Frustrations, and the Road to Tulum

Adios Cancun!
We checked out of our very comfortable Cancun Airbnb today, picked up our rental car and drove down to Tulum. Except it wasn't that simple at any step of the way. You expect difficulties when you travel, and the last 24 hours were a little trying.

First, after an interminable cab ride on Sunday back from our Westin day pass beach day, we ended up at the wrong Walmart. You see there are two in Cancun, probably a mile or two apart but not so close that we want to walk 30 minutes in dark in an unknown Cancun neighborhood. So we're at the wrong one, and no more than 5 minutes after watching a bus stop go by, recognizing it and saying hey we should have gotten off here, it would be even closer than Walmart!

So we tried to take a cab to the other Walmart, or really to the major intersection near the Airbnb that no taxi driver in Cancun seems to know. Seriously, it's the intersection of two well known roads but we've had two drivers get lost trying to go there. That would have been preferable to this driver though, who refused to understand where we wanted to go and took us to the other Walmart (10 minute walk home but at this point we'll take it). Then when we got out, he won't accept the 30 pesos we agreed on, he wants 50. Not that we can really understand him well.

I'll say now that even though any cab ride in New York is more expensive (quite literally, can you take a cab 10 feet for less than $2.50?) than any cab ride in Cancun, I'm not a fan of the verbal agreement system they use here. We agreed to 30 pesos before we got into this cab and when we get out he's getting angry and insisting on 50. He even pulls out some fare sheet and is saying we weren't inside the city so it's more? Maybe, but he agreed to 30 and I've never seen nor heard of a fare sheet in Cancun. In the end we paid him the extra 20 pesos, it's about $1 and what can we do? It's after dark and you don't want some angry cabbie following you home.

The principle of it is really frustrating, especially as pampered Americans who like our rules and predictability and consumer rights. But that $1 won't ruin the trip unless we let it.

The next morning, before we walk to the rental car place to pick up our vehicle, I double check that I have Melissa's drivers license. I don't. Where was it last? I gave it to the hotel clerk at the Westin when we checked in to use our day passes. I don't remember getting it back. It's nowhere to be found in our stuff.

This one really bothered me. We think of ourselves as reasonably smart and sharp people but we keep making dumb mistakes like this. Taking the wrong bus, forgetting ids, I almost left my credit card at the Westin sports bar... My take on it is that we're used to the level of trust and way things work in New York and are off our guard a little bit because we've been on the road long enough, but it's massively frustrating for these things to keep happening.

Satisfied that we must have left the ID at the Westin front desk, we walk to the car rental place where Melissa tries to handle the rental while I place a $0.20 / minute local call to the Westin to confirm they have her ID. I spent about 18 minutes on the phone, probably 15 of it on various holds. Dispatch > 3 minute wait > dispatch again because the front desk didn't pick up (seriously?) > 3 minute wait > a woman answers and cannot understand how to spell Santilli, she will check > 5 minute wait > she can't find it > 3 minute wait > a man picks up and wants to know how he can help me (as if none of the previous conversations had happened) > 4 minute wait > it's ringing out to some other number? > it hangs up on me.

Again, not a lot of money, probably $4, but really frustrating that we still don't know anything! Fortunately Melissa is able to rent the car with only her international driver's license paperwork and we're on the road. We were very careful to get all dings and scratches noted, ensure that the AC works and that all of the headlights, tail lights and turn lights work before accepting. Keeping tail lights in working order in Mexico is a concern very far down the list, but us being tourists, we'll get pulled over for it and have to pay a bribe.

After a few tricky intersections with absolutely no clear right of way, we get on the road to the Westin to try to get her ID. Fortunately, they have it and are very helpful in person. We're even able to recover my pink swimming goggles that I forgot there yesterday!

Driving in Mexico as a Tourist

We will refine our understanding of this as we accumulate miles, but the cautionary tales are a bit worrisome. Everyone agrees that you can do it and it's a great way to get around and go for it. Good.

The other part of it is that you may be pulled over for the smallest thing, like a few km/h over the speed limit, a hidden stop sign trap, or even nothing at all. And when that happens the thing to do is put a 200 peso note under your ID as you hand it to the policia to ensure that you don't have to deal with an easily avoidable ticket in Mexico, or worse. That's about $10 USD. Again on principle, very weird and difficult for us, but as long as it's not happening a lot and it's a simple interaction, it's an acceptable cost of doing business.

We'd heard that the hotel zone especially can be tricky for foreign drivers renting cars. Because of these stories, Melissa is driving (almost) exactly the speed limit and being extremely careful to obey every law and traffic directive that we can find. And they can be tricky. A crosswalk light may be a stop light that always flashes orange. Similarly a normal traffic light will flash orange before going to red. How do you know if you are approaching a traffic light or a crosswalk light? We haven't figured that out yet.

There is a final detail that adds a fun level of risk to renting a car and driving yourself in Mexico. You might think that once you're out of the touristy spots, you won't be much of a target because who can really tell the difference between a local and a tourist? Well, rental cars have a totally different license plate than local cars. It's red with white lettering rather than white with blue/green. I'm sure we're less of a target out of the hotel zone, but I feel like we're driving around with a target on our backs.

So I was thrilled to get out of there without being pulled over once. Count that as our luck turning around for a bit and get on down to Tulum, about a 2 hour drive down the cost. We dealt with the next frustration fine but it's just baffling. Melissa is trying to peg the speed limit to avoid absolutely all police attention and the requisite bribery. That's fine, but the speed limit changed on average about every kilometer for the two hours between Cancun and Tulum. Often it seemed like every 500 or 300 meters.

Imagine driving an hour on the interstate in the US, and having to change your speed limit by 5-30 mph every 1 to 2 minutes. How well would you do? Would that be fun? I'm still at a loss for why that was, my best, cynical, guess is to speed trap tourists, because the locals largely ignored the speed limit changes outside of cities and some key areas, and rode around 80-100 km/h. We, meanwhile, are speeding up and slowing down every few minutes to avoid a ticket or 200 peso "fine" with our red license plates.

Some of the speed limit changes did make sense, like when there was an exit or parking area or when the highway goes through a city. Some of them seemed outright malicious. Two or three times, we would see 80 km/h on the right side of the road, then 20 feet later 60 km/h on the left side of the road. That's about 2 seconds of travel where the speed limit changes twice. I don't understand it, maybe someone shipped the wrong signs to the wrong locations and crews just put them up anyway?

Thankfully (I word that is constantly redefined on this kind of travel) we got to Tulum in good time and with no police stops at all. And I'm quite glad we did, because as much as we liked Cancun (especially over Jamaica), we love Tulum a lot more. We didn't get to the ruins today (closed at 5, last entrance 4:30, our arrival: 4:10), but we did get to walk around a lot and see the core of the city.

It's like one of trendy walkable "areas of interest" in Brooklyn with tons of restaurants, shops (overpriced tourist gifts, but nice), tattoo/art shops, art/coffee shops, bars, dive shops, nursing dogs, etc. Really cool architecture at a lot of places, very fashionable and attractive crowd (immediate difference from Cancun there, which was just average Mexicans and American tourists).

Dinner was great (not cheap) at an open air diner place with a good vibe. Bright lighting for restaurants feels weird but helps enormously when taking food photos.

Tons of bikes here, everyone rents or has one it seems. These protected lanes are (mostly) for bikes apparently.

Popular street & restaurant in Tulum

There are A LOT of pizza places in Tulum. This one had tree balls decorating its dining area.

A bar that appeared to be run by the dive bums who owned the dive shop next door. Cool entrance.

Swings for seats and cerveza + mezcal = 60 pesos

After walking about here, we're a bit disappointed we've only scheduled 2 nights for Tulum, and most of that is sight seeing out of town, but I'd rather feel like we should have spent more time and have a reason to come back than immediately wish we had booked less time.

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