My second day in Tulum was both an incredible experience and also a comedy of errors. My friend Ben had gone to Chichen Itza for the day so I set off alone to rent a bicycle and explore some of the cenotes near Tulum. Cenotes are limestone sinkholes that are sprinkled around the entire Yucatán Peninsula. Most of the freshwater in the area is in underground rivers, and when the limestone caves surrounding the rivers collapse it forms large holes in the ground that are filled with crystal clear freshwater. Many of them are excellent spots for swimming, snorkeling, and diving.
Before I could do that, though, my day started with one of those inevitable but terribly awkward hostel moments. Being on the top bunk, my locker was located underneath my bunkmate’s bed. As I left in the morning, I went to lock up my valuables and found that my key was stuck in the lock. I jiggled it around for several minutes, waking up my neighbor and half the other people in the room. Somebody finally came to help me and found that he couldn’t remove the key either; my bunkmate opened his eyes, looked at the guy helping me, and said in a voice heavy with sleep and hangover, “I think it’s broken, mate.”
Uh oh. I went out to reception and the man working there told me there was a secret that he could show me. He opened and closed the locker with no problem at all, explaining the trick to the lock. In the process, he pushed my belongings further into the locker to clear the front, unknowingly sweeping up a stray piece of my bunkmate’s clothing as well. I was so mortified about having woken the entire room that I left the hostel at a near run, vowing to return whatever that piece of clothing was to my bunkmate later in the day.
After emotionally recovering over breakfast, I rented a bicycle and snorkel gear and set out for the 5 km trek to the Gran Cenote, the most famous and accessible cenote near Tulum. I was about two minutes away from it when I realized that in my rush to leave the hostel, I had forgotten the most important thing to bring with me to the cenotes: my bathing suit.
I considered this for a moment and then resigned myself to a day of wet clothing. I could swim in my sports bra and shorts.
This setback was immediately erased from my mind when I began snorkeling in the incredible Gran Cenote. It consists of two open-air sinkholes connected by a short cave, and you can snorkel through the cave between the two. The water is crystalline blue and full of fish and turtles; the cave is dark and full of bats. The combination is otherworldly.
The best part for me was braving snorkeling into the further reaches of the cave and then free diving downwards. As you get in further, your eyes adjust to the light and you begin to be able to make out what was once pitch black. Under the water you can see all the cave formations in eerie crispness. The distant beams of sunlight filtering through the bright blue water, illuminating stalagmites and the occasional catfish, is a sight I’ll remember forever.
After the Gran Cenote, I biked another 4 km to the Carwash Cenote, which turned out to be something close to heaven. The Carwash Cenote is at ground level and looks suspiciously like a regular pond, except that the water is perfectly still and clear. Aside from a friendly group of Mexican twenty somethings toting beers and sandwiches, I was the only person there. The snorkeling there was also incredible; although there were less cave formations, I could see the tree roots around the edges perfectly, and the fish darting between them glimmered blue and silver in the sunlight.
I hung out by the side of this cenote for a while, letting my clothes dry a little, and then biked back to town. My plan had been to return to my hostel, grab my bathing suit, and then go to the beach where I was meeting Ben that evening. However, I realized I was running out of daylight so I decided to skip the hostel step of this plan. Instead, I went into a supermarket to get beer for the beach and to see if I could find a cheap pair of shorts so I wouldn’t get mine all sandy.
Being the world’s biggest cheapskate, instead of buying regular shorts I located a pair of cotton little boys’ boxers in a far corner of the store that have been deeply discounted to 12 pesos – less than 1 U.S. dollar. They looked like they would stretch to fit me and I only needed them for a few hours, so that was reasonable, right? (Wrong.) I took them and a four pack of beer up to the checkout. Sadly but unsurprisingly, the system did not recognize the boxers. The woman pushed my beers towards the bagger at the end and started serving the next customer as another employee went to find another pair of boxers.
The people behind me in line, an older American couple, were also buying beer for the beach. I exchanged pleasantries with them and when they left also started talking to the Polish woman that followed them. She told me that she works in Mexico as a teacher and informed me that the baggers in Mexico are all voluntary and make their money solely on meagre tips from customers. This horrified me, and I thanked her for letting me know so that I could tip the elderly man bagging at our aisle.
When the woman finally returned with the other pair of boxers, she rang me up and I paid by card. I was all set to leave when I realized I didn’t have my beer.
“Uh….¿Dónde está la cerveza?” I asked, and all hell broke loose.
From what I could gather from the cacophony of confused employees, rapid Spanish, and excited gesturing, the elderly man had bagged my beer when I was first being rung up and then the American couple behind me had grabbed it as they left. After a few minutes of excited bickering, everybody suddenly went silent and avoided looking at me. After a minute of this I used some terrible English/Spanish hybrid to convey, “Soooooooo…”
And I was told, quite firmly, that the elderly bagger would pay for another pack of beer for me.
No! They could not make this unpaid man pay for my beer; it was not his fault that the American couple had stolen it. But my displeasure made no difference, and there was no way I was going to make him pay for it, so I bought myself a second pack of beer and skedaddled.
I start biking to the beach, the sun considerably lower than it had been when I entered the store. I was fuming. I’d lost daylight! I’d lost money! I’d lost BEER. These are probably the top three items on the list of “What Not to Waste While on a Whirlwind Tour of Mexico as an Unpaid Twenty Something.” And to top it off, that poor old man was probably being reamed out about the whole fiasco at that very moment.
What an outrage.
My anger was to almost immediately turn to mirth as I got to the beach. I was changing into my new [extremely ill-fitting] “bathing suit” when I looked into the bag and realized that I had accidentally been given the extra pair of boxers that the second employee had brought back to price check. I was now the proud owner of two pairs of black cotton size 12 boys’ boxers.
This is the story of how I ended up on the beach in Tulum with half as much beer and twice as many pairs of children’s boxers as I had paid for.
The final punchline didn’t occur until several hours later, when I returned to my hostel. I arrived to find that my downstairs neighbor had checked out during the day, making my locker access significantly easier. I opened it to find the piece of his clothing that had accidentally been swept in earlier that morning: a pair of boxers.