How I got stuck in Tulum, Mexico and turned it into a working holiday

After working abroad professionally for 11 years, the last thing I imagined doing at 33 was a working holiday on the Mexican Caribbean for four months

Holbox Island Mexico for New Year with friends


When I left Hong Kong for New York on December 15, 2021, I had no clear plan in mind. All I knew was, I hadn’t seen my family in two years, and the best way to meet was for everyone to come to New York for Christmas where my sister was studying. As it stood, I already had to cancel the first leg of my trip to Manila due to Omicron; the Philippines changed their quarantine policy from “no mandatory hotel isolation” for Hong Kong arrivals, to 3 days, then 5 days plus home quarantine until the 14th day, effectively sabotaging the entire reunion.

I tried to cancel all my flights and pull up my Asia Miles account, unused since a trip to Nepal in early 2020, and checked my options. This late in the game and during high season, there were of course no obvious routes to New York from Hong Kong, and regular flights were at astronomical prices. I finally found an award ticket through Finnair that took me through Helsinki before landing at my final destination. I booked it. 

Driving in New York: Brooklyn Bridge at sunset

New York, USA

I didn’t realize how much tension had built up inside me, being stuck in a bubble of 7.5 million people in a 1,106 km² area throughout the pandemic. Hong Kong is notorious for implementing one of the world’s strictest border control measures with mandatory quarantine of up to 21 days for inbound travelers; forget trying to enter if you’re not a resident. The first few days in New York were an assault to the senses, which had grown accustomed to the rotation of sights, sounds, and faces of Hong Kong Island, and sometimes Kowloon and the New Territories. The numbness of my monotony slowly melted into joy: there is a world out there, and I am in it!

The USA single-mindedly plowed through this wave of Covid, refusing to shut down despite the rising number of cases. We took full advantage, catching a Broadway show (“Company” starring our favorite performer Katrina Lenk since we saw her win Best Actress at the Tony Awards for her role in “The Band’s Visit”). We attended our father’s civil wedding ceremony at the Philippine Consulate, and held a small reception with the relatives in Midtown. I saw friends for dinner and drinks. Nobody passive aggressively reminded me (in Cantonese) to adjust my mask on the subway. 

Winter in New York


With Covid on the rise in New York, we escaped the risks of indoor life and below zero temperatures to spend the new year in Mexico. We boarded the flight from JFK to Cancun, and rented a car. My latina friends and I had been planning a reunion for months, and it became a reality when we boarded the ferry to Holbox Island on the last day of 2021. My family and I stood on the top deck, gazing into the last sunset of the year, counting ourselves lucky to be able to travel again, together.

After dropping off my father and his new wife at the airport on January 3rd, my sister and I got on the bus to Tulum to spend a week in what some call the Ibiza of the Americas. I’ve never been to Ibiza, but the idea of Tulum had always appealed to me every time I read about it. All I knew was that it was a beach destination along the Riviera Maya with an incredible design scene unique in its incorporation of organic and jungle elements… “eco-chic minimalist” or “treehouse fantasy” are the somewhat pretentious monikers that come to mind when I try to describe it. Oh, and of course I came for the music festivals. I hadn’t been to one in years, and before the pandemic I would travel just to see the artists I love play at events like Day Zero in Israel and Wonderfruit in Thailand.

Zamna Music Festival in Tulum with my sister

My sister and I spent seven days in an Airbnb, cycling and scootering around Tulum. In between we would work from home: she on her post-NYU grad fellowship essays, and me on my master’s applications. We signed up for as much as we could, visiting the ancient Mayan pyramids of Coba and joining a Temazcal ceremony, which involved entering a sweat lodge or clay igloo with more than twenty people and a shaman. We took a boat through the Muyil lagoons and floated down its freshwater canals surrounded by mangroves. It was paradise, and I thought to myself: I’d like to stay.


My rough plan was to stay in Quintana Roo for a couple of weeks after my sister left, and do a solo retreat in the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve. Returning to Hong Kong didn’t seem possible at that point, because of the US flight ban. And to be honest, I didn’t want to. I had recently quit my job, and escaped China’s “Zero Covid Policy” when so many could not… I was finally free to have an adventure.

Sunset Cacao ceremony at Ahau Tulum

A couple of days before she left, as my sister wildly typed into her computer to meet her application deadline, I used the downtime to browse jobs. I was checking opportunities on YogaTrade, a job portal for yoga teachers. I had used the Covid lockdown of 2020 to do a 200-hour online yoga teacher training – the virtual experience not being ideal, but I thought it was a good use of my time. I dreamt of one day traveling the world teaching yoga “when things go back to normal.”

It all happened so fast. I found a job posting on YogaTrade for a seasonal Front Desk role at a resort brand in Tulum, sent through my application, and within hours received a reply:

Hola Julienne,

Thank you for your interest in being part of our team. Please begin by answering the following questions to be considered.

Do you speak Spanish? Yes.

Do you live a healthy lifestyle? Yes.

Do you smoke? No.

Do you have any special instructor experience including fitness/health-related classes? Yes

I answered the six other questions and quickly sent it back at midnight. The next day I got a call from the owner, who asked me to visit two of her properties in Tulum and interview with her managers. I was hired on the spot. 

Amansala Resort on Tulum Beach

Working holiday

I suppose a lot of it had to do with being in the right place at the right time. Over the last decade, Tulum has grown exponentially, and even more so during the pandemic as the rest of the world shut. The destination can barely keep up with the demands of its surge in visitors during peak season, which runs from December to April. I happened to be there just as properties were overloaded with tourists, everyone needed a helping hand with the right skillset to hit the ground running. 

The first four months of my 2022 were spent completely immersed in the excitement and drama of working for the Amansala property group. After the CEO Melissa Perlman discovered that I had a background in digital marketing, she gave me more responsibilities beyond answering questions at the spa desk and teaching yoga weekly, like optimizing SEO for her websites and creating an investment deck for business expansion.

Amazed and inspired by Tulum’s design scene – photo taken at Sfer Ik museum at Azulik Hotel

As I write from the confines of my quarantine hotel room in Hong Kong – because yes, I eventually made it back – the last four months wash over me. They formed the adventure I’ve always needed in my life, concentrated in a year’s trimester to make up for 23 months of being trapped inside a city that I used to love for being an international hub. 

I returned to Hong Kong to prepare for my next move. Remember those master’s applications I was working on with my sister at the outset of my stay? On March 1st, I received an acceptance letter congratulating me for being selected as the only Filipino recipient of this year’s European Commission scholarship for a Master’s degree in journalism, with a focus on Business and Innovation. My sister Joyce will be flying to Europe at the same time, where she will join the International Energy Agency in Paris after handing in her application that fateful January night in Tulum.

Playa del Carmen, Quintana Roo Mexico

When I was in my twenties, the working holiday or gap year was not available to me; it was not only a foreign concept for Filipinos in my generation, it also remains largely unavailable to nationals of developing countries. Being outside the typical age range of 18 to 30-year-olds who participate in schemes across the world, I never thought it was something I’d ever get to do. It seems life had other plans for me, teaching me that it’s never too late, you’re never too old. As my favorite song by Lenny Kravitz goes, “It Ain’t Over ‘Til It’s Over.”

I wrote this story at the prompt of an old friend who asked me if I had written anything about my experience in Mexico, and how she loved reading my articles. Before this, I hadn’t written anything since my trip to Argentina in 2019/2020 – if you liked this post, do leave a comment to keep me motivated to write more! You can also check my daily updates on Instagram.

2 responses to “How I got stuck in Tulum, Mexico and turned it into a working holiday”

  1. Such a lovely read! I hope you continue on your journey of story telling , and I look forward to having you on my podcast in the near future!


    1. Ahahaha of course you would be the first to comment here 😂 You owe me a swimming day


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