Exiting the customs area of Aeropuerto Internacional de Cancún, we scan through the car rental counters in the arrivals hall, but the Budget representative appears to be MIA! Miguel comes to our rescue – he works for National, has just finished his shift, but willingly offers us a ride to the rental office in his van. There, in a matter of minutes, his supervisor provides us with a larger car, at the same rate! National 1, Budget 0.
More importantly, our initial annoyance at one rental company is quickly overcome by gratitude for the friendly and helpful people around, and the fact that no one is out to make a buck, despite this being a major tourist destination!
It is well past midnight by the time we hit the road, and given how tired we are, we cannot wait to get to the hotel and turn in. Google’s online directions assure us a short trip of 28 minutes to cover the 25-odd km to our hotel. It takes well over an hour! And the reason for that – Zona Hotelera – a strip of back-to-back hotels and resorts, spanning a few miles in length, centred upon an entertainment district, chock-full of nightclubs, and packed to the rafters with white kids on extended spring break! Welcome to Cancún!
But one night in Cancún is really all you need to get a flavour of ‘Miami on Speed’, so to speak! And luckily for us, we have no intention of staying any longer than that!
The Yucatán Peninsula makes up the southeastern tip of Mexico, separating the Gulf of Mexico from the Caribbean Sea. It is, expectedly, best known for its coastline, but also boasts the largest population of contemporary Maya people, and substantial remnants of their ancient civilization. Some 200 km west of Cancún, along Autopista 180D, lies their best known archeological site, Chichén Itzá.
For an hour-long tour of the site, we hire the services of George, an elderly, soft spoken man, who is a goldmine of knowledge for all things Mayan. He explains to us the symbolism of the feathered serpent deity, Kukulcan, which unfailingly appears on every edifice; of the science behind the design of the step-pyramid, El Castillo, which represents the Mayan calendar; and the intricacies of the Mesoamerican ballgame, played some 9 centuries ago in the Great Ball Court.
Occasionally, he pauses for a sip of water, to answer any questions we might have, to take the customary group picture, and to allow me my little photo excursions to nearby structures of intrigue!
Despite the heat, and the duration and rate agreed upon, George does not rush us – he caters to our every whim and fancy, not even as much as hesitating once! Over 90 minutes after we first met him, we are deposited at the Mayaland restaurant, hungry, but eternally grateful to him for his time, wisdom and selflessness.
An alfresco buffet lunch follows, accompanied by wild peacocks, live music, a traditional dance, and a toast to the 1000-year old Mayan civilization, a fragment of which, we have been fortunate enough to visit today.
In this far-flung corner of Mexico, the infrastructure in general, and the highways in particular, are excellent! For a so-called ‘third world country’, the driving manners are impeccable, the roads are brilliantly maintained and adequately signposted.
We’ve made a wise decision by not renting a GPS here, and some 400 km of driving later, we’re still to stop and ask for directions. But somehow, we manage to miss the turn for Autopista 109! Not anyone’s fault really, for Valladolid is a pretty little colonial town boasting a colourful town square – easy to get distracted by, momentarily 🙂
After an early start this morning, and having driven through 2 of the 3 states in the Yucatán peninsula, we pull up to the parking lot for Playa Azul on Beach Road. A thatched hut, with draped red curtains on the outside, and a chandelier within, makes up the reception area – simple, aesthetic and inviting! From this point on, given the hardship of the terrain that lies ahead of us, we quickly trade jeans for shorts and shoes for flip flops, and make our way over the dunes to our Cabana..
Welcome to Tulum, we tell ourselves, the fairy tale vacation has just begun 🙂
It took a full week of research and deliberation to settle on Playa Azul, and now that we’re here, we can’t help but agree that it is one of the best decisions we’ve taken collaboratively. Suffice to say, this is one of those places you ogle at in pictures, visualise and dream about – often – and it only turns out better!
And so far, our choice of cabana hasn’t let us down either 🙂
All the resorts along Beach Road in Tulum are off the grid, harnessing solar and wind energy for their power requirements. This respect for the environment is, no doubt, a far cry from the flashing neon and jarring decibel level that emanates from downtown Cancún, and the minor inconveniences that come with it certainly help to keep the crowds at bay.
Due to the absence of street lights, a flashlight is recommended at night, but a full-moon night will suffice too – as it does for us while we make our way over to El Tabano! This neighbourhood restaurant, serving up Nuevo Mexican fare, is located no more than 500 metres from Playa Azul. The decor is rustic, the food homely, and the staff incredibly warm and friendly.
After a leisurely dinner, and a lengthy conversation with our hosts, we make our way back to Playa Azul, where, amidst a star-studded sky, the moon is putting on quite the spectacle!
With the Caribbean on one side and a tropical forest on the other, hotels in Tulum kit out their beds with mosquito nets, and it is in your best interest to bring along an insect repellent. But the nets only add charm to a cottage that already packs a great deal of character, and to someone who’s spent a good portion of their childhood traveling through India’s smaller towns, it is a throwback to those good ‘ol days!
The repellent works, the insects stay away, and a sound sleep is had by all. I awake, a little earlier than the rest, to some cool sea breeze, the smell of the ocean, and a silhouette of thatched roofs.
Stepping out on to the soothing sand, I am instinctively drawn towards the dazzling array of colours which have begun to appear in the eastern sky. As I watch it all unfold, I think to myself, there’s probably no other place on the planet I’d want to be at this precise moment..
After breakfast, I am informed by the receptionist that my fellow travelers have usurped the only available massage slots for the day! So I do the next best thing and hire a bicycle!
Most, if not all, resorts along Beach Road will rent you a bike for about 100 Pesos (~$8) – yours to keep for a 24-hour period. Everything of local interest is within biking distance; the traffic is light, the terrain gentle, and the views exceptional!
The Sian Ka’an biosphere reserve lies 5 km to Playa Azul’s south, whereas the Zona Arquelogica de Tulum lies about 6 km to its north. I make my way to the latter, in what is turning out to be a hot, sticky morning!
The first object of interest at the archeological site happens to be a Black Iguana! These reptiles, native to Mexico, are noted to be the fastest running lizards on earth, but here in Tulum, they seem fairly content being the subject of every unsuspecting shutterbug!
Tulum was one of the last cities to be built by the Mayans and their settlement here survived 7 decades into the Spanish occupation. It was chosen primarily for its location – a commanding position on a bluff – enabling it to be used as a fort. The name Tulum itself is the Mayan word for wall.
Of the many impressive archeological structures on the site, Templo Dios del Viento, or the God of Winds Temple, stands out the most, its strategic location exemplifying the very reason Tulum came to be!
Tulum’s convenient coastal location also made it the natural choice for a seaport and over the years it came to be a major trading post, serving routes into the hinterland, and via the Caribbean into present day Guatemala and Honduras. But where seafaring canoes once came ashore, lies a public beach today – the entry pass to the archeological site doubling as beach access for visitors!
I return to Playa Azul after a 3-hour excursion, tired and sweaty! My fellow travelers are out sunning themselves, their massages long over. There are plenty of loungers to choose from on the beach, and tempted as I am to join them, the Caribbean beckons like never before..
Not only are the turquoise waters stunning to look at, they are as mild as can be, and try as you may, you couldn’t possibly replicate that temperature anywhere else!
Joining the others under the shade of a palapa canopy, I claim my own deck chair and tuck into some Steak Tacos for sustenance, and order the quintessential Cerveza to quench my thirst!
Life doesn’t get too much better than this 🙂
And so far, we’ve managed to figure out the daily routine to a T! Watch sunrise, dip in the ocean, breakfast, dip in the ocean, get some sun, dip in the ocean, lunch, more sun, dip in the ocean, shower, dinner, sleep!
There’s only one problem though – Playa Azul faces east – so if you continue lounging on a beach chair, or looking out longingly from your hammock, you have no hope of watching a picturesque sunset! But if you don’t mind an umpteenth dip in the Caribbean, the western sky is yours to savour 🙂
The moon is nowhere to be seen tonight, as we begin walking along Beach Rd. But a moonless sky, coupled with a lack of lights in and around Tulum, is nothing short of paradise for any stargazer. Unfortunately, none of us are, but nevertheless, it makes for a spectacular sight!
Located about a mile south of Playa Azul is an Argentinean-Caribbean eatery by the name of Casa Banana. Its specialty is steaks and seafood, all cooked on a wood-fired grill, and its aesthetic – as with every other place we’ve encountered so far – is rustic, and in complete harmony with its environs.
The room rate at Playa Azul includes continental breakfast, and while that was more than adequate yesterday, we’ve decided to go à la carte today. Huevos rancheros it is for the three of us! Following from a series of good decisions on the trip, this one pays off too – not only does it look appetizing, it is also, quite easily, the best I’ve had to date!
We’ve asked for a late checkout this morning, but even the extra hour or so we’ll get at Playa Azul is not enough to offset some of the depression that’s set in – the fact that we have to leave, when we’re only just getting started 😦
On a friend’s recommendation, we stop for lunch at Posada Margherita, an Italian seafood restaurant, located a km north of our hotel, and conveniently enough, on our route to Cancún. The seafood is particularly fresh and the service incredibly friendly! The laid back, island-like atmosphere is addictive, and as far removed from the lives we’re heading back to, as can possibly be!
If ever there were a single frame to sum up the spirit of Tulum, our lunch time view is precisely it!
And as the endearing signs on Mexico’s highways proclaim, we will be sure to Retorno…
In the meantime, Happy Cinco de Mayo amigos 🙂
A full set of pics can be viewed here.