The instant our feet touch the pillow-y white sand at Playa El Paraiso at Tulum, the clouds begin to gather in earnest. After a day of travel, of bus-switching and hotel-locating and mindless belly-filling, we are desperate just to get there, to see this thing that we've come to see. By the time we arrive, it's nearly sunset.
The sand is so soft that the feel of it under our sandals makes us uneasy, as though we're doing it wrong, so we hastily remove them, left hands balanced against the dragon-scale side of a palm tree.
We emerge from the line of trees to a beach that is Corona-ad perfect with its grass umbrellas and lounge chairs. It conjures visions of a million other somewheres, but not quite; it is boundless like a California beach but exploding with color, all hyper-saturated blues and blinding whites, like the Mediterranean. If the view didn't stretch onward forever, if the complete circle of the sky weren't visible in every direction, I would have guessed that it was a movie set awaiting the arrival of Leo DiCaprio in his swim trunks, of an eye-patched Johnny Depp.
The wind blows at our backs, mangling our humidity-inflated hair even further, nudging us toward anchored little fishing boats and enormous pieces of bleached driftwood, toward more grass-roofed cabanas and the ever-darkening sky.
To live in a city is to neglect the sky. Your eyes never wander beyond the tops of the buildings that brush up against it, and there's not much of it to see, anyway. On the beach at Tulum, the clouds hang low and black, as tall as skyscrapers themselves. As we stroll, we pick out which beachside hotel bar will receive us when the rain starts and opt for one with a grass roof and candle light flickering from within.
“Is it dark because the sun's setting or because this storm is moving in?” I ask, watching the black stripe gather just above the water.
Despite what we're seeing, all the sand and water and skimpy clothes, it is still winter. It is still New Year's Day. This is what winter looks like in this place. Back in New York City, I shivered on the jetway because it made no sense to get on the airplane with a wool coat only to emerge in Mexico with its useless bulk still in my hands. My seasonal clock is turned inside-out.
Just as the unseen sun slides below the horizon, the first raindrops fall fat and warm on our shoulders. Our umbrellas stand ready, tucked into the back pockets of our beach bags, but between the wind and the warmth, it's not worth opening them.
We race toward our bar, toward its cave of light and its sheltering roof. There will be no sunning ourselves on this first day at the beach, no tanning or burning or lounging or forgetting all the gray and cold and work waiting at home. This is just a glimpse, Tulum in a dark mood so that we may appreciate her sunny days.
Go there: Tulum is the southernmost point on the so-called “Mayan Riviera” south of Cancun, Mexico.