Tulum Pueblo, a strip of buildings along a speedbump-heavy stretch of Mex. 307, is not much to look at. It is half-collapsed and dusty, all of its paint chipping. Rocks, hunks of cement, and leftover pieces of tin roof all crowd the tiny yards of tiny houses along with gnarled avocado trees, the occasional wandering goat or chicken, and little kids without clothes. Slogans and store names adorn the cinderblock walls. Bored teenagers wander the streets along with dirty-haired backpackers, skinny girls with yoga bags slung over their shoulders, boys with dreadlocks, and kids on bikes.
The written directions tell us that our hostel is four streets after the bus station and instruct us to turn right a guard rail.
The Casa del Sol is hidden behind an enormous black gate with a glowing orange sun welded onto the front. Its name is painted on a concrete wall directly next to it, the head of an unnamed Mayan god bearing his teeth at the letter C. Another handwritten sign on the corner promises a “yacuzzi” and a “Mayan steam room.”
We enter into a covered courtyard filled with towering green coconut trees, an abandoned tire or two, an herb garden, and a full kitchen where a bunch of artfully mussed teenagers mill about, cutting up fat slices of mango and cracking eggs as though they have lived here for a decade and not a night. They give the impression of having stumbled out of the ads for the current season of Survivor, or out of the Broadway cast of Hair. A tiny Mexican woman with a long braid offers her hand and welcomes us in Spanish.
Clustered around the courtyard are the accommodations themselves: bamboo and grass shelters with hard concrete floors. In the center is a bunker-like dorm room. A tin roof covers the entire compound, which makes the whole business look like a model home show for the jungle-and-tropics set. The yacuzzi is hidden in a dark corner, its water murky and stagnant. A bare length of PVC pipe descends from the ceiling above it. We never find the Mayan steam room.
A boy appears out of nowhere, sliding up next to us and asking for our passports. He is poufy-haired and shirtless and his jeans hang off his hips. He shakes our hands and says his name is Eric. The faint traces of mustache hint that he cannot be a day over 17. When we ask him questions, we get a similar answer each time: A glassy-eyed smile and a slow, deeply considered, “Yeah.”
Turns out that Eric doesn’t really want our passports. He just wants us to write our passport numbers in the sign-in book. He never actually says this. All he says is, “Can I have your passports?” like he maybe needs them for kindling.
Our cabin (number 3) is dark inside save a single energy-saver lightbulb that, when illumiated, makes the room look like a jail cell or a Civil War sick ward. We try to keep it off as much as possible. Later, we will hear the universe go bump in the night—a mouse nibbling something in some corner, roosters crowing, flocks of tropical birds whooping at each other, all just above our heads, just beyond the first roof and the second, reminding us that in Tulum, the outside is always in, that the line between nature and us is imaginary—a thing to leave at home along with your winter socks. You won’t be needing it any time soon.
Go there: The Casa del Sol is, as promised, four streets after the bus station (and right after the overpass) just off of Mex. 307 in Tulum Pueblo, Mexico. It is absolutely worth visiting.