mardi 31 mai 2016

A Trip to Tulum, Mexico

In November of last year, my sister-in-law Judy mentioned that she would love to take a trip with my brother JB, Brice and myself. As a Montreal resident, she was especially attracted by the idea of a trip to a warmer climate at the end of the Quebecois winter.  Looking at options that would suit both East and West coast parties, we eventually settled on Tulum on the east coast of Mexico.
Although Brice or I are not big “resort” people, we weren’t opposed to an “all-inclusive” experience – the Mexican Riviera was certainly the right place for it. When Judy looked at hotels on the beach though, prices were a bit high for our taste (we might have looked a bit late and the cheaper options were already booked). So we decided to revert to our favorite, tried-and-true accommodation method: AirBnb.
Brice and I are both big fans of AirBnb. In the last few years, we’ve almost 100% of the time stayed in AirBnB accommodations. If it’s just a room in a house occupied by a local, it’s a great way to meet people and get tips from locals on what to do and where to go. In New Zealand, our host told us about a much less-known hot spring located next to the big popular one. Sure enough, the one he pointed us to remained ours and only ours while we were there.
If you’re staying in an empty apartment or house, it’s a great way to save money on meals – since you get to make your own instead of eating out – and to experience the life a bit more like a “local” and not just a hotel guest.
We all looked online for a place that could comfortably accommodate 2 couples (avoiding the 1 bedroom with convertible couch kind of deals), and I was also pretty set on finding a place with a pool. Eventually, we settled on Alejandro’s very comfortable and modern apartment in Aldea Zama.  

Aldea Zama is a newer development that has sprung up right in the jungle. Located just south of Tulum town, off the road to the beach, it’s bordered by thick, dense jungle on all sides. The area was said to be destined to become a university, but with insufficient funding, it turned into a development instead, although not as spread-out as originally intended.
Aldea Zama definitely does not have the authenticity of Tulum town itself but the location is perfect: about 1.5 km from the town center and 3.5 km from the beach. It is still being developed and it will be interesting to see how much denser it gets in the next few years. It also could be a pretty appealing option for someone looking to purchase a vacation home in Tulum.
The apartment itself was great with 2 bedrooms, 2 baths, an open living area including kitchen, a big dining table and a cozy TV corner. The apartment is on the ground floor with sliding doors opening right onto the central patio of the building, which is built around – you guessed it – a pool! Being on the ground floor, the apartment does not get a lot of sunlight, but the direct access to the pool was a huge plus.


The apartment was only a 15 minute bike ride to the center of town, through the back streets decorated with murals. The town itself feels very authentic. The main strip has a reasonable amount of souvenir stores, but some of them actually do offer some nice artisan work. And as soon as you walk away from the main road and into the small side streets, you get to experience a much more authentic aspect of the town, with taco stands, local fruit and vegetable stores, etc… Every once in a while you’ll see some odd hipster looking café or restaurant, a hint that the town is definitely getting more and more influenced by tourism.

The Day-to-Day
With such a convenient location, it was easy to organize our days a bit on a whim and not plan too much in advance. On the first day we mainly took care of renting bikes and then rode them down to the beach. The first sight of the clear, turquoise, dark blue water was everything we hoped for and more. And the water temperature! If you know me well, you’ll know nothing makes me grumpier than cold water. And you’ll know nothing makes me more excited and happy than a warm ocean where I can play around in the waves without my lips turning blue. 

Our beach afternoon was cut a bit short by a thunder storm so we retreated home. It turned out to be the perfect excuse to test drive our new inflatable paddle board from Red Paddle Co in the pool. 

Once the storm had passed, we headed to the local grocery store, Chedraoui – pretty much the Mexican equivalent of Safeway – to load up on groceries for the next couple of days.

In the following days, our routine was something like this: wake up early (like 6 am type of early, ouch), run to the beach to try and catch the sunrise (although we never quite got there on time…but still managed to catch some really nice early morning light). Then come home for breakfast, hang out for a bit while the sun was highest in the sky (and the temperature a bit too much), and then head out again in the afternoon, usually to a cenote or back to the beach. Not a bad routine…definitely one I could get used to.

A few exceptions to this included a day at the beach in front of La Zebra Hotel, where we treated ourselves to a delicious ceviche lunch, a day excursion to the inland town of Valladolid, for an even bigger immersion into the Yucatan culture and history, and an afternoon in the Sian Ka’an Biosphere reserve. We also found time for a cooking lesson, a visit to the local Mayan ruins and some souvenir shopping in town (more on all that below).
Before our trip, Judy had done most of the research for tips on things to do and places to go, and these two blogs became our travel guides for the trip:

The culinary experience
Disclaimer: vegetarians and animal lovers may not want to read this part. Tulum is all about meat tacos. Vegetarian options are pretty scarce, unless you’re ok to just stick with rice and beans, which comes pretty standard with a lot of meals.
One piece of advice: stay away from western looking/tourist-oriented restaurants and keep it local. We pretty much ate tacos everyday, in places ranging from a cart on wheels on a street corner, to holes in the wall that prepare their food behind a small counter, to bigger “economical kitchens” with a full-on daily buffet, all of which were mostly filled with locals. And thanks to Judy’s cooking skills, we enjoyed delicious tacos at home as well.
The best Al Pastor (meat grilled on a stick, similar to Kebab, but with pineapple) tacos were from Antojitos la Chiapaneca. We also had a very tasty Chorizo taco at El Nero. And on our last day, we ended our taco binge with baby pork tacos at Taqueria Honorio.

Another great place was Tacoqueta. It’s a restaurant known as an “economical kitchen,” where, instead of a menu, you chose from a selection of 4-5 meat dishes, all served with rice and beans and tortillas for about 70 pesos per person.

In Valladolid, we randomly tried two places. We had been walking for a little while in the hot sun, trying to get from the town center to the old Convent, and we were starting to feel pretty hungry. We pretty much walked into the first place we could find, a tiny hole in the wall, with maybe 4 tables, and a woman behind a counter preparing tacos.  They seemed to specialize in fish tacos and their fried fish turned out to be really delicious. The look of the place itself was NOT appetizing, but the food (and refreshing “jamaica” or hibiscus water) ended up being just what we needed.

Later that day, after walking back from the Convent and taking a dip in the cenote in the centre of town, we found ourselves hungry again. Walking back towards Calle 41A, where you can find some higher-end artisan stores, we stopped at the only taco stand that was still open (it was about 3 in the afternoon) and ordered one of each kind that they were offering: chicken, fried chicken, and fried chicken skin. I know the last one sounds gross but it was actually delicious. We sat at the tiny counter of the stand and were so delighted by the food we didn’t even realize we were actually sheltered from an impromptu rain shower.

Our culinary experience in Tulum was also enhanced by two activities that we signed up for. The first one was a cooking class. Judy had found the recommendation for it on Tulum Dave’s blog, and being the food-loving, cooking aficionado that she is, she signed the two of us up before we even set foot in Tulum.
Lily of Rivera Kitchen welcomed us into her home where the front door opened up right into a dining/kitchen area. She first gave us a bit of history on the type of food specific to the Yucatan, in comparison to other parts of Mexico. While her discreet assistant prepared things for us, Lily presented the menu that we were going to make with her and get to enjoy when we were done. She gave us details of the types of hot peppers that would be used in the dishes and the different flavours they would create (as well as the precautions to take when handling certain kinds: gentlemen, do not touch hot peppers with bare hands before going to the bathroom…enough said). She also offered us a tasting of Mezcal, which is an alcohol similar to Tequila, and is made by burying agave leaves underground with coals for a week.

After the presentation, we each got to put on an apron and gather around her stove. We cooked meat in traditional earthenware pots and made rice “the right way” to get a light, fluffy side dish. We also prepared bean soup and pico de gallo (a tomato, onion and pepper-based salsa to which you then add additional ingredients: fava beans for a salad, avocado for guacamole, etc…). Another invaluable piece of information that we got from this experience was knowledge of the standard beverages. Tap water is not drinkable, therefore a lot of locals drink either jamaica (an infusion made from steeping hibiscus flowers in boiling water) or horchata (a drink made from rice). Both are sweetened with sugar, and they are pretty much the standard drink options available in lieu of water in restaurants and taco places.

The experience wouldn’t have been complete without learning how to make tortillas. Tortillas are to Mexicans what baguettes are to the French. They are on the table at every meal.  They are ridiculously easy to make, as they only require masa harina, a flour made from specially treated corn, and water. Adding a bit of wheat flour will make for a slightly lighter and more flexible tortilla, but it’s optional. The device used to obtain a perfectly round and evenly spread-out tortilla is a heavy metal press with a handle. You put a golf ball size piece of dough in the center, press on the handle to make the top plate come down on the bottom one and sandwich the dough into a flat disc. Tip: you can take the disk out, rotate it 180 degrees, and then press again. This is how you ensure even thickness all around.

Once you have your raw tortilla, you fry it in a small amount of oil then place it in a basket to keep it warm. If you’re making enchiladas instead of tacos, you fill your raw tortillas with cheese, meat, etc…, fold it in half Calzone-style and fry it in a bit more oil.


Our gentlemen, who were more interested in the eating part than the cooking, came to meet us at Lili’s at the most opportune time: just as we were finishing our meals. Lili very generously offered them a portion of our labor, which they devoured as if they hadn’t already eaten 5 tacos each at another stand in town. Apparently there’s always room for one more taco.
Our last, unexpected food experience was with Antonio and Frankie of Yucatan Outdoors. The kayaking tour we booked with them came with a full dinner at the end of the day. Amongst the delicious dishes they served, I especially loved the cactus salad, a nice vegetable addition to our otherwise pretty meat-loaded culinary week.
The only place we ended up being really disappointed by was a seafood restaurant that was recommended to us by a local. As it turns out, it used to be a smaller establishment and was famous for its grilled fish and ceviche. But with popularity it had turned into a tourist spot serving blend, unexciting food. It was so underwhelming that we went back to our favourite taco spot after that for a little street-side Al pastor to wash off the taste of disappointing fish.

As I mentioned, we stayed mostly away from the fancier, touristier restaurants. Since we were staying away from the resort area, we didn’t try any places there, except for the restaurant at La Zebra hotel. It was recommended by one of the blogs that we read, and this one on the other hand didn’t disappoint. Their ceviche was excellent, and so were their cocktails. Plus they let us use one of their big beach mattresses, which most places keep “for hotel guests only.”  That meal was definitely a splurge compared to the rest of our trip but it was well worth it.

Aside from that, the nearby “Chedraui” supermarket offered everything we needed to prepare meals at home, including fresh tortillas and hibiscus flowers for home-made “jamaica.” Judy also became obsessed (and took me down with her :P) about the amaranth products that were available there for a 10th of the price than in Canada, such as pre-popped amaranth as well as amaranth bars (similar to rice crispy treats but with amaranth seeds instead of rice). Sure enough we both ended up with a couple of bags in our suitcase (thankfully, like popcorn, it weighs nothing), and I’m so glad I brought some home as I’ve since been enjoying a couple of tablespoons of it in my yogurt for breakfast.

Following the advice of Tulum Dave, we rented bikes, and that was probably the best 550 pesos we spent on this whole trip. The town is about 5 km from the beach and the road that connects both is pretty much a straight, flat stretch of asphalt with a wide sidewalk/bicycle lane on one side. Our apartment was about 1.5 km south of town on the beach road, therefore about 3.5 km from the beach. Once you get to the intersection between the road TO the beach and the road ALONG the beach, you can chose to turn left or right. Left will take you all the way to the Tulum ruins, with a few hotels and resorts punctuating the way on the beach side, and jungle on the opposite side. That side is fairly quiet, and we found that it was our favorite side to hang out on at the beach (specifically, next to the Mezzanine hotel) or for a morning run. The other side (if you turn right) will take you into the densely populated resort area. After you pass Zama beach (the least attractive beach of the area), the road is flanked by resorts on the beach side and restaurants/stores on the opposite side. There is no bike lane along that stretch, but the speed limit is pretty strictly enforced by local police as well as 'topes', skinny speed bumps spread out pretty much every hundred metres. If you drive all the way to the end of that stretch you will end up at the entrance of the Sian Ka’an Biosphere reserve, classified as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Traffic can actually get a bit intense on the resort road, with numerous taxis and rental cars trying to make their way to their guests’ hotels, so biking along that road is actually a more convenient option (also much easier for parking).
Biking allowed us to quickly and cheaply go to the store, get to the town center or ride to the beach.
We only took taxis on two occasions. The first time was from the Cancun airport to Tulum. We landed in Cancun at 11pm and didn’t really know how else to proceed other than booking a taxi at the airport shuttle desk. The cost was $125 US for up to four people, for a 1 and ½ hour drive. There were only two of us (Jude and JB had arrived earlier in the afternoon) but Brice overheard a guy at the counter next to us saying he was also going to Tulum so we invited him to share the car (and the cost) with us. Obviously we didn’t know better at the time but we realized afterwards that renting a car would actually have been much cheaper. Renting a car from the airport and returning it in Tulum cost about $50. For the price of that first taxi ride, we ended up renting a car on our last two days in Tulum, allowing us to drive to and from the Biosphere for our kayak excursion, as well as drive to Cancun to drop off JB and Judy at the airport, then drive to Puerto Morelos to kill time while we waited for our own plane.
The other time we took a taxi was on an afternoon where we decided to head to a cenote outside of town. It was a bit far down the main highway to bike to, so we asked taxi drivers how much they would charge for a ride there. The first asked for 250 pesos, which we politely declined. The second asked for 150. We couldn’t bargain quite as much on the way back as we were stuck with the one taxi that the cenote keeper had called for us, but we still managed (after he’d taken us back to town) to get him to drop his price from 250 to 200. 
As I mentioned above, rental cars are really cheap. We rented a car to take a day trip inland to Valladolid. It cost us $30 US for the day and about the same in gas. Renting a car from Tulum and returning it to the airport was also much cheaper than using a taxi. We used the company American CarRental to book online, and their tiny office is right on the corner of the beach road and the main road in Tulum.
Although we had read about them, we didn’t actually use any 'Collectivos', but they seemed to be a pretty cheap option for getting around – cheaper than taxis but more expensive than bikes. 

This is the one piece of information that we were all well aware of. Unless you’re willing to get a case of the turista, don’t drink tap water! Most restaurants offer either jamaica or horchata as beverages with your meal. Otherwise locals drink mineral water purchased from the store. We were able to drink water from the tap thanks to our LifeStraw bottle, which pretty much followed us everywhere from my beach bag to our nightstand. The water didn’t have the best after-taste, but it was definitely the most economical (and eco-friendly) way to drink water in that hot, humid Mexican climate.

The weather
Although the weekly forecast was a little worrisome at first (overcast with afternoon showers every day), we still got to enjoy the warm, sunny, humid climate that we were hoping for (especially JB and Judy, who were flying from sub-zero Montreal winter). What we hadn’t expected was the wind, with some 17-20 km/h daily winds. The town wasn’t very windy but the beach got pretty intense one day, and we couldn’t even lie down on our towels without inhaling a fair amount of the fine,  golden sand flying in our faces.

The wind also made for some pretty fun waves, nothing you could surf on, but big enough  to make it impossible to get from kneeling to standing on a paddle board meant for calm lake water without wiping out. 

The afternoon showers caught us off guard on only a couple of occasions: once when we were already in the water (read: didn’t give a damn). Otherwise our routine of an early morning run to the beach, mid-day chill out time around the pool and mid-afternoon exploring worked out pretty much perfectly in keeping us out of the rain (as well as the hot mid-day sun).

The cenotes
The cenotes were a big selling point when we decided to go to Tulum for our Mexican trip. Cenotes are water or sink holes that occur when limestone ground above a dense network of caves collapses to reveal an open air pool. Cenotes are found all over Yucatan, and we got to try a few of them.
The first one that we went to was Gran Cenote. We rode our bikes there on Cabo Road (about 5 km north outside of town). That one was definitely the most “elaborate” one that we tried, with a full-on gate, and a set of stairs and platforms built to access the water. The “pool” itself isn’t very big but serves as the entrance to a dense network of underwater tunnels, which can be explored with a scuba diving guide.
We kept our first cenote experience simple with our own snorkelling masks.
The second cenote we tried was Casa Cenote (11 km outside of Tulum on the main road back to Cancun). Contrary to Gran Cenote, which was below ground level and surrounded by rock walls, Casa Cenote was an open air cenote at sea level and ran between dense areas of mangrove trees. We rented life vests this time, as the appeal of this particular cenote was to let ourselves float away from the entrance and into the more narrow paths that looped around the mangrove patches.  The cenote itself was quite deep and even if we were alone at the surface, a quick look underwater revealed a good number of scuba divers exploring the bottom. 

Our third cenote of the trip was Cenote Zaci, which is in the center of Valladolid. Cenote Zaci was another cavernous-type cenote, but on a much more impressive scale than Gran Cenote. Stairs carved into the rock wall lead you several dozen feet below ground to a large pool of dark water. The refreshing water was a perfect way to cool down after a few hours of walking in the hot sun. There were no scuba divers in this one, but we were entertained by a young couple from Denmark who seemed to be challenging each other into finding higher and higher points to jump from. Eventually, the guy got up on a tree trunk protruding from the highest corner of the stairs leading to and from the entrance and jumped a good forty (and some) feet into the water below.

Our final cenote experience was part of the tour we booked with Yucatan Outdoors. Before leading us out on our kayak excursion, our guides Antonio and Frank took us to a hidden mangrove-type cenote at the entrance of the Sian Ka’an Reserve. Being a smaller, more enclosed area, the water was actually a lot warmer than at any of the other cenotes we’d been to. We enjoyed once again aimless floating while staring at the fauna under water – no divers here but tons of little fish and the occasional turtle. After a week of trial and error with the Dicapac (the underwater pouch for Brice’s camera), we also got to take some fun underwater photos.

The ruins
One of the main “attractions” of the Yucatan is all the Mayan ruins that can be visited throughout the state. The most popular ones are probably Chichten-iza and the closest one outside of Tulum town called Coba, one of the only remaining ruins where you still get to climb all the stairs to the top of the Mayan pyramid. The Tulum ruins are less impressive in their architecture, but they probably offer some of the best scenery, as they are located on cliffs overlooking the ocean. 

We visited the ruins on a morning. After a quick sunrise sighting on Zama beach, we biked to the ruin entrance.  The ruins are quite spread out and spaced out along what used to be streets. We decided not to hire a guide, which would have given us a bit more details of the history, but instead decided to enjoy the visit as more of a pleasant morning stroll surrounded by nature and history.

 The kayaking
Located just south of Tulum, Mexico, along the eastern coast of the Yucatan Peninsula, the Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve is considered a UNESCO World heritage site due to its exceptional diversity of fauna and flora. Spreading over 500,000 hectares of land and water, it is one of the largest protected areas in Mexico, and a “must” for nature and wildlife lovers.
A variety of companies offer tours through the biosphere, most of them by way of jeep or motor boats.
But if you prefer (as we did) a more eco-friendly and less beaten-path type of exploration, you can go on a guided kayak tour through the reserve’s wetlands.  We decided to go with Yucatan Outdoors, a (very) small company committed to sustainable tourism. They serve both an educational purpose, by introducing visitors to the fauna and flora of the biosphere in the least impactful way possible, and a monitoring and reporting purpose, by tracking with each excursion any changes or unusual animal behavior that could be a sign of endangerment to rare species.
YO offers two options for the kayak tour – either the Sunrise tour or the Sunset tour. We went with Sunset.
Our group of 4 met with our two guides, Antonio and Frankie, at the entrance of the Reserve.  They first took us to a secluded mangrove cenote for a very enjoyable swim/snorkeling session, and then got us prepped for the 3-hour kayak excursion.

Although the water of the lagoon is only a couple of feet deep, the bottom is very soft clay on which walking would be impossible without sinking into the ground. As we started paddling away from the dock, we first went through a network of water channels between what seemed like a maze of mangrove walls. Eventually the channel opened into a much larger body of water, extending as far as the horizon and dotted in the distance by varying-sized islands covered in dense vegetation.


Antonio and Frankie guided us around the various mangrove islands. They gave us a wealth of information on the local wildlife – especially the incredible variety of birds (about 330 species recorded) that migrate through the reserve and establish their nests on the bigger mangrove islands. We got to admire pelicans, herons, ibis, and the elusive and beautiful Roseate Spoonbill, amongst many other kinds. For bird lovers, it is truly paradise!

Aside from the incredible natural beauty, one of the things that made the tour so remarkable was the quiet and serenity of the area. For 3 hours, the 6 of us were the only humans in this vast expanse of flat, calm water, spreading all around us as far as the eye could see. We were away from any sound of civilization, surrounded only by bird cries and the rumble of the ocean in the distance – the wetlands are only separated from the actual ocean by a long, narrow stretch of land which basically supports the dirt road providing the main access to the reserve.
We made our way back to the dock as the sun was setting down into the horizon and stopped in the open water to admire the colours. It was probably one of the most serene and vast, yet isolated settings, that I’ve come to experience. It was truly an unforgettable day.

The tour ended with dinner. Antonio and his wife Jessica actually live on the reserve, in a sustainable “house” made with materials from the land – mainly wood, clay and palm fronds. We shared with them a delicious feast of cactus salad, chicken in a rich pepper sauce and, of course, tortillas.
As I mentioned at the beginning, a lot of other companies offer tours of the reserve, with varying degrees of consideration for the impact that their tourist business has on this protected site. If you’re going to explore the area, I would strongly recommend going with a guide such as Yucatan Outdoors. They gave us an incredibly unique exploration experience, while helping to maintain and protect the area so that others after us can continue to explore and enjoy it in the same amazing conditions as we did.

Puerto Morelos
On our last day in Mexico, JB and Jude's plane was taking off at 12pm, but ours wasn't until 5pm, so we took advantage of the rental car to go explore Puerto Morelos, a sea-side town located about 1/2bour south of Cancun airport. The town is somewhat famous for its leaning lighthouse right on the beach. We had lunch and walked up and down the main beach. It had a much more local feel than the touristy beach front of Tulum, with a lot of families with children and dog spending their sunday afternoon by the ocean. It was a great stop before saying goodbye to Mexico (for now).


So there you have it, our Mexico trip of 2016!
We had such an awesome time enjoying the warm weather, eating delicious food and riding our bikes from ocean, to pool to cenote, care-free. The trip was made even more enjoyable by JB and Judy, who brought, along with their awesome selves, their silly humour, their unmatched talent for song-making/word-repeating/sound-creating and their all around goofball-ness to the trip. Ah-la-la Madame, it definitely wouldn't have been the same without them!   

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