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Tulum: A Tale of Two Towns

sunny 33 °C

As I mentioned in my last blog posting, Tulum has three distinct areas: the ruins, the town and the beach. Ruins - self-explanatory. The town - straddling the highway, and located about 3 km. from the beach. Those without cars rent bikes, take taxis, or walk to the beach. The beach - one half is populated by beach clubs and the public beach, and the other half is built-up with hotels and restaurants, and with a bio-reserve at the end.

The law in Mexico states that ALL beaches must be accessible to ALL citizens, but try telling that to the security guards whose job it is to keep their particular establishments clear of riff-raff non-patrons. This spot did not have a guard, but left a no-nonsense sign by the entrance.


We set out last night to explore the area, known as the Zona Hotelera, stop for a drink, and perhaps have a bite to eat, and quickly discovered that security guards are not the only obstacle to joining the fun. The entrance to this area is guarded and the road is heavily patrolled by police, and dotted with topes about every 100 metres. The road is just wide enough for two lanes of traffic, leaving cyclists and walkers to dodge the steady stream of cars. There are no public parking lots, and parking on the side of the road is fraught with peril, as spots large enough to squeeze your car into are few and far between. Large banners welcome "Dear Drivers" to park, but warn that cars will be towed if they are on the road. When we finally found a spot, we realized that our front tire was about 6 inches on the pavement. We locked up with a bit of trepidation, wondering if this mis-park would result in being hauled to the compound.


By now, all of my buttons have been seriously pushed, and I am starting to feel annoyed. Where's the hospitality? Where is the spirit of customer service? Why do we have to park in an inconvenient location because we arrived here with NO IDEA of where we might want to eat, or drink, or purchase something? We decided to cut through an eco-lodge (surely they would be nice to us) to check out the beach. Since there was no-one around to stop us, we just walked through. Am I imagining that we strolled through because we are white, older and respectable-looking?


This was their view of the beach, and will give you an idea of the build-up. Every business is linked by fences, so there is absolutely no way for the public to get to the beach unless they are staying in a hotel, or eating at one of the restaurants. There is a small public beach at the beginning of the strip, which is rocky and rough, with no amenities.


Before I go on, let me say that in spite of the petty annoyances, I REALLY like Tulum and the area around here, and would happily come back for a holiday, stay in the Zona Hotelera, rent a bike, and dive right into that vortex. Tulum does have a spiritual energy, borne by the stunning abundance of nature, sun and the very interesting mix of people who have been drawn here to build businesses. That old-school spirit of "travel with a dog and a drum" is alive here - this campground and its groovy entrance sign no doubt hosted the 60's and 70's wave of hippies who discovered Mexico long before the idea of all-inclusives were dreamed up.


Now, take it up a notch, and add numerous really beautiful zen-like retreats and yoga studios. Pure bliss.


Food is great (so we are told, we didn't stay) - definitely pricier than in town, but for the most part, still reasonable, and fresh, local, organic, and inventive. A number of chef-transplants from the U.S. have switched life priorities, moved here and set up shop. Raw food restaurants and juice bars are just as abundant as wood-fired pizza, and line-caught grouper.

What threatens Tulum's future, to my mind, is the untrammeled growth that surrounds the area, as well as the trend toward being a bit of a "scene". Gwyneth Paltrow- types have made their languid presence felt, and establishments are cropping up to suit that clientele. I have a question though - are you hip if you proclaim yourself to be?


Let's zip over to the other side of the tracks - the town of Tulum. It's spunky, busy, noisy, full of life and messy - just like Mexico. The main street is filled with restaurants, bars, and shops. There are a number of small hotels, and hostels - the bus station is a few blocks over. It is not pretty, but it's not ugly, either, it is just lively and interesting.

Here is our 'hood - one block off the main drag. We are staying at Posada Tulipanes, in a very Mexican neighborhood, filled with modest homes, modest posadas, grocery stores, and the usual cast of characters - men hanging out drinking beer, vendors riding by selling ice cream, kids playing in the dirt, dogs sleeping in the road. It's not unsafe, but it's not necessarily safe - it is simply typical.


This is our street, and our car, and our posada - a building with about 6 apartments. At night, when we sit on the back balcony in the dark to see the night sky, the bats swoop down beside us. We have a stray cat, missing half an ear, who visits us. We had two little girls come to our door the other night, looking for money. Despite Stephen's protests, I gave them some pesos, but the building manager Manuel, who lives downstairs, cautioned us against doing that. He told Stephen the girls are sent out to beg by their parents. This kills me - the older girl, maybe 8 or 9, already had a very cunning edge to her - childhood gone. Manuel and Isobel's children most definitely have a childhood. Here, Jesus, Luis and Allah, playing on their dad's truck. I discovered Steve can tease children in at least two languages. Little Jesus fell for the "tu nombre es Manuel" trick a few times.


We went out for a walk the other night in our neighbourhood, and life unfolded in front of us. First, we saw these two posters - a campaign to stop domestic violence. We watch Mexican men with their families - they are so tender and loving - how does that jive with the effects of alcohol, machismo and the frustration of working so hard for so little? Not for me to try and figure out the root causes, but there does seem to be a push toward educating young men.


Just around the corner, I saw a bush of tulipanes (our posada is named after them), so I stopped to take a photo.


Too late, I realized a family was sitting in their yard, right behind the tulipane bush, and of course, they all looked out at me. The dogs started barking, and the best I could do was ask if these were indeed tulipane flowers. They were, we walked off, the dogs still growling and barking.


Then, the lady called out to me. She had come out of her yard, plucked 3 flowers off the bush, and handed them to me. I was so touched - I gave her a big hug, and asked if we could have a photo. Like women everywhere, she pulled at her blouse, and patted her hair, and we moved in for the photo. A memory I will carry with me, and SO typical of the people we have met.


This wall, just filled with bougainvillea - they are everywhere in Mexico, and so gorgeous - like silk.


This is one of our favourite taco shops - packed all the time - we're heading there in a few minutes. On the way home, we will stop by the festival that has been set up about three blocks from our street. They have crammed in a bullring, a Mayan ceremonial centre, gambling, roasted corn stalls, and rows and rows of vendors . This festival will last for two weeks, and culminates EVERY night with music that reverberates for a 10-block radius, and does not end until 4 or 5 am, EVERY morning. Luckily for us, our bedroom faces a back wall, so there is a bit of a buffer, and between the air-con and earplugs, we mainly block it out.

Not to contrast beach Tulum ( touristy and self-contained) with town Tulum (real, authentic - aren't we the brave ones) - not at all. They both have their appeal. But the geographical divide has created another divide, and the comparisons are inevitable.

Not done with Tulum yet - we went snorkelling today for the first time and - as our son Alex is so fond of teasing me - there was an epiphany. Too much to go into here, and tomorrow (our last day here) we're off in search of parrots, so I'll send out another quick one in the next day or so before we begin our slow trip back up north.

Posted by millerburr 15:59 Archived in Mexico

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Brings back fond memories of Tulum the beach and the ruins, skipped the town. Best to S, b

by Bruce Mason

oh what a lovely adventure you two are having. Keep blogging- I am living vicariously. I don't dare share this w/ my hubby; we'd be in a micro bus with all plans of building our "dream" home scapped for a life on the road! Cheers, Nattalle

by Nattalle

Bougainvillea is my favorite! Enjoy your final day in sunny Tulum. I hope you got to see some macaws and I look forward to hearing about the snorkelling epiphany ;)

by Sue

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