Part 2: What's in the water in Tulum?!

Tulum street art mural

I was on a trip to the Mexican beach resort of Tulum. Away from the beaten path of Cancun -and electricity in general- Tulum was a low-key paradise of ocean and jungle. My friend Fawn and I met Santiago, a local hotel owner and proprietor who had filled us in about the town's development from surf shack to destination. Santiago joined us for dinner at a local restaurant, shared stories of falling in love with a tourist and building a family, and now had offered to take us for a natural experience typical of Tulum: swimming in a cenote. (Need to catch up on Part 1? Click here!)  

Here’s a little something I learned about Tulum: Anyone who says they are going to Tulum for a yoga and juice cleanse is idealistic; anyone who says they went to Tulum and accomplished a yoga and juice cleanse is LYING. By the time Santiago picked us up the next afternoon, I was feeling what could only be medically diagnosed as ‘hungover as all hell.’ Mezcal is so good, but that dog bites back!

Santiago left his bike at home and picked us up for cenote-swimming in an old SUV. As a woman there’s that immediate realization of potential danger when getting into a car with someone you just met, especially in a foreign country, but I was too distracted by the lack of seatbelts and Santiago sipping a can of beer while he drove to worry about stranger danger. Between the old car and crushed cans, I felt like I was in an afterschool special. After about ten minutes of moderate highway, Santiago turned down a dirt path studded with large rocks and the ride suddenly got very bumpy. Santiago was clearly choosing turns by memory, road signage was long behind us. Soon an old wooden plaque announced our destination: Cenote Escondido. We pulled up to a small clearing and parked alongside one or two other cars.

Cenote Escondido means ‘hidden cenote,’ and it was. Not only were we off the beaten path (and especially the paved one) but we were standing in the middle of jungle, urbanized with a sole wooden picnic table. What we were surrounded by weren’t trees so much as strong bark tentpoles supporting the thick canopy of greenery that shaded us. Branches intertwined with palms, reeds and leaves in a way that made them indistinguishable. It was a step more developed than completely untouched and it was gorgeous. Santiago stripped down to black trunks and pulled out goggles he’d brought so we’d be able to see the view underwater, while we exchanged cover-ups for towels and beer from the trunk and went to check out the view.

A dusty dirt path had been cleared, studded by the same rocks we drove over. Now it took careful effort to walk over them in soft flip-flops. We made our way to closest entry point to the water, a narrow opening at the top of a small cliff where a group of tanned teenagers stood at the edge of the rock, dripping wet in bathing suits. They took brief notice of us, said hello, then continued with their games. Fawn and I peered over the edge: the greenery above us dipped down from the sky, braided with grass and shrubs on the earth’s perimeter, and cascaded in a thick wall down to the clear green water below. The pool was a moderate size, long enough to swim a lap but small enough to feel manageable. Low ropes traversed near the water’s surface in a geometric maze, a primitive system of handrails in case you tired. Santiago pointed to the cenote’s far end, where the pool seemingly ended, and explained it was actually a narrow entry into an underwater cave. He’d gone scuba diving there in the past and came close to running out of oxygen when he’d gotten stuck in the underwater passageway. Sticking to the pool it was!

We made our way deeper along the narrow path, down a slope of rock, and around to the far end of the cenote where intermittent wood planks made a makeshift walkway. Here it was easy to dip a leg over the boards’ edge and skim the water’s surface with your foot. Stairs had been assembled beneath water level, making it possible to wade in or sit in the cold water and enjoy the quiet view. Against the stone steps I could see schools of slim fish going about their business. I loved to watch them but, as a city girl, the idea of sharing the water with these little buggers didn’t thrill me. I watched them in their habitat but vowed to forget about them when I got in the water. We took a few sips of beer then balanced our cans on the rocks, ditched the towels and left our flip flops behind.

It was a short climb back to the jumping point, the pointed rocks uncomfortable beneath my bare feet. It was hot even in the shade and I was anxious to cool off, hoping adrenaline from the jump would clear my foggy hungover head. I stood on the cliff’s edge. The teenagers, now in the water, watched from below. Cliff jumping into water was something I’d loved as a kid in summer camp, but old age had made me a little bitch about heights and water wedgies. So this was the moment I was examining the angle of the rock wall, asking stalling questions like “how cold is it?” as if water temperature had any bearing on what would come next. I’m impatient and stalling is not my game, so I was easily annoying myself. Analyzation had no place on this vacation, so I disinvited thoughts from the party and asked Fawn to countdown, giving descending numbers more power than free will. She made it to one and I jumped off the side!

As much as I’d like to imagine I had the grace of a gazelle mid-stride, I’m sure I flailed my way down, crashing into the still water. I submerged quickly before popping up. It was cold and god did it feel great! My head was clear, the initial temperature jolt passed and I could enjoy swimming freely. I watched fish below the surface through the foggy goggle lenses, I floated on my back, I held onto the slimy rope and kicked freely while having conversation. I was Mexican Tom Sawyer! It was so peaceful, the only sounds the occasional bird squawk, the swish of water pushed by my arms past my ears, the splash of a jumper. I couldn’t imagine living in Tulum and having this natural watering hole part of a daily array of available activities. Beats going to Target! Santiago’s version of Tulum was delivering.

Cenote Escondido

After a few more jumps we left the cenote and Santiago brought us to a barbecue, which wasn’t so much a ‘barbecue’ as it was us sitting on an empty dock eating chicken with our hands. Santiago had driven us through Tulum, again pulling off the main road, but this area wasn’t jungle; we were on the opposite end, near the ocean. The land was flatter and more spacious than the jungle, it was easy to spot a layer of clear blue sky above. Santiago drove the SUV down an unfinished wide road, past the occasional house. The road ended in a locked gate and Santiago made a call. After a minute a groundskeeper came out and manually unlocked the gate, swinging it open so we could drive through. Santiago told us the property belonged to a friend. He exchanged a few words in Spanish with the older man, dressed in clothes for manual labor and clearly mid-job. The man smiled and waved us through, then went back to work at a nearby wire coop.

What we pulled into I can best describe as a private compound unlike any place I’d ever been before. The coop we drove past housed chickens and roosters, while wild turkeys strolled through the grass and palms flanking our car. There are turkeys in Mexico! I don’t know why that was so surprising. To our right sat the remnants of a house, with damaged wood exterior walls and a palm-thatched roof. It was a mess and I prayed no one lived there. Santiago explained a hurricane had blown through and destroyed the house awhile ago, the groundskeeper was still repairing damage.

We got out of the car and could see ahead of us a long boardwalk extending into shallow ocean. It was a private beach, with water so clear my imagination could trace the patterns wind and water made in the sand of the ocean floor. Holy shit, this was nice! Santiago explained we were on a different side of Tulum’s coast, away from the strip of oceanfront hotels. Sometimes you can see dolphins. The neighboring property, down the coastline, was also damaged by the storm but appeared farther along with its construction. He alluded negatively to the owner, but didn’t say a lot. For this place not being his, he sure was involved.

At this point it was late afternoon, so the sun was warm but not sweltering. Santiago distributed paper plates and napkins, took out a roast chicken he’d bought at the supermarket, and we picked at it with our fingers. I felt a twinge of guilt with the live chickens running around on the property. This was a weird barbecue.

Eventually Santiago’s friends showed up, a couple of girls and guys, and I was relieved to have other people to make conversation with. Santiago had been great to us, but it had already been a long day and we were running low on conversation. One of the couples was originally from Barcelona, the guy had met Santiago years ago when he still lived in the shack, after he’d bought the hotel but before it turned into what it’s become. He and his girlfriend had come to Tulum to service her father’s boat, but fell in love with the town, turned the boat into a local tour company and never left.

Okay so now we had Santiago, Santiago’s Baby Mama, and this Barcelona couple who’d all come to Tulum on vacation and stayed. Not to mention a young waiter Fawn and I met the night before, Miguel, who told us how he came to Tulum for the weekend then called his family in Mexico City to say he wasn’t coming home. That was like a year ago. What was going on here? It seemed like all of Tulum’s locals were actually former tourists who swallowed a lot of cenote water and never left. They’d rather leave their pasts than Tulum. Had these transplants found the key to happiness? Was life for these perma-vacationers paradise? It didn’t seem so. The Spanish couple appeared to be mid-rift, and Miguel lived with his dog in a tent.  

And then there was Santiago and his telenovela problemas. During this makeshift party someone let it slip that this property was actually Santiago’s. Why he was so shady about admitting ownership I’m not sure, but the reason he had so much animosity for his neighbor came to light: she was an ex-girlfriend. Santiago was full of secrets! And his history was full of ladies.

Then, the biggest revelation. A game-changer that told us who we'd really spent the day with. The night before Santiago had blown off the reason he'd recently traveled to Phoenix, but here it was….

THERE WAS ANOTHER BABY MAMA. Another kid to visit, by another Tulum tourist he'd gotten pregnant. Seriously, this guy had kids across the world. All of a sudden, my reproductive organs felt very vulnerable, and the crazy Israeli ex-girlfriend didn’t seem so conniving. Yes, I’d still wager she was nuts. But in this new light, it was Santiago who had jet up to Tulum on his motorcycle and was impregnating tourists left and right. I sometimes wish a vacation would last forever, but in the “I don’t want to drag my ass off this beach chair” way, not because I want to have a kid as a souvenir! I’d rather buy a sombrero fridge magnet. It was time to go.

Tulum was beautiful and relaxing, but compared to Santiago, his friends, and the waiter who lived in a tent, I knew my love for the beach town had limits. It would be reluctantly, but I’d be getting on the plane to go home. Escapes can be wonderful but they’re temporary; the Tulum locals proved real life will find you. There’s only so much ocean water I can wash my hair in before it most likely falls out. It’s great to know I can get away to Tulum for an Instagram-worthy vacation and find a hidden local cenote, I just don’t want a part in increasing the local population. Sorry, Santiago! But thanks for showing us the real Tulum.