Sunday, July 20, 2008


It's way hotter than it looks.

Tulum was praised by friends and colleagues who'd made the town and its ruins part of their travels, or pardon me, their vacations, in the past. "Don't forget to try..." or "You should stay at..." Don't do it. As Mark, a 20-something young man I met on my bus escape out of Tulum put it, "This area is made up of a bunch of scuzzy little towns, like this one."

Before the attack begins, I want to clarify that statement as far as I am concerned. It resonated for me for sure and put words to the confusion I was feeling at not having the time of my life in Tulum. Can't speak for Mark. Nothing can touch the powdery white sands and Caribbean blue of the warm ocean water. The uncared for cabanas, the little tour information palapas and the few beach clubs (read: a few chairs or beach beds that a hotel owns) of the northern beaches, the many families and European tourists on holiday - all those things help to create a beach environment not unlike those of my experiences here in the states. That coupled with the economic necessity of staying at a hotel in the seemingly uncared for little town equals a great big "What's the big deal?"

There was a bar on the main street, Tulum Avenue, that has a big screen over it playing music videos on a loop. I don't remember how many times I heard the same Britney Spears song blaring as I tried to sleep in my palapa roofed room at L'Hotelito. Ear plugs only help so much. I guess when I say scuzzy, I am thinking of a lot of the restaurants and other tourist-centered businesses that seemed to think, as far as I could tell, that by virtue of their demographic, they didn't have to try that hard. The tourists would come no matter what. And they did. To the sad and dim little hotel rooms with bathrooms that could've benefited from every chemical cleaning product the planet has to offer, to the bike rental shops with rusted bikes to the Mexican-Chinese restaurant (no Chinese people in sight). People came. The proprietors, the employees, didn't have to try to hard to bring in the lost visitors just looking for a place to have their morning coffee or spaghetti dinners.

But how about the ruins? The ruins, I thought, would have to be the saving grace of this leg of my travels. Every spot along the way I was determined to find at least one thing I liked. (This was a goal that I articulated only when things weren't so immediately hopeful.) I was mistaken. The ruins at Tulum themselves are not the disappointment. Rather, it is the environment that is constructed to show these reminders of the Mayans that once ran the show around there. The site can only be described as an archaeological Disneyland, with the appropriate ropes, lines, guides and water attractions. And don't forget to spend your American dollars in the "library" on your way out.

The feria artesania on the way to the parking lot was a let down too. Magnets, sombreros...And no shortage of customers. Why do people travel far from home to places like this? And enjoy it? My time in Tulum, my expectations and the reality of the visit, got me thinking about these questions. So I did get something out of it.

And for what it's worth, I never rented the rusty bike to check out the southern public beaches past the more expensive beachfront hotels. It was too damn hot for me to make that kind of ride without keeling over along the way. My guidebook gave the impression that I'd have found nothing but beach, and maybe my own little stretch of it.

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