Our last visit to Mexico was our trip to Isla Mujeres over two years ago. We were long overdue for a Mexico fix, and we wanted to visit two places we’d been curious about for a while: Tulum and Isla Holbox. When planning this trip, we had a few more criteria in mind. We wanted to explore the Yucután but avoid the Cancun/Playa del Carmen area. We hoped to visit some Mayan ruins, do some snorkeling and diving in the world-renowned cenotes, and, of course, fit in some seriously needed R&R. Tulum and Holbox fit the bill.
Had we dug a little deeper, we’d have discovered that Tulum is on the cusp of an ecological disaster, one created almost entirely by human activity. And we might have avoided this unique, beautiful, and very fragile area altogether, so as not to be contributors to the problem. We did enjoy our visit, but it gave us a new and more sober perspective on the tremendous challenges facing our planet, challenges of our own making.
An irreplaceable treasure
Tulum is a town on the Caribbean coastline of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula in Quintana Roo state, about a two-hour drive from Cancun Airport. It’s smack in the middle of what’s known as the Mayan Riviera, named for the stunning beaches and mega-resorts that line the coast. Tulum was one of the last cities built and inhabited by the Maya people, and the present-day Mayan culture is still very much in evidence.
But to truly appreciate the uniqueness of this area, you have to go back at least 60,000 years. That’s when the ocean covered most of the Yucatán Peninsula. As sea levels dropped over the millennia, the ancient reef system evolved to create one of the world’s largest limestone plateaus, the Yucatán. As rain water filtered through and flowed to the ocean, it carved a huge system of caves and tunnels and created a tremendous underground river of fresh water.
Exploring the cenotes
Over time, the ground in many places collapsed into the caverns to create the pristine freshwater pools known as cenotes. More than 6,000 cenotes dotting the Yucatán, and to this day they are sacred to the Mayan people. We also learned that they are the sole source of drinking water for Tulum and many other settlements along the Mayan Riviera.
While in Tulum, we had five amazing cenote encounters. The first day, we took a bike ride through the jungle with Tulum Bike Tours and stopped to snorkel at three cenotes: Gran, Cristal, and Escondido. Those stops were so refreshing during the hot and dusty bike ride! The next day, we dove on two more: Casa Cenote and Dos Ojos.
The Tulum archaeological site
The Tulum ruins are definitely worth seeing, even if you’re only making a day visit from some of the other resort areas. A UNESCO World Heritage site, Tulum was an ancient Mayan port town that served the nearby city of Coba (another stunning archaeological site that we had to save it for another visit). It’s one of the few archaeological zones in the world located on a seashore, and it’s perched high on a rocky cliff above the beach.
Development and tourism run amok
We got our first inkling that something is really out of whack with Tulum when we visited the ruins. We’d heard the day before that a massive overgrowth of sargassum seaweed had fouled the beaches. We could smell it well before we could see it as we approached the Tulum ruins on our bikes. (Fortunately, John had booked us in a hotel in town and not on the beach.)
Depending on who you talk to, the sargassum – a type of algae – has been overwhelming most of the beaches of the Mayan Riviera from Cancun all the way down to Tulum for the better part of two years. Not only is the smell of the rotting algae nauseating, but it’s causing serious harm to the sensitive reef system offshore. The warming ocean, together with excessive nutrients from fertilizer and raw sewage runoff, are the reported causes. Yup, climate change and human activity.
Only 20 years ago, Tulum was a small fishing village of 4,000 people, known as an off-the-beaten-path destination for travelers who were drawn to its pristine beaches, cenotes, and chill Bohemian vibe. Fast-forward two decades, and Tulum is now a city of 40,000. Thanks to rampant corruption, this phenomenal growth has occurred with very little government control or oversight. The powers that be have given little thought to the type of infrastructure that can sustain a population of this size. And the sad evidence is everywhere: huge trash heaps in the jungle, large construction projects in the guise of “eco-tourism” that are inappropriate to their surroundings, beach hotels that run entirely off fuel-hungry generators, and pollution of the vast underwater river system by raw sewage.
Typical of so many other places on the planet, it’s the poorest folk – namely the Mayan communities – that are suffering the most from inadequate sanitation, little or no electricity, and a drinking water source (the cenotes) that is under the ever-increasing threat of pollution.
An important film
We could go on, but this documentary lays out the problems in staggering detail. It’s worth a half-hour of your time – please watch.
Glimmers of hope
The good people of Tulum are not blind to what’s going on in their town, and several grassroots efforts are underway to effect change. An active and growing recycling group is trying to tackle the waste problem, especially the scourge of single-use plastic bottles. And this group, Unify Tulum, is working to address the water quality of the cenotes. The dive outfits and other tour companies are doing their part to raise awareness. In fact, our cycling trip took us right through sections of the jungle that were marred by trash dumps. No one we spoke to, even the folks whose livelihoods depend on tourism, tried to sugar-coat the problem.
The cenote managers are making varying attempts to keep swimmers from entering the water with reef-killing sunscreen. One of the cenotes even required everyone to take a shower before entering (although we wondered where the shower runoff was going – right back into the groundwater?). At this particular cenote, a guard at the water’s edge sent a guy back to the shower because he hadn’t done enough rinsing (the telltale white sunblock film was still on his neck). But the next cenote had only a sign – “solo bloqueador solar biodegradable” – but no shower and no guard.
I also came across this article:
Is all of this too little, too late? Time will tell, but environmental turnaround success stories aren’t unheard of, particularly driven by grassroots efforts. Here’s a feel-good story that will give you hope. And just today, this one.
Lots of cool street art
Should you go?
In a word, yes. We’re really glad we visited Tulum. Not did we get an eye-opening education in the area’s ecological problems, but because – for the most part – we had a really nice time. The people of Tulum are lovely. Like people everywhere in Mexico, they’re hard-working, family-oriented, and kind. Our hearts went out to the local business owners and employees that are scraping by, especially as the sargassum bloom continues to devastate the entire Mayan Riviera.
We learned some lessons about responsible tourism that will inform all of our upcoming travel. Even little things can help, like finding lodging that is dealing with its trash and wastewater responsibly and getting its energy from the power grid (and not a generator). Cutting down on your purchase of water in throwaway plastic bottles. Using biodegradable sunscreen and insect repellent. And in general, just being aware of how sensitive your surroundings are.
Here are some more tips:
- Take a jungle/cenote bike tour with Tulum Bike Tours, and try to get Nicolas Quintero as your guide. He is extremely well-informed and passionate about protecting Tulum and its treasures.
- Snorkel in the cenotes. There really is nothing like them anywhere else in the world.
- Visit the ruins early in the morning to avoid the heat and crowds. The site opens at 8 a.m.
- Visit the central parque on just about any evening to escape the tourist scene and get a real flavor for the local community.
- We used the ADO bus service to get to Tulum from Cancun Airport for about $18 per person. It was modern and air-conditioned, and took about 2.5 hours with a single stop in Playa del Carmen. The ADO web site lists current rates and schedule (no need to book your tickets online). You catch the bus just outside Terminal 3, and – how convenient – there’s a nice bar to enjoy a cold one while you wait.
- Beware touts just outside Terminal 3 that will try to sell you a ride on a van for much more than the cost of the bus (although they outright lie and tell you it’s only $5 more).
- We really enjoyed our hotel, Wish Tulum. Lovely pool, beautiful grounds, clean rooms, and reasonable price.
- Fave restaurants: El Camello Jr. (KILLER seafood), Don Cafeto (Tulum’s oldest Mexican restaurant), La Nave (Tulum’s oldest Italian restaurant), Il Bacaro (standout Italian food), and Campanella (yummy gelato).
- Batey, a great spot for live music that serves up interesting mojitos made with guarapo (fresh-pressed sugar cane juice).