Every once in awhile it’s good to put the phone down and take a break from swiping right. Particularly in Tulum, where cell phones have little use – Tulum is off the electrical grid, so it’s not exactly charging and wi-fi friendly. Everything is run by generator, your bedside lamp a candle. Staying there can be a rustic experience, but muy romantico! The exotic locale, boho vibe, and short flight-time make it a popular retreat destination: yoga, juice cleanses, meditation. Let’s be honest, Tulum is filled with our generation’s bougie hippies: designer fringe beach bags, designer fringe cover-ups, designer fringe tan lines, all documented for Instagram. No hate from me, but let’s all be clear on how much money it requires to be a hippy nowadays. As one local told me “Tulum is the new Hamptons,” Orlando Bloom makes an appearance every few weeks.
This all sounds obnoxious but I’ll be real, I freaking loved it. There's still an authentic Mexican beach experience to be had. The plumbing couldn’t handle toilet paper, the hotel “shower” was just a spigot stuck in the wall, but the trade off for ocean sounds crashing through pane-less cabana windows was more than worth it. The hippy vibe was contagious; I wore beach hair that probably looked like crap but felt great, enough clothes to cover my bathing suit only when I needed to, and sunscreen sans makeup. Tulum was the mezcal-fueled Flintstones vacation of my dreams. With so few material considerations, it’s easy to find yourself throwing all inhibitions aside. In fact, before I left for Mexico a friend warned me, “Don’t get pregnant!” in that gleeful way only a man who could never get pregnant could warn a woman. Apparently a friend of his went to Tulum with a ticking biological clock, met a guy she referred to as The Viking, and nine months later pushed out a huge Nordic baby. I was ready to relax, but not that hard.
With my cell phone at the bottom of my beach bag, I met Santiago the old fashioned way: at a bar. I was traveling with my friend Fawn and we were less than a drink in at the hotel before Santiago began to chat us up. Santiago looked to be in his late 30s, with a full head of thick black hair, almond eyes, and a deep olive tone that implied he was more local than us. He was one of the few people at the bar who didn’t appear to have just come off the beach; I appeared like I'd slept on it.
Santiago told us he was originally from Mexico City, but has lived in Tulum for years. He bought a lot of land there before Tulum became a tourist destination and was one of the original proprietors of our hotel. He pointed to a white wooden shack on the hotel’s property, a surf shop; he used to live there. When the hotel’s popularity exploded, his real estate ventures expanded, and now he has his hands in properties across the town. Telling us about his time living in the shack, the hotel sounded like it had once been a real OG hippy spot – surfing and tacos without Trip Advisor looking over its shoulder. Now property owners in Tulum fight to keep the beach town off the electrical grid so it won’t overdevelop with huge hotels like nearby Cancun and Playa del Carmen.
Only our second night there, we asked Santiago for advice on where to get dinner. Our hotel’s property was on a long stretch that ran along the coastline, sporadically marked with open-air restaurants and shops that were beautiful and great quality, but catered to tourists. Santiago offered for us to join him at La Nave, a pizza restaurant in the main town, and we arranged to all meet there in an hour.
That evening Fawn and I arrived at La Nave and grabbed one of the painted wooden tables outside on the sidewalk. The restaurant seemed popular with Spanish speakers, the night was warm, and we had upfront seats to passerby out for the night. Almost as soon as we sat, Santiago pulled up on his motorcycle. He swung his leg over the bike and parked it in place in front of our seats, all leather jacket and swagger. It was a pretty dramatic entrance. I’m pretty sure he circled the block a time or two waiting for us to arrive so he could pull that move. Santiago smiled, kissed us hello and took a seat while we ordered a bottle of red and looked over the menu.
I can eat tacos until the vacas come home, so being in Mexico and eating Italian food felt a little strange, but the pizza was pretty good! If you need a break from Mexican food and want a sit-down spot, it was a good choice. Santiago is originally from Coyoacán, a beautiful part of Mexico City where Frida Kahlo lived. He’s based in Tulum but seems to travel a lot. Most recently, he mentioned, to Phoenix. That seemed like an unusual destination and I wondered what brought him there, but Santiago was vague on the reason.
Santiago also travels twice a year to Israel, he has a young daughter who lives there. He told us how he met his daughter’s mother, an Israeli woman, while she was on vacation in Tulum. They met, fell in love, and he asked her to move to Tulum permanently. She did and they had a child together. Interesante! A lot of women, maybe men too, fantasize about something like this: meet the love of your life in tropical paradise, abandon practical lives for romance on the beach, then make fantasy a reality for at least a generation. Sounds right to me!
But poor Santiago had his bubble burst. He'd expected her to settle down, but his girlfriend wasn’t ready to stop the beach party lifestyle she’d become accustomed to. As he spoke about her, I didn't get the sense there was a lot of affection or respect. The relationship ended, she took off, and now his daughter is raised in Israel. I'll admit, not part of the fantasy.
But the drama doesn’t stop there! His daughter, accompanied by her mom, visits Tulum every so often and, during the most recent trip, Baby Mama tried to coerce Santiago to have sex with her so she could get pregnant. This made sense to her, you see, because she wanted their daughter to have a full sibling. Seriously, this was dinner conversation with someone we just met. My life is super boring compared to these people. But Santiago wouldn’t sleep with her. He was tempted, he said, but knew that one act would invite her craziness back into his life; he described it as giving away a piece of his soul. Santiago is like the potential plaintiff in a sexual harassment video they make you watch at work, you can’t help but sympathize with the guy. But before we do, there’s more: His ex-girlfriend, persistent in her mission, got pregnant anyway. BY ONE OF SANTIAGO’S FRIENDS.
This is some freaking drama! Tulum was so calm it felt like it existed in the inaction – lying on a beach, sleeping on a hammock – and all of a sudden Santiago swoops in and drops this telenovela on us. And poor guy, right? This story, coupled with Santiago’s obvious affection and responsibility for his little girl, led us to believe he'd fallen victim to some manipulative feminine wiles. Also: OMG everyone is getting pregnant in Tulum! WTF, you don’t see THAT on Instagram.
Fawn and I had nothing to come back at that with, so we turned the topic to cenotes and how we wanted to go. Cenotes are natural swimming holes caused when stone collapses to reveal pools of clear green and blue water beneath; there are a bunch in Tulum. Ancient Mayans may or may not have used cenotes for sacrificial offerings, the way I may or may not have chugged mezcal before learning it’s for sipping. I’d seen photos of cenotes and they reminded me of local swimming holes a Mexican Tom Sawyer would have cooled off in, so I wanted to check one out. We’d read about a couple of the major cenotes but weren’t sure if they’d be overrun with tourists. Santiago mentioned a small cenote most people don’t know about just outside of Tulum. He offered to take us the next afternoon and so we made a date, finished our meals, then bid Santiago Buena Noche - Read More in Part Two!