I had almost ten days free between getting off work for Christmas vacation and flying to Texas to see my mother and brother for New Years. After careful consideration, I decided to spend that time in Mexico exploring the Yucatán Peninsula. This is the first of several posts about the unforgettable experiences I had backpacking the USA’s southern neighbor—Mexico is a country of incredible natural and cultural beauty, amazing (and cheap!) food, and some of the friendliest people I have ever met.
Getting to Mexico
I started out the trip with my friend Ben, a fellow volunteer at Ya’axché. We spent the entire first day busing our way from Punta Gorda to Tulum, Mexico. The journey featured some extremely confusing road signs, a horrible immigration officer, a lovely immigration officer, a surprise time-zone change, barely passable Spanish, one wasted hostel reservation, two broken ATMs, three missed buses, and the best tamales we’d ever tasted. In the end, we made it to Tulum at midnight, drank a victory beer, and passed out at a hostel that happened to have two empty beds for us.
Tulum Ruins and Beach
The next day, we awoke and explored the Tulum ruins. The Tulum ruins are far from the best Mayan ruins you’ll see; they’re not even the best within an hour’s travel of Tulum. But they ARE the only ones that are constructed on the coast, and the sight of ancient ruins on a cliff overlooking the bright blue Caribbean Sea alone is worth the entrance price.
Once we were satisfied with our ruin exploration, we made our way to the beach. Tulum’s beach is far and away the best beach I have ever seen. The sand is not only perfectly white, but downright pillowy; running your fingers through it feels akin to world-class therapy. The water is crystal clear and bright blue with sizeable enough waves in which to play, but not strong enough that you emerge from the water beat to pieces. As I was standing out in the water, I saw a whole school of silvery fish swim through a wave in front of me with perfect clarity. And the view, of course, is amazing: instead of high-rise hotels or beach resorts, the beach is backed by forests, cliffs, and Mayan ruins.
Seriously, every beautiful beach I have ever seen has only been approximating the Tulum beach.
After the beach, I showered and explored the charming town of Tulum Pueblo. Though definitely quite touristy, it’s not over the top. It still retains a feel and charm that is distinctly Tulum instead of that shiny, tacky, souvenir-shop-and-beach-bar culture that has infected seaside towns all over the world. I was able to eat a veritable pile of authentic Mexican tacos for less than $2 U.S, shop in cute boutiques featuring modern Mexican fashion, and hang out in a hip bar featuring cocktails made with local mescal and a dope Spanish-Jazz fusion band.
The food I had in my two days in Tulum was the best I’d had in months; a bustling international community of hippies, backpackers, and beach-lovers keeps the culinary scene interesting, varied, and very veg-friendly. Alongside this chic-gourmet scene, though, it was also easy to find inexpensive authentic Mexican fare: one night I had tacos followed by gelato, and the next night I had a multi-grain veggie burger followed by a marquesita (a street food dessert that consists of a large, crispy crepe stuffed with cheese and Nutella). After three months in sleepy Punta Gorda, it was nice to find myself back in a town with plentiful cultural activity.