Tulum

The second half of our trip couldn’t have been more different from the first half. Both places may speak Spanish, and it may only take an hour to get from one destination to the other, but Tulum was another world from Cuba. It’s beautiful here. Like, really beautiful. I’m from Hawaii and even I was in awe of the beaches, the cenotes, and the jungle. Unfortunately, the rest of the world also knows how beautiful Tulum is, which is why it’s probably one of the most touristy places I’ve ever visited. After interacting with locals constantly in Cuba, it was off-putting to be surrounded by so many influencers and wealthy Europeans in Tulum. Regardless, Anthony and I made the most of it and tried our best to find ways to do Tulum differently.

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Gorgeous beaches!

Stay

Most tourists in Tulum stay in outrageously expensive resorts on the beach. Many of these resorts are imaginatively designed and undeniably stunning, so if you have some extra cash, you can stay at Azulik, where you pay $700/night for a villa with no roof or no WiFi. We stayed at a glamping hotel called Nativus Tulum. The hotel contains six tents tucked into their own little corners of the property, each with zippered screens to keep any bugs out, a spa-worthy outdoor bathroom (outdoor shower included!), and a backyard with a hammock and outdoor seating. We’ve had an outdoor shower before — in our extravagant hotel on our safari in South Africa — but it was the first time we felt that there was complete privacy, so we really enjoyed using ours here, in utter paradise. The entire property had WiFi, complimentary bike rentals, an outdoor yoga studio, and huge breakfasts every morning. The best part, however, was direct access to a cenote, where we kayaked, paddleboarded, and watched the sunset from the deck. And if we wanted to go to the beach, all we had to do was cross the street and enter through a hotel. Since our hotel was on the southern end of Tulum, this part of the beach wasn’t crowded at all. This is how to do Tulum.

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We stayed in Tent #5 (cinco)

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Loved the design of our outdoor bathroom

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Comfortable bed, with outlets, WiFi, and all the necessities

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Our outdoor shower

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The entrance to our hotel

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Fresh eggs and quesadillas for breakfast

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Breakfast, part 2

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Our hammock right in front of our tent

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View of the cenote from our hotel

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Anthony goes paddleboarding

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Watching the sunset from our deck

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Of course there’s a yoga area at our hotel

Do

We were very adamant about not sitting on the beach all day, so we booked a couple of all-day tours with MexicoKan. Our first tour, Mayan Inland Expedition, was our favorite. We were driven deeper into the state of Quintana Roo to the ancient Mayan city of Cobá, which was once the most powerful in the region and is estimated to have had a population of over 50,000 at its peak. Massive pyramids and monuments have been buried in the jungle for over a thousand years, only recently discovered by archaeologists. Lush vegetation still covers most of the city, and it’s exciting to see only half-excavated ruins emerging from the vines and tree roots. We biked through Cobá and climbed Ixmoja, the largest pyramid. The climb up isn’t too bad, but coming down the steep, slippery steps is the hard part.

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Climbing up Ixmoja

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We were the first ones to the top! And wearing sandals instead of sneakers!

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Climbing down was the scariest part

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Our hilarious tour guide

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Riding a children’s bike to different ruins

After returning our bikes, we visited the stunning Punta Laguna nature reserve, where we searched for spider monkeys (it wasn’t difficult, their screeching are blood-curdling), ziplined across a turquoise lake, canoed, and were blessed in a Mayan ceremony.

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Mayan ceremony

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After ziplining and canoeing across this lake, we took in the views

For lunch we went to the nearby village of Nuevo Durango, where we visited the house of a local family who created a project that nurtures injured or endangered animals and reintroduces them into the wild. They have all types of birds and farm animals, as well as medicinal plants and honey bees that don’t have stingers. We made tortillas and had a delicious home-cooked meal there.

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Making tortillas

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Wanted the recipe for this soup!

Our last activity on this tour was swimming in a cenote that our group had all to ourselves. A cenote is a deep, water-filled sinkhole in limestone that is created when the roof of the underground cavern collapses. This creates a natural pool which is then filled by rain and water flowing from underground rivers. The word cenote comes from the Mayan word dzonot, which means “well.” The water in these cenotes is crystal-clear, cool, calcium-rich freshwater. The calcium levels are so high, in fact, that it’s hard to tread the water; I had to wear a lifejacket because my arms were getting so tired! The Yucatán Peninsula has thousands of these cenotes because the ground is primarily made up of limestone, which is porous. Cenotes were the area’s main source of water and played an important role in ancient Mayan civilization, as passages to the underworld and sites for sacrificial purposes. Some cenotes are easy to access, with staircases leading down to the water, while others are a bit more tricky, with ladders. Anthony and a couple other brave souls jumped from the very top, which was 8 meters high.

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Imagine stumbling across this!

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Wearing a lifejacket because my arms got tired!

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Enjoying the cenote with our new friends

The next day, we had another tour with the same company. The World Wonder Discovery tour was very different; instead of adventurous millennials, we were surrounded by mostly uncultural middle-aged Americans, and the pace was much slower. We started off at Chichen Itza, one of the New Wonders of the World. The iconic Temple of Kukulkan is a step pyramid of nine square terraces. The four faces of the pyramid have protruding stairways that rise at an angle of 45°. Around the spring and autumn equinoxes, the northwest corner of the pyramid casts a series of triangular shadows against the western balustrade that evokes the appearance of a serpent wriggling down the staircase. It’s widespread belief that this effect was achieved on purpose to record the equinoxes.

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Chichen Itza

Nearby is the Great Ball Court, the largest and best preserved ball court in ancient Mesoamerica. This sport was played throughout the Mayan civilization, but it was more than just an athletic event; it was also a sacrificial and religious event. The winning team’s captain was decapitated, an honorable sacrifice to the gods. A rubber ball could be hit with the right hip, right elbow, and right knee, but no hands. The aim was to move the ball through the stone ring up high.

After Chichen Itza, we had lunch at a touristy but beautiful former mansion in Valladolid, a quiet colonial town. Then we swam in another cenote, which was even more impressive than yesterday’s. It had a rope running through the middle just in case you got tired from swimming in the calcium-rich waters. On our way out, we looked at the fossils inlaid in the cenote walls — proof that the entire Yucatan used to be underwater.

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Beautiful restaurant for lunch in Valladolid

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Mole on chicken enchiladas

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Festive Valladolid

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Cenote Xux-Ha

Eat

Most of our meals in Tulum alternated between just two places (a dirt-cheap taco joint on the beach, and a mid-range vegan spot just a few steps from our hotel) because everything else by us was so overpriced, we felt like we were back in New York. Tulum caters to tourists so much that all places take USD and Euros; I sometimes forgot that I was in another country. Fortunately, we found two spots near our hotel that didn’t hurt our heart or wallet too much: Charley’s Vegan Tacos (a vegan spot with fun decor) and Taqueria La Eufemia (a boisterous beachfront taco shop where we saw the most locals in the entire region).

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Crispy fish and grilled shrimp tacos at La Eufemia

If we had another day in Tulum, I’d try to make reservations at Hartwood, the most prestigious restaurant in Tulum that was even beloved by locals.

Tips for future travelers:

  1. There are ATMs everywhere, and many of them only give out USD, which just highlights how tourist-centric this place is.
  2. Tip restaurants 15% and tour guides $50-70 per person. 1 USD = 19 Mexican Peso.
  3. We used a car service called eTransfers to pick us up from the airport and to take us back. I paid online, and they showed up on time and in a comfortable van.
  4. If you only do three things in Tulum: enjoy the beach, visit a few cenotes (they’re all unique, so you’ll want to explore more than one), and book the Mayan Inland Expedition tour with MexicoKan. MexicoKan Tours picks you up directly from your hotel in the morning and drops you off just before sunset.
  5. Wake up early and watch the sunrise from the beach, since it faces east.
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Secluded beaches

Mexico City

Perhaps Donald Trump should worry about Americans crossing the border into Mexico (instead of the other way around) because Mexico City was one of the most livable cities I’ve ever visited, with its cheap food, ideal weather year-round, and increasing environmental sustainability. “Livable” isn’t what I was expecting from this city, based on the stories and rumors I’d heard. I came to Mexico City prepared to pity the city that seems unfairly dangerous to so many Americans. That agenda went out the window as soon as we arrived, because I immediately realized that this city doesn’t need my pity at all. In some ways, life here is astoundingly better than in the U.S.

Home to a whopping 21 million people, Mexico City is the most populous city in North America and the largest Spanish-speaking city in the world. It’s located at an altitude of over 7,000 feet — roughly the same as Machu Picchu. Due to its tropical latitude but high elevation, it has a temperate climate — never too cold in the winter nor too hot in the summer. The city is the oldest capital city in the Americas, and is one of only two capital cities founded by Native Americans (the other is Quito, Ecuador). Originally called Tenochtitlan, it was built on an island in Lake Texcoco, a natural lake that was eventually drained by Spanish colonists. Tenochtitlan was an impressive sight laced with canals, and bridges connecting it to the mainland — much like Venice. Of course, the Spanish completely destroyed Tenochtitlan in 1521 and, while preserving the ancient city’s basic layout, built Catholic churches over the old Aztec temples and renamed it “México” because the Spanish found this indigenous word easier to pronounce.

A few decades ago, Mexico City was infamous for being one of the world’s most polluted cities; however, the city has become a model for drastically lowering pollution levels, which are now similar to those of Los Angeles. Much of this is thanks to Mexico City’s many modes of public transportation, from the subway, to suburban rail, light rail, buses, trolleys, and a bike sharing system with well-defined bike lanes. We caught the subway a couple of times but usually either walked because Mexico City is a surprisingly walkable city for such a sprawl, or caught Ubers because Ubers are dirt-cheap.

We stayed at an Airbnb in trendy Colonia Roma partly because some of the city’s hottest restaurants are there, but the most memorable meals we had were street food from outdoor stalls and markets. Mexico has one of the most extensive street food cultures in the world, and it’s not a surprise that Mexico City consistently ranks as “the number one food destination in the world.” The skilled cooks who prepare the tacos and tortas at these stalls are masters of their art and deserve just as much prestige as Japanese sushi chefs. Every major neighborhood has its own market(s) at which residents (“chilangos”) buy everything from fresh produce to spices to children’s toys. Meanwhile, outdoor stalls are set up around the city — near parks, along sidewalks, sometimes literally on the street. We ate delicious 30-cent tacos on plastic stools, jealous of all the chilangos eating alongside us.

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Living room of our Airbnb, which had a kitchen, laundry machine, rooftop, two bathrooms, and a doorman who we grew fond of

Tips for future travelers:

Take a food tour with Sabores. Our tour lasted four and a half hours and brought us all over Centro Histórico. We tried grasshopper salsa and ate ants from a plastic bag, learned what tomatoes should actually look like vs. what society wants them to look like, chewed chilcuague (a medicinal root that makes your whole mouth tingle, and makes water taste like sparkling water if you drink it right after one nibble of the root), and discovered what good mole is. Mole is a sauce made of fruit, chili pepper, and spices such as cinnamon and tomatoes, all of which are roasted and ground by hand for at least one day.

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Our food tour group
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Mole poblano
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Fresh birds at Mercado San Juan
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Seafood tostada
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Trying ants
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Picking up desserts at an old dulceria

Visit Coyoacán, my favorite neighborhood in Mexico City. It feels more like a small town due the numerous parks and cobblestone streets. The Frida Kahlo Museum and Trotsky House are located in Coyoacán, but even just wandering around this colorful neighborhood is enough to fall in love. Homes are painted bright colors, the plazas are full of families eating ice cream, and the massive Mercado de Coyoacán is the perfect spot for lunch.

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Coyoacan
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One of my favorite markets

Hang out in Zócalo, the main square in Mexico City. The term zócalo means “base” and was only adopted into the common Mexican lexicon in the 19th century. Supposedly, plans had been made to construct a large monument in the center of the plaza, but nothing besides the base was ever constructed, hence the term zócalo. The name stuck and even spread to other cities across Mexico, which began to use the term zócalo to refer to their main squares. We visited Zócalo almost every day because it was so centrally located and served as a meeting point for our tours. One day, we stumbled upon a huge Oaxacan festival there. Tents were set up and vendors sold Oaxacan goods, quickly convincing me that my next trip to Mexico must include Oaxaca, a state best known for its indigenous people and unique gastronomy.

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Zocalo

If you’re interested in architecture, check out Museo Soumaya, a stunning contemporary art museum covered by 16,000 hexagonal aluminum tiles. Also check out the Torre Latinoamericana, the world’s first major skyscraper successfully built on highly active seismic land. Torre Latinoamericana doesn’t look like much now, as its design is fairly straightforward and it is no longer the tallest building, but the fact that it withstood the 8.1 magnitude 1985 earthquake that toppled other buildings nearby is quite impressive. There is an observatory at the top that includes access to a gallery showcasing the history of construction projects around Mexico City.

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Museo Soumaya
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Look at those tiles!
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Torre Latinoamericana behind us

Stroll through Alameda Central, the oldest public park in the Americas. Some of our best meals were street tacos from two of the stalls on the southwest corner of the park that open up every night.

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Alameda Central
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This taco from a stall near Alameda Central was my favorite meal in Mexico

Palacio de Bellas Artes is an opulent performing arts center made of Carrara marble and dreanlike yellow and orange crystal dragon scale tiles. For the best view, you can wait an hour to sit in a crowded open-air cafe at Sears (yes! Sears still exists). For the second best view, squeeze your way through Sears’ gardening equipment on the same floor and see almost the same thing for free without a wait.

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In front of Palacio de Bellas Artes
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Carrara marble

The best way to get to Mexico City from the airport is to exit baggage claim and find a booth marked “Taxi Autorizado”. Tell the ticket seller your destination, pay for your ticket (we paid 200 pesos, or roughly ten bucks for a cab to Colonia Roma), and present the ticket to one of their drivers outside. The best way to return to the airport is to Uber; it’ll be even cheaper.

Don’t drink the tap water. Instead, try pulque, mezcal, jamaica (hibiscus juice), horchata, Mexican cola, or tequila. We were worried about the ice in our drinks since tap water is unsafe to drink, but we never had an issue; restaurants use filtered water for their ice, and most of the beverages you’ll have on the street don’t come with ice.

How can you tell if a food stall is safe? Look for the crowded ones. Locals tend to know what is good, and a busy one indicates that the food is not sitting around. We didn’t get sick once in Mexico City.

Book tickets to the Frida Kahlo Museum in advance. You’ll still have to wait in a line outside, but you’ll be able to enter as soon as it’s your time slot.

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Frida’s wheelchair in her studio
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Frida’s kitchen
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Obligatory photo with the azul wall