The Scene: Tulum

Crystal clear diving. Dazzling white sand beaches. Tanned and toned travellers from around the world. Hip bar/comidas facing the surf. The perfect first stop on the gringo trail. What took me so long to get here?

Tulum’s main attraction was the small but insanely picturesque Mayan temple perched on the rugged cliff overlooking El Mar Caribe. Well-preserved with frescoes and carvings, the sun-bleached limestone stood out in contrast to the deep blue sea. Quite impressive, gave me a taste of what I could expect as I moved south. The sleepy village at the cross-roads just had a few small tiendas. Not even a gas station.

In 1975 Tulum was virtually undeveloped. Miles of pristine beaches to the north and south. My AAA map showed a road from Tulum to X-Can.

The main road continued 82 kms south-west to the village of Felipe Carrillo Puerto. A rough dirt road ran from the temple, just behind the dunes and palm trees,  south along the Boca Paila Peninsula to Punta Allen, 65 kms away. To the north it was 70 kms of undeveloped palm-fringed beaches and coves to Isla Mujeres. Cancun was still in the planning stage. And a paved road ran north-west towards the Mayan Ceremonial Centre of Coba and on to, according to my map, X-Can and Chichen Itza.

Maybe five or six basic accommodation / bar / comedors hugged the beach south of the temple. El Mirador was a motel-type compound directly next to the ruins and the nicest of the bunch. The further south, the more rustic the facilities.

Each compound had a bar / restaurant with cold beer, fresh fruit juices and inexpensive seafood. Pretty much open from dawn til late, you could make the rounds in the morning for coffee and a platino con leche, late afternoons for freshly-caught fish, langosta, rice, tortillas and beans and late at night for beer, music and laughter.

Paraiso’s was at the far end, maybe 2 kms from the crossroads. Basically a campground, Paraiso’s boasted fresh seafood (the owner’s brother had a fishing boat), cheap Cerveza Montejo, a freshwater well, outdoor shower and plenty of parking. Maybe five camper vans and a few tents, people would come and go. Miles of dunes stretched to the south after that. 

I was camping out in the dunes beyond Paraiso’s, nothing fancy, just sleeping under my mosquito net or tarp when it rained. I stashed my gear in the dunes during the day and could ride my bike to the temple and up and down the beach, checking it out. I could get fresh water at Paraiso’s communal well. Nobody seemed to care where I slept or what I did, total freedom.

I couldn’t believe all the gorgeous Europeans. Tulum was just starting to gain an international reputation and attracted seasoned travellers who knew their way around the various beach scenes. Ko Samui in Thailand, Crete and Mykonos in Greece, Goa in India. The graceful bodies on the beach were world class.

At night everyone would gather at one bar or another. Guitars would come out, stories would get told. Reefer smoke permeated the air. I picked up tips on travelling south. Lake Atitlan in Guatemala would be hopping over New Year’s. Roatan’s beaches were hard to get to but worth the effort. Costa Rica frowned on long hair and required an outward bound ticket. Every night different people, different tales.

Tulum was a great spot for relaxing, working on my tan, getting high and refining my plans. Now that I was ‘on the road’ I could visualise my trip. I could ride from gringo hot spot to hot spot…Palenque, San Cristobal, Lago Atitlan and on to Roatan. Things were coming together.

Published by Phil Parent

Phil Parent is a geographer residing in Queenstown New Zealand.

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