I call myself a "typical American" in that I wouldn't have thought anything of an all-inclusive package to a beachfront resort. Thankfully Thy, my wife, likes to submerse herself more deeply in the local culture when traveling. I think we found the perfect compromise with the Airbnb that we rented for a week in Tulum, Mexico. About midway between the hotel-zone and downtown Tulum, we had our own kitchen (where we quickly set about making our own guacamole, quesadillas, and huevos rancheros), balcony, and roof-deck complete with a hot tub—which we never actually used because ... it's Mexico! What person who would otherwise be digging his/her car out of a snowbank before heading to work in the morning needs a hot tub when in 80-degree days and balmy, "windows-down" nights?!
Besides getting an Airbnb, we also rented a car. The combination of those things gave us a lot of freedom compared to the all-inclusive resorts and day-long tour-bus itineraries. We spent the entire week flying by the seat of our pants and doing our best just to live one moment at a time. We hit the beach daily, visited three different archaeological zones, swam in underground caverns (cenotes), toured the Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve, and ate. Oh, did we eat! The food is always a highlight for us in new places. But, I'll save you the play-by-play and get straight to the highlights.
LA ZEBRA. We had heard about their free salsa lessons and the live salsa band that plays every Sunday night. I am very much not the dancing type and would not call myself outgoing, but ... when in Rome. We figured we were in Mexico, and who knew when we would be back, so we forced ourselves out of our comfort zone. We (mostly) laughed our way through the lesson. I thought a two-person sea-kayak was a test in teamwork—believe me when I say it can't hold a candle to learning salsa dancing!
THE RUINS. We visited the Tulum, Chichen Itza, and Coba ruins, waking up earlier than I do on most work days in an effort to beat the crowds. The Tulum ruins were worth the visit because they were so close and there is a beach that is only accessible from within the ruins. Chichen Itza was a must because it is so iconic. There are such a variety of building styles (the observatory or El Caracol—meaning the snail—was my favorite) and the ball court is just so insanely massive. In the end, Coba was my favorite. There were less crowds and vendors and we had hired a personal tour guide to walk us through all of the many structures. We later discovered that our guide was Mayan, the first language in his home is Mayan, and his brother speaks only Mayan even though he lives in Anaheim, CA! Plus, Coba was the one site where we were allowed to climb the stairs of one of the temples.
COCO FRIOS. Fresh, cold, coconut water—straight from the coconut! After exploring the Tulum ruins, we passed a vendor well stocked with young coconuts. Since our fridge is usually well stocked with coconut water, we had to make the most of our chance to try the freshest possible version. After finishing mine, I couldn't resist cracking into it (on the side of the road) to get some of the meat.
CENOTES. These natural pits or sinkholes exposing groundwater underneath are everywhere on the Yucatan Peninsula. If you've ever toured underground caverns, think of that, plus a swimming hole. Once you get over any initial feelings of claustrophobia, the sense of awe is pretty incredible. The water is COLD (super refreshing on a hot day in Mexico) and CLEAR. One, less claustrophobic cenote, had a pair of diving platforms. Unlike the salsa dancing, this did NOT inspire any adventurous thoughts of "when in Rome" for me. Plenty of my friends will tell you when it comes to jumping from platforms, piers, or cliffs, I am content to stay behind and watch the valuables.
MATEO'S MEXICAN GRILL. We did our best not to repeat our dinner choices, but we couldn't resist going back for more after our first visit to Mateo's. Right on the main drag of the beach and hotel zone, the entire place is open air, there were live bands multiple nights of the week, and the fish tacos were "wicked good." Having played jazz all through high school and college, the first band we saw there struck a special kind of chord for me as they played classics like Duke Ellington's "Caravan" and added their own latin flair. My incredibly basic understanding of the Spanish language left me unable to compliment the band as fully as I would have liked to, but they understood my request for a CD well enough to respond with "coming soon!"
TUNICH. Another on our short list of repeats, Tunich was one of the few breakfast spots that we found and their Chilaquiles (eggs over tortilla strips or chips with cheese and spicy tomato sauce) left us so content that we didn't bother to try anything else on the menu the next time we stopped in. Seeing as we're big fans of small businesses and like knowing where our money is going, the super personable husband and wife duo from Toronto that run the place would have sold us on Tunich no matter what. The top-notch service and food were a bonus.
SIAN KA'AN BIOSPHERE RESERVE. The highlight activity for me was easily our tour in the Biosphere Reserve at the south end of the Tulum beach strip. Our tour group was just six people, including the guide. We piled into a small outboard boat, zipped through Mayan trade canals, spotted manatees and a wide variety of birds, got caught in a sudden rain storm, and floated back down the canals riding the current. The combination of relaxation and learning was just my speed and our tour guide had an infectious love of life. While I might not revisit the ruins, I would absolutely do another tour of the reserve. If we return, we hope to do one of the tours that include snorkeling.
DEL CIELO. We were lucky to have a coffee pot in our kitchen, but other than that most coffees we found were pretty average until we tried Del Cielo in downtown Tulum. Their pastries were excellent and the iced coffee was on point. I'm not one for added flavorings in my coffee but there was a hint of something in theirs that was just right. Subtly sweet. This was another repeat destination and had we found it sooner, it may have become a daily stop.
ARTEHELADO. Gelato served out of a glass-walled shipping container. Being a pair of design geeks looking for refreshment, we fell in love with this little business instantly.
CENZONTLE. When we couldn't get reservations at Cetli (a downtown restaurant that came highly recommended by friends of ours) the owners of Tunich recommended Cenzontle—another family run business owned by a couple who happened to be their neighbors. It did not disappoint. We were seated at a communal table between two other couples. We had enough space that I didn't feel crowded, but we were close enough that they eyed our orders jealously when they realized they should have split all of the appetizers instead of ordering their own entrees. Last minute plans worked in our favor as this ended up being our favorite meal on the last night of our trip. In fact, we were initially supposed to be headed home already at this time, but we had snagged a last minute flight change and another night to soak up an extra twelve hours of Tulum before returning to brisk New England air.