Birthdays are odds days.
Especially a birthday that ends in 0. I turned 40 years old last week. It seems unbelievable to me. I don’t feel like I’m 40, but who really knew what that was supposed to feel like. We decided to celebrate my birthday by going to Tulum, Mexico, for a week. I was in Tulum in 2006, which was 15 years ago, and it was very different. Much of what you read about Tulum these days include the atrocious adjective “instagrammable.” Though I refuse to say that, it is nearly impossible to capture a poor photo. It was beautiful in 2006, and it continues to be stunning in 2021.
When I visited 15 years ago, both Tulum and I were very different. Unfortunately, I do not have many great memories from that trip. I was in an unhealthy relationship with a woman who invited me on a journey that I couldn’t afford with her friend and the friend’s NYC finance boyfriend. I was resentful of needing to be frugal, embarrassingly out of shape, and kind of a jerk to the couple who invited us. It was not a great time for me.
In 2006, Tulum was a small town along highway 307 with a few roadside restaurants. The beaches had a handful of eco-chic yoga retreats. There was not much to say about it, other than it had Mayan ruins. I didn’t even stay in Tulum. I stayed in Blue Sky hotel, which I am told has changed its name to Mereva since. Still, I am glad to say that I visited Tulum 4 years before Instagram was invented.
Today, Tulum hosts an international coterie of the bourgeoisie, bachelor/bachelorette parties, hippie yoga types, and those looking for a club closer than Ibiza. It’s a scene I didn’t expect. Yet, the jungle, the local Mexicans, western retirees, and real adventurers protect some sense of authenticity. I thoroughly enjoyed Tulum last week.
Visitors to Tulum are young, hip, tan, and gorgeous. So here starts my birthday adventure. A 40-year-old man in a sea of youth, constantly assaulted by thoughts of the past 15 years. But, discomfort is key to learning, and this trip was about me learning from the road I’ve been down and what route I want to continue on.
For better or for worse, I woke up at 5:30 am on my birthday in Philadelphia. This was my first flight since COVID-19 grounded me and most of the world. The airport was a bit more full and chaotic than I expected. People were banging about in fluorescent-lit hallways with neck pillows positioned like neckbraces, wearing complete pajama sets, and towing carryons edging on max capacity. I wondered how I suffered this for so many years; it was all anxiety-inducing. Finally, we took a walk away from the crowds to kill time and avoid the masses.
We flew business/first (yay for birthday treats), and the meal was disgusting. Sam napped during the flight, and I started thinking about turning 40. Typically, getting older is not a big deal for me, but this one is hitting me harder than I anticipated. Likely, I’m past the halfway mark in my life (mortality is indeed a vicious authority). I have little to say about the previous 40 years other than any milestones are personal and not for the history books.
How did I bury this melancholy? With a canned Bloody Mary and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, of course. A joyful movie about senior citizens making meaning in their life today and acknowledging the years of missed opportunities that lead up to the moment they are in. I’m still deciding if it was a good choice.
Once we got to Tulum (I’m skipping over the nightmare of a time at Avis. Terrible!), the birthday festivities began. We checked into our Airbnb a went to a private rooftop area where I was surprised with a singer, balloons, and champagne. SURPRISE! Samer arranged for the singer to be there when we arrived. A serenade of Las Mañanitas and a couple of glasses of Moët & Chandon was not what I expected. And it brought a much-appreciated smile to my face.
One of the things I’ve asked myself in the last month is, “what did I accomplish in the last decade?” Do you know what? I only have one answer, and it’s “I met and fell in love with Samer.” There is nothing professional, creative, athletic, or productive about my achievements. Admittedly I am struggling with my most noteworthy accomplishment being defined by my relation to someone else. That doesn’t feel like it should be the case for someone whose independence is a point of pride. However, it is the absolute and simple truth. Although, maybe, that pride of independence started as an asset once, but is no longer; perhaps the most extraordinary achievement one (I) can achieve is a full relationship with someone.
As the singer sang and I took a moment to enjoy a life of live music, love, and joy, I thought, “He’s wonderful, I love him, and he is the best part of the past ten years.”
We had dinner in the beach area of Tulum at Hartwood. It’s a 10 km drive and takes about 45 minutes. This was not just a great meal. It is probably one of the best meals of my life. Fire-roasted seafood is the best of everything I love. Here is a rundown of what we ate.
- Jicama salad: I needed some sort of vegetable. Simple and wonderful.
- Grouper ceviche: This was nice and had some serrano chiles in it. I like my ceviche spicy, and this was perfect.
- Prawns: These prawns were giant, stuffed, and in a red sauce. By every measure, they were good, but I think they may have been the least exciting dish. I found the texture slightly mealy, but Samer disagreed.
- Snook Filete aka robalo: Great. Not just great, but fucking fantastic. This was the most delicious piece of fish I have eaten. It was served with roasted cauliflower, nuts, and puree that was delectable. This dish was light and creamy and full of subtle flavors. Perfect.
- Snapper filet: Good. Classic snapper filet served in a pepper sauce with chaya and roasted peppers. The fish was firmer, and the flavors were very forward.
- Dessert: We shared corn ice cream and a honey cake. The honey cake may be the best restaurant dessert I’ve ever had in my life. It was so good, and I am drooling while I type this. It was sweet about being cloying; the bottom had a snap without being hard. Wonderful.
My 40th birthday made for a long day and progressively became more and more magical. After we got home, we took a dip in the private pool and enjoyed the Tulum night sky.
We had breakfast at a great place called La Babieca. It is simple in its presentation but has a very extensive menu. It’s operated by Mexicans and feels Mexican, which is not always the case in a place like Tulum. I had a dish of eggs and chaya. Chaya is something called Mayan spinach. It’s sturdier than the spinach you are likely familiar with, and it is terrific. It’s all over Tulum. It was in a dish at Hartwood as well. It reminded me of malabar spinach.
The beaches in Tulum are a bit complicated. There is a vast beach zone that’s a couple of kilometers from town. It’s dominated by huge beach hotels. The beach is public, but access to it can be difficult. We decided to splurge and get a beach bed at the Hip Hotel beach club. I read it was not an EDM party haven, and there was no fee, just a minimum purchase. I assumed if we were going to be there all day, it would not be a problem.
It was a pleasant beach club with great staff. We made camp in a bed and enjoyed the day with drinks and lunch. The worst part of the beaches of the Yucatan Peninsula is the sargassum. There is a scourge of seaweed everywhere you look. I’ve read mixed reports about it being seasonal, random, and/or inevitable, but it is gross and a real turnoff. The beaches are overrun by algae floating to the shore and piling up. I read a bit about it, but the algae bloom is likely a fixture moving forward. A combination of warmer oceans due to global warming and industrial fertilizer runoff made the algae bigger than ever.
Samer swam in the water twice, but I only went once. I hated the feeling of it. As it washes on the shore, it starts to decompose, giving off a particular heinous smell. Sitting on the beach and enjoying the view of the ocean and the club service was excellent, but swimming was off the table. Eventually, after a few drinks, you start to get used to the smell of it.
When we got back to our Airbnb, we decided to enjoy the community infinity pool at the building our Airbnb was in. It was a fantastic way to enjoy the sunset. Unfortunately, the day’s sun made us both a little sleepy, and the sunscreen had become inert hours ago, so we were both sunburnt. I took the remaining part of the night to have a snack at our place and enjoy my book until I fell asleep.
Samer arranged for us to take a bike tour to 2 cenotes through an Airbnb guide named Marcella. I really enjoyed our outing with her, even if the bikes were slightly rickety. We met at the French baker, La Fournée Panaderia & Pastelería, where I loaded up on quite a few unnecessary calories. Next, we rode with Marcella and a couple from DC through the streets of Tulum to cenotes Cristal & Escondido.
These 2 cenotes were a 10-minute walk apart. The first was Cenote Cristal. It’s deep and clear, with partially submerged ropes to hang out on. I entered the cold cenote by jumping from a 15-foot platform into the water. This is completely atypical for me. In life, I never start with the plunge. I’ve become a gradualist, and even when we first walked up to the cenote, and I saw the platform, I said to Samer, “jumping off that is a nightmare.” And then, as I was stripping down to my trunks, I thought, “I’m going to do it. I’m going off that platform.”
I didn’t announce it to our group; I climbed the steps, made a joke to the hunky Portuguese-German attorney who was also on the platform, and jumped off. (marginalia: if you need an attorney in Portugal, contact Alexander Dumont Dos Santos, he gave me his business card) Samer was surprised because I was out of character, and just minutes before, I was clearly not planning on this jump. Why did I do it? I don’t know, but I’m hoping for a bit more spontaneity and quite a lot less of weighing every consideration I can imagine.
The second cenote was different. Cenote Escondido is long and skinny, with more marine wildlife. There are more fish than Cristal, and it is fringed with a lot of plant life. There is a great rope swing attached to a tree on the edge of a small 12-foot ledge. You can grab the rope and launch yourself into the clear blue water.
Afterwards we had lunch in Tulum at El Rincón Chiapaneco. I had a great chili relleno and hibiscus drink. This is a casual Mexican restaurant that is simple, excellent, and quick. The family is originally from Chiapas. I was hungry for non-fancy Mexican food, and it was even better than I dreamed of it.
That night we decided to explore Tulum town. We had nothing in mind but to meander. On a side street, we discovered grilled tamales from a place called La Bonita Tamales. They were grilled in banana leaf and were crispy to eat. This is the first time I had a tamale like this. I always know them to be steamed. The tamale had a smoky flavor from the charcoal. Although it was delicious, the plastic fork she gave us to eat with was useless, and I burned my lip because I couldn’t wait for it to cool for the next bite.
After drinks in a few different places, we found El Grifo, which specialized in Mezcal and craft beers. We went back there a few days later as well. It had a relaxed vibe, good music, a great selection of mezcal. Total recommendation. On our way home, we grabbed a few al pastor tacos from a place called El Carboncito on the main street. Again, a perfect nightcap of al pastor tacos freshly sawed off the vertical spit. The char gave them a crunchiness, the sauce they offered us was spicy, and each taco had a sliver of pineapple for sweetness.
At 40, I am happy to admit, a late-night taco is much more desirable than one last drink.
I won’t get deep into Tuesday, but we spent a lot of time with a real estate agent. I’m interested in buying a vacation home, and we’ve considered Tulum. We saw many excellent properties, but I would say that we are not entirely sold on Tulum. The sargassum on the beaches, plus the vibe that you are not quite in a Mexican town, is kind of disconcerting. I’ll report back if we decide to buy something. If you are looking for an agent, I recommend Nolan Clark. He was informative, friendly, and generous with his time.
Samer wanted to treat me to a Tulum “fancy” moment, so we decided to check out the Azulik Sunset Experience. Where do I begin? Azulik is a very high-end resort directly on the Tulum. To get an idea of how expensive it is, lunch costs USD 200 per person. The Azulik Sunset Experience is access to a treehouse deck overlooking the jungle at sunset. It’s limited to 25 people, it costs USD 50, and you get 1 drink. It is hard to state how expensive that is for Mexico. It’s the price of a high end NYC drink. Luckily, there were some unexpected appetizers.
This is not typically our scene, but it had been highly recommended to us. The sunset was beautiful, and the drinks were delicious. Unfortunately, what we assume was a bachelorette party arrived at one point. Skinny, rich, wearing all-white women taking selfies and complaining they didn’t have a private booth. Were they wretched? Sure. But as soon as I saw them, I thought, “none of these bitches are going to have the appetizer; excellent, there will be leftovers.” I was 100% right. They didn’t touch one, and I swooped in for a second. In your 40s, appetizers always win.
Tuesday evening became a stretched-out taco tour. We at a total of 10 tacos over a few hours.
- Tapatia Vegan tacos: Our tour guide recommended this place to us. She thought it was unique, tasty, and it felt like an authentic taco. I thought it was OK. They had a faux-carnita that was made with seasoned hibiscus flower that I thought was delicious. The other tacos were good, but nothing to write home about. They put beans on everything, which did little but make everything sloppy.
- La Babieca: This is the place we had breakfast the day before. It was great. Samer had the pork tacos. Technically, I had the steak alambre, but I wrapped them in tortillas, so it felt like tacos.
- Pepe Best Tacos in Tulum: OK, this guy sets up a cart on the street down the road from our hotel. Did we need these tacos? Absolutely not, but why miss an opportunity like this one? We each had mushroom mole taco and vegetables in cream sauce taco. The mushroom mole taco was the best vegetarian taco I had in Tulum.
It was sometime on Tuesday when I actually stopped fretting about turning 40. It certainly wasn’t a conscious move, but I simply did not think about it. My medicine has always been traveling. I love it so much, and when I am on the road, experiencing the world and learning every second of the day, I am truly home. I think it was on that day that I was truly back to be a traveler. Whether it was the birthday funk or the COVID-19 trapped at stress, the first few days hadn’t produced that mix of adrenaline + joie de vivre that I usually get from traveling. At some point, I realized I didn’t worry once about my everyday life, and I was beyond happy.
On Wednesday, we decided to get out of town and drive to Akumal. This is a resort community between Playa del Carmen in Tulum. It’s a beautiful and strange town. When you enter from the highway, people stop you as if they were police or authorities. They are not, just tour operators trying to talk. It’s weird and a bit intimidating.
We drove through the town and north on the beach road to Yal-Ku lagoon, a cenote where freshwater and seawater mix. We paid admission at Yal-Ku Akumal Lagoon & Snorkel. The operator seemed chill, and did not require us to have a life jacket and rented us gear.
It’s lovely. We hopped in, and the second you start to snorkel, you realize that the fish are surrounding you; they are blue, yellow, and silver. The entire scene is gorgeous. Then, of course, some annoying tour groups snorkeling in the bright orange vest cruise past you, but it was peaceful for the most part. We explored for an hour, and when we were returning to our dock, a tropical storm rolled in, and it was spectacular.
Storms often feel dangerous with howling windows and darkened skies, but this didn’t. The air dropped a few degrees; the sun was out of sight, and rain came down straight and constant. Below the water, everything was utterly unphased, no matter how agitated the tympanic surface of the lagoon seemed.
It was beautiful, and I took a moment to simply enjoy it. I stopped hearing the shrieks of the snorkeling tourists getting wetter from rain. I reveled in nature. I found some footing on a rock below the surface and stood up into the shower. I find it difficult to explain myself, but the only thing that felt unnatural in this break between aquatic calm and atmospheric bustle was me. Here stands this human, entirely outside the rhythm of mother nature, standing in awe of its majesty.
However, it didn’t feel unnatural because a human was where a human should not tread. No, it felt like I naturally belonged there but had been made to no longer fit in. Have we been so warped and molded into a creature designed for modernity that would feel uncomfortable? For a brief moment, I felt connected and aware of how far I was from nature.
Likely, this is all a reaction to turning 40 and my inability to free myself from thinking about what was and wasn’t. It’s true, my natural self-reflection has probably become a bit of a quagmire the last week, but it seems par for the course at an age like 40.
We dried off in the car, and when the rain subsided, we had a seaside lunch at a place called La Buena Vida. The view was better than the food. The best thing I ate was the lime soup, but to sit by the sea and enjoy the breeze was delightful. The storm we were in moved north, and we could see it on the horizon flecked with the occasional bolt of lightning.
We spent a second night exploring Tulum. We had dinner at El Takazo Jr and found some live music at a bar. There was s singer and an excellent Spanish guitarist. On our way home, the guy at Pepe Best Tacos in Tulum was back. We bought a torta mixta from him. It mainly was chopped spices pork. This was basically a Mexican Philly cheesesteak. I do not say the following sentence lightly, but I think it was better than most cheesesteaks in Philly. It was so good.
Thursday was a little complicated. We did not have anything planned, so I thought that we could drive to the town of Punta Allen. It’s the last town on the road that cuts through Tulum’s beach zone, and it is about 2 hours away. So I made ar reservation with a woman to give us a boat tour of the area when we got there.
However, this plan didn’t materialize. A personal matter arose back home, so we cut our vacation short by a day and flew home. This was disappointing, but it had to be done. On our way out of town, we stopped by a great restaurant called Cetli for breakfast. I had one of the most unique dishes of my life. They called it tlaxkalpocholi. It was an egg omelet stuffed with shrimp in a peanut sauce, and it was served with toast. Next, we shared a bowl of fresh fruit in lime juice with some basil on top. It was a great way to leave Tulum.
The flight home was not that interesting. The business lounge in terminal 3 of the Cancun Airport is pretty bad. Compared to my breakfast, the food was down right terrible. Still, a drunk middle-aged American woman lounging on a public couch like Goya’s The Clothed Maja, who yelled at Samer in Spanish, was almost worth it. “HOLA SENIOR. HOLA. HOLA. YOUR PASAPORTE IS ON THE GROUND.”
And that is the end of my vacation and my first trip abroad in ages. How do I feel about my age? A bit more indifferent today than I did a week ago. This trip reminded me that I do not simply like to travel, but I actually need it. I’m sad and upset when I do not travel. It’s like oxygen to me, and when I don’t travel, I devolve into something I do not like. I loved going to Tulum. I am a bit disappointed that we are steering away from buying in Tulum, but I think it’s better in the long room. It’s a big world, and I need to hit the road to see more of it.
So, what’s the path at 40 looks like? Who really knows, but travel and adventure will abound. I tend to not worry when I travel but worry in my everyday life. During the next 10 years, I hope to bring that traveler’s sensibility to my life when I am not on the road. Using more and more moments to learn new things, experience wonders never imagined, and approach each day like an adventure and not a task. If I learned anything in Tulum, I realized that is possible because I have a husband that loves me, and I just started to know the best things about myself.