For me, the perfect vacation is made up of things you can’t do at home. If the destination has natural beauty and is unburdened by tourists wielding selfie sticks, even better.
Using this criteria, my wife and I booked a seven-night trip to Tulum, Mexico, for our anniversary in late June. I had read several colorful phrases that made this beach destination sound appealing — “magical cenotes,” “haute hippy” and “barefoot luxury” among them.
We wanted to avoid anything resembling an MTV reality show (yeah, Cancun, I’m talking to you), so an “eco-chic” adventure starring cave dives, jungle ziplines and white-sand beaches seemed like the perfect way to bond with each other and with nature.
The Beach Tulum
Upon arriving at Tulum’s magnificent stretch of beach, we were riveted by all the palm trees, palapa roofs and beachfront hotels that make up this rather bohemian paradise.
Our hotel, The Beach Tulum, matched the promise of its website: It was beautiful in its simplicity, chill in its vibe and evocative of places more frequently found in Thailand or Vietnam. The Beach had touted itself as an eco-hotel, and after downing the complimentary green “lemomint” smoothie served at check-in, we quickly learned what that meant. Tulum is literally off the grid — it has no power lines and no electricity in the conventional sense of the word. Most power, in fact, is created by wind turbines, solar energy and diesel generators, depending on the hotel. The Beach uses the latter to generate electricity 24 hours per day, but air conditioning is limited from 5 p.m. to 9 a.m.
Granted, it was humid during the day but, luckily, these energy-saving quirks weren’t bothersome when we were in our room. There was usually a generous breeze blowing in from the beach, and the room had a hardworking ceiling fan to cool us between dips in the pool or the ocean. But, make no mistake, this was still an eco experience. Toilet paper was not flushed but tossed in a can — inconvenient perhaps, but not a major sacrifice for the sake of true sustainable tourism.
Cenote Pet Cemetery
One of the biggest draws when planning our Tulum trip was the picturesque caves known as cenotes, natural sinkholes that the Maya considered gateways to the underworld. At the urging of our hotel concierge team, we cabbed it to Cenote Pet Cemetery (roughly 30 minutes north), a scenic underground river belonging to Cenotes Sac Actun, the second longest underwater cave system in the world.
Few other destinations let you swim (or dive) in subterranean sinkholes covered in stalactites — icicle-shaped limestone deposits plunging down from the cave roof. The group tour, led by an English-speaking guide, was the way to go. Ours took us on a roughly one-hour cave tour, which included swimming in life vests, snorkeling and evading stalactite formations dating back 65 million years. For an additional element of intrigue, there were also fruit bats flapping around, but they were remarkably skilled at avoiding tourists such as my squeamish wife.
Cenote Pet Cemetery is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. The entrance fee is $23 per person. For more formal diving and snorkeling adventures, visitors should contact Seattle-based tour operator Yucatan Diving & Travel.
After a few more days of lazing at the beach, my wife and I were itching to get out and do something active. We decided to visit Xplor, an eco-friendly waterpark 35 miles north of Tulum.
We were immediately smitten with this extraordinary place carved elegantly into the jungle. We wound our way through the park’s labyrinthine pathways, wearing orange hard hats (a mandatory fashion accessory at Xplor) and discovering new adventures at every turn. From rafting through stalactite-lined caves and ziplining through waterfalls to driving amphibious vehicles over suspended bridges, Xplor was the type of eco-adventure that more active, thrill-seeking clients will inevitably appreciate — and the kind of vacation-topper that’s undeniably native to this wild terrain.
Park hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and admission starts at $149 per person. For night owls, the park reopens from 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. as Xplor Fuego.
As a counterpoint to the newer, wetter and more adventurous day trips in Tulum, there’s always the option of braving the busloads of tourists to see some of the more historical and iconic sites. Or, you can make that an adventure, too, just as my wife and I did by renting two bikes from our hotel and pedaling 4 sweaty miles to visit Tulum Ruins, one of the best-preserved Maya coastal sites in the Yucatan Peninsula.
As opposed to the grander, more pyramid-like ruins of Chichen Itza, Tulum Ruins are more modest, but they stand tall, given that they’re on a 39-foot bluff overlooking the Caribbean. They were originally constructed by the Maya sometime between 1200 and 1450 A.D. as an ancient fortress and barricade to surround the settlement. However, these days, the only occupants seem to be a large number of spiny-tailed iguanas who slink in and out of the ruins looking for a prime spot in the sun.
The three most famous structures we saw at the ruins were El Castillo, Temple of the Descending God and Temple of the Frescoes, a place we learned was formerly an observatory for tracking movements of the sun. There are efforts to keep these ruins pristine, so we were not allowed inside, but we still found them impressive, given their level of preservation.
The site was especially poignant to us as we celebrated our anniversary. If the Maya could build structures with foundations that lasted nine centuries, clearly my wife and I could lay the groundwork for another 15, 20 or even 50 years of marriage. I just hope we don’t have to wait that long to return to Tulum.
WRITER: Gregg Rosenzweig