Destination: Tulum, Mexico

Running off the grid in the Riviera Maya

What’s a little heat and humidity? In Tulum, Mexico, it was crushing, that’s what—at least at first.

Growing up on the coast of Maryland, I was used to summer skies thick with damp haze and temperatures approaching triple digits. But I escaped to the thin, dry climate of Colorado years ago, and my initial strides in Mexico felt as though I was breathing through a steamy (and decidedly rank) sponge. In retrospect, the moist air was probably healing to my asthmatic lungs, but, in the literal heat of moment, I was sucking on a rescue inhaler like a straw because it felt like I was suffocating.

Running in Tulum put me in a liquid state, with sweat pouring off my nose and sloshing in my shoes. But accepting the heat, just saying no to air conditioning (brief respites of AC only made the heat worse) and fresh coconut water for rehydration—as in directly out of the coconut—proved to be the winning combination for logging some miles on the Rivera Maya.

Travel to Mexico, more often than not, often includes some combination of sun, cerveza, tequila, long days on the beach and maybe, for the truly motivated, the occasional walk or two. Running, at least a regular routine, often takes a backseat during tropical vacations. However, with the dramatic rise of yoga and eco-tourism offerings on the Yucatan Peninsula, there are more options for runners as well, including the vast trail system at the new Punta Venado Bike Park. Beach napping perhaps still outranks beach running in popularity, but I wasn’t the only one in our group who really enjoyed the run amid the muggy conditions.

Unlike trails in the U.S. where mountain bikers and runners sometimes clash, Punta Venado Bike Park has a park with 18 miles of singletrack routes to be enjoyed by cyclists and runners alike. The winding, jungle trails are well maintained, well-marked and not crowded. While the trails are relatively flat, there were enough dips and turns, tropical plants and critters (I saw spider monkeys and iguanas) to make the miles an exotic treat.

Coming out of the dark jungle to a breezy trail paralleling the crystal blue Caribbean Sea was a highlight, not only for the sheer beauty but for the chance to dunk my hat, most of me actually, in the water. As far as sharing the trail, it was a non-issue. We ran midday on a Thursday and didn’t see anyone else.

The term “jungle hot” is hard to fathom until you are actually in the jungle to experience the all-encompassing nature of it. When you are constantly damp, whether from sweat or simply the moisture in the air, hydrating early and often is imperative for staying ahead of moisture loss. Thankfully the rivers of sweat also helped to keep mosquitoes from being able to hang on for a bite, and, of course, running faster helped too!

Cenotes are underground, freshwater oases exposed by sinkholes in the limetone bedrock, each with its own unique personality. They’re ideal for refreshing post-run dips, but because they are home to fragile, fresh-water ecosystems, no sunscreen or bug spray is allowed. We visited three cenotes out of the thousands along the Yucatan Peninusula. Sometimes the water was ankle deep, at others it was over my head, and exploring it with the knowledge of a local guide was imperative. One was essentially an underground river. Another was a hole in the ground with steep steps leading to a cavernous opening and a deep pool of blue water and jumping platforms, ranging in difficulty from “no big deal” to a ledge with a 30-foot drop. The third was a large, mangrove-shrouded lagoon, perfect for swimming, snorkeling and stand-up paddling. My swim became more purposeful (fastest I’ve ever swam!) after learning “little crocodiles” lived in the clear, cool waters.

You can also run on sidewalks on the beaches at the tourist resorts, but running on the open roads generally isn’t the best idea in the Playa del Carmen area. Many of the roads are rather narrow with variable shoulder widths, and the local driving has somewhat of an aggressive, non-pedestrian-friendly vibe to it. And that’s why I was pleasantly surprised to discover the wide, shaded and motorized vehicle-free paths and roads at Coba Mayan Ruins. Sightseeing on the run had a deeper meaning when passing by crumbling temples and ancient ball courts, and even striding for a bit on the ancient Mayan Highway. Placards and signs along the way became multipurpose breaks to hydrate and learn about the history of the place. The 120 steps (they are big ones) of the Nohoch Mul temple provided a killer stair workout, plus it’s the tallest temple in the area and one of the few you can still climb.

After the intensity of my jungle running experiences, even I was ready to kick back at the beach in Tulum for a few days, which also has a runner-friendly vibe. There is a 10K paved beach road in Tulum Riviera that passes dozens of boutique hotels and eco-lodges, yoga studios, vegetarian restaurants and matcha shops. (If you want to go farther, when the paved beach road ends, keep going into the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve for 30+ miles of dirt road perfect for a customized out and back, with occasional sea/ocean views.)

Even with daily tropical runs, I had plenty of time for fishing, sightseeing and relaxing in the sand, not to mention a few cervezas and tequila drinks. (No doubt the unreliable wireless Internet service helped free up some time!) Running may not be the activity of choice for the Yucatan locals, but it’s a great way to slow down and explore—screeching howler monkeys, bemused locals, wild dogs and all.

Don’t let the name fool you: Punta Venado Bike Park has 18 miles of singletrack jungle trails that are also idyllic running routes. Photo: Mark Going

5 Tips for Enjoying Jungle Runs

Accepting the fact that it’s hot and you are going to sweat like never before is the most important aspect to enjoying tropical runs. Beyond that the focus should be on making yourself as comfortable as possible, remembering to include sun protection and staying hydrated.

-Wear lightweight, breathable, fast drying clothing.

-If you often wear the same running clothes two or three times between washings when you travel, bring an extra outfit, plus plan to do some laundry in your sink or shower.

-Bring your most breathable running shoes. They may not dry between runs, but at least they’ll be able to air out a bit.

-Don’t forget a hat or headband to soak up the sweat, plus a handheld and electrolytes to keep you hydrated as you go.

-Biodegradable sunscreen and insect repellent will also come in handy.

Getting Started

You can certainly figure it out on your own, but if you want some guidance, contact playadelcarmen.com or Tulum Running for more info about how and where to explore.

Allison Pattillo
Allison Pattillo writes about running, health, nutrition, gear and travel from her home in Colorado. When it comes to gear, she’s a fan of tall running socks, short running skirts and wearing her hat backwards. Even with a BQ and a few podium finishes (all triathlons should be run, bike, canoe!), Allison finds more inspiration from running in beautiful places and exploring on the run instead of the numbers on a stopwatch. She looks forward to the day when she finds her ultimate running dog, which, at this point, may be more bulldog than border collie.