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Dreaming of Tulum Mexico
Saturday, February 3, 2018. After spending a couple of weeks organizing and packing for our 30-day trip to Mexico, the big day arrived. We finished cleaning the house, lowered the thermostat, turned off the water heater and the water pump, packed the car, and said goodbye to Bandit, the cat. Bandit has a chip implanted in his neck that operates an electronic door. His food and water are inside and he toilets outside, somewhere. Our wonderful neighbor, Frank, will look in on him occasionally.
Ironically, our snowbird vacation starts by first going north to the St. Croix Casino in Danbury, Wisconsin, a small town not too far from Superior. I have a band gig there. Although it was chilly with bright sunshine when we left this afternoon at 1 pm, the weather deteriorated on the way. We arrived in Danbury in a snowstorm and 10 °F below zero.
As the lead guitarist in the Almost Famous Band in Wisconsin. I had one more performance before Wanda and I depart to Mexico. On this Super Bowl eve, the casino had its own sound system and light show with a sound guy. The place was pretty crowded for such a cold icy night - Danburiuans are a hardy lot. It was a blast!
100 Dollars to Pesos
I wanted to have some pesos for when we arrived in Mexico. The exchange rate was hovering between $18.40 to 18.80 Pesos per $1.00 USD. My bank would only give me $16.89 Pesos and then wanted to charge me an $8.00 USD service fee to boot. I just changed $100 USD to Pesos. The best way is to charge everything on a credit card. You get the full official exchange rate with no fees that way. The problem is that not many places in Mexico take credit cards and even if they do, the system could be down. Using a credit card at an ATM gives you the current rate but the fees bring you back down to $16.80ish Pesos. Going to a Mexican bank or a private exchange on the streets is often best, but you have to shop around. I have seen exchange rates vary from $16.90 to $17.70 Pesos per USD all within a couple of blocks of each other. Of course, they can vary from day to day as the official rate fluctuates.
Dreaming of Tulum Mexico
Sunday, February 4, 2018. We are up around 7 am to be on the road by 8 am. Google maps indicate a 6 1/2 hour drive to Quality Inn on Mannheim Road located a few miles from O'Hare where we will stay the night. Add potty, food, and gas stops, and it was a long day of driving. Our first stop is a Kwik Trip for milk and bananas. We are supposed to take our malaria pills with dairy products and a little food. Note: The malaria pills were a precaution when traveling to Campeche in two weeks where the Malaria alert was noted. (Health and Hygiene Travel Tips For Mexico.)
The drive is long and tedious, but the sky was clear, and the roads plowed. It was minus 18 °F when we started and reached a whopping 10 °F when we reached Quality Inn O'Hare on Mannheim by 4 pm. After checking in at the hotel I nestled in to watch the Super Bowl. Wanda, an American Airlines Flight Attendant, parked the car at the company parking lot. For security reasons, she had to do this alone.
Wanda picked up some weird but delicious quinoa "salad-thing" from Burrito Beach at the O'Hare International Airport, and took the hotel shuttle back to Quality Inn O'Hare to settle in and prepare for the air trip early tomorrow morning.
We attempted to check in for tomorrow's flight while online, but there was a problem with Wanda's reservation. Somehow the passport number on her ticket was off by one digit, and my ticket didn't display the TSA Pre-Check. (We already registered for the Global Entry program allowing us to bypass the regular security lines on domestic flights to vastly speed up customs when re-entering the US). We will have to clear this up tomorrow morning at the ticket counter. So as soon as the Eagles beat New England, we turned the lights out.
Dreaming of Tulum Mexico
Monday, February 5, 2018. We hopped on the hotel shuttle around 5:50 am. The best reason to stay at Quality Inn O'Hare is the 24/7 shuttle service to and from O'Hare. Only a short 10-minute ride to the terminal, we went directly to the ticket counter. We lucked out as the American Airlines ticket line was short and our issue was corrected quickly. The pre-check security line also went quickly. That is great because even at this early hour, the regular security line looked daunting.
The plane boarded on time but got stuck at the gate waiting for a fuel truck to take fuel out. The flight was set up for a much longer trip when reassigned to this shorter flight. We had never heard of that excuse for a delay before. Still, the captain said he'd put the pedal to the metal, and we arrived a minute or two ahead of schedule at 1:05 pm. Yes, I know they pad the schedule for just such delays.
The customs line at Cancun was insanely long. It took a full hour to reach the customs booth to get two quick stamps and walk outdoors to sunshine and 82 °F. I immediately shed my thin jacket and only wished I could have gotten out of my heavy black jeans, too.
Flight to Cancun. Bus to Tulum.
Finding the ADO autobus stand was easy - just outside the door past the Margarita stand. We expected to take a bus to Playa del Carmen and then transfer to a Tulum bus. To our surprise and delight, they had a bus directly to Tulum. I had read that ADO accepted US dollars. Sure enough, I paid the $29 USD for the 80-mile trip to preserve the pesos I had exchanged for the 30-day journey. The ADO autobus line is a first-class express bus system - brand new huge-comfortable-Mercedes and Volvo super-buses. The ADO autobus website is not in English but it is still easy to navigate. From the drop-down menu, input departure - destination - date. The list of departures that pops up are clearly displayed by departure times.
Airbnb in Tulum Mexico
Super Central Apartment in Casa Paraguas
Barbara, our Airbnb host, gave us directions from the ADO bus station in Tulum to the Airbnb. I had previously Google-mapped it and checked out the route on Google Street View so finding the Airbnb was easy. It was a 10-minute walk through the downtown.The actual town of Tulum, called Tulum Pueblo, is rather small with a population of around 15,000. The Airbnb is two mini-apartments above the el Gourmet Restaurant, which Barb also runs.
Our room was spacious, clean, nicely decorated and included a good sized refrigerator that turned out to be handy to keep water, drinks, and some fruits cold. The bathroom was perfect with a large walk-in shower. Security included a set of four keys required to getting through two doors and an iron gate - a little like the old "Get Smart" TV show.
After organizing our stuff and ourselves, it was 6 pm. Time to explore the town and find a place to eat. Barbara suggested some taco joints to try. The first restaurant suggested was abandoned, but two blocks away we found that it reopened in a new location. Unfortunately, by the time we arrived, it was closed. Dratz! The next place on the list was on the other side of town. Since Barbara raved about it, we had to check it out. It must have been pushing 8 pm by the time we found it. There was a 30-minute wait for a table which must mean the food is good but too late for us to try tonight.
Last April, while in Puerto Vallarta, we thoroughly enjoyed eating at the small mom-and-pop restaurants and proceded to look for one in Tulum. We found Tropic Taco. It was a colorful, well-lit outdoor restaurant with just a roof over red wooden tables and chairs. We ordered a plate of "Tacos de something-or-other" and delightfully discovered that Tulum tacos are tiny flat fried corn tortillas piled with shredded chicken or pork and so much more that I can't remember. On the table was a set of four different and delicious sauces that we had fun mixing it up. Of course, being tiny it was difficult to fold up the shells without any liquid condiments leaking out. Now we discovered that Mexican napkins are the smallest thinnest pieces of finger tissues imaginable.
Satiated, we walked around a little more and retired early. We have a big day planned for tomorrow.
Day 4 - Tuesday, February 6, 2018. Our first full day in Mexico started with a lazy morning of showering and packing a small daypack for touring, snorkeling, and swimming. We felt how strong the sun was yesterday, so we gooped up with Wanda's #70 Neutrogena sunblock mixed with Vitamin E and Aloe Vera gel and put them in the day pack for the rest of the day. With hats on, daypacks ready, and Water-To-Go filtered bottles in hand, out we ventured. First stop was a bakery for Mexican sweet bread and coffee flavored leche (milk) to take our anti-malarial pill. So far I have seen only one mosquito in Tulum. Note: The malaria pills were a precaution when traveling to Campeche in two weeks where the Malaria alert was noted. (Health and Hygiene Travel Tips For Mexico.)
How to Use Colectivos in Tulum
There are three different colectivo stands in Tulum, all in different areas of the town and each one goes to a different destination. We needed to locate a colectivo stand to take a colectivo to the Tulum Ruins. The actual town of Tulum Pueblo is 3 kilometers inland from the coast and about four kilometers from the ruins, which are on the far north end of the Tulum beaches. The transportation options are walking, taxi, or colectivo. Colectivos are a great transportation system. They wait for passengers at a colectivo stand or somewhere along the way. Once the van is filled, they depart the Tulum Ruins. Colectivos are ridiculously cheap, fast and efficient.
Are You Going To The Tulum beach Community?
The road to the beach is only three kilometers long before it reaches the ocean, at a "T" intersection.
North Fork Colectivo. To the left or the north fork, the road goes to Playa Publico, the hippie-cabana public beach area.
South Fork Colectivo. To the right or the south fork, the road goes past miles of privately gated hotels where there is very little access to the beach. This colectivo only takes the south fork because it is mainly for the hotel workers commuting to their jobs. These hotels are not the Miami style high-rise hotels but tiny buildings that blend into the jungle surroundings in the "eco'style." Unlike the funkier bungalow rentals on the northern beach, these are expensive, exclusive places where the general public isn't welcome unless you want to pay $6 or $7 for a beer.
2. Are You Going To The Coba Ruins?
This colectivo runs the 30 miles northwest of Tulum to the tiny town of COBA where the huge former Mayan city stood and where the Tulum Ruins is located.
Tulum Ruins via Playa De Carmen?
3. Are You Going To The
The Playa de Carmen colectivo is the colectivo we need to get to the Tulum Ruins. This colectivo runs all the way up to Playa de Carmen. The Tulum ruins is just four kilometers away on the same route. Barb, our Airbnb host, was kind enough to leave a great map of the area in our room, which includes all the colectivo stands.. Lucky us.
The 15-passenger van quickly filled to 18 passengers. $20 Pesos ($1.10 USD) each and three minutes later, we arrived near the Tulum ruins.
TULUM MAYAN RUINS
At the designated stop, we followed a small stream of tourists to the ticket office and found the price of $70 Pesos each ($3.85 USD) to be reasonable. The ruins show a well laid out city center surrounded by a wall that seemed to be built to keep out the commoners more than the enemy. The commoners' houses were built with more perishable materials than stone; therefore none of them survived. The main attraction, El Castillo, is located on a cliff overlooking the magnificent Caribbean Sea.
Below El Castillio is a small but beautiful beach. The day was heating up, and as soon as we completed touring the ruins, we went straight for the stairway down to the beach. You have never seen such sugar-white sand contrasting with the dark cliffs and boulders and the sparkling turquoise-to-deep blue clear water. We jumped in with little hesitation.
The waves were a good size but seemed gentler than the waves we experienced at Puerto Vallarta. Still, if you picked your waves well you could body surf to shore. The water felt refreshing in the hot sun. Swimming in February is a real treat for Wisconsinites.
Riviera Maya Tulum Beaches
The Tulum area has two northern beaches, the beach at the Tulum Ruins, and Playa Publico beach. There are several southern beaches, but they are nearly impossible to reach due to the way the hotels dominate that area. After exiting the Tulum Ruins area, we looked for the next beach. Again, following a stream of other people, we stumbled on the Playa Publico (public beach). Just what we were looking for - Playa Publico is a world-class beach. We have now experienced a few beautiful beaches. Granada's Spanish beaches were Class A even though it was too cold to swim. Puerto Vallarta beaches were beautiful; the beaches at the British Virgin Islands were excellent with a colorful reef just off the shoreline; the beaches around San Diego looked good just too cold for us to experience at the time; Hawaii beaches were spectacular. and Floridian beaches were fun. However, Tulum's beaches were not just incredible to look at, but the texture of the sand was sugar-fine and super clean, the water was crystal clear, and the waves packed a solid punch for body surfing.
The Great Barrier Reef
We heard about the snorkeling opportunities at this beach but didn't know where the reefs were. Not to worry, just as we stepped out from the jungle road to the white sand expanse we were approached by local boaters that took snorkelers 200 yards offshore to the reef. My haggling technique was to say I didn't have many pesos on me as I hadn't changed any dollars to pesos yet. I did get one boater down from what turned out to be the standard starting price of $200 Pesos ($11 USD) per person. As soon as he gathered a boatload of snorkelers, we were on our way to the reefs. First, he took us over to the Tulum Ruins to get photos of el Castillo from the water. Lucky us as the pictures turned out well. Then he tied up at a buoy to the second largest reef in the world, second only to the Great Barrier Reef off Australia.
The boat captain jumped in the water and led the group of snorkelers for a closeup look at Mexico's underwater world. The reef was beautiful. We saw coral, colorful fish, an eel, and four leatherneck turtles that stayed close letting us watch them going up to get air and then diving to the bottom again — diving with the Leathernecks, s-w-e-e-t.
Our personal diving masks (ScubaPro Solara Scuba Diving Mask) have our eyesight prescriptions built in, so the underworld lit up with color and clarity. Along with our favorite diving masks, we also have the newest high-tech (for us) snorkels (ScubaPro Phoenix 2 Semi Dry Snorkel) that don't fill up with water when you dive. This small adjustment allows normal breathing upon returning to the surface instead of blowing out water from the tube first which did make for a more pleasant overall snorkeling experience.
After our mesmerizing snorkeling experience, we rented a shade umbrella with chairs on the beach. $100 Pesos ($5.22 USD). The rest of our afternoon was a series of: goop up with sunscreen, swim to get wet and punch through wave after wave, return to the umbrella's shade and rest. Repeat.
Tulum Hotels, Cabanas and Bungalows on the beach
Another thing that made this beach the coolest ever is that it is known to be the "hippy beach" lined with funky tiki-bars, cabanas, bungalows, villas, and tent rentals. One bungalow had ten 16'-square-wooden-platforms about a foot off the ground with white-canvass-safari-glam tents with beds, a communal bathroom-and-shower area, and a little restaurant and bar under a thatched roof. All the rental glam-tents come with several chaise lounge chairs and umbrellas, and all blend in with the jungle on the beach. The whole place was under a jungle canopy and very eco'ish.
For supper, we checked out Barb's highly recommended taco stand only to find it closed again. Further down the street we found another attractive taco place to try, Taqueria El Negro, and ordered a variety of different tacos to explore all the new flavors. Our tacos came with meat carved from the rotating pork and lamb roast and came with three different sauces. Satiated, we walked around a bit more and then retired.
Cenotes in Tulum Mexico
The Yucatan peninsula is a large slate of limestone which is quite porous. Consequently, there are no rivers. Water doesn't run off on the surface; it quickly permeates to a vast network of underground rivers and tributaries that run for miles. At times the surface gives way and opens up a sinkhole providing access to these rivers. These sinkholes are called cenotes in Mexico. Each cenote is unique. Some have huge openings with the crystal clear bluish tinged water near the surface. Some have tiny surface holes but open up to a substantial open-air cavern with the water very far below the surface necessitating a long steep stairway or ladder. Most cenotes have deep underwater caves that go on for miles. Divers love them, and some diving companies have set up guide ropes and tours through these caves. Cenotes are a spectacular snorkeling and diving experience.
Bike Rentals in Tulum Mexico
Day 5 - Wednesday, February 7, 2018. We were a little faster this morning and hit the streets by 9 am looking for three cenotes just a few kilometers from Tulum - a bit far to walk. We noticed hundreds of tourists zigzagging around on bike rentals. They all can't be wrong. Several rental shops later, we stopped at Ola Bike Rentals and bargained down a rental price from $120 Pesos to $100 Pesos ($5.22 USD) for two single-speed bikes with a handy large basket and a bike lock. For the deposit, we had to hand over a driver's license. I didn't feel too comfortable about that until I witnessed another tourist return his bike and promptly received his license in exchange.
Now that we have wheels, it was time to burn some rubber on the Coba road where three cenotes are within easy biking range. Riding bikes down the main drag proved to be daunting. The lanes were narrow, the traffic was heavy, and the street construction exacerbates everything. Like everyone else with bikes on Main Street, we spent more time walking our bikes than riding them.
Once on the Coba highway, it promised clear sailing. The road is a two-lane road with wide shoulders. The problem was people like driving halfway on the shoulder. When there's lots of traffic, this two-lane road with ample shoulders becomes a very tight four-lane highway.
On our way towards the cenotes with the wind to our backs and a slight downhill slope, we were flying and made the 4-kilometer trek to Gran Cenote in no time.
Gran Cenote in Tulum Mexico
Gran Cenote is one of the premier cenotes in the Yucatan. Admission is a stiff $180 Pesos ($10 USD). Picturesque and heavily advertised also means big crowds. Fortunately, like Spaniards, Mexicans and Mexican tourists are late risers. At 10:30ish am the crowd was sparse. The Gran Cenote set the standard for cenotes for us. Located in the middle of a park-like jungle area, the opening to the cenote is a large hole about 100 feet in diameter. The water level is 20 feet below the opening with a stairway descending to a large platform set in the middle of a little island.
Cenote Car Wash in Tulum Mexico
Located another 2 kilometers down the highway is Car Wash Cenote and it is very different from the Gran Cenote. I believe I read somewhere that they used to wash taxi cabs here before it became a tourist destination. Car Wash Cenote is open with the water only a foot or two from the surface making it easy to jump right in.
Car Wash Cenote is a sizeable natural pool with many underwater caves radiating in different directions like spokes attached to a wheel hub. The underwater world at Car Wash Cenote lacked the stalactites, stalagmites, nooks, and crannies of Gran Cenote. What set the Car Wash Cenote apart from the Gran Cenote were the deep underwater caverns so clearly visible from our snorkeling vantage point that you could watch a class of student divers emerging from the abyss. WOW!
The return bike ride was brutal. It was hot, into the wind, and up a pesky gradual upgrade for a total of 8 kilometers. There was one more cenote one kilometer from town, but we were starving, and our focus now was set on a mid-day meal. Foolishly we passed it up.
Instead, we enjoyed seafood tacos at El Pollo Branco, a tiny corner restaurant on the main drag. After lunch, we rode out to Chedraui, the local big box grocery store. There we picked up on some pastries, milk, juice, bananas, and a giant wrinkled mandarin orange. The mango and guava juices were delicious, and the wrinkled mandarin orange was sweet, juicy and bursting with flavor. Mexican pastries, however, are starting to disappoint. Spoiled in Spain with French-like dessert pastries, I am afraid Mexican sweet bread didn't measure up. Too bad because the rest of the Mexican menu is kick-ass.
We returned the bikes, and I got my drivers license back. On the walk home, we took a back street and stumbled onto a plaza filled with local people and activity. There were plenty of food and snack carts. Wanda has been craving Mexican ice cream on a stick, called paletas. Sure enough, we found a little shop selling them at the plaza for $15 Pesos (.79 USD).
Mexican paletas are handmade from fruit puree with real fruit chunks and sold frozen on a stick like a popsicle. Wanda got the Guanabana flavor, and I got a Nance flavored paleta. Yea, Nance, is my new favorite fruit flavor.
As we wandered around town, we noticed that there are as many as 50 hostels in Tulum, Mexico. Some explicitly geared toward scuba divers, but most are dorms with beds for rent. They are cheap, usually around $12 to $15 per night per person. Our spacious Airbnb with private bathroom is only $35 per night for the month. Still, if young and single, hostels would be a cheap way to travel.
DAY 6 - Thursday, February 8, 2018. See Coba Ruins
DAY 7 - Friday, February 9, 2018. After a lazy morning, we went to the colectivo stand that was supposed to be for the beach area. Little did we know that there were a couple of different colectivos that operated from this colectivo stand and we got in the wrong van. Almost immediately I knew something was wrong when the collectivo departed in the opposite direction. We quickly hopped off and returned to the colectivo stand. (Scroll up to Day Four for details on How To Use Colectivos in Tulum stands.)
Wiser this time we correctly picked the beach van, but again, we had to learn the hard way. The road to the beach is 3 kilometers long. When it reaches the ocean, the road comes to a "T" intersection. To the left or the north fork, the road goes to Playa Publico, the hippie-cabana public beach area we enjoyed the first day. To the right or the south fork, the road goes by miles of privately gated hotels where there is very little access to the beach. This colectivo only takes the south fork because it is mainly for the hotel workers commuting to their jobs. These hotels are not the Miami style high-rise hotels but tiny buildings that blend into the jungle surroundings in the "eco'style." Unlike the funkier bungalow rentals on the northern beach, these are expensive, exclusive places where the general public isn't welcome unless you want to pay $6 or $7 for a beer.
Embarrassed, we had to ride the colectivo north toward the fork. We did find one public entrance to the beach on the southern stretch and hopped out of the van to check it out. Sadly, the day was beginning to turn stormy. The wind was howling, and the surf kicked up to the point that it was washing chunks of seaweed on the beach. There were also some ominous looking rocks sticking out of the water. We decided to keep walking north knowing we would reach the public beach eventually. We did find another narrow entrance between two hotel compounds that led to the designated public access; however, it turned out to be a small beach section wedged between two walls of rocks; pretty but essentially a tiny private beach shared by two hotels.
We continued walking north until we reached the beautiful Playa Publico. By this time the sky was turning black, especially the eastern and southern portions. Optimistically, it looked like the worst of it was going to slip past us to the south. That's why we tossed the little iCorer popup beach-tent on the beach, staked it down, and proceeded to jump into the surf to play in the waves being kicked up by the stiff breeze. Again a couple of topless ladies and a multitude of thonged women entertained me.
Throughout the afternoon, it occasionally sprinkled, and sometimes the sun would peek through a gap in the clouds. The air was warm, and the water was pleasant. Suddenly, the wind shifted 180 degrees, the sky turned mean, and within minutes the heavy rain came down in barrels. Popping open a pop-up sun-tent is easy, you just gently toss it in the air, and it pops open before it settles on the ground. Folding a popup to fit in its handbag is another matter. With the rain racing our way, we frantically tried to fold the sun-tent properly, but it didn't go well. Finally, we just jammed it, sand and all, into the handbag and ran for a taxi. Just s we jumped in the cab the sky opened and thick grey sheets of rain poured down. (This turned out to be only one of two days of precipitation we experienced the whole month.)
By the time we reached our Airbnb, the rain had turned into a light sprinkle. We stopped at Barb's El Gourmet sandwich shop located on the ground floor of our Airbnb and split a foot long Lulu sandwich and a strawberry/guava drink. It was a perfect tasting light supper after a long day.
When the rain completely stopped, we walked to Chedraui's grocery store for more pastries and extra sunscreen. It was time to pack for the next Airbnb scheduled in Valladolid, Mexico.