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Published: Sunday, 3/18/2007

Beauty off the beaten path: Beaches south of Cancun have beckoned Blade staffer for almost 30 years

BY TAHREE LANE
BLADE STAFF WRITER
A tourist watches the water in Tulum, Mexico. A tourist watches the water in Tulum, Mexico.
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I thought I could tough winter out, especially given its mild onset.

Due to benign neglect and the prospect of eye surgery, I had not planned the annual Mexican beach trip I ve taken a dozen times before. But as short, gray days bleated on, my whining e-mails to a fellow sun lover increased.

Alas, we moaned, we d sorely miss the long beach walks as the sun rises over the sea; the glorious shades of blue called the Caribbean. And buckets of limey guacamole mixed up for lunch, fish grilled in garlic and butter, falling asleep to pounding surf, snorkeling, and hours of reading and napping in the hammock.

But by late January, sun-withdrawal had reached critical proportions, and when eye surgery didn t transpire, I declared the trip was on.

Within days, we had purchased plane tickets ($287 Detroit to Cancun), arranged for simple, familiar lodging ($63/night) on one of the most beautiful, least-crowded stretches of beach in the hemisphere, and had recruited a quartet of sanguine compadres desperate to burn off winter s psychic leeches.

We explored last-minute packages to all-inclusive resorts on both of Mexico s coasts, but finally decided on the dependably rejuvenating and cheap (less than $1,000) vacation that s pulled me back for almost 30 years: the beaches of Tulum, 90 miles south of Cancun.

Granted, there s a bittersweet element to this trip. In the last 15 years or so, Cancun s infrastructure has spread south like bamboo roots, with new resorts trumping jungle down this stunning coast toward Belize.

In the late 1970s when some friends from Guatemala first suggested we rendezvous here, Tulum was nature s paradise.

A narrow, two-lane road led out of Cancun. Closer to the water, sandy two-tracks separated the wide, wild beaches from even wilder jungle. A sprinkling of hand-hewn thatch-roofed huts dotted miles of beach. Electricity and running water hadn t arrived. Most of the Mayas lived inland and still spoke their mother tongue.

We slept on the beach. Drank milk and roasted the meat of coconuts we chopped down with a machete we had carried onto the plane.

With Mexican friends, we swam far out, carrying spear guns and mesh bags to get lobster and grouper for dinner, or dug a pit in the sand to cook tepisquintle (jungle rat). I remember the fascinating show by lantern light in their hut one windy night when we watched, spellbound, as a snake slithered out of the thatch to nab a mouse and slowly devour it.

And without light pollution, the night sky (remember the Milky Way?) was, and continues to be, utterly breathtaking.

There are still a few small campgrounds and even some stick-and-thatch huts with sand floors for rent on the Boca Paila Road south of the Tulum ruins.

But the road was finally paved last year. It s lined with cafes that serve good fish and bad (instant) coffee, most attached to the few dozen small, tasteful hotels, many billing themselves as eco-friendly or even eco-chic. Eco-friendly means they use solar or wind power to some degree; eco-chic, I believe, translates to yoga and pricey juice drinks sold here.

Arriving at the Cancun airport after a daunting 5:30 a.m. departure from Detroit, we withdrew pesos from an ATM (the rate was decent, but a better one was offered at the sole bank in Tulum).

We grabbed a shuttle to the next terminal and walked to a nearby car rental office (Dollar, Thrifty, and Europa seem to have the best deals). The comfortable 2006 Nissan Sentra was $160 for the week.

First stop and first chance to stretch our legs was Puerto Moreles, 20 minutes south of the airport. Winter home to a growing number of gringos, it s a newish village built around a park/playground where the locals were setting up booths for Carnaval (Mardi Gras) activities. We had wonderful tempura-style shrimp tacos at a cafe on the square and got groceries at a favorite market across the square.

It showered briefly as we drove 40 minutes down the four-lane Highway 307 to the booming Playa del Carmen (Wal-Mart, Sam s Club, and a massive McDonald s). We purchased three-foot-tall boogie boards ($13 each), which turn the chore of bobbing in rolling waves into an enjoyable activity.

Another 40 minutes brought us to our first night s lodging: the charming five-room Tankah Inn ($110/night), built and operated by a moody Texan. The beach isn t the best here, but the sea is glorious and the inn offers shady hammocks and kayaks with which we paddled out 500 yards, tied to a buoy, and snorkeled, mesmerized by a dozen bizarre cuttlefish.

The next day, we made the 10-minute drive to Tulum with a supermarket stop for jugs of drinking water, breakfast fixins, and a sack of avocados to make tubs of guacamole, a revered ritual.

And as the sky darkened with storm clouds, we pulled into the humble but welcoming place that was the first lodging constructed on this beach in 1972 and is still run by the same family.

It s virtually absent architectural charm, and the 12 boxy, concrete units divided into two rooms with double beds are rather long in the tooth. No little shampoos in these bathrooms. Sinks are missing drain plugs. One towel per guest. A tear in the window screen. Rusty overhead fan. Electricity? Four hours in the morning and four at night.

But it s clean, and the few employees are friendly. Best of all, it has in spades what money my limited fortune anyway can t buy: The door opens onto a fringe of palms, the finest white sand, and in 50 yards, the sea.

The patio is large enough for two hammocks ($8/week), two tables, and six chairs. We look at it as luxurious camping.

Each year, we try to work a little sightseeing into the hustle and bustle of doing nothing. We ve explored the charming Maya town Felipe Carrillo an hour south of Tulum (where we stumbled on a fascinating Maya cultural center), the little-visited Muyil ruins, and jungle cenotes (ponds fed by underground rivers, perfect for chilling in.)

Strolling the back streets of Tulum one evening, we came upon an open area where two truck beds bearing unusual cargo were surrounded by a crowd. They were loaded with cages holding 11 huge tigers and four black panthers in the process of being hosed down. The circus was in town, and we bought tickets.

It was a one-ring affair with a trumpet-playing clown/master of ceremonies. The owner was a middle-aged woman, squeezed into tight black leather when she put the panthers through their paces. Her brother did a remarkable job of convincing the entire lot of tigers to snuggle next to each other as if posing for a team portrait. As fun as the acts were, it was delightful to be part of the audience, watching families and dark-eyed children.

One clear night, we laid on the beach watching shooting stars and marvelling at a sky so packed with brilliance.

Our big adventure was hiring a private guide to give us deeper insight to this land and its people. He was an American who s lived here for almost 40 years, speaks Spanish and Maya, and is knowledgeable about the flora, fauna, caves, and archaeology. (Cost: $100, plus his lunch, transportation, and, as it turned out, every last ounce of patience we all, collectively, possessed.)

We learned a lot, mostly about him. But we wrapped up the day with a lovely boat ride ($100) across Muyil Lake and a serene body-float down a crystal-clear canal lined with sawgrass and mangroves.

Fortunately, we had a couple of days to recuperate from that mis-guided day; snorkeling, snoozing, walking, and soaking up the delicious beauty that would carry us through to spring.

Contact Tahree Lane at: tlane@theblade.com or 419-724-6075.

If you go:

Hotels on the beach in high season (December to May) range from $35/night (sand floor, thatched-hut) to $350 at the top end; the average is about $200/night. Off-season prices are much cheaper.

Limited hotel information is at www.hotelstulum.com and www.tulum.com.

Hotels in the town of Tulum (about five miles from the beach) range from $25 to $65/night.

The best information for lodging (and all else) is found in the most recent editions of guidebooks to the Yucatan and the Maya Riviera.

Charter flight information: www.worryfreevacations.com



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