Days 44-47 – Tulum, Mexico and the Maya Riviera

There were a few warning signs.

The pilates teacher in Costa Rica who said “I used to live in Tulum and when it got too much I came here.”

The American we met a few weeks ago who joked that “in Tulum its $30 for a rum and coke.”

Cesca asking ‘What’s that brown stuff?’ from the plane as we’re 15 minutes from Cancun. She can see a floating mass of, well, brown stuff in the sea. From 20,000 feet I said ‘Possibly it’s a sand bank’ in the distracted way that parents use when they don’t know the answer. I couldn’t figure it out – what was that brown stuff?

We had our first bearhug with Mexican administration in Cancun – they take your fingerprints and another photo, as if your passport isn’t believable. The sense that the authorities have a problem with organised crime increases as we have to put our bags through a scanner as we enter the country – you don’t get this in Luton. We guess they are looking for money or drugs and fortunately a taxi swings us the fast 130km straight south to Tulum.

Tulum. The name is famous, or at least evocative, one of the jewels of Central American travelling, a backpacker haven. At least that is the reputation, but tropical bliss is hard to find on arrival. We might be 20 years late. The motorway is a barrage of hoardings, advertising anything from estate agents to developments to tours to hotels. Is this Ibiza? It is confusing.

The hotels fight for space on the beach, shoulder to shoulder and upon checking in we see that a seaweed epidemic has taken hold. So that’s the brown stuff. The sand is pure, dazzling reflective white but the sea is various shades of brown, swollen with Sargassum Seaweed which is causing palpitations throughout Yucatan tourist industry.

The seaweed coats the shore and renders swimming impossible, or at least in advisable. The cause? Theories vary from global warming, different current patterns, human pollution and even the after effects of the BP Deepwater Horizon accident in 2010. Either way it is a surprise. There is no ‘cure’ beyond picking it up with fork and wheelbarrow. Hard work and not sustainable.

The feeling that the American tourist dollar has created freakish growth here is hard to avoid. We go for dinner and it is $22 for a Margherita – so not quite $30 – in a country where tequila is a major domestic crop. The famed spirituality of Tulum is elusive, quashed by the ‘eco-chic boutiques’ (their words) and their dependent supply chains. Indeed, some wag has planted meaningful street signs, perhaps conscious that depth has to be worked at.

If not now when?

We visit the Tulum Ruins, the site of the Mayan Tulum ‘town’ from 800 years ago. It is beautiful but – and we commit some heresy here – a little disappointing. Our guide seems to be on the clock and keen to leave us.

Tulum – beautiful but we leave fairly ignorant about it

If the situation is different to our expectations, then we have to make changes, and we do. We change our itinerary, our plans and our attitude.

The itinerary alterations are easy and this endears us instantly to the country. You want to change your bus ticket? No problem and no cost. Same with hotel dates. Gracias.

The plans are easy too. The beach is scrapped and we head for inland ruins and cenotes (limestone sink holes where you can swim – expect a geo update soon) and even a very commercial and beautiful natural water park, which is so adept at the upsell that the Disney team could learn a few tricks (on arrival you walk past captive dolphins – how can parents refuse their kids the additional Dolphin Walk?)

Our attitude is easy to change too. All it takes is a moment of magic (our first cenote swim) and we start to fall for Mexico. We grow used to the seaweed and accept it is nobody’s fault. We love our day in the water park, snorkelling and floating in rubber rings down a little river through a mangrove swamp. We find gorgeous tacos and cheaper Margheritas. We like the relaxed and friendly attitude of the Mexicans, similar to the Costa Ricans. The seaweed relents for a day and we can swim.

A cenote – a limestone sink hole

The 140 km of coast from Cancun down to Tulum is a bona fide slice of paradise and of gold, hence the ‘Maya Riviera’ name. The endless cascade of flights from Europe and the USA are a powerful catalyst for economic development. The whole coast has been conquered. Huge over-sized hotel gates line the motorway for ~80 km, all with beach-facing land. As per our visit to the Arenal volcano in Costa Rica, high volume tourism is hard to manage tastefully, especially when the private and public sector benefit from it increasing each year. We can see that a week in Tulum is special, particularly for the many American 20-somethings, staying in high-end ‘eco’ cabins on the snow white beach, cocktails in one hand and Instagram in the other.


We watch the football. Morale is destroyed by the Croatian second goal, and somehow 90% of the tourist crowd was supporting the winners. After 52 years we wait at least another four.

Next stop Palenque by our first (and the girls’ first ever) overnight bus

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