In Mexico's Tulum, the Un-Cancun, Look for Calm Instead of Crowds

By Robert DiGiacomo
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, April 19, 2009

For some, Cancun may be nothing more than a built-up, Americanized playground, albeit a convenient one. But for me, it's much more than that: a perfect escape route to other, less-traveled parts of the Riviera Maya, a string of beach towns fronting the Caribbean Sea on the Yucatan Peninsula.

About a two-hour drive south is Tulum, which is the name of both a town and an eco-conscious resort area nearby. Both are a world away from the spring-break crowds -- and chain hotels and restaurants -- of Cancun. Originally the site of a walled Mayan city whose ruins are a popular tourist destination, Tulum boasts the same gorgeous white sand beaches and sparkling Caribbean waters as its overbuilt counterpart but with many fewer tourists and a far more chill sensibility.

Night life is more likely to revolve around a resort's salsa night than pounding slammers at a pricey nightclub. And though you might spot the occasional celebrity, they're more likely to be participating in a yoga retreat than running from paparazzi. Even by beach standards, this is a casual destination, where shorts, T-shirts, bathing attire and flip-flops count as fashion statements.

The resorts in the Tulum area range from modest cabanas with limited amenities to more stylish, eco-chic boutique properties of two dozen rooms or fewer. Because they're not connected to Mexico's electrical grid, hotels must have their own generators. As a result, power -- and amenities such as air conditioning -- is at a premium. Sometimes the lights worked at our hotel during a recent stay, and sometimes candles and flashlights filled in. The ventilation system was all natural and supplied by the strong sea breeze. If sleeping under a mosquito net is a romantic notion for you -- and if you can live without a hair dryer -- this is the place to try it.

At the same time, the real world doesn't have to be that far away, unless that's your wish. Our hotel had WiFi, and there are cyber cafes in the nearby town of Tulum.

As for the plumbing, most agua from the taps is desalinated seawater, which can retain a hint of saltiness, although pressure and temperature shouldn't be an issue. (A trash can is mandatory, however, since there's no municipal sewer system and you can't flush toilet paper.) Another quirk is the absence of a lock on guest rooms at many of the hotels. We could bolt our door from the inside but couldn't secure the room when we left. We kept valuables locked in the room's safe or in the rental car, and we had no problem with any of them going astray. (Speaking of personal safety, Tulum visitors, according to government sources and published reports, are unlikely to be caught in the much-publicized crossfire between Mexican drug gangs and law enforcement; nearly all such incidents occur in towns along the U.S.-Mexico border.)

But a visit to Tulum is hardly roughing it. The only hints of "Gilligan's Island"-style deprivation are the rustic, thatched-roof cabanas found at many of the resorts. A well-mixed margarita, chips and salsa, and fresh grilled fish and seafood were just steps away at several dozen restaurants, clubs and bars along the beach strip stretching south from the Mayan ruins. My partner and I got our fill of tasty Mexican fare and also sampled some surprisingly good Italian (a seafood fritto misto to die for at Casa Violeta) and more-than-respectable pan-Asian cuisine at Mezzanine (chicken satay south of the border; who knew?). As a further touch of civility, many hotels also have day spas offering a variety of services, including the familiar Swedish and deep-tissue massages, plus facial and body treatments that incorporate Mayan clay and other local elements.

Beyond the trifecta of sand-sea-spa, Tulum offers a few other must-do activities.

As an alternative to traditional snorkeling, we rented masks and fins and whiled away an afternoon at the cenotes, freshwater caves and swimming holes scattered around the region. The cenotes lead to about 300 miles of underground channels that eventually spill out into the Caribbean, and they vary in atmosphere and size, with the aptly named Gran Cenote offering several large, covered caverns where you can navigate impressive stalagmites, stalactites and columns.

On another day, we paid our respects to Tulum's ancestors with a visit to the ruins of a more than 1,000-year-old Mayan city that was once a key stop on the trade route from Honduras. The sprawling archaeological site today is dominated by the Castillo, a fortresslike building that holds a commanding cliffside position overlooking the sea. After we'd spent an hour or so exploring in the heat, the frothy waves below beckoned. Soon we were cooling off in the surf, soaking in the views of the ruins.

The reality of work and other responsibilities was just a few hours away, yet even closer were the prospects of a long lunch, icy-cold cervezas and an afternoon nap on the beach.

Robert DiGiacomo is a Philadelphia-based writer.

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