Photo by Jill Kimball

What to pack for a week in Tulum

Photo by Jill Kimball

Stunning turquoise waves. Mayan ruins and cenotes. Artsy, delicious cocktails. There’s no place quite like Tulum, Mexico.

Earlier this year, my husband and I spent a week in the Yucatan Peninsula’s capital of beachy, laid-back cool, and we had the most amazing time. Even though it’s just 90 minutes south of Cancún’s giant family resorts and sleek nightclubs, Tulum’s a world apart. It’s the kind of place where you’ll find more sunset yoga classes than bars open late; where vegan meals have never tasted so delicious; and where outdoor adventurers are just as welcome as lazy beach bums.

Ready to pack your bags? Read on to find out what to bring for a week in Tulum!

General Guidelines

Pack for humidity. Even in dry season, and even right by the beach, Tulum gets very humid… so you’ll want to pack lots of light, breathable clothes. Cotton’s absorbency makes it the ultimate humidity fighter. Linen and rayon clothes, though often more expensive than cotton, are also ideal. Leave your silk, polyester and wool pieces at home; those fabrics tend to trap heat and make you miserable.

Hang loose. You know what else traps heat? Tight-fitting clothes of any fabric. For maximum comfort, stick to loose, flowy outfits. Think maxi skirts, button-up shirts, drawstring shorts, stretchy-waist paints and trapeze dresses. Rock any of these looks and you’ll fit right in with the bohemian-chic locals..

Leave the high heels at home. Thinking about getting all dressed up for dinner? Think again. If you dress to the nines in Tulum, even in the evening, you’ll stick out like a sore thumb. You’ll probably be uncomfortable, too: The main beach road is sandy and uneven, which is a nightmare to navigate wearing anything but flat sandals or sneakers. Plus, almost every restaurant here is open-air, lending it an exceptionally casual vibe. If you’d still like to dress up a little to mark the occasion, I recommend a pair of cute sandals and a patterned maxi dress.

Rethink your toiletries. Unlike overdeveloped Cancún, Tulum beach isn’t connected to the power grid. That means that instead of electricity, the town runs on solar and wind power, and it gets potable water from large trucks that drive through town every day. In all but the top-of-the-line luxury places, you can expect to find few lights on after sunset, no pools and brackish (part freshwater, part saltwater) showers. Your hotel is doing its part to keep Tulum clean, quiet and beautiful, and so should you! Before you leave, get in the eco-friendly spirit by seeking out all-natural shower and beauty products. Chemical sunscreen, i.e. most of the stuff you’ll find at the drugstore, is banned in the Yucatan’s crystal-clear cenotes, so make sure to stock up on mineral sunscreen. It can be found at Pharmaca stores, health-food stores or in the kids’ aisle at regular chain stores.

What I Packed

(Disclaimer: The photos you’re about to see are in no way professional or, well, good quality. Some of them are also presented slightly out of order with the text. Apologies; I’m a noob.)


Tops: For casual purposes, I brought two versatile black shelf-bra tank tops, one loose patterned crop tank top and one pajama tank top. I also packed one plain, loose green T-shirt, one patterned crop T and one very loose gray T. For dressier options, I brought a beautiful embroidered crop top and a striped, roll-sleeve button-up. Due to the terrible sunburn I got my very first day there, I ended up wearing that button-up nonstop to cover as much of my skin as possible; in retrospect, I’d have brought more light cover-up options like that. I also brought a patterned green oversize cardigan (not yet pictured), but I should have either nixed that or brought more clothing that matched it.


Bottoms: I kept it very simple in the bottoms department, with two pairs of shorts for day–one shorter and tighter; one looser and schlubbier–and two pairs of shorts for lounge, sleep and exercise–one pair of yoga shorts, which I did indeed wear to yoga, and one pair of dolphin shorts, which I used mostly for hanging out on the porch in the morning. I also brought my trusty Target maxi skirt, pictured below–along with that green sweater I never used.


Dresses/Onesies: I wear dresses like crazy, so I admit I went a little overboard here. As a Certified Tall Person, I save money by adopting the belief that beach cover-ups are just dresses you’ve shrunk in the wash and can no longer wear in everyday life. Thus is the case for the two dresses in the top picture, which hit the tops of my thighs. They worked great for beach days, because they’re easy to slip on and off, they’re loose and light, and they’re still decent enough to wear to a daytime beach bar without feeling self-conscious.

For non-beach daytime and evening wear, I brought my stretchy Prana dress, which I wore on a hike around the Muyil ruins; a red kaftan I bought at World Market (yep, you read that right), which I wore endlessly for dinners and happy hours; and a pink striped maxi dress, which was the perfect blend of casual and dressy for nighttime. I also brought a short black dress from Brandy Melville, which saw little wear, and the blush maxi dress I almost considered wearing at my wedding. In retrospect, I’d have left those last two at home; one’s too clingy to be comfortable in the sticky jungle, and the other has a silk-like underlayer that felt gross on my skin in that humidity.

You’ll have to scroll back up to see the patterned romper I brought and wore repeatedly. Again, the loose factor proved key–I would never bring a structured romper on a trip like this.


Swim: As girly-girls like me are wont to do on beach trips, I way overpacked in this category–but I don’t regret it. I had already owned the three bathing suit tops and the one brightly-patterned bottom before this trip, so I rounded out my collection with two basic, cheap bottoms (one of which proved too big, so I only wore it once) and a cute black one-piece. I also brought the small sarong I got 15 years ago in Kauai. I never once used it as an actual sarong, but my husband and I used it repeatedly to cover our heads while walking on the beach (scalp burn is real)  and our laps while reading (thigh burn too).


Shoes: I brought just three pairs of shoes on this trip, and all three proved perfect. The first pair, which I also wore on the plane, were Chacos. The cushioning and traction was great for hikes around ruins, excursions to cenotes and bike riding. Then there were my Sanuk Yoga Mat flip flops, which are perfect for getting to the beach and taking short walks on the beach road in the afternoon. The third pair was a slightly dressier option for dinner and drinks, and I did indeed wear them out at restaurants every night. If you’re a minimalist like me, I promise this is all you’ll need–but if you have a little more room in your suitcase, it wouldn’t hurt to pack your Chacos/Tevas and instead wear sneakers on the plane, especially if you live somewhere cold.

Underthings: I kept it really comfortable by packing mostly bralettes and just one wired bra–a strapless one, for versatility. I always pack way more underwear than I think I’ll use, especially in sweaty weather like this. Underwear take up next to no room in a suitcase, so there’s no harm–but if you’re really strapped for space, you can just use your toiletries to wash dirty underwear; keep reading to find out more.


Plane outfit: These were by far the warmest clothes I brought with me. While it felt silly to arrive in Tulum wearing full-length leggings, I sure was glad to have them on when we returned to windy, chilly Denver. I opted for comfort over style with a sports bra, a loose gray T-shirt, a basic hooded sweatshirt and Zella leggings.


Miscellaneous: In the days following my terrible sunburn, I was glad to have brought my wide-brimmed hat with me–although I wish it had been straw instead of felt! The only purse I brought with me was this small, plain one, although I would have regretted not packing a tote bag for the beach had our hotel not given us one…or three. I brought two pairs of sunglasses for variety and in case one broke or got lost. For entertainment, I brought a journal (used regularly), two books (same) and a pack of playing cards (never used; the beach was too windy). Things that seemed practical in concept but not in execution: a bike light (unless you’re visually impaired, there’s still plenty of light at night to get around) and a collapsible water bottle (much to my chagrin, our hotel didn’t provide a water station, and neither did any local businesses).

Toiletries: As indicated above, I tried hard to bring as many natural toiletries with me as possible. I opted for LUSH solid shampoo and tooth powder, Nourish Organic face wash, paraben-free and scent-free body wash (which can double as gentle laundry detergent for undergarments!), L’Occitane sulfate-free conditioner, and natural moisturizer with sunscreen in it. I stocked up on mineral and non-mineral sunscreen before the trip, because I heard it was marked up big time in Tulum–and it is. I wish I’d brought some aloe with me, because I needed it badly and it too was expensive in town. One thing I wish I hadn’t brought? Makeup. I didn’t want to use it at all.

Gear: Like any 21st-century citizen, I brought along my iPhone and charger for pictures. Wifi was fairly hopeless, especially on the beach, so don’t expect strong internet while you’re here. I brought a drybag for storing electronics during aquatic adventures, but in the end I left my phone back at the hotel during said adventures because I was too scared it’d be lost, stolen or destroyed. I also brought along my own snorkel, fins and mask, since cenotes and snorkel shops will charge you a small fee every time you rent these–but if you don’t foresee a lot of snorkeling in your post-Tulum future, I don’t think this purchase is worth it.

…So there you have it: everything I packed for a week in Tulum! I hope this was helpful for anyone who’s headed there this year. If you’ve been before, what do you recommend taking and leaving behind?

READ NEXT: KAYAKING IN LAGOS, PORTUGAL

Kayaking in Lagos, Portugal

Kayaking in Lagos, Portugal

Kayaking in Lagos, Portugal

Sure, the water isn’t as clear and warm as it is in the Maldives. True, the sand isn’t as white and powdery as it is in the Caribbean. But you’d be hard pressed to find a sight more magnificent than the beaches of Lagos.

While planning our honeymoon, my husband and I struggled to figure out which Algarve destination was right for us. We’d read that major destinations such as Lagos and Albufeira attracted loud, hard-partying spring-breaker types and were built up so densely with resorts that they’d lost a lot of their charm. By contrast, the eastern coast was still relatively quiet, attracting mostly families and older couples in search of lazy beach days and bird-watching.

Given that this was the one and only relaxing leg of our trip, finding the perfect quiet beach was our number one priority. If I’m being honest, avoiding drunken college kids was priority number two. I knew in my gut that the towns east of Faro would be best, but my heart ached at the thought of missing the western Algarve’s stunning sandstone cliffs.

Sandstone cliffs of Lagos, Portugal

So we came up with a compromise. Instead of traveling to just one place for five days, we split up our coastal time into three parts: three days of beach-bumming in sleepy Cabanas, one day kayaking in scenic Lagos, and one day sightseeing in Faro, where we’d catch a direct train to Lisbon the next morning.

Let me tell you something you’ve probably already figured out: One day in Lagos is not enough! I mean, how was I supposed to tear my eyes away from this view after less than 24 hours?

Sunset at Ponte da Piedade, Lagos, Portugal

Because our time here was limited, we thought we’d make the most of the town’s best feature–those gorgeous cliffs–by getting out on the open water. And what better way to do so than on a kayak?

Kayaking in Lagos, Portugal

A three-hour kayak and snorkel tour with Kayak Adventures Lagos was pretty much the only activity we booked in advance of our trip. Typically, we like to play things by ear, sketching out a tentative itinerary and adjusting according to the weather, our mood and other factors. But we West Coast natives were desperate for some paddling action, and we knew these tours booked up weeks in advance, even in shoulder season–so we took the leap.

Kayaking in Lagos, Portugal

After a windswept walk from the Lagos train station to our simple Airbnb rental, we headed down to the small but hopping Praia Batata (literally “potato beach” in English), where Kayak Adventures gave us some preliminary instructions and two kayak paddles. We stuffed everything we had in the shared drybag they provided, keeping only the adorable waterproof disposable camera we’d received as a wedding gift. (Yep, that’s why most of these pictures look oddly vintagey.)

Once our group of about a dozen had all arrived, our British guide greeted us with a few funny icebreakers and gave a short lesson on paddling for the newbies. Even though I’d kayaked before, I was grateful for the refresher; My only paddling experience was in a one-person, sit-inside kayak on a relatively calm lake, and this was going to be my first time negotiating the open ocean on an open-faced, two-person kayak.

Kayaking in Lagos, Portugal

It was slow going for about five minutes after our guide pushed us off the beach as the two of us tried to get our bearings and get our paddling in sync. But the guide seemed unconcerned, and once I saw that most of the other couples with us lagged behind and tried in vain to face the right direction, I felt much better about my own struggles.

Things went smoother once we had all left the beach and reached the seawall, at the end of which was perched a stately red lighthouse. Around the corner, we glimpsed the cliffs I’d only seen in pictures thus far, and my heart skipped a beat.

Kayaking in Lagos, Portugal

The next hour and a half flew by. As our guide described the geological phenomenon that eroded the sandstone cliffside into the shapes of natural bridges and narrow columns and explained the way the tide etched ribbons of red and orange across the face of the cliffs, we glided slack-jawed through archways, caves and grottoes.

We traveled all the way to Ponte da Piedade, where the cliffs turn from red to white, before turning around. When it was time for a snack break, our guide led us to the impossibly beautiful Camilo Beach–so named, she told us, for a camel-shaped rock formation in the cliffside. Once the two of us had had a bite to eat, we grabbed the masks and snorkels on offer and swam out from the beach. Unfortunately, the water was pretty cloudy and colder than we’d expected, so our quest didn’t last long…but the ocean made a great backdrop for a photoshoot with the last few frames our camera had left!

Swimming at Praia do Camilo in Lagos, Portugal

Swimming at Praia do Camilo in Lagos, Portugal

…aaaand that’s when the film ran out.

We spent the last few minutes of our break exploring nearby caves and ducking through archways that led to adjoining beaches. Then, we hauled our damp selves back into the kayaks and onto the water for another half hour of ocean paddling and basking in the warm Algarve sun.

Three hours later, saltwater-soaked and happy, we arrived back on Batata Beach, thanked the guide and turned in our paddles. The sun had begun to set, and it was time for a well-earned beer back at our apartment and a sunset walk to the cliff’s edge.

Sunset at Ponte da Piedade, Lagos, Portugal

For anyone who’d like to follow in our footsteps, I highly recommend booking the kayak and snorkel tour with Kayak Adventures. As you’ll see when you arrive at Batata Beach, Kayak Adventures has a lot of competitors–but it’s one of the longest-standing and highest-rated companies out there, so you really can’t go wrong with them.

If you go on a sunny day, make sure to bring tons of water and sunscreen. If you’re especially sensitive to sun, wear a hat and UV-protective clothing over your swimsuit. No matter the weather, I recommend you bring as little as possible with you to the beach; take some snacks, some money and your keys, and leave phones and non-waterproof electronics at the hotel.

READ NEXT: TIPS ON TRAVELING TO PORTUGAL

Azulejos and calçadas: The story behind Portugal’s tile art

Here in the U.S., our cities have transportation departments, building commissioners and art endowments–three separate but equally important entities. But in beautiful Portugal, things work a little differently…because the roads and buildings are art.

Photo by Ian Bishop

I’d read extensively about the azulejos we’d see in Portugal, but I thought I’d only see tile work on a few major churches and monuments. I also thought, as the “azul” in azulejo seemed to indicate, that they’d all be blue and white. Instead, what I found was a multicolored visual feast around every corner, whether I looked down at my feet or three stories above me.

Tiles decorating the facade of Pena Palace in Sintra

Tile decorations and mosaic designs are simply inescapable in Portugal–and thank goodness for that, because there’s no more satisfying diversion from a long day of walking than stopping to inspect a breathtaking mural on the side of a confeitaria or looking down at your feet to discover an intricate flower pattern on the sidewalk. It’s clear that the country’s handiwork with ceramic tiles, basalt and limestone is what really separates it visually from the rest of Western Europe.

From the moment we arrived in Lisbon, we saw tiles everywhere. They fit together in elaborate, hand-painted murals narrating Lisbon’s maritime history in the city’s metro stations. They adorned the face of seemingly every building from the northern wine country all the way down to the sun-drenched, beachy Algarve. Tiny black and white stones fit together to form the whole country’s sidewalks. They were by turns weather-worn, ornate, beautiful, ugly, geometric, slippery and three-dimensional. Portugal didn’t seem to discriminate. Rather, it seemed to say, “If it’s covered in tiles, any tiles, it’s Portuguese.”

After a while, I wondered why tile art was so pervasive in Portugal but nowhere else in Europe…so I did some research. It turns out the Portuguese term for tiles, azulejos, has nothing to do with azul, the word for blue, like I thought. Instead, it’s actually derived from the Arabic word al-zulayj, which means “polished stone.” Whoever named them must have been paying respect to Egypt, the birthplace of tiles. But despite Portugal’s deep connection with Northern Africa–Moors controlled the Iberian peninsula for 700 years until Catholic conquerors wrested the land away in 1492–the tiles we see today were mostly inspired by the Alhambra in Spain. Legend has it that the king, Dom Manuel I, saw those wondrous Moorish tiles In Granada and used them as inspiration when designing his palace in Évora. All his tiles were imported from Seville and featured nothing more than abstract geometric patterns, in keeping with an Islamic law that condemns idolatry.

Dom Manuel I made tiny Portugal a conqueror of far-flung lands and a major global power, and for that he was revered. The clergy and the nobility hastened to follow his artistic example. In an architectural style they dubbed Manueline, they built churches, government seats and private estates with nods to his influence–intricate designs carved out of limestone, maritime symbols…and, of course, tiles. It wasn’t long until tile fever took over.

Tiles in Lisbon

Photos by Ian Bishop

The history of Portugal’s calçadas, or tiled sidewalks, is less documented–perhaps because, unlike azulejos, there isn’t an entire museum devoted to them! We know the first intricate mosaics in Portugal were designed by the Romans 2,000 years ago–in fact, you can still ooh and aah at them today at an archaeological site just outside Coimbra. But they never would have returned were it not for Dom Joao II, who in 1498 issued a decree that Portugal’s dirt roads were to be paved with limestone. (It’s said that he did this not for the good of the people but so that he could march in a dirt-free street parade in his honor…alongside a white rhino. You can’t make this stuff up!)

That takes us to 1755, the year of the earthquake that so devastated Lisbon that almost no building in the city survived. In a hasty attempt to rebuild, road workers gathered together the shards of limestone and basalt that once graced Lisbon’s roads and formed its handsome buildings and turned them into mosaic sidewalks, taking inspiration from their Roman ancestors.

The signature star-shaped tiles in Sintra, Portugal

The technique, once a necessity, transformed into an art and spread all over the country in the mid-19th century. Even Portugal’s former colonies boast artistic calçadas, from delicate geometric patterns in Maputo, Mozambique, to a giant wave-patterned esplanade at Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro.

If you travel all over Portugal, pay close attention to the sidewalks and sides of buildings: They’ll often tell you a lot about the local heritage. Travel to Pinhão, a town sitting on the banks of the Douro River, and you’ll see its history of grape-growing and wine-making told in tile murals at the train station. Look down while you’re walking around Lagos and you’ll see mosaics in the shape of crabs, fish and octopuses, a testament to the Algarve region’s strong fishing industry and close connection to the ocean. In Sintra the sidewalk mosaics are star-shaped, a nod to the fact that the town name means “bright star” in a now-defunct Indo-European language.

The University of Coimbra’s seal…in tiles

If you visit Portugal, don’t forget to pad your itinerary with lots of “Wait, I need another look at this amazing tile/mosaic!” time. With all the steep hills you’ll be climbing, you’ll need a break anyway.

READ NEXT: SEVEN NON-TOURISTY THINGS TO DO IN LISBON

Winter blues

…sure beats the winter greys!

lakeunion

No one REALLY enjoys constant rain, so it’s easy to believe Seasonal Affective Disorder is something we’ve all invented in our minds. But when the sun comes out in February, like it has today, I feel a huge sense of possibility and empowerment. I start getting excited about all the projects I started enthusiastically last summer but have since let fall by the wayside. If this great weather sticks around or at least shows itself a little more often, I have a feeling I’ll finally plant those indoor herb jars, seek out a collapsible, Farmer’s Market-friendly basket for my bike, and pay more visits to local parks with good walking trails.

Spring seduction

For the last five years, I haven’t been so pleased with the magazines, catalogs, radio commercials and billboards I start to see this time of year.

I feel like I’m suddenly inundated with images of sun and fun come March. In the local alt-weekly newspaper, a search for weekend activities turns up advertisements for boating festivals and oceanside cabin rentals. Every March issue of every women’s magazine urges readers to start getting fit for bikini season, to pull out the tanning lotion and to run, not walk, to the nearest Old Navy and buy the entire spring collection.

When I lived in a beach town whose four seasons are spring, slightly-colder spring, summer and spring, I didn’t mind so much. But I live in the Northwest now, and I’d rather not be reminded that though it is past March 21 and thus technically springtime, real warm weather likely won’t be upon us for months to come.

Over the weekend and earlier this week, skies in Seattle were almost suspiciously perfect. Not a cloud hovered over Seattle Saturday, and Sunday morning and afternoon were decently clear before the rain moved in.  On Wednesday, the high temperature surpassed 60.  It was the kind of weather one might see in Santa Cruz, Calif., in the middle of spring.

But now, I feel as if I dreamed the whole thing. This morning I woke up to the same gray skies and lazy rain I saw last Friday, and the sun only peeked through for a couple of hours before it disappeared again. Now, the forecast calls for the same old dreary clouds and rain.

This kind of meteorological bait-and-switch is one of the few reasons I don’t like living in the Northwest. Friends and family who still live in California often ask me, “Don’t you get sick of the rain?” I don’t, as long as it’s moderate and fairly constant. The only time rain bothers me is when it abruptly halts a multi-day run of beautiful spring weather–especially come May or June, when we expect beautiful weather after so many months of rainfall but keep getting inundated with storms.

I have countless stories of wacky spring weather in the Northwest, and I’ve only lived in the Northwest for five years.

In May 2008, a chilly rainstorm in Eugene, Ore. yielded to a weekend of suffocatingly hot weather. On Saturday, as my still-damp umbrella hung on a coat rack, I tried to walk to the corner market and nearly fainted in the heat. My roommates and I tried to sleep on the lawn in front of our house because the night air was slightly cooler than the temperatures in our stuffy bedrooms. On Monday, we walked to class amid a downpour, clad in rainboots and coats.

It rained every day for weeks leading up to my graduation ceremonies last June, forcing families and graduates to consider wearing plastic ponchos at my department’s outdoor commencement. The clouds parted for two full days of 80-degree sunny weather, and suddenly wide-brimmed hats were more appropriate. The very minute all our parents waved goodbye and drove off, the rain returned.

I grew up with such consistent temperatures and conditions that I groaned inwardly every time an editor at the Santa Cruz Sentinel asked me to report on the weather during my internship there. (How many ways can I say “morning fog and afternoon sun; highs in the mid-60s,” I wondered?) Spring in Seattle is a completely different experience. In fact, the season between March and June shouldn’t be called “spring” in the Northwest; in these months, there are only short flirtations with sun sandwiched in between long spells of clouds and rain. A Northwest spring is simply a three-month tug-of-war between winter and summer.

It might sound hellish, but here’s the good news: summer eventually wins.

The Seattle summer

A view of Puget Sound, and the globe-topped offices of the recently-folded Seattle Post-Intelligencer, from my rooftop.

According to locals, summer in Seattle doesn’t start until July 5. Everyone sits shivering on their apartment rooftops or in folding chairs at Gas Works Park on the night of Independence Day, hoping and praying the next two months won’t be as horrible as June was–and the next day, magically, the sun comes out, as if all that collective wishing willed it to do so.

So, locals–where’s the sun? I didn’t feel much in the way of warmth today, nor did I see much sunlight. Sure, I should be used to seeing gray skies–I’ve lived in Oregon for the past four years–but before now, I always escaped the clouds come June and flew south to Santa Cruz, where perfect, breezy, 75-degree sunny weather was invariably always waiting for me.

I can’t really complain about the weather, though; even on its mundane days, this city is far more exciting than Santa Cruz has ever been. It offers more nightlife, more local color (and that’s saying a lot, because Santa Cruz, like Berkeley, is known for such a thing), more job opportunities, even–dare I say it–more stunning vistas! But wouldn’t everything be all the more exciting with sun? I think so.

Despite the rainy daytime and the chilly evening, my Fourth of July couldn’t have been better. After weeks of waiting, I finally moved into my apartment. My roomie and I celebrated at Seattle International Beer Festival, which was not only tasty but also educational. By sampling beer from all over the world, I learned all about different countries’ unique brewing styles. When my fellow Times interns and I learned that anything with a beer label bearing the words “stout” or “imperial” was guaranteed to taste great and have a higher-than-average alcohol content, we raced for the booths displaying either word–we wanted to get our money’s worth!

After the festival, we raced to my apartment building and cooked up some pasta and macaroni and cheese. Later, several other friends filtered in; by the time we formed a line out the door to head up to the roof for the fireworks, there were close to 20 people there. (And they probably felt pretty unwelcome, as all we had in the way of seating was a sofa bed and a couple of bar stools!) The fireworks, both above Lake Union and across the sound at Bainbridge Island, were pretty elaborate. I hope I can stay here long enough to see them next year sans obstructive cloud.

Tomorrow will be the start of my third week at the Times. Oh how time flies…when you can’t see the sun.