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For longer than I care to think about, Tulum has been one of the favorite resorts of beach lovers and social media influencers, but did you know this Maya (the correct word is Maya not Mayan) ruin that overlooks the Caribbean was once pristine and undiscovered? Now, it’s filled with hordes of tourists and drug dealers. Six weeks ago, an American woman was killed in Tulum during a gun battle between warring drug dealers. Ironically, she and her husband had left Los Angeles because of the rising crime rate there.

While extreme violence in Mexico is nothing new, it makes me sad because the first time I saw Tulum, I was 21, and I felt like I was the one who discovered it.

My husband and I and our friends were scuba diving in Akumal, at the time, a tiny undeveloped place south of Cancún for serious divers. Even when I was 21, I wore hats. That’s my friend, Mary. I remember we were looking at an iguana on the wood beam up above.

At the time, there was no clearly defined road to Tulum, just stories of how this little-known Maya ruin overlooked the ocean and how it was untouched by modern man. The man at the tiny dive shop in Akumal, an hour and a half south of Cancún, said if we wanted to see Tulum, we should keep driving our rental car south on the narrow two-lane road that runs down the coastline of the Yucatán until we came to a red Coke can stuck on the end of a stick. Then, starting at the Coke can, we could hack our way through the jungle with the machete he loaned us. 

A few days before, if someone had told me I’d be doing something like that. I wouldn’t have believed them. Little did I know this would be the first of dozens of dangerous adventures I thrived on taking.

My first husband, Philip. He died when I was 37.

For the next hour or so, my husband and I and our friends battled a dense three-canopy jungle with vines as big around as our waist. The mosquitoes were so thick they hovered in clouds around our eyes and ears and filled our nostrils with a buzzing sensation that felt like a mild electrical shock. Soaked with the salty taste of sweat and an insect repellent that served little purpose, sometimes we would pause and turn around to look at our progress, only to find the jungle had removed all trace of our passage. It was like nature was reminding us of our insignificance: mere mortals, present for a millisecond of God’s time.

At some point, the jungle gave way to a series of small lagoons and meandering groves of palm trees, and a cool breeze caressed our skin, leaving behind small patches of crusty salt on our arms and legs.  And then… There it was. Perched on the edge of a cliff. A small Maya temple that towered above a sparkling white beach. 

I left my husband and our friends and ran toward Tulum like a child runs toward the outstretched arms of a loving parent. I stopped to trace the carved relief images in the stone with my fingers and then found myself drawn to the top of the temple. There was something magical and mystical about Tulum, and it filled me with wonder. 

The Maya believed Tulum was the place where the sky was born—Sian Ka’an—and it had ascended from the sea and soared upward like a giant bird in flight. With each flap of its great wings, the bird painted broad strokes through the air, taking the blue from the sea and the white crest from the waves. Together with the toucans and herons, the howler monkeys and jaguars, they surrounded and protected the ancient Maya city of Tulum.

Now, it’s hard to believe that 50 years ago, Tulum was untouched, but I was lucky enough to see it.

Mary’s husband, Jerry, where we were staying at Akumal. Out of the four of us, I’m the only one still living.

A barefoot and brown-skinned local emerged from the jungle. He waved and then climbed to the top of the temple with ease and grace and sat next to me on the ledge overlooking the sea. His eyes were yellowed and smiling, playful and wise; welcoming me like he would an old friend who’d returned from a long journey. Since tourists were a rarity at Tulum, I think he was as curious about me as I was about him.

Pretending to strum a guitar, he began humming an exotic melody, unlike anything I’d ever heard. “El Asesinato del Jaguar,” he called it. My Spanish wasn’t very good, but I think it meant “The Murder of the Jaguar.” As if on cue, a two-headed serpent appeared and sat on the temple stones in front of us, its tongues darting in and out of twin throats, hissing in a syncopated rhythm with the native’s song. Perhaps the serpent was a descendant of Quetzalcoatl, the feathered snake god. Or maybe it was there to remind us of the beauty of its Maya ancestors and the power of Tulum.

Twenty years later, I sat on the edge of the same temple Castillo and watched as a barracuda cruised back and forth below in the waters of Sian Ka’an. I said the name over and over again in my mind like a mantra: Sian Ka’an. The place where the sky was born. Overhead a bird let out a startled human-like cry, while behind me, a busload of tourists with fanny packs approached like bargain hunters at a garage sale. 

I was reminded of a refrain from a Joni Mitchell song: “Find paradise. Put up a parking lot.”

I watched as a man and woman ignored the painted frescoes on a nearby temple. The faded colors depicted Itzamná, the sky god, and the rain god, Chac, together with the moon, the stars, and all the fish below. As the couple moved on, bits of their conversation drifted upward on the wind.

“You think they sell margaritas here?” the man asked. He was wearing a Dallas Cowboys cap and a New Zealand Hard Rock Cafe t-shirt.

“I don’t know,” the woman replied. “But I hope they have someplace I can buy one of those little ceramic frogs.”

Braincoral wearing my scuba mask, snorkle and fins.

I watched as they hurried past and wondered if they “appreciated” the beauty of New Zealand as much as they appreciated Tulum. The changes since my first visit were sad and depressing and I remember wishing the jungle would close in around me, leaving only me, Tulum, and Sian Ka’an. 

The energy vibrates in waves from the temple, Castillo, rising and joining forces with the sea and the sky. Like a time traveler, I would gather the energy around me and become part of the painted histories of warriors and virgins, princes, and priests. I would enter hidden rooms filled with cups of hammered gold and necklaces of jade and obsidian, and then emerge into the sunlight, ascending upward like the great bird in flight.

I don’t believe it was a coincidence I found Tulum. In some ways, I think it’s part of my past; part of who I am, and who I hope to be. Like a small sapling, I gathered strength and nourishment there. Now, I go there only in meditative prayer, to sit on the edge of temple Castillo and watch the sea as my soul is nourished and fills with rapture.

Love, Brenda


  • Reply Kate Smith April 6, 2024 at 6:41 am

    So wonderful reading this! I had a similar experience staying in Akumel early 70s with my family. Little did I know how lucky I was we were able to go to Tulum, snorkle and dive along the coast and take the ferry to Cozumel. My father wants to raise orchids and was even allowed to collect orchids from the trees. They were taking down or a road to a place called Cancun nurtured those orchids. he kept those orchids live for 50 years! I loved reading about your experience.

    • Reply 1010ParkPlace April 8, 2024 at 4:21 pm

      Hi Kate, I love that you saw Tulum before it was ruined. We were there in the early 70s as well. Did you have to chop your way through the jungle to find it? Actually, that adventure changed the course of my life. Most everything about my life. xoxox, Brenda

  • Reply La Contessa April 6, 2024 at 7:37 am

    Sent the Son there a few years back!
    You were lucky to see it before it became a destination!I have heard some horrific stories coming from there in the last few years!
    Not on my bucket list!

    • Reply 1010ParkPlace April 8, 2024 at 4:24 pm

      Elizabeth, No, I will never see Tulum again. The last time I went was in the early 90s and busloads of tourists were flocking through there and there were little gift “shops” set up under a dozen, different, three-sided thatched structures. Now, I wouldn’t advise anyone visit Tulum… or anywhere else in Mexico. It’s just too dangerous. xoxox, Brenda

  • Reply Chris Kelly April 6, 2024 at 8:12 am

    My neighbor works for the DEA and he tells my husband and I to keep our girls out of Mexico. The whole country is rife with violence and drug dealers especially places you’re talking about. He says the same thing about other countries in the Bahamas. It’s so depressing to think of what’s happened to our world. Love your blog Brenda.

    • Reply 1010ParkPlace April 8, 2024 at 4:29 pm

      Thank you, Chris. In the 90s, I was researching a book and the DEA was very helpful, including escorting me to Monterrey to meet the equivalent of the head of Mexico’s FBI among other things. Even then the DEA was down on travel to Mexico. Like you, I’m saddened by how the world seems to be turning on itself and coming apart at the seams. I’m glad I was able to see so much of the world when I was younger because so many places give me pause for thought. I’m happy you like my blog, Chris. Thank you! xoxox, Brenda

  • Reply Arlo April 6, 2024 at 8:42 am

    My daughter and her friends want to go to Cancun and Tulum for Spring Break next year but I’ve said no because of all the things I read about Mexico. I’ve only been to Mexico City and that was years ago but wasn’t impressed with all the traffic and people. Good to get a glimpse of your first adventure Brenda. I’ve wondered how you got started.

    • Reply 1010ParkPlace April 8, 2024 at 4:36 pm

      Hi Arlo, I hope you stick to your guns about not letting your daughter go to Cancun or Tulum or anywhere else in Mexico. I’ve lived in South Texas since I was 12 years old and know more than most people in this part of the world about how evil Mexico’s government and law enforcement have become. The lines between them and the drug cartels are no longer “blurred.” There is no line because they are one, ruled by money and drugs and controlled by violence. The people of Mexico… and Central America… They don’t deserve such unspeakable treatment. xoxox, Brenda

  • Reply Sarah Conway April 6, 2024 at 10:11 am

    Jeepers girl! You’ve got guts! I could never do anything like that!

    • Reply 1010ParkPlace April 8, 2024 at 4:38 pm

      Hi Sarah, My memoir that comes out next year is about how I acquired those guts! I’m glad I’ve lived the life I have, but I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone else. Thanks, Brenda

  • Reply Gray April 6, 2024 at 11:07 am

    A lovely story Brenda. An epic trip.
    I am leery of Mexico too. I do go to the Caribbean frequently and haven’t had any problems – you have to curtail your exploring somewhat. My husband travels to Cabo every 18 months or so on business trips. They are usually in swanky hotels and stay on the property. The sad thing is, these business groups want nothing to do with LA, SF, Chicago, or NYC any more. They used to be big destinations for him. Some of it is due to cost but much to do with violence and crime. Very sad.

    • Reply 1010ParkPlace April 8, 2024 at 4:47 pm

      Gray, People see and hear what they want to, but tell your husband and his business partners the State Department recommends that travelers reconsider travel to Baja and Cabo because of crime and kidnapping. On the flip side, Mexican tourism experts are “confident” the country is safe for vacationers and travelers. Of course, the Mexican tourism “experts” are going to say that! They don’t want to lose the billions in tourism dollars Americans bring to Mexico each year, but Americans are killed in all-inclusive Mexican resorts. xoxox, Breada

  • Reply Doreen McGettigan April 6, 2024 at 11:36 am

    It is so sad. I get tired of saying that. It’s so frustrating that history is being erased at warp speed these days, and I have no idea what to do about it. Joni was spot on. It is so sad.

    • Reply 1010ParkPlace April 9, 2024 at 12:01 pm

      It’s gone in a blink, Doreen, and people younger than we are don’t know what they’ve missed and more terrifying, I’m not sure they care. If it’s not on their phone, they’re not interested. xoxox, Brenda

  • Reply sandy April 6, 2024 at 1:05 pm

    I went to Tulum for my son’s 40th birthday last summer to the watch as he proposed to his girlfriend at the bottom of a pyramid with no tourists or others but our family -anywhere to be seen. We went early in the morning, road bikes to the pyramid and gazed at the wonder of it all. We had hired a guide-and he certainly knew the secrets. It was magic.
    We then went to Cenotes-which were just as magical and giggled and jumped off small cliffs to our hearts delight. Never in fear of danger, never felt anything but beauty and joy. 50 of us are heading to Dominican Republic for the wedding and we look forward to another adventure. We are all seasoned travelers with a sense of adventure. We are aware of our surroundings and travel safe. Tulum is different now-but its beauty and people still abound.

    • Reply 1010ParkPlace April 9, 2024 at 12:14 pm

      What a great trip, Sandy! How special you were able to see your son propose to the woman he loves. I’m glad you’re aware of your surroundings and travel safely, but you’ve stepped into a world mired in a lack of morality and that has a different kind of evil and violence from anything we’ve experienced in the US. The woman who was killed in Tulum was the wife of a DEA agent. Evidently, she pushed him again and again to go to Tulum, and each time he said, no, because, like me, he knew too much about that part of the world. In the end, he went against his better judgment and took her to Tulum, and she was killed. I can’t imagine how he’s feeling right now. xoxox, Brenda

  • Reply Linda Winder April 6, 2024 at 2:26 pm

    Those were the days my friend … weren’t they. Beautifully remembered by you. ❤️

    • Reply 1010ParkPlace April 9, 2024 at 12:15 pm

      Thank you, Linda! Tell me how you’re doing! Send me an email. xoxox, Brenda

  • Reply Elisa April 6, 2024 at 3:18 pm

    Cannot wait to read your book—so beautifully written. You were very fortunate to experience the Tulum of the old days.

    • Reply 1010ParkPlace April 9, 2024 at 12:17 pm

      Thanks, Elisa! I appreciate the complement and that you’re looking forward to reading my memoir. xoxox, Brenda

  • Reply Rosemarie April 6, 2024 at 9:09 pm

    Hi there
    Yes we were so lucky to have been here there everywhere 50 years ago before the mass invasion of tourists.
    I flew to Wisconsin and teamed up with a girl I met while hitchhiking in Europe and we drove down to Mexico.
    We spent 2 months travelling/exploring Mexico in the little Volkswagon. A wonderful time!
    When I think of where we went = alone – 2 young women – it amazes me at times = so carefree.
    I could visualize you running to Tulum and the joy you were experiencing.

    • Reply 1010ParkPlace April 9, 2024 at 12:35 pm

      I loved your description of you and your girlfriend traveling in Mexico. What an experience! I have a friend who’s a dealer of Mexican art and antiquities, and he stopped going to Mexico before Covid. He would do the same thing you did, but drive a truck so he and his partner could bring back the pieces they bought. Several times over the years they were stopped on the highway and robbed at gunpoint while the Mexican police drove by and did nothing. Even the police won’t get involved!!! That ought to tell you something. Once, their truck was stolen and the last time they went, they were brutally pistol-whipped and left to die on the side of the road and their truck and all their money and ID were stolen. Again, the locals and the police didn’t want to get involved so no one stopped to help them. It’s a different country than the one you and I knew. xoxox, Brenda

  • Reply Pamela Zwieg April 7, 2024 at 8:03 am

    Hi Brenda,
    What a lovely post and pictures. You took me back to 1984 when my husband and I visited Talum. Such a gorgeous and spiritual place. Oh the beaches and ruins. We too went in a rented open top Jeep down a jungle path, never concerned for our safety at all. Looking back we realize it was risky.
    Although it is no longer what it once was, your vivid memories are unchanged, that is beautiful and a gift from above.
    Have a great Sunday
    Pam Z

    • Reply 1010ParkPlace April 9, 2024 at 12:38 pm

      Thanks for your remembrances as well, Pam. Yes, we always rented an open-top Jeep. Such great adventures! I’m curious, what do you do now for adventures? xoxox, Brenda

  • Reply Rusty April 7, 2024 at 3:19 pm


    • Reply 1010ParkPlace April 9, 2024 at 12:43 pm

      I hope that’s a good WOW, Rusty! Thanks for reading, Brenda

  • Reply Rosemarie April 9, 2024 at 2:19 pm

    Hi again

    One last thing re Mexico. My cousin (American) spends 1/2 the month in San Diego and the other 1/2 at her place up in the hills near Ensenada. In the fall there was a warning – stay inside this weekend – there could be trouble again re the cartels. Fortunately all was quiet and she feels safe travelling to/from each month – mostly by herself. Myself – I’ve been there 2x in the past – 2010 and a couple of years later when only a few people had houses there. Now it is more developed but it does not appeal to me due to safety reasons.
    Puerto Vallerta is still a favourite holiday destination from where I live. I got a chuckle when I read on a website – stay at a hotel/resort that has good security. What security? It is not there.

    • Reply 1010ParkPlace April 10, 2024 at 10:27 pm

      You’re right Rosemarie! What security? Your cousin traveling alone to Ensenada? I’m thinking she’s driving… That concerns me. Ensenada’s another town in Mexico that relies on tourists for their “legal” income. Anything you read about going there says the city has a low crime rate but they fail to mention all the murderous fallout from the drug cartels. You know what I would recommend. xoxox, Brenda

  • Reply Tom April 10, 2024 at 10:17 pm

    First time reader here. I just returned from Tulum, never having been before (I think we’re of the same vintage). I was there for a family event, so that was my focus and I spent less than a week there. We were there when the weather was decent and I could see how the road by the beach must have been a sleepy and one-of-a-kind place back in the day. Mostly I saw traffic now and it was nearly impossible to even glimpse the Caribbean What saved the trip for me was visiting some of the ruins inland, which was a truly fantastic experience! I hope they can figure out what to do with Tulum, town and beach, as there is a lot of potential there but the crowds and traffic are ridiculous.

    • Reply 1010ParkPlace April 10, 2024 at 10:25 pm

      Hi Tom, Thanks for reading and leaving me a comment. Unfortunately, Mexico will commercialize anything that has money-making potential so no… Traffic, new resorts and the loss of any charm Tulum still has will only get worse. Also Tulum’s airport is now an international airport which means the drug traffic will also increase and with drug traffic comes rival cartels. Not a good scenario. Brenda

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