Strange Days & Times In Tulum
Updated: Apr 16, 2020
Like most of you who might read this, I am writing this from the self quarantined comfort of my home, locked down due to the global Coronavirus outbreak. These are sobering moments and it is my hope, that "this too shall pass". That day is yet to come, but for now "we wear the masks, we wash our hands, we socially distance and we shelter in place".
Recently we, my wife and I, had a chance to visit Tulum, pre-Covid 19, arriving a week before Mexico would take a break from its fiestas and begin to take notice. The fear was real, wearing on everyone like a dank humidity. With tepid enthusiasm, we decided to venture out into the calculated risk that was.
Traffic was light as we headed to the Philadelphia Airport. The lot where we'd normally park our car, that would be bustling with activity, was quiet and less than a quarter filled. The airport shuttle was absent of any other humans other than the shuttle driver. We gave him the "stink eye" of suspicion, which he returned in kind. We kept our social distance during the ride, sanitized our hands, disinfected our seats and the surfaces we might come into contact with. Like everyone else, our greatest fear was other people. Every face we looked into, for right now, was suspect. The crowds that we anticipated at the airport had been vaporized by concern and worry. There was virtually no one at check-in, the security lines or on our flight. We were walking through a world that was void of all normalcy.
Landing in Cancun, we experienced the same thing. The crowds of people, the sounds of multiple languages being spoken, the shouts and pleadings of hucksters, the wall of noises and smells were all absent. If you've ever landed at the Cancun airport in the middle of the day, you feel like to have to run the gauntlet of organized chaos to get to the exits, to get your your cab, your rental car, your transportation. There was none of that, it was eerily quiet, even though at this particular time Mexico Covid-19 "reported" cases were determined to be relatively low, much lower than the US where we had just come from. The sheer gravity of the pandemic had not fallen on Riviera Maya just yet. Mexico's government officials had waved at the pandemic like the nuisance of a fly hovering around one's face. "What issues?" Once again we found ourselves alone on the airport shuttle en route to pick up our rental car for our travels, repeating the sanitation process exiting the shuttle and getting into our rental car. We breathed a small sigh of relief at the lack of the drama regarding the travel experience and being somewhat relieved, we buckled up and ventured out.
We have been fortunate to visit Tulum just about annually for the past six years, it is a surreal and magical place. From the town, to the ruins, to the beach (Highway 15), Tulum assaults your senses with beauty and a transcendent inner peace. For this particular visit, given the circumstances, it was fairly empty. In an awkward way, perhaps even guiltily, we considered ourselves lucky. For the moment, a fleeting moment in time, we had our way with restaurants, activities, the town and the beach, although just the same we kept practicing the same sanitizing procedures (hand washing, disinfecting, and distancing). I opened my arms wide to embrace the circumstances and Tulum, in kind, didn't disappoint.
We arrived in Tulum from Bacalar (about a two hour drive from the south on Highway 307) to relax and we couldn't have put our feet up any higher in our lounge chairs overlooking the white sand beach. With the pandemic temporarily at bay, Tulum displayed her charms. Driving Highway 15 into the Tulum beach area is like taking a deep breath as your drive under the jungle canopy, rolling up and down over the "topes" and occasionally stealing sideways glimpses of the ocean. The location for our stay was Los Arrecifes, a contemporary hotel, priced just above what might be considered "reasonable" in Tulum these days, where the average night's stay is hovering right around $275. That being stated, you can find reasonable accommodations here, from hostels to budget hotels, it just depends on what you and your budget requires. Tulum the town, about a 10 minute ride from the beach is much cheaper, but then you are not on the ocean, although each venue has it's merits, the Tulum town being homier. For this trip we wanted to be in the middle of everything, including the beach, Los Arrecifies provided that. Our room was a 2nd level oceanfront oasis and opening our balcony doors seemed to bring the entirety of Caribbean right into our bedroom. Los Arrecifes had an on premises restaurant and beach side lounging, which is where we would spend most of our time. When we checked in, we would be only one of three other guests, it was clear the pandemic was in the making, but before it completely engulfed us and the region, we'd have a chance to baptize ourselves in the turquiose waters, taste the chill of cold cervezas and be humbled.
If you've never been to the Tulum Beach area, most of the hotels are on the beach side of the highway, which is in reality has no painted lane markings, surprise potholes, quaint if not needlessly expensive shops, fooderies of all types, international clientele, rabid moto-bikers, wandering pedestrians and oncoming traffic. Yup that is Highway 15, I love driving it every time. Normally there is a mashup of human activity, that was muted this time around as we moved freely through the street and walked the beach in almost solitude. It was heaven like. Our line of sight, when beach lounging, was occasionally interrupted by the sheer beauty of kite boarders, floating effortlessly across the ocean's waves in the afternoon breeze, adding to the haze of Tulum's beauty. We took Tulum in, in one measured moment at a time, second by second, attempting to slow the fall of sand through a "time" borrowed hour glass as time would be of the essence.
The restaurant scene in Tulum is exploding, on this visit there must have been 20 new restaurants. While I would like to tell you we partook in every one of them, that would be a lie, but we did get a chance to try Taboo Restaurant and Beach Bar, which conveniently was next door to our hotel. Taboo can be experienced in a few different ways, from the beach side bar and lounge (complete with lounge chairs, reflecting pool and day beds), to the DJ providing an ocean side bass heavy BPM soundtrack. The restaurant, which sits at the crest of the property, provides a serene view of all that lay below. The food was excellent, authentic and adventurous. It was a bacchanalian feast of flavors with an attentive, professional waitstaff, the kind that has a waiter for water, a waiter that delivers your meal, a waiter to simply wait and I imagine one to wipe your a** if you asked politely enough. It was everything we could have asked for to remove us from our thoughts. Taboo's menu features Mediterranean offerings with a Mayan influence. A perfect culinary fusion.
Walking Highway 15 you can see and feel the addition of all the new shops and restaurants. Some of the shops, farmacias (drug stores) and convenience stores, are very welcome as they keep you from making the 10 minute drive back into town when you might need something other than a drink or meal. The restaurants have added range, from cheap eats to completely upscale, so there is little worry about finding a "satisfying" space, to get your fill of what feels best on you and your taste buds. Leisurely, in the emptiness of a sun baked afternoon, we strolled up and down Tulum, taking in the changes. If you're looking for an "off the grid" paradise, Tulum is it, but little by little the "Tulum experience of being off-grid" is getting lost in the growth we evidenced.
Tulum is multi-faceted with all walks of life, including locals and for me that is always to be applauded. Tulum by it's very nature is an international destination, you will hear languages from all across the globe meshing with the Mayan-Mexican vibe, it is a thing of beauty to behold and be enjoyed.
As our time was coming to an end, we thought about the marginalized locals we came in contact with as their survival, at the moment, is dependent on tourism (and tourism dollars) and the dollars were drying up, rapidly. We tipped graciously when we could, knowing that for some, this might be the last income they might receive for for a bit. It was a saddening and humbling thought. We also knew that this situation would be replayed globally (and at home), over and over again, those with the least would unfortunately suffer the most.
By the time we departed, we were the only guests left at Los Arrecifes. We had been encouraged to move up our departure date (by a connected airline friend) as U.S. airlines had been cancelling flights, as they could not continue to operate empty planes. In the early hours on a Monday morning (it was March 23rd, 2020), we packed up and and departed. The shadow of the pandemic was here, enveloping the Riviera Maya in a global shroud of confusion, fear and positive cases. We checked every media source available for news and information we considered vital to our well being. In the coming days (and just as we were leaving), regional Mexican authorities would begin shuttering restaurants and promoting social distancing. Hotels would close down and lay off staff, public spaces would be haunted by emptiness. there would be no immunity from the pandemic, anywhere, including Tulum.
This was Tulum in the moment, this was the world today, all converging into one fragile space. It made me think of the lyrics to an old song, "there's no place to run to, there's no place to hide", even in paradise.