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A Deep Dive in Tulum, Mexico

Tulum was the third chapter in the Jeff trilogy. Christine and I had traveled to Belize with my brother, Jeff, back in 2016, and then visited two Hawaiian Islands with him and his family in 2018. A year later, it was the three of us again, this time meeting up in Tulum.

In addition to those tropical adventures, Christine and I had previously spent time in the Cayman Islands, St. Croix, St. Lucia, and Key West, so we looked forward to more of the same: that is, the warm incubator of a white-sand beach and mouthwash-blue ocean, the waters warm and comforting and inviting, like a hug.

But the week we were there the beaches were under an invasion of Sargassum seaweed, a toxic algae blanketing the beaches in poison and stink. Even driving past in our rental car along the narrow route 15, the beaches scrolling on our left, we saw mountains of this red seaweed, abuzz with flies, its putrid smell suffocating everything. We rolled the windows up.

It’s a big problem. It grows out in the ocean between Brazil and the African coast, an area called the Great Atlantic Saragassum Belt, and because of the ocean current, the infestation arrives in Mexico and the Caribbean between April and the summer months. Climate change has exacerbated the problem in recent years, leaving Mexico’s federal government scrambling to come up with solutions. We saw heavy equipment out on the beaches, moving the seaweed into piles and loading it into dump trucks. They’ve also invested heavily in large offshore barriers to help stop it from reaching land, but it’s not just a tourism problem, not just unsightly and unpleasant to smell. Saragassum is toxic, and Mexico, and the Caribbean, are right now developing new technologies in order to prevent it from draining into the soil and filtering into the region’s massive underwater river system.

We needed to call an audible. The beaches were a no-go.

We’d already heard about Tulum’s unique cenotes through friends who visited regularly, and then through my guidebook, so we’d planned on making sure to check one out, but now the cenotes would become the focus of the trip, its running theme.

A cenote is a deep, water-filled sinkhole in limestone, created when the roof of an underground cavern collapses, which then creates a natural freshwater pool, filled with rainwater and runoff from underground rivers. Tulum is famous for them, and they’re everywhere. And each, we came to find, was unique.

Some looked almost like lagoons, surrounded by limestone cliffs and lush vegetation. Others are deep underground—caves, really—burrowed deep into the earth like hidden oases. Some are overrun with tourists and families, reminiscent of a public pool, while others feel remote and wild. Still others are gems where the locals hang out. No two were alike.

The term is a local one, referring to just the Yucatan Peninsula. The Mayans used them as freshwater sources and sacrificial rituals. This eerie knowledge didn’t make climbing down hundreds of stairs into the dark depths any easier. I couldn’t help but note just how much the air temperature dropped during descent. We could feel so hot and sticky on the ground, eager for a swim, only to have that feeling disappear by the time we’d reached the cenote’s rocky, cold plateau, buried deep into the earth.

Less than an hour inland from Tulum is Coba, where we walked the grounds of the Coba Ruins. Because Coba is situated so far inland and away from the more touristy towns of Tulum, Playa del Carmen, and Cancún, visitors are actually allowed to walk on the ruins, which is uncommon in these parts. We felt like Indiana Jones.

The largest pyramid at Coba is Ixmoja, 140 feet tall and just as many steep steps, so steep in fact that there is a rope running its length, just in case. From the top, I sat and looked out over the lush rainforest, green as far as I could see save for an occasional stone peak of another decayed pyramid poking from the canopy. From here, I sat and took in the stunning view, trying to wash away the image of Mayans competing in some ancient sporting event on the stone slab we’d just passed, where we learned they’d play the match with the severed head of an earlier loser.

Hot, tired, and slick with sweat, we drove to the nearby Coba cenote, this one far underground and swallowed in cold air. Natural air-conditioning. The water, too, is—I guess refreshing is the right word. Not quite the tropical bathwater I’m used to in the Caribbean Sea, but certainly a beautiful and unique experience in its own right. The Coba cenote features a couple wooden platforms, jutting from the staircase, where visitors can leap the thirty or forty feet into the abyss below.

Jeff grabbed his GoPro and made his way to the top platform. He’s never encountered a cliff or plateau overlooking a body of water that he didn’t want to jump from. He’s jumped from cliffs all over Hawaii and a high-jutting tree branch in Belize. And here we go again.

Of course, I had to do it, too. Couldn’t let my brother, fifteen years my junior, show me up like that in front of my wife. Yes, I jumped from the platform ten feet lower than the one he’d jumped from, but it was still high. Especially so once you’re standing on it, looking down.

Because of that daring jump, I didn’t feel quite the pressure to jump from a cliff at a later cenote visit. Instead, I watched Jeff take the leap a couple times. There was a young boy, too, who’d stand on the edge of the cliff trying to find the courage to jump. His father encouraged him from behind. So, too, did every other visitor, cheering him on from below, giving him a countdown: “Tres, does, uno…salto!” He’d flinch but not jump. We’d all count again, louder, more enthusiasm, more encouragement. He’d bend his knees, hold his nose, nudge to the edge…and then, nothing. After a while he retreated in disappointed surrender, but then, ten minutes later, he’d appear at the cliff’s edge again, and the whole routine would start again—the communal countdown, the preparation, then the hesitation and false-start, then again. Then again.

This went on for two hours. And eventually, guess what? He finally jumped. The crowd roared with joy.

Our favorite visit to a cenote that week, though, had to be the mystical Dos Ojos, the waters a beautiful oasis of sharp blues, a secret lagoon under a rock canopy, something out of a fantasy novel. I swam, noting the hundreds of bats overhead, darting purposefully to and fro under the rock overhang, busy with bat errands.

I’d thought this pool of water was just that, a pool of water, no more than chest-deep, wading depth. But as I snorkeled the surface, I could see that, deeper into the underwater cave, the waterscape disappeared into a massive and dark abyss, the sandy bottom where I stood sloping away into oblivion. Far in the distance, beneath the rock plateau and a hundred feet deep, I saw the eerie glow of spotlights emanating from a group of SCUBA divers. They were in another world, far, far below me.

Tulum’s got a thriving food scene going on, and we ate well every night—seafood, of course, but tacos and enchiladas and pizza (free tequila shots with the pizza)—and we ate and drank and reflected on the day’s adventure. Most restaurants along the shore are outdoors, the night sky above, waves grumbling and crashing near, our feet pushed into soft sand. One restaurant used an old airstream trailer as their kitchen, decorated with strung lights, another was built into lush, twisted trees with a cenote in its center—I took a dip in between rounds, my head abuzz with booze and an old-fashioned jukebox playing the nights’ tunes, an old golden retriever lounging on the floor in its glow.

On one of our last days we borrowed the free bikes from our hotel and pedaled toward the shore and then to the Tulum Ruins, striking in their decrepit beauty on rocky hills overlooking the wild Caribbean Sea. Back at the hotel later in the evening, we ventured up to the roof, like we did most every night, where the hotel featured a rooftop pool, bar, and cabanas. Each night, we had the place to ourselves—there were only one or two other guests at Azul Tulum that week. The hotel was new and existed in a neighborhood of resorts still in various stages of construction. So at night we brought our own drinks and cigars up to the roof bar and plugged one of our phones into the speaker for tunes. We swam and talked, dried off, played a dice game some locals in the Virgin Islands had taught us some years before, and appreciated the unique week that it was, a week of sun, seafood, and cenotes. ¡Salud!

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