We wanted a serene, deserted, untouristy, unpopulated, local paradise. We wanted silky golden sand, azure waters and peace. Buck-fifty beers were preferred, but not required. We wanted a thousands part nature to one part people. We found the whole enchilada in Tulum, Mexico.
Two hours south of Cancun exists this perfect beach town – it’s like a photo shoot at every angle; nature provides the backdrop and the props. Tulum is the anti-thesis to Cancun. Less Americanized and empty of monster resorts. It is tranquility – with a delicious local flavor.
Tulum Beach sits like a sole comma in a dictionary of words – a speck of beach perfection at the tip of a larger, more flawed country. I, was too blinded by sunshine, however to see any of its flaws. Vacation weather served up just like I ordered it. Stretches of sand like baby powder was a welcome refuge for my tense body. Like a foam mattress, it formed a welcome mat below me. The waves were strong but friendly; their crashing provided the constant acoustical background for the singing birds. The Caribbean itself is like a lava lamp of evolving blue; a painting an where an artist deliberately used every shade of blue to create aquatic opulence. This is dream beach stock photo 101.
In Tulum you could stay on the beach, usually in an environmentally friendly cabana or you can stay closer to the quaint town. With the on-the beach benefits, come vacation challenges the likes of electricity and running water after midnight. Closer to town, many of the boutique hotels offer WiFi, a pool, modern rooms and succulent cuisine. The local cuisine is exceptionally fresh; the general rule was the smaller and more local the place, the better the food. (This pattern was consistent enough for a rule declaration.)
We stayed at the Teetotum. Ultra modern with a flair for the au natural, the Teetotum had a top-notch restaurant, a plunge pool, Internet access, rooftop movies – and it was directly on the road to the beach.
But before we had the perfect vacation, we had some troubles that would make us appreciate the rest of our time. Luckily, by the time we arrived at the hotel we had completed the majority of our dramatic confrontations with the people, cars and roads of Mexico.
Part 1: Shit, it’s a stick!
We rented an Alamo car through Priceline. $10 a day and what’s better than that? Well – turns out I didn’t notice that boldly written, not-so-fine-print, that formalized the rental of a car with manual transmission. Oops; neither I nor my boyfriend drive shift style.
Can we please have an automatic please? Nope; all out – big vacation week. That’s OK – there were half a dozen competitors – we set out on an automatic rental car in Mexico search.
Under the 85 degree heat, we wandered the airport periphery shelping our luggage, slowly peeling off layers of clothing. Unsuccessful in our pursuit, we were back at Alamo by the time I was down to my shorts and tank top. My boyfriend said he drove cross-country in a stick once; he said it would come back to him.
Part 2: I blame the Hyundai windshield wiper incident of 1989.
We get the car. The 70-something man in a blue Alamo polo shirt shows us how to shift the stick. He mumbles in incomprehensible Spanish. I make a mini video to reference later when we’re stuck. We load the car with our luggage, our outer layers, snacks – we get comfy. The boyfriend tests the wipers. They’re dead, Jim.
I have a quick flashback to one thunder-storming afternoon when my father used his manual-transmission Hyundai junk car to pick me up from school. The wipers broke and he had to create a MacGyver contraption with rubber bands to get the wipers going every few minutes.
The windshield would deluge with rain, he’d roll down the window with the manual crank, all while doing the clutch business – and then he’d follow up with the yank movement causing the rubber bands to move the wipers and splash the rain off the windshield in a gush. By the time we got home, my father’s arm was thoroughly drenched – so were my pants. The rain, my father’s dramatic movements; it was an Elaine dance from Seinfeld and we were living out in the blue Hyundai.
We weren’t risking that kind of debacle; it was bad enough in Staten Island. We get a new car; an identical shitty generic white hatchback and move all our shit from car # 1 to car # 2. The leather satchel-type thingy around the shifter is all ripped up and to get it to go into reverse, you have to do a magic movement and say a silent prayer. It only worked about 75% of the time.
Part 3: On the road to back again.
The boyfriend figures out how to get us moving. Ten minutes on Highway Mexico and he asks for his digital camera from the backseat. I don’t see it. We must have left it in wiper-less car # 1. We u-turn, stall, and go back to Alamo.
Part 4: I’m holding it hostage.
We arrive back to the Alamo and we’re thrice pissed. We start playing hide and go seek with the camera. We looked in car backseats, garbage cans, in the bushes. We searched our luggage and every trunk on the lot. We become Columbo mini-sleuths and interrogate the workers; none of whom understand anything we’re saying. We ask the manager to call the police. He ignores us.
The boyfriend gets angry and slightly vindictive. Like an animal, he starts to pace around the cage-like Alamo garage for something. I thought he was looking for his camera; turns out he was looking for collateral. He found that in the form of a laptop.
The manager decides this seizure of property warrants a call to la policia. “Good,” my boyfriend said. “That’s what I asked you to do in the first place.
Part 5: Mexican Patrol.
La Policia de Mexico was utterly useless. They pretend to interview some of the workers – but are clearly making fiesta plans. They threaten to arrest us if we don’t return the laptop. (Aren’t we the victims here? Isn’t it all just an eye for an eye: the laptop for a camera version?) I didn’t want to spend the rest of my vacation in a Mexican Alamo or a jail cell. The boyfriend sneakily returns the laptop.
I get the manager’s business card, put it in my pocket and forget about it until it is shreds of paper in the dryer a week later.
Part 6: One camera down and now it gets better.
We’re staggering and then we’re coasting on our way to Paradise. We reach Tulum, the city, but don’t have specific directions to our hotel. We need the seizure every time it reverses car to make a U-Turn on the Mexican Highway. I take a deep breath and hear the now familiar cough-like spastic sound.
Part 7: On the road again.
The U-turn isn’t complete. The car fails us at the clutch moment: the reverse! We ask for it go back – and it decides it’s opposite day. It rolls forward into the rocks and shrubbery gutter of the highway. We’re at a 45 degree slant, head first, into rockery. At this point I’m laughing a lot; this is how I handle such stresses. My boyfriend says “Oh shit!”
He wants to get out of the car and push us back up. He wants me to shift us back into reverse. No way. This car only goes forward. I envision him standing in front of the car and me shifting into first and rolling right over him. No thank you – can I have another [option]?
Within 60 seconds two heroic amigos pull over. Mexican men jump out and risk their lives (they didn’t know the evil car yet) to help us. One guy jumps in and tries to shift the car. He quickly realizes we’re working with faulty mechanics. He goes to the front of the car and begins to search for massive rocks to use as leverage to get our buried car unstuck.
Suddenly I look up and there are two more cars on the makeshift shoulder. Within five minutes, there are 9 Mexican cars emptied of men and women working together to yank our white hatchback from the ditches of the new Tulum highway.
At its height, the effort was pure human camaraderie – but also pure urban comedy. My boyfriend had to get back in the car to shift. The 9 Mexicans in front of us, they heaved the car up out of the rocks and back onto the highway. At one point a woman was yanking the car by my open window. I kept saying gracias and “we don’t have don’t have stick shifts in Manhattan.”
We were lifted and pointed right side up in seconds. Shifting into first, we were on our way to the beach; a dozen locals waving adios in our rear view mirror.
The plunge pool at the Teetotum.
Iguana overlooking the Tulum ruins and the beach.
One day we went to Playa del Carmen. I did not like it, but we did find a resort on the beach ready for some city resort crashers. The view was primo.