Paradises can’t be described, only discovered. I can only say that Tulum certainly found me, rather than the other way round.
I landed in Cancun from Madrid on a one-way ticket. I changed my money at the airport and came out onto the street, after 15 long hours contained in air conditioning and artificial atmospheres — Daaaaamn hot! — The combination of that humid warmth with the roar of the buses’ engines and an unusual poly-lingual buzz gave me the sensation of having landed in some kind of tropical Babylon. Through the windows of two buses, which took me first to Playa del Carmen and then to Tulum, I could only distinguish — between sleep, a crack in the curtains and the darkness of the Mexican night — the blue lights of the police checkpoints that kept popping up along the road.
I finally arrived in Tulum at 11PM on a Sunday, and immediately regretted having left my smartphone in Portugal with such determination. I was supposed to crash at a friend of a friend’s place, whose number I had scrawled on a piece of paper but, plunged into an uncanny half-silence, the village seemed almost abandoned, and phone booths were nowhere to be seen. Luckily, I found a hostel where they let me use the internet and could at last connect to Isaac, who gave me his address so I could get a cab. I ultimately realised that the residents of Tulum — taxi drivers included — couldn’t care less about street names, and so I was dropped on a random street corner.
I was alone at night in Mexico, carrying two backpacks, in some unidentified and somewhat dingy neighbourhood, exhausted and disoriented… — what the hell have I gotten myself into?
I asked for directions for almost an hour, lost amidst stray dogs, cars with tinted windows that patrolled the garbage littered streets and some seemingly dodgy characters. It was with relief that I found the house where, between guitar chords, I was awaited by the sincere hospitality of Isaac and his micro-dog, a Chihuahua called Amadeo. I crashed on the floor on two sleeping bags, right next to my hosts, and slept like a king. I woke up slightly before eight in the morning to the sound of an amazing orchestra of unfamiliar birds. I opened the door, listened around and took a deep breath:
You’re in Mexico! — shouted the birds, the palm trees, the dirt road and the lively colours of the surrounding houses.
For the next week I lived in this neighbourhood that had seemed “dingy” when I had first arrived, and that seemed friendlier day after day. I got to know the characters who I had first though of as “dodgy” and that now smiled at me, in between sentences spoken in a strain of Spanish that I slowly started to understand. I learned where to eat the best tacos in the world, where to buy the most amazing and cheap águas de fruta  in the area; the most delicious temales ; the freshest ceviche; and I started to recognise the sounds that announced the passing of almost every single street vendor that travels the streets of Tulum: the ice-cream horn, the fruit hiss, the shoemaker’s cry, the newspaper whistle, the annoying gas song…
Listening to the pulse of the town, while playing with stray dogs, I noticed my silly European fears fade away.
It isn’t a first day at the beach unless you immediately get sunburnt, which I soon became over the two circular bicycle trips that covered 40km along the beach. Languorously stretched out on the white, thin icing sugar sand, rocked by the whisper of the wind rustling through the palm leaves, I rapidly understood the legendary pirates’ devotion to the Caribbean sea.
Originally christened with the resounding name of Zama — the Mayan word for “dawn” — Tulum represented, during the pre-Hispanic era, an important location for worship and astronomy, and was one of the main commercial harbours of the Mayan Empire. Centuries later, during the 70s and 80s, the Mexican government designated the Quintana Roo area, and particularly Cancun, as a centre for tourism that has grown at a terrific pace, heedless of its wider impact on the environment and local culture.
Perhaps due to the designation of some protected areas — such as the quite extraordinary Sian Ka’an biosphere reserve — tourism in Tulum developed nevertheless in a more aware and controlled fashion than in other parts of the Yucatan peninsula. Home to a rather singular atmosphere — or vibra — Tulum is a kind of refuge for visitors from all over the world, who come here to surrender themselves to the quiet contemplation of nature; to the mysteries of Mayan wisdom; to the rigours of yoga and meditation; to the pleasures of Thai or Ayurvedic massage; to the deep dives into the cenotes ; to the soft surf of the Caribbean and to the sweet and sour tang of the mojitos, slowly sipped in beach clubs.
About 10km from town, Tulum’s beach is a whole other ecosystem.
On one side of the road, the beach itself, access prevented almost entirely by a row of eco-resorts, allegedly sustainable and environment-friendly; on the other side, the jungle, in front of which eco-chic bars and restaurants thrive, their little lights illuminating the night like some kind of permanent carnival, but in good taste and with tropical inspiration. All along the road there are countless power generators and although sometimes their noise challenges the singing of birds, the murmur of the waves and the rustle of the wind in the palm trees, they are the ones that actually sustain this natural and serene lifestyle they seem to oppose.
Besides the local work force and the international pirates that scavenge the area searching for adventures and other precious gems, Tulum’s beach is frequented mainly by rather opulent tourists from the four corners of the globe, many of which are North Americans and Canadians looking for an alternative to the rat race. For those with less digits in their bank account though, the strategy is clearly — as my friend Meira so accurately put it — to work at the beach and to spend in town, where prices can be up to ten times cheaper, while still much higher than in most of Mexico.
8.5km down the beach road you find the Residencia Gorila, a sort of oasis for the arts, a lovely loony bin inhabited by artists from diverse fields and of varied origins. Led by the charismatic Poncho, the residency is funded through the rental of four delightful studios to the right kind of guests. This allows it to host artists with projects that are aligned with its strategy of creative engagement in the spheres of social and environmental awareness. Fortunately my Sound Escapes project was one of these.
Birdsong aside, the day in Residencia Gorila begins with the whirr of both the juicer and the blender inviting everyone for breakfast. Some octaves higher, the singing of the eggs and vegetables that hop into Carito’s pan accompanies the march in perfect harmony. Somewhere between 9 and 10 AM, not even the heaviest sleepers can resist the grunt of the power generator, which provides for first showers of the day. When the water pump shuts up we know that it’s time to shut down the generator.
Recovered from the eventual ebullience of the night before, the residency gradually reclaims its daily vibrations: Guillaume — the most dwarfish of two Belgian giants — waves a paintbrush in the air and yells “Go for it man!”; Ananda — a northern Mexican girl, sweet, complex, ethereal — answers the recurrent questions of the most inexperienced residents while trying to concentrate on a new article for the residence’s website; Vish — a British guy of Indian descent who generated more ideas per square minute than anyone I have ever met — shoots away code lines at speed of light, enclosed in his mosquito net as if in some sort of cocoon; Sun Ru — an Afro-American from an ancient future who seems to be addicted to sleeping under the stars — sings, dances and spreads his charm to the four winds; with his headphones firmly plugged in, Alejandro — a young and talented Mexican artist — focuses on his next illustrations; Lauren — that tattooed Californian girl I couldn’t quite read at first — paints murals, tables, bottles, people and whatever else is in front of her, sometimes daring to reveal a quite charming smile; Elon and Emanuelle — respectively Swiss and Canadian — are able to convince us to participate in their morning fitness circuits, and they go around all day performing acrobatics and dancing as if there was no tomorrow, irradiating joyous break moves to all the residence; Spencer — who insists he’s from Oregon but who seems more likely to have been abducted from a TV show about urban art taking place in California — edits the last scenes of his next short movie, while he savours breakfast, gives the final touches to a new painting, plays with Usinch (Poncho’s dog, aspiring skater and official mascot of the residency) and tells surreal stories about Jimbo the Hobo — the king of the train hobos  — and other characters seized from the North-American mythological exoticism.
Soothed by the tinkling of glasses and the chromatic singularities of the many languages exchanged over the dinner table — either in an early-to-bed-early-to-rise mode or up for some audacious nocturnal incursion — the residency dives at last into a silence punctuated by the song of the beach and the jungle. Finally, the leading part rightfully restored to the bark of the geckos under the starry sky.
ONCE UPON A TIME IN MEXICO
Although I had only planned to remain in Tulum for a maximum of two months, it is now clear that my stay here will be extended for at least two more. Just as my bank account was about to hit rock bottom — Bam! — I was suddenly and most conveniently hired by an ecotourism agency to create a communication strategy for them.
Tulum traps you… — I’ve heard this sentence frequently around these parts and, as cliché as it may sound, I’ll have to admit it possesses some degree of truth.
The omnipresent sun; the serenity of the Caribbean rhythm, lived in the bare minimum of clothes; the shared baths in the green, transparent sea; the stealthy dives into mysterious cenotes, where young crocodiles await; the scorpions captured in tupperware inside the very palapa  where we sleep; the inspiring conversations with fellow travellers and the happy encounters with other Portuguese pirates in this tropical context; the luscious barbecues at night on the beach and the never-ending margalitros  drunk with straws; the bicycle rides with Turco and Melania under the moonlight; dancing barefoot on the sand in parties that never seem long enough… It is definitely hard to find the will to leave.
While my initial plan had been a trip through six Latin American countries in less than a year, after almost two months in the Mexican Caribbean I now realise that my trip will most probably take a little longer than I had expected. Not just Tulum and Mexico City, but now also other places such as Chiapas, Bacalar, Oaxaca, Guadalajara or Tijuana stopped being mere silent names on a map and actually came alive as real places whose tempting sounds I know that I won’t be able to resist. Good thing that, besides my smartphone, I also left my haste in Portugal.
 Very typical non-alcoholic Mexican drink made out of fresh fruit, water and sugar.
 Traced back to the Ancient Maya people, the Temale is a Traditional Mesoamerican dish made of a corn-based masa inside a leaf wrapper, which is discarded before eating. Tamales can be filled with meats, cheeses, fruits, vegetables or chilies.
 The Yucatan peninsula was blessed with a secret and underground world of freshwater lakes called cenotes.
 Rare breed of bums (though more common then I expected) who hop into trains in order to travel for free. Frequently they are awaited by armed security staff with a predisposition for not so happy endings. It is said that these practitioners of the activity know as freighthopping or train hopping are generally pretty tuff people and often exhibit images of trains tattooed on their chest.
 Palapa is a Spanish word of Malayan origin, meaning “pulpous leaf” and is an open-sided dwelling with a thatched roof made of dried palm leaves.
 1l of margarita.
HOW DOES TULUM SOUND LIKE?