking and looked up. No one had been crazy enough to attempt the jump from this height today and I guess they were hoping to see some blood. I ignored all the panic forming in my mind, avoiding looking down at all costs. Nevertheless, pangs of vertigo tingled at my feet and I fought back the woozy feeling forming in my stomach. I gently held the wooden railing, feeling the wet plank underneath me challenging my balance. The sounds of water from the nearby ceiling stalactites dripping all the way down to the waters far below reverberating throughout the wide cavernous space. My eyes focussed forward. Then, before I even had the chance to convince myself otherwise, I leapt, only finally looking down as I plummeted what felt like 20 minutes to the cold water below. I hit the water with a thump, finding myself in the deep, a beehive of tiny bubbles buzzing around me. I had made it! And as my body slowly finished it’s decent into the depths, I paddled back up. Surfacing, applause erupted around me. Guess someone was crazy enough to make that jump today after all.
Still on a high, Christina and I made our way to our second cenote for the day, Cenote Choo-Ha. Also an underground cavern, this was a lot smaller and busier than Tankach-Ha and without moody lighting, diving platforms or the drama of it’s sister cenote. Honestly though, Tankach-Ha would be a hard act to follow for any swimming hole, so we found ourselves only staying ten minutes before driving back to the hotel, stopping along the way at Mina again for a quick margarita and fries (because, you know, Tulum).
Having evening reservations at K’arma restaurant, we dolled ourselves up and made our way back to Middle Beach for our date together. The main restaurant was nice enough. A large indoor open-plan dining area, surrounding a massive tree at its centre. Projections splashed a colourful moving canvas across the walls. It was lovely to look at, but the music inside was blaring, killing any hope of an intimate dinner. Thankfully we weren’t eating in the main area, but continued up to the roof, where a seperate dining experience awaited us. As we stepped out of a shabby stairwell, we were, for a second time today, left breathless at the sight before us. A wooden fairyland paradise, surrounded by epic 360 degree views of lush jungle and the ocean. The Nest as it is called is a series of ten wooden booths, each separated for privacy. We would later find out that each table represented a finger of Buddha’s hands. Buddha’s veins came in the form of thin tree branches, creating tree-themed pathways between each table. It was like we were dining in the sky, as much a Wookiee love nest as it was a restaurant.
As we sat, our waiter immediately went about the business of making us both feel like we were the most important people in the world, taking our photographs for our memory of the night, walking us through details about the restaurant’s theme and of course acquainting us with the God/Goddess-themed menu. And as he brought us a bottle of Spanish pinot noir, we sat and gorged on the landscape surrounding us. A lush jungle, brought to life with the stormy sky above it. Bold, brilliant lightning forks striking the olive boscage beneath them. An epic slideshow of violent nature, made peaceful somehow by the lack of rain and the ambience of the restaurant itself. We cheers’ed to an early wedding anniversary (we celebrated again on our actual anniversary by hiking the island of Catalina on the TCT) as the crack of distant thunder rolled over the sounds of crashing waves. “Here we are, creating magical experiences together”, Christina articulated as we sipped to another beautiful five years of marriage together.
As it turns out the food was also amazing (who’d have thought), enjoying Grilled Shrimps with Peruvian anticuchero sauce & chimichuri for an entree. For the mains, we both shared an oriental salad and Christina soloed the salmon with noriyaki sauce, while I devoured a NY Steak with mashed potatoes. For desert, the waiter surprised us with a piece of Chai Cheesecake with “Happy Anniversary” written with colour sprinkles across the plate.
As far as tough days travelling go, what can I say, we’re troopers.
“You’re an experienced rider, right?” asked the young man behind the counter at the motorbike rental shop in Tulum’s Pueblo. Today we were going all out by hiring a Vespa, because, well, Vespa! “Sure”, I murmured, not exactly winning any Oscars for my convincing reply. “We have no bikes available for you” he sharply fired back, trying to pull the rental contract away from me. Eyeing the two dozen white Vespa’s lining his store, I was not taking no for an answer. Adjusting my stance, I retorted, “I am experienced and insist on renting a bike today”, equally tenacious and charming. The truth was I hadn’t ridden in years. Not since a friend of mine got married in Bali and I dirt biked around the island for several days. But this clerk didn’t need to know that and I was confident it would all come back to me, because, it’s like riding a bike and all that…
After finally bending to my cajoling, the clerk handed me the keys and I was riding the back streets of the Pueblo with Christina snugly hugging my back before I knew it. We were on a Vespa, and man, we looked the part too. Two world travellers, sporting stylish helmets and exploring the cosmopolitan streets of Italy…except it was a beach town in the jungle and it was in Mexico. Honestly it was fun just riding this bike and I knew today was going to be a blast!
Before I knew it, we ended up back at Middle Beach, exploring breakfast options. We eventually decided, since we were in Tulum, that we should visit the famous Ziggy’s at least once. And the place did not disappoint. Seated directly on a quiet white-sanded beach, we enjoyed delicious food (I devoured the Ciabatta with Serrano Ham, which is a glorified ham, cheese and tomato sandwich) while we watched the morning waves gently break before us.
Afterwards, I took the slow morning as an opportunity to visit Tulum Beach Tattoo to see if there were any availabilities for an appointment to ink my stars tattoo, which I still was excited about getting as part of our anniversary. Yesterday, while exploring the nearby shops, I noticed some beautiful freshly-inked work on a passing tourist. Stopping them to ask where it was done, they introduced me to the artist Philippe, who was walking along with them. I just knew this was my guy, so entered to see when he was next available. Unfortunately when we arrived, another tattooist was holding fort inside and didn’t know when Philippe was starting for the day. I told myself I would return later in the day.
Confident on the Vespa by this point, I decided it was time to stretch its legs on a freeway, so we adventured 20 minutes to what would be our final cenote for the trip. The Cenote Cristal was a big open air swimming hole, surrounded by lush jungle. As we arrived, we showered under cold water, flowing from an outdoor pipe in the middle of the jungle. Making our way to the cenote itself, we were pleased to discover loads of tables and seating benches peppered all around the perimeter, allowing us to just leave our stuff and instantly relax. Like with yesterday’s first cenote, there was a wooden platform designed for diving, though this one only at an adorable 3 meters (10 feet) in height. The water was warm and as we swam, scuba divers seemed to be training a few meters beneath us, perhaps exploring the underwater tunnels that join Cenote Escondido nearby. I of course jumped from the platform more times than I could count. Christina even gave it a shot, ultimately deciding though that she’d leave the leaping from platforms to me. It was nice being outside, soaking in the Mexican sun and just enjoying the jungle atmosphere. I was relaxed and perhaps more-so than I had been on this trip so far.
Having worked up an appetite, we once again scootered back to Middle Beach, where we had a craving for Aua de Mar’s nachos, along with a Hawaiian pizza. As we ate, we watched the increasingly long line of spectators waiting to take their picture in front of Ahau Hotel’s famous Ven a la Luz sculpture by Cape Town artist, Daniel Popper. The 10-meter (33 feet) statue was originally created to bring awareness to Tulum’s ecosystem and features a female figure holding her torso open to reveal a lush green plant walkway below. Now it attracts long lines of tourist from sun up to sundown, all clamouring to fill their instagram feeds posing under something beautiful. And I don’t mean “waiting a few minutes and snapping a quick vacation” photographs either. I’m talking Disneyland-length lines and full-blown Hollywood photoshoots here…except, you know, with smart phones and with no celebrities to be found. Taking dozens of photos overrun equal-amount of poses isn’t uncommon. I even saw one group of ladies hold up the entire line of patiently waiting people, all baking under a scorching 35 degree (91 Fahrenheit) sun, for over ten minutes so they could do a series of group shots, followed by as many solo ones. It’s safe to say the place can be a zoo at times and as we watched the madness before us once again, I decided it might be fun to play a game to guess how long the average person would need to wait in line to tale their picture under the sculpture. Randomly picking a pretty Latino girl at the back of the line, we placed our bets. I guessed she would take 16 minutes, Christina guessed 25. The game was on.
As the girl stood in line, it became pretty clear this was a someone who was going to be comfortable having her picture taken. She was well-groomed, stylishly dressed and wore her muscly companion like he was her handbag accessory. Given how she carried herself, my guess was that she was an instagram influencer, which meant she was very used to being in front of the camera. As the line slowly inched closer, the girl became preening herself, brushing her hair, then brushing it again. Yep, this girl was experienced and I could see shit getting real on this shoot, so I upped the anti, starting a side bet on how long she would actually take to snap her pictures once they reach the font of the line. Christina guessed 5 minutes. A solid guess, given how long some of the other people were taking and how the girl was presented. I however had a feeling that she was a pro. That she would have spent her time waiting in this line working out all the angles in her head, getting only what she needed and moving on. I guessed only 3 minutes. What was it going to be? The pressure was on.
Many more minutes passed with the girl brushing her hair and her beau following her every move. Finally they reached the font of the line in 22 minutes, making Christina the clear winner of the first bet. But now it was on. Was she going to bogart the space, snapping every angle imaginable like the group fo ladies I had seen earlier? First her, then her man, then the two of them together, then back to more of her? Or was she in fact experienced enough that she would burn through the no doubt dozens of shots in no time at all? Sure enough, as I predicted she immediately started directing her man into holding the camera at specific angles. Front angle, snap! Down low pose, snap! To the side, snap! They would get what she wanted, then quickly move on, through a whole series of poses. Then, before you know her man was handing the phone to a hotel staff member to grab a quick snap of the two of them together. And just like that, BOOM, they were done. Efficient as hell. A total pro. In and out in only 1 minute and 8 seconds! I have to admit, it was pretty impressive to watch.
Once lunch had settled, we made our way back to the hotel, stopping on the way to snap some pictures of our own in front of the Vespa. Seems our instagram friend had inspired us. As usual, Christina made it look easy while mine will take Photoshopping to make look human, but it was a blast!
We took a dip in the hotel’s heated pool, before grabbing some takeaway food from Mateo’s to enjoy back in the comfort of our hotel porch. As the sun set I decided that although I wanted to commemorate our five years of marriage and this trip with a tattoo, that maybe the rush to get it done would go against the spirit of getting it in the first place. And so, I let it go as we settled in for the night. To be re-visited again soon!
After rising early and taking in the ocean air one last time, we made our way back to Potheads to eat our final breakfast there. We’d grown very fond of our morning ritual at this restaurant and at this point I was practically Norm from Cheers when I walked in. After polishing off a classic breakfast of eggs, sausage, avocado and toast, I returned the Vespa rental then walked 45-minutes back to the hotel. I love walking in a new city. It helps me gain some sense of the place. Hell, I like walking in any city any time really. And in this sweltering tropical heat, covered in a steady ocean of sweat, I felt more alive somehow. Good thing I felt this way too. For this, our final day, we had decided to book a traditional Temazcal ceremony for couples and from what I understood, was going to need to need to be very comfortable with the sweat and the heat.
The temazcal is an ancient sweat lodge ceremony the Mayans used for purifying the body and spirit. The word itself translates to “house of heat” and I was about to discover that understatements apparently fly international as well.
Arriving at the Delek hotel around 11am, we were guided over its sandy beach paths through a small town of thatched cabins to a private space, surrounded on three side by a thick layer of jungle trees. Hung between them was a collage of multi-coloured prayer flags and below them, a tiny clay dome with a Mayan blanket hanging in front of its entrance. This was the temazcal, where all the action would take place.
We were eventually greeted by a portly, bearded man dressed in what I could only assume was traditional Mayan ceremony garments. A blue sarong covered his lower body, held together with a thick red sash around his waist, tied to the side, like a pirate in an old swashbuckling film. His shirtless top-half decorated with a collection of beaded necklaces, each hanging down to his exposed belly. On his head he wore a black and white bandana and underneath it a relaxed face, that flip-flopped between serious and spritely with every sentence that would follow. He introduced himself as Yolo, our Águila de Funego (eagle of fire, a shaman of sorts) and offered us a seat.
A fire burned nearby, diligently tended to by a man dressed in an incongruously everyday t-shirt. I would later learn this was key to our ceremony experience, pre-heating a special volcanic rock, specially transported from thousands of miles away, that would generate the heat for our sweat experience. Drinking as much water as possible, Yolo walked us through what to expect when we enter the clay dome. The sweating ceremony would last about 45 minutes, broken into the four stages of earth, water, wind and fire. Each stage would be shorter than the last, but also far more intense heat-wise and was known to break those who weren’t prepared. I was starting to get nervous. I’ve done hot yoga classes and been to Santa Monica Beach on fourth of July weekend, but this kind of heat? What if I pass out? I mean, couldn’t we just watch a spiritual guru on Youtube over some beers on the beach, like on a normal vacation?
As the ceremony began, we were asked to stand, after which Yolo performed an energy cleansing ritual on us. A large wooden cup, flowing with a steady stream of smoke was passed across our entire bodies as we bathed the impurities from our aura. Ok, wait a second. Let’s take a moment to address the flower-wearing, bongo-playing woo-woo elephant in the room for a second. I know this all might be a little spiritually intense for so early in the morning, but all jokes aside, if there was one thing I committed to experiencing this ceremony with it was an open mind. And so, with eyes closed, I let go and entered the ritual, all-in.
The three of us crawled into the temazcal through a tiny doorway in its side, revealing the intimate 3 meter-wide (10 feet) space inside. We sat against the wall on the dirt floor, a fire pit-sized hole at the centre. And as melt-your-face-off hot volcanic rocks were passed through the doorway, narrowly avoiding our legs, they were each gently placed in the fire pit before us on a large farmer’s pitchfork, eventually creating a small mound. We were asked to go into this experience thinking about something in our lives we wanted to cleanse or move past, to be stated out loud to each other. Yolo looked to me. Caught off guard, I felt frustrated that I didn’t have a day to think about the “perfect” answer. Taking a breath, I shared that I wanted more clarity for the next steps in my life, secretly nervous perhaps I was “doing it wrong”.
Some herbs were thrown onto the volcanic rocks, followed by water, creating a cloud of steam that filled the small clay room. The ritual had begun. Drumming and rhythmic prayer filled the tiny temazcal, as a sharp, humid heat started to fill my lungs. I looked down at the cool dirt beneath me, listening to my own breath as my mind raced a thousand miles an hour between small pockets of meditation. I was present. I was nowhere near present. I was excited to be here. I was terrified to be here. Steam washed over me, causing sweat to instantly form, then to flow. The pounding of the drum slowly lulling me into a rhythm, relaxing my mind.
After what must have been fifteen minutes, the drumming stopped and the blanket closing the doorway to the room opened, giving us some reprieve from the hot air trapped inside. It also however provided a moment to add more rocks to the mound to intensify the next stage of ritual. And after a few precious breaths, the doorway closed and the drumming once again started. More herbs were added to the rocks. Then, more water. This time though, the wall of heat hit me like a freight train. It filled my lungs. I sat up to better control my visceral reaction. This was going to be a challenge. Over the pounding beat, I breathed deep, the rhythmic song continuing to take my mind on a journey. Somewhere, nowhere, here. Christina started joining the wailing. Heat and sweat and pounding and breathing. Pins and needles formed in my feet, in my hands. Another splash of water, another wall of intensity. My body, started to wain. Was it too much? Hot and harsh and tribal and primal. And then, as if minutes blurred into seconds, the doorway once again opened, allowing the cool air in and the sunlight to splash across my sweat-drenched face.
Yolo passed both of us some water to sip. I quickly devoured two glasses, as he prepared us for what was yet to come. That previous stage was all kinds of intense and I honestly didn’t know if I could deal with more. More searing volcanic rocks were added to the mound, almost doubling the size. I looked over to Christina, looking a wet mess, but sitting strong and ready. Ok, let’s do this.
The drum pounded louder, the wailing more passionate. More water to the rocks, a steam wall more aggressive than I could bare. The wailing, the yelling, the pins and needles. My body buckled under the heat, collapsing to the dirt, trying to steal any cool from it I could. But nothing was escaping this searing heat. I’ve never felt temperatures like this. Could my body even take it? Was I about to pass out? My heart pounded, along with my head. And then, a pause for a few seconds, as Yolo ordered us to let out everything that was holding back, entering the final stage of “heat”. Drums pounding, I dug deep, managing a guttural scream that felt like it had been waiting years to come out. And just like that, the everything stopped. It was over. The door opened and cool air rushed into the room. Relieved, I was too spent to express it, or anything really.
We very slowly stepped out, being cautioned to take our time. The experience was known for taking its toll on participants and I was in a daze. Stepping up, we were offered water, then slowly lead through the cabin village of the hotel towards the beach area. I’ve never walked so slowly in my life, relieved for the experience to be over, grateful to have gone through it. The fact was, I was feeling amazing. Better than I had in forever amazing. I was calm. I felt pure. I felt clear. I guess I wasn’t “doing it wrong” after all.
As we approached the ocean, we floated on a high through the hotel’s outdoor beach restaurant, absolutely filthy from sweat and dirt, as customers looked on, wondering what the hell we had been through. Yolo gently motioned for us to swim to wash the impurities from our bodies. Gradually entering the warm Caribbean waters for the first time on the trip so far, I submerged my body first and then my head. As I surfaced, I felt new somehow. Calm, but clear. Christina and I held each other, looking back at the miles and miles of palm-tree lined white beach, as we bobbed over waves brushing past. It was magical. She too had a sublime, very personal experience. In many ways, it was our reason for coming to Tulum in the first place. Craving connection, not just with with each other, but with ourselves. A perfect finale to our Tulum adventure.
We seem to float through the next few hours, eating lunch at a nearby beach restaurant, before showering back at the hotel and waiting on the beach for our airport shuttle to pick us up. Our customs experience was quick (quickest ever actually), our flight easy and as we drove home past the towering buildings of Downtown Los Angeles, it felt good to be home, ready to move forward in my life with a stronger sense of clarity.
Leave me a comment about your own trail experiences, adventures, or just to say hi!