I’m in paradise, I thought as I sat on the white sand beach under a palm tree staring at the turquoise blue water with hardly another soul around.
A large pelican snaps up a fish, a nice sea breeze blows in, the sun is shining. It’s warm in the sun, cool in the shade, and quite perfect. The crashing waves are all I hear.
I’m so happy right here, right now, in this moment. Can this warm, gushy moment just last forever?
I’m on a secluded Caribbean beach by myself in Mexico.
Epic travel moment.
The day hadn’t started out so peachy. In fact, I had a frustratingly slow morning. I naturally woke up early, but not feeling the greatest. It was my second to last day in Mexico, and I was determined to make it to the beach for some chill time, but I had to rest a bit more before getting up.
A few hours later, feeling better with painkillers doing their job, I’m up and hungry. Not wanting to waste any more time, I quickly head to the nearest cafe offering breakfast and order my Nutella croissant and orange juice.
While waiting forever for my meal to arrive, I overhear a loud group of young-ish Americans complaining about how Mexico has a “stupid law” that closes the bars between 4-6am or something like that, as they’re downing multiple beers with cigarettes in hand. The stench of their cigarette smoke reaches my table. I think silly Americans and can’t wait to get out of there. It plants a seed of wanting to just “get away from it” today. I devour my croissant and chug my juice when it arrives.
By noon, after two more stops to get cash and snacks, I’m finally ready to hit the road. My day bag is packed, sunscreen is slathered on, and my rental bike is paid for. I’m a teeny bit worried about getting such a late start (sun sets around 5:30pm), but really, my only goal going into this is to spend time at the beach.
I’m in Tulum, a small-ish settlement on the Yucatan coast of Mexico, located south of the way more developed resort towns of Playa del Carmen and Cancun. Tulum consists of three areas: the actual town, the ruins, and the beach zone.
I’m staying in town at the lovely Mango Tulum hostel (the circled 25 dot on the upper right). From town, there is a 3.5 kilometer bike path (in yellow) to reach the beach access road. The beach access road is a bit deceptive because it is all the private property of the eco-chic hotels and cabanas that lie on either side of the road and surrounds the beach. See all of them on the map?!
To get to the beach, you have to enter one of these private properties. Then there’s an understood that you buy a drink or some food for using their beach access. I don’t think it’s required by law, but it’s what’s expected.
And if you feel so inclined to take up residence in a lounge chair, then you get waited on like royalty, handsome men and cute women come out of the woodwork to pamper you, bring you anything you desire, rub your feet, massage your shoulders, slather more sunscreen on…
Haha! Gotcha! Not quite! But it is a small bit o’ luxury to be served your food and drink while you’re staring at the Caribbean in a comfy don’t-want-to-get-up-ever chair.
Case in point: I did it just the day before.
But today was different.
I fly down the smooth paved bike path that leads to the beach access road. Legs pumping, working off that morning frustration, the endorphins start flowing…
Half an hour later, I’m at the entrance to the Papaya Playa Project, where I accessed the beach the day before. It’s an easy decision to bike past it today… I want to get further down the road and explore a new beach, maybe park my bike somewhere, take a long walk on the beach, then settle in on a chair to read a bit, be served a smoothie, and then bike home.
Soon enough, I’m biking past more and more cabanas, yoga retreat centers, raw food cafes, and boutique shops. Ah, so this is the eco-chic Tulum that everyone’s been talking about. As I dodge all the taxis and pedestrians, I’m feeling quite proud to be on my bike. I don’t even like biking at home! The things you do while traveling!!!
I check my map to gauge where I am. I see I’m close to “Zamas” which is underlined on my map and I remember the hostel staff saying it’s a nice place to chill. I also need to pee so I park my bike at Zamas and walk quickly past reception where I glance at a slender fashionably dressed blonde woman and her huge ginormous suitcase. Oh my. Did you bring your entire wardrobe, I wonder?
Mission accomplished on finding the bathroom, I set out along the Zamas stretch of beach for a walk. I notice I can’t go left because there’s a rock barrier that creates a bit of a scenic cove. I go right. I walk past the lounge chairs that only slightly beckon me.
Not yet, I think.
I don’t get far. This stretch of beach abruptly ends at another rocky barrier which meets the road, and I don’t want to walk on the road just to get to the next section of beach. My vision of a long walk on the beach can’t be accomplished here. And I’m not ready to just sit yet.
I need to get back on the bike.
Legs pumping again and butt bumping up and down on my seat as I not-so-smoothly glide over all the speed bumps (what is it with Mexico and their love affair with speed bumps?). I pass more hotels with names like La Luna, Shambala, Retiro Maya, and Luv Tulum with their fancy entrances and cute signage offering yoga classes.
I have no problem with the concept, hell, if there were a martial arts retreat offering in Tulum in one of those cabanas, I’d be all over it! Oh, there’s an idea!! Forms on the beach, yes! But I digress.
The thing is, something kept me going past all those hotels, a sense of adventure, a nagging feeling of wanting to get away from it all, that was planted in me earlier that morning.
Almost at the end of the named hotels listed on my map and going on an hour into my bike ride, I knew I had some decision making to do. I knew the road eventually led into the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, but my map didn’t indicate how far it is. I thought it was way down there, hours away, impossible to reach by bike with my timeframe (correction: on my biking pace). It was nearly 1:15pm.
My goal was beach time, but to do that, to even see this amazing beach, I would need to enter one of these hotel properties.
I stop near Om Hip Hotel, the last hotel named on my map. Indecision starts wreaking havoc on my mind and mood.
Do I keep going to see what’s beyond this last hotel?
Or have I gone too far already?
Should I just head halfway back and find myself a nice patch of beach beyond the fancy entrance and get that smoothie I’ve been craving?
Then I would only have half the ride left, yes, that would maximize my beach time. Just do it!! And my legs agree.
I cross the street and turn my bike around. But I’m still slightly torn by this decision. My inner explorer wants to know what’s beyond the hotel zone. I’m kicking myself for my indecision because I’m wasting time, and it’s my second to last day in Mexico, and damn it Sam, just get your butt to the beach!
Then I hear an American “Hi” behind me, a couple on their bikes coming from the mysterious direction. I quickly ask, “hey, what’s beyond this hotel?”. They say “a few more hotels, then about half a mile to the entrance of Sian Ka’an”, and I’m like whaaaat?!?
Really, I’m that close to the Reserve?? Well no question there, I turn my bike back around, I’ve gotta see the beaches of this Reserve, no doubt it’ll be a different experience from the eco-chic cabana beach scene.
My legs are starting to fatigue a bit, but my explorer self is all pumped! YES! This is what traveling is all about! I fly past the remaining hotels, enter some kind of weird non-hotel, but still private property zone (still can’t see beach), and then see the arch that marks the entrance of the Reserve.
Immediately, I notice the pavement end and the gravel begin.
I go inside the ranger station and ask how much further it is to the closest public beach access. In my limited Spanish, I understand it’s another 3 kilometers (2 miles). And by the looks of it, all down the bumpy gravel potholed road in front of me. Damn.
Indecision paralyzes me again.
I’ve come so far, but I’m just so ready to be there now on that white sand beach, lazing about. I’m also worried about time. It’s 1:30pm. And I still have to ride back. All the way to town.
Can I do this? I ask myself. I listen to my body, afterall, it’s my legs that will have to power me through. And what I hear is this, “keep going, it’ll be worth it, and you’ve got two weeks of fire hydrants to catch up on (a martial arts exercise strengthening the quad muscles), go get ‘em!”.
I bump and bounce along the gravel pot-holed road. All my focus goes into avoiding the worst holes and keeping my balance. I stop a few times to take a few pics and drink water. I’m hot and sweaty, and the road seems to go on forever. I start thinking I’m absolutely crazy for continuing on. A few 4WD vehicles pass me, the dust blowing into my face each time.
I’m really alone out here, I think. A solo adventure that I start to fear a bit. A bunch of “what ifs” start crossing my mind. What if a wild animal starts chasing me? What if I run out of water? What if I crash my bike on a pothole and get hurt?
Twenty-five minutes later, I see the sign for “Ultima Maya camping”, this is it. I have arrived. I walk my bike into the sandy lot and am greeted by a friendly gentleman who says he’s the owner of this rustic camping area. I ask if I can access the beach here, he says sure, if I buy a drink. Sure, of course! I respond!
He starts asking me all the usual questions, “where are you from?”, “how long are you traveling?”, his English is great, and turns out he’s lived in California for a year before. With my refreshing cold Coke in hand (no smoothies here, a teeny tiny concession), he escorts me to his balcony overlooking the beach. It’s just us, no one else is around.
And here’s what I see:
I squeal with delight. I can’t believe what I’m seeing. Pristine beach, palm trees, white sand, crashing waves. No lounge chairs, no development.
I say “wow” out loud. A lot.
The friendly owner of this rustic set-up is smiling, pleased at my discovery of his little piece of paradise on the Caribbean. He says, “mi casa es su casa”, and invites me to make myself at home. I do. I spend 10 minutes on the balcony taking pictures and admiring the view.
Then I head down to the beach…
These are the moments that I live for. These moments of pure joy, of challenge, of new discovery.
See, I have had some very dark moments in my life. For no particular reason either. I struggle with periods of heavy sadness at times. My self-esteem plummets. Fear and anxiety overpower my otherwise positive thoughts. I get extra sensitive. I worry a lot. I cry a lot. I feel uncomfortable and so lonely, yet, I know I’m not alone.
I know there are many of us that can relate to periods of depression and/or anxiety in our lifetimes. Such is life.
As I’ve gotten older, wiser, and more “life experienced”, I’ve come to realize what it takes for me to fight off the demons, push through the fear, and stay afloat. I’m no longer that terrified little girl of 10 years ago questioning my existence, threatening to self-destruct because I can’t balance myself.
And it doesn’t require booking a flight to Mexico every single time I feel down. Boy, that was an amazing trip though!
But it does require that I make a conscious decision to “explore life”, to work on embracing my true self, and to do what makes me feel happy and alive.
Happy and alive…
That is exactly how I feel when I bike 22 miles to a secluded and pristine Caribbean beach by myself.
P.S. — More stories and posts to come on the other ways in which I “explore life”. Many of them a little closer to home (which is San Francisco).