Each winter, in a noble effort to escape my work, I take my family on a vacation that has nothing to do with Europe. This year, it was the Yucatán Peninsula, home-basing in Tulum.
I visited Tulum 30 years ago and fell in love with it: gas lantern-lit cabanas, walks on the desolate beach with moon shadows, lonely Mayan ruins, and private cenotes (limestone sinkholes — dreamy for swimming). Today, it’s completely developed — the entire beach is a steady string of hotels, bars, restaurants, and private clubs — and the congested two-lane road is littered with potholes and Bohemian-chic experts in lethargy making the scene.
While very different in 2018…Tulum is still lovable. I was thoroughly on vacation and heroically stopped myself from taking notes and doing any writing. But it’s been about a month since I got home, and I just have to share a bit about the experience — even if my report is sketchy. Over the next five days, I’ll be telling you a bit about our Yucatán vacation here on my blog and on the Rick Steves Facebook page.
The plan: Fly into Cancún (a massive beach resort), pick up a rental car, and drive a couple of hours south along the Caribbean coastal road (passing Playa del Carmen, a foreboding chorus line of huge golf club-style resorts, each with their own security gates and guard towers) to Tulum. Then, settle in for about a week: two days touring the interior with a guide, and four days hanging out at the beach and in the town of Tulum.
Tulum is a funky tourist town with fun shops, cheap restaurants, and lively clubs straddling an ugly six-lane main drag. Inviting side-streets are lined with more places catering to tourists. Prices here are midway between “resort” and “real Mexican.” Accommodations in town are far more ramshackle and affordable than on the beach.
Ten minutes down an access road takes you from the town to the beach strip — with Rich World prices (about the same as Florida) and an international, youthful, high-end tourist scene. We slept in Aldea Zama, a modern development midway between the town and beach. It felt like a gated American resort, with security guards and lots of American and European vacationers who had booked their condos through Airbnb-type services. It was modern, with superficial conveniences and shoddy appliances and workmanship. Safe, comfortable, sterile, expensive, and efficient, it was handy to the town and beach. With a family of five and six days, I just wanted security and convenience more than economy and local culture — and I got it. Local taxis constantly shuttled tourists back and forth into town or to the beach for around $5 a ride, but I was happy to have our car.
We could have paid a lot more to sleep on the beach, but I was glad we didn’t. After a short drive each day, we simply settled into our favorite “Beach Club” (Ak’iin Beach Tulum), giving us a fine place to belong on the beach. The club was free if we spent a minimum of about $20 each (no problem with cheap drinks all day, addictive chips, heavenly guacamole, and lunch). It came with all the umbrellas, cabanas, and chairs we needed, showers, and our own perfect stretch of white-sand beach. Our beach club attendant stood, back to the sea, watching the holiday-goers and jumping to our service with the raise of a finger.
While I enjoyed proving to my family that I could actually relax on the beach all day, I preferred leaving the high-end beach scene at night to go into the town of Tulum for dinner and the bar scene. While I had good guidebooks (Moon and Lonely Planet), I let my daughter be the tour guide and take me to popular places she had found online. All our meals were fun, tasty, and cheap.
Trish and I enjoyed spending lots of time with my kids, Andy and Jackie, and really getting to know Jackie’s wonderful boyfriend, Damian. The highlights: smoothies, amazing chips and guac on the beach, and still — just like 30 years ago — that surfside stroll with my favorite travel partner…just us and our moon shadows.
Thanks to Trish Feaster for many of the photos in this post. For more photos from our family trip, check out The Travelphile on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.