Listening to waves crashing on the beach may be one of the most therapeutic natural sounds on earth.
The rush of water towards the shore and its inevitable retreat, no matter how intense or calm, reminds us that everything comes and goes. For me, if the desert elicits feelings of resiliency, and the mountains, peaks of possibilities, then the beach helps me realize that change is inevitable.
After living through an unpredictable and challenging 2022, I craved a weeklong beach getaway to kick off the new year. Plus, there is no better way to shorten a moody New York City winter than escaping to warmer climates. My partner, who is a seasoned traveler like me, suggested we try out Tulum. My first reaction was an eye roll. If my perception of Tulum was correct, then I should expect to be surrounded by tech entrepreneurs and social media influencers sipping overpriced mezcal cocktails in a painfully curated, incense-infused beach club while a Burner DJ spins deep-cut tracks.
What the heck? I agreed to go and I made a deal with myself to keep an open mind. I was starting the new year with a renewed perspective, deciding to travel for the sake of travel. I deleted the Instagram app from my phone. I turned off unwanted notifications. And for the first time in my life, I did minimal research on my destination in the spirit of uncovering Tulum as it appealed to me from one day to the next. What ensued for the next seven days was like the motion of the waves.
The first wave that hit us as we landed in Cancun was a much welcome warm breeze and the hot Mexican sun. We made our way through customs, fetched our luggage and within an hour were comfortably seated in an oversized SUV (not my usual choice for a rental but you’ll understand later why it was the blessing in disguise) heading south. Zooming by billboards for all-inclusive resorts, tequila tasting experiences, golf clubs, and water parks, I was reminded that this region of Mexico has been an American beach playground since the days of MTV’s Spring Break. All of a sudden the Tulum stereotypes didn’t seem so bad.
We arrived in Tulum proper as the sun was setting and in the orange-pink light both its permanent and visiting dwellers were constantly moving, heading into the cooler evening in their trucks, old-school Beetles, or on scooters and bicycles. We lowered the windows in the car, and made our way through the center, amazed at the modern condos with trendy eateries on the ground floor lining each side of the street. Our hotel was nestled in the heart of a neighborhood that I can only describe as “Jungle Luxury: Coming Soon.” Smoothly paved roads wound through the thick of the jungle, with designer developments popping up every five minutes – some as only renderings on construction fences and others as fully built but partially occupied. Our hotel seemed to be fully built and fully occupied. Unassuming and unpretentious, with all the necessary amenities, it didn’t wow us but it did its job of providing us with a comfortable bed at the end of each day.
Although I refrained from checking social media during this trip, there was one Tulum image that stood out clearly in my mind, which was the result of years of seeing, liking, and following both friends and influencers who have been here before me. The image is of a beautiful and carefree girl in a flowy see-through dress, barely revealing her sunkissed legs, hiding from the sun under her felt fedora with an exotic bird’s feather, longingly walking towards the most alluring blue-turquoise water. On day 1, I wanted to experience what she experienced, I wanted to feel the softest sand under my feet, take a dip in the sea, and come back to the beach club as the ethereal track grew louder with every step. And then I wanted to lay out on a beach bed while the friendly local server brought over cocktails and tacos, with all my worries fading away with every beat melding with the soft sound of the waves. The good news is that Tulum can deliver that… as long as you’re willing to pay a pretty penny.
It’s no surprise that the promise of a boho-chic escape on one of the most beautiful beaches in the world comes with a hefty price tag. What did surprise me, however, were the obstacles that exist in achieving that escape for even a day. And that there are a group of foreigners, a lot of who have relocated to Mexico full or part-time, who are willing to overlook it and worse, create a larger social divide by doing so. All of a sudden the original image zoomed out and the reality set in: That “carefree” girl, who was not staying in an overpriced beach hotel, was first stuck in traffic on a two-lane road, then found a pay-per-hour parking lot, traversed her way between zooming cars, scooters, four-wheelers and bicycles to a beach club that would take her in, finally negotiating a minimum spend for the beach bed. That was us every time we wanted to enjoy the Tulum that was advertised to us.
Being the adventurous travelers that we were and with a monster of a car at our disposal, we decided to not succumb to the power of advertising. Looking beyond the obvious, we eventually found write-ups on parts of Tulum and the surrounding area that luckily kept their authentic and natural charm. So we explored. There was the remote cenote1 that resembled a lake and was so peaceful and still that I dared not take any photos, even for my digital memories. I did not want to disturb the handful of locals who, like us, were enjoying the lukewarm shallow waters and observing the pelican family sunbathing at the end of a pier.
There was the absolutely sublime and magical Sian Ka’an. Situated at the end of the infamous Tulum beach strip, past the open-air boutiques, the Follow That Dream sign, and the palo santo-infused luxury hotels, we crossed a gate and paid a small ‘nature conservancy’ fee, and were then traversing a dirt road plagued by potholes. This is where I thank the car rental gods for upgrading us to a Ford Bronco 4×4! Most of this biosphere preserve is closed to the public but we managed to find a couple of camping grounds with a family-owned restaurant attached to them. And the best part was that they were right on the beach. There were no fancy beach beds, guest DJs, or expat mixologists but we found exactly what we sought – an untouched beach, with sand just as soft, and the humming waves of a clear blue-turquoise sea, seemingly just for the few of us who traveled all this way.
After seven days in Tulum, we managed to leave rejuvenated, bellies full of fresh fish, barbacoa, tequila, and wallets a lot thinner after a much-enjoyed holiday. In our interconnected world, we may never again experience a trip that fully unfolds in front of us when we get to that destination. But if we seek beyond the expected, then there is a big chance we’ll be gifted with once-in-a-lifetime experiences. And in our case, we didn’t need to document them for social media.
1 A cenote refers to an underground chamber or cave which contains permanent water. In other words, it is a natural sinkhole where the ceiling of the cave has collapsed. The word Cenote, which is pronounced as “seh-no-tay”, is a Spanish conversion of the Yucatec Maya word “D’zonot” or “Ts’onot”.
Growing up in Kazakhstan, Aika Zikibayeva would often sit on her grandfather’s lap and recite poems to him. At the University of Virginia, where Aika studied foreign affairs, her writing was shaped by political theory, debate and hours of research. Her career took her to Washington, DC and then life turned a corner and she found herself in Copenhagen, Denmark. Since late 2019, Aika has been residing in New York City. By day, she is a marketing professional at a software company, and on her off-hours you will find her soaking in NYC’s vibrant energy one step at a time.
All photos also by Aika Zikibayeva.