It’s the first time I’ve been on a bike in over 10 years. Julio, one of the owners of this hostel, is waiting for me to adjust the seat to my height. Thing is, I’m not quite sure how to do that. I stare expectantly at him.
“You going to adjust the seat?” He asks me, raising his eyebrows.
“Don’t know how.” I reply.
He laughs like it’s the funniest thing he’s heard in his life. He shoos me off the bike and, while he adjusts it, I try to avoid the little half-rat, half-possum creatures that are gnawing at my shoes. They are called coati and are native to Mexico. These little guys have enough life in them to power a small city.
We’re in Tulum, situated on the east coast of the Yucatan Peninsula on the Caribbean Sea in the state of Quintana Roo, Mexico. This hostel would have to be the most beautiful we have stayed at all year. The accommodation is a tree house with a balcony that looks over a tranquil garden complete with hammocks. I nearly combusted with happiness when I first saw where we’d be sleeping; I’ve always been a fan of tree-houses. However, I’m not sure if I’m a fan of these coati characters. As soon as we walked through the front gate they accosted us, trampling over our feet and chewing on our bags. I shrieked like an arachnophobe with a huntsman on her face. Never having seen such a creature before, I was naturally suspicious. Then Julio casually sauntered out of his house, all dreadlocks and tan, and picked up the evil creatures like they were adorable pet kittens. I guess they are pretty cute, once you get over the initial shock of them.
As soon as Julio is satisfied with the height of the seat, he hands the bike over to me. I stare at it like it’s a foreign object. How does one balance on such a thing again? It’s been a long while since my Nana taught me to ride in a cul de sac near the shack we used to rent in the summer. I notice Eddy and Justin are already wheeling their bikes to the front gate. I follow them with faux confidence. We throw open the gate and a car whizzes past so fast my hair almost vacates my head. Our hostel, like most in Tulum, is positioned on the main highway. I gulp. My first time back on a bike in ten years and I’ll be riding without a helmet on a busy highway, in a country where road rules are more of a guideline than a reality.
I jump on and immediately fall off. Instead of riding the bike across the highway, I run with it until I’m safely on the other side. Then, I mount the bike again and start to push the pedals. I wobble and dig my foot into the ground. After about 2 minutes I start to get the hang of it. I trail behind Justin and Eddy, losing my footing every so often and freaking out when a car comes within 100 metres. This is a new experience for me. I’m not dressed for the bike riding occasion; I’m wearing a dress and thongs, my hair is out and it is getting caught in my eyes and teeth as I gain momentum. I’m really getting the hang of it now. So much so that I can take my eyes off the immediate road and drink in the surrounding view.
It’s deliciously warm here on the east coast of Mexico. The kind of heat you experience when you jump out of a cold pool and into the spa. We are on our way to the beach and the dusty road is surrounded by palm trees and bright, heavily-scented flowers. After about 15 minutes of riding, we arrive. I can smell the saltiness of the distant ocean as I tie my bike to a coconut tree. It’s a two minute walk to the bleached-white sand. This beach is something you would see in a glossy travel magazine. The late afternoon water is the colour of green Listerine and there are coconut trees swaying in the breeze. In the distance I can see the famous Tulum ruins perched on the cliff-top. It takes me only a matter of seconds to tear off my dress and run into the Caribbean.
The water is pleasantly warm, and the waves are just big enough to encourage us to duck under them. I splash around like a 5 year old at bath time as Justin teaches me how to ride a wave into the shore. I can see Eddy in the distance sitting on the beach. He isn’t much of a water baby. I lose track of time as my hands and feet become wrinkly. Eventually, when the final light in the sky starts to dim, we venture back to the shore.
We take a long afternoon stroll along the beach. There are still keen Mexican holiday makers basking in what is left of the day’s sunlight. We stop and have a quick dinner at a beach-side restaurant. The floor is made up of sand and outside we can see heads bobbing up and down in the ocean. I’ve only been here a few hours but it is looking like Tulum will be one of my favourite places here in Mexico.
We ride back to the hostel in the dark. Luckily, the owners provided us with fashionable orange vests to wear so the crazy local drivers don’t run us down. I pedal fast as the wind catches my hair. I almost want to let go but I don’t think I’m that talented yet.
The next day we battle the heat and ride to the famous coast-side ruins we have been itching to see. It is another 10 minute ride along the highway before we pull up at the opening. According to the reading I did beforehand, Tulum was one of the last cities built and inhabited by the Mayans. It is also one of the most well-preserved coastal sites.
We walk along a long leafy road to the ruins. Along the way we see massive lizards hanging out on rocks. Since being in Mexico, Justin has become obsessed with photographing lizards. Though I have to admit, he’s got a point, they are pretty photogenic.
The ruins are a sight to behold. They are other-worldly against the backdrop of the Caribbean. We spend an hour exploring them, standing at the 12-metre-high cliff edge. The view around us is picture perfect and I take a memory card’s worth of photos. The best part is just being here, feeling the warmth of the air against my bare arms and absorbing this exotic place that is drenched in ancient Mayan history.
We explore the ruins until we hear the whistle that signals closing time. We reluctantly drag our eyes away and head back toward the bikes.
Later in the night, we go for dinner in the town. It is a 20 minute ride down the road and as I pass some police officers, they whistle at me like I’m a hunk of meat. They are definitely not like the police at home. But I smile at them anyway. It’s a harmless flirtation, really.
We go to a local place that serves seafood and has an extensive drink list. After my third Bloody Mary I realise with a jolt that I have to ride the bike back under the influence. But I don’t think that sort of behaviour is frowned upon around here. In fact, it may even be encouraged.
It’s harder to ride the bike when I’m intoxicated. I wobble dangerously from side to side and I’m laughing like an idiot. I could do this over and over again. I love speeding along on the bike, it’s so free and so like me. I feel as though I well and truly possess of a sense of adventure.
We spend the next morning lazily resting in the tree house. I can hear the constant buzz of mosquitoes outside and Julio chasing the coati around like an overprotective parent. He feeds them straight from a bottle as they are still babies, barely a month from the womb. I feel like we have developed a friendship with these creatures. As we come down from the tree-house for breakfast they are always there to greet us. Sometimes they climb all over me, tugging curiously at my hair before racing down my back.
It’s far too hot to go anywhere during the middle of the day. The sun is lethal and the humidity soaks my clothes in a matter of seconds. We’ve spent 90% of the time in our bathers, going from the beach to the tree-house. It’s not a bad lifestyle – if you’re in to that sort of thing.
That night we are re-acquainted with Frances. A giant-sized German we met in Isla Mujeres a week ago. Along with a few others from the hostel, we take our bikes to the town to have dinner. We go to a chilled place that serves burgers and every type of Mexican beer you could imagine. By this stage of the Mexico trip, I have developed a personal relationship with the Corona and lemon.
We share travel stories and talk about future plans. The atmosphere is laid-back. I think that’s just a symptom of being in a tropical place. The air is full of natural calmatives. The five of us ride our bikes back to our tree houses. Drunk. I adventurously take my hands off the handlebars, feeling completely free, until I start to wobble dangerously and am forced to take control of the bike again.
The next morning we are off to visit the cenotes. A cenote is a deep natural sinkhole, the result of a collapse of the ground-covering limestone rock that exposes water underneath.
We rent snorkeling gear from Julio and throw it in our bike baskets. Then we are off and racing, trying to overtake each other as we turn onto another busy highway. At this stage, I am barely intimidated by the cars coming straight at me. They have their own way of avoiding us, I’m sure.
It is about a 25 minute ride and sweat is trickling down my forehead. The sun is directly on us and I can feel it burning my cheeks. I am relieved when the sign for the cenotes appears before us. We turn in and pay the usual tourist fee before hurrying to the large water hole. At this time of day it is packed with people. There are exotic vines growing up the side and the surface of the water reflects the sunlight.
I jump in the water. It’s freezing, which is a relief and a pain all at once. My breathing becomes erratic as my body tries to deal with the sudden drop in exterior temperature. I kick my legs in every direction trying to stay afloat. Finally, once I get some balance I pull the snorkel down over my eyes and the three of us navigate through the cenote.
I can see divers below us, and exotic fish swimming around our feet. Justin taps me on the shoulder and points as a turtle passes by; its eyes are a fluorescent orange. We watch it for a while before swimming off into the cave. The water is transparent and underneath its surface are all kinds of exotic flora.
After an hour or so we drag ourselves out of the water and are met again by the sudden heat of the sun. We spend the afternoon looking at the other dried up water holes and enjoying icy-poles at a small eatery outside the cenote.
We ride back in the afternoon sun. I close my eyes briefly and inhale the tropical air. Yes, I could live like this for a while.
Couldn’t we all?