The Long Way to Tulum

Ahhhhh Tulum. While a weekend isn’t much time, there is plenty to get into for a relaxing or exciting weekend in Tulum, whatever you’re going for! For me, Tulum was the gateway to Belize. I love watching the countryside roll by on road trips, whether it be by car, bus, or train….so taking the long, relaxing way to Belize was the ticket for me, and I had the added bonus of checking out this hot to trot destination along the way. Getting there was an interesting journey in itself.

I started with a one way ticket from Austin to Cancun for $112 plus taxes. I would’ve used points, but I’m planning a bigger trip (always, amirite?) so I want to save up my miles a little longer. For the past year or so I have been buying direct from American Airlines because I have a strong account with them thanks to my business travel, but I recommend Skyscanner if you want to find the best deal, especially if you have flexible dates. Skyscanner has pretty much become the new “matrix” if anyone remembers that little secret a while back. At some point it seemed like the matrix became Google Matrix, but Sky Scanner has nailed it at this point. Check out the wiki for some interesting history on the company.

My flight was scheduled for later in the day because I was leaving on a Saturday and was overbooked until my departure, so I needed most of the day to settle my affairs before leaving the country. For this reason I decided to spend the night in Cancun, but you can catch the ADO bus right from the airport to Playa Del Carmen or Tulum and go direct.  I love sleep and I hacked a free hotel so I was good to call it for the night in Cancun and get up early for the lil bus ride to my fist destination.

When you arrive in Cancun, there is a flood of tourism hosts to greet you as you head out of the airport. I needed to find out where to go to find the free shuttle that the hotel provided so I ended up talking to one of these guys. As I have sat through a pitch before, I knew exactly what he was leading up to. He was offering to pay for my taxi in the morning to a newly built hotel, give me a free breakfast while likely try to get me to buy a timeshare, and then give me free private transport to Playa Del Carmen or Tulum, whichever I chose. At first he wanted $30 for all of this and a mere hour and a half of my time in the morning, which he then whittled down to $20 because I’m a tough sell. Looking back, I spent slightly more than this between breakfast and the ADO bus but this was marginal. The main reason I didn’t go was because I was excited to start my vacation and was planning on taking an earlyish bus to Tulum and didn’t want to lose the time on the sales shenanigans. But, much time was lost, as you will soon learn. I might actually take him up on it next time. If you have a little time to kill and know how to say “No” at the end of a sales pitch, this actually is probably worth all the freebies, especially if you are looking for travel hacking ideas or are budget traveling.

As I mentioned, the hotel had a free airport shuttle. Most of them do, so if you’re doing the hotel circuit don’t hesitate to use this service! It is easier to set this up in advance if you aren’t planning to get a local sim card for your phone. If you do have a sim card you can just call them when you arrive. Another useful thing to note is that Skype allows free 1-800 calls from anywhere in the world. This saved my arse in Thailand when my bank card stayed behind in the ATM in Chiang Mai, but that’s a story for another post!

I arrived at my free hotel just in time to grab a late dinner and get some free drinks from a hilarious and quite toasted gal I met who happened to be there because she got kicked off the plane trying to leave earlier that day. Brawny, like the paper towel, was how she introduced herself. She didn’t seem entirely sure why they wouldn’t let her on the plane, but figured it was likely because she was too intoxicated. She decided to continue the trend throughout the day so by the time I arrived at nearly 10pm…let’s just say the next hour and a half was very entertaining to say the least. Cheers for the beers, Brawny!

I have two methods for acquiring free hotels. First, I have an IHG rewards Mastercard. IHG – International Hotel Group, has a huge line of partner hotels and I get one free hotel per year just for having the card. I use it for my daily purchases and the points rack up to get me multiple free rooms throughout the year. The trick here is to pay your credit card in full every month so you don’t incur interest charges. I also have mine set to autopay the minimum so I never get late fees, but I usually pay the balance before it’s due to make sure I don’t get hit with the interest.  Don’t overspend! Live within your means and you’ll be fine. You don’t need all that shit sitting in the garage anyway. Cancun Day 1 expense tally: $22.77 for my fancy dinner including 1 beer and a tip…Camarones al Ajo – soooo gooood.

Good Morning, Day 2! This was way more “interesting” than intended. I never realized how flexible I was until I met someone that I realized might not be able to handle fluctuation the way I can. Before that I couldn’t understand why everyone isn’t as in love with travel as I am. I guess it’s not for everyone. If you can’t roll with the punches I can see how travel could be stressful, especially in foreign countries. I’m so grateful for my sense of adventure and creativity. Whenever my travel plan goes awry, I typically laugh about what a good story I’ll have to tell. There are certainly exceptions in the moment, especially if you’ve ever been sick on the road (!) but overall the pros always outweigh any type of derailment I’ve ever encountered, by a landslide. So, for now, let’s get onto the day’s derailments!

I had a nice mellow start by sleeping in and enjoying the breakfast buffet with beautiful garden views. I speak very broken half Spanish (I’m working on this!) so the waiter amusingly corrected me when he asked me how I was and I answered, “Buena”. He explained the difference between Buena and Bien and then told me I was both. Ha, thanks, buddy. I then took the free hotel shuttle back to the airport where you can get the ADO bus. Again, I made the decision not to “wait”; you typically have to change busses in Playa Del Carmen but the ticket lady told me there was a direct bus – but not for an hour and half. I declined and hopped on hoping to make up that time at my destination. Well…

I’ve mentioned this in previous posts: bus travel in just about any country besides the US is classy and comfy. Only in the US do we have a level of classism that you have to drown in the stench of urine to be economical in travel. In most countries, there are many affordable travel options. Mexico’s busses are no exception, clean, cool, and spacious. There’s even the added bonus of free internet at the bus stations so you can use the waiting time to get your plan sorted out or touch base with friends online. Awhooooø!

I arrive in Playa and buy my connection pass at the ticket booth. She pointed out “AU” to me, but I wasn’t following what she meant. It seemed easy enough though because  it was a tiny station and there was a sign above one of the bus stalls that said “Tulum”. I only had to wait a half hour for the bus so I walked down to the beach, took some snaps, and bought a magnet to add to my collection. When I came back a bus had just pulled into the stall. It was 15 minutes until the scheduled time of 1pm so I thought that was my bus arriving in time to get everyone loaded up for an on time departure. I want to preface this with the fact that at the onset of this trip I was beyond exhausted. I recently had a medical diagnosis and a slew of other personal onslaughts that have not been supportive of me being my normal, chipper self. In my unfortunate state, I became an easy target for whatever chip this driver had on his shoulder that day. I asked him if it was the bus for Tulum and he said “No, that leaves from the other station”. I didn’t even know there was another station but I immediately thought that must’ve been what the woman at the ticket counter meant when she pointed to “AU”?? This “concerned” driver said he was passing that way and could get me to my bus that left in 10 minutes. I was so grateful and simultaneously nervous about making the bus. This moment felt stressful but I knew I was on my way to the beginning of some much needed travel therapy so I persevered.

We arrive at the other station and I have 5 minutes to spare. Nice. I go to a counter to find out which stall I should go to for the bus, and the gentleman there tells me I need to go to the other station. Excuse me? The station I just came from…but…noooooooo. When I explain that the driver told me to come here and omg halp, he says I have to go to the ladies at the other counter. The ladies at the other counter tell me I have to go back to him so he can exchange it. He says he can not (will not) exchange it. Nobody. Will. Help. Not sure what the bus driver was after by derailing me. Now that I know better about how to read the bus tickets I see that it states the station on the ticket, but the driver was so convincing that I didn’t even look. MY BAD.

Finally another man comes over and is helpful. He exchanges the now gone bus ticket with one that leaves in an hour and half, “for sure” from this station. He seems legit and even refunds me a few pesos since it’s a different bus line. Since I’ve just been had I want to confirm it online, plus, said busline, Oriente, has had a single bus sitting there the entire time – not coming nor going – while the ADO lines are in and out every 5 minutes. I’m super skeptical at this point. I go online and find, as I had thought, that the other station has busses leaving for Tulum every half hour, and, I discover, I could’ve easily walked the half mile back and made it to the 1:30 departure, but these guys had no interest in informing of that option and I am lost in a sea of Mexico without a clue at this moment in time. So I did what any tired travel gal would do, facebook message your favorite bilingual latino back home to make you laugh and co-create new spanglish terms while you wait impatiently for a bus that may or may not come. Hector to the rescue. lolito. And then the hour and half flies by.

The bus came! A tiny working class man in front of me is kind enough to compare his ticket to mine and I am assured that I am finally going in the right direction. This guy was covered head to toe in paint and drywall dust and had the biggest, friendliest smile in the world. I really needed that humanism right then. My joy was renewed.

You think this day is done? Guess. Again.

I trek to the hostel from the station, a mere 2 blocks. I confirmed my walking directions on google maps before heading out and tilt my puppy head to the side in minor confusion when Google Maps states that this location is “permanently closed”. That can’t by right, I think. I just booked it last night on Hostelworld. Alas, I arrive, and that ish is legitimately locked down with one of those city official posters on the front. The ladies in the restaurant underneath are like, yup, no bueno. Can this day get any longer? At this point I am seriously regretting not paying $20 for personal service at the expense of an hour and a half timeshare pitch.

Baaaaack to ADO to use the internet I go. I find one that looks decent, The Mayan Adventure. On the way there I pass one or 2 and decide to pop in to check one of them out. Closed. I get to Mayan Adventure and it has a big ole wrought iron gate with a padlock. My half size backpack starts to feel heavier than it is. There’s a doorbell and a European girl comes in, gets my MO, and then flits to the back to get the owner. When she returns, the owner has gone but I am welcome to wait for an hour or so, probably, but she’s not sure if there’s availability because she is just camping in the back and the place is kinda under remodeling. Thanks, you’re sweet, but no thanks. It’s time to unload. She recommends a spot that I thought I saw out of the corner of my eye down a side street around the corner. I head that way. They are open. They have rooms. The are appropriately named: The Weary Traveler. This place clearly magically appeared to eradicate the details of my day. Alejandro gets me hooked up at the front desk and I settle in, grab some grub, and enjoy the free caipirinhas happy hour they offer every night. Gracias.Gracias.Gracias.

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