Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Yucatan Peninsula continued: Quintana Roo (Tulum to Cancun)

I'm going to try to be succinct and make this the last post about our February 2013 trip to the Yucatan Peninsula traveling from Merida to Tulum and up to Cancun.

My last post ended on our arrival at the Eastern coast of the peninsula.  The cultural atmosphere all along the coast felt very different from the inland areas.  Our hitchhiker had explained that Tulum has expanded in the past 10 years from being a small community of residents and hippie ex-pats to the laid back, high-end resort town it is now.  The hotels are mainly comprised of thatched-roof cabanas on the beach, mostly powered by solar and wind.  Staff at the hotels seem fairly international and there is a strong focus on health.  There were yoga and fitness classes on the beach, people learning to samba, a full-moon celebration, and a lot of people were jogging, windsurfing, and cycling.  Unfortunately, the signs of growth to come were everywhere, and I'm sure  tall buildings and gated communities will soon begin to displace much of the surrounding jungle.
Our hotel, Coco Tulum, right on the beach with a wind turbine generating power overhead.
We stayed in Tulum for 4 days, taking short trips each day.  The first day, we drove to Punta Laguna, where there is a nature reserve.  We hired a Mayan guide to lead us on a hike through the jungle in search of monkeys.  It was a long, almost silent hike, and very enjoyable in and of itself.  We saw amazing foliage, birds, and leaf-cutter ants.  It took a long time to locate a group of black howler monkeys, and when we did, they bounced through the trees to position themselves right over our heads.  Then they began to pee and poop in our direction!  We had to duck and run, but I have always wanted to see monkeys in their natural environment, so it was a thrill.  Later, we found a spider monkey with her baby.
A black howler, right before getting ready to release a stream of urine at the human intruders.
The tour ended with a canoe trip across a peaceful lagoon and a visit to some very eager Mayan women with a variety of crafts for sale.  (We bought a little embroidered monkey patch.)

We also found a cenote that day, which was not a cavern.  It was more like a very deep pool with a baby crocodile lounging on the edge, but divers were exploring the depths.  They told us that there are caverns below that lead to other cenotes.  Mike and Anouk swam for a while, but I just dunked myself to cool off, then relaxed at the edge.

On our second day, we decided to succumb to a tourist trap, so we drove to Xcaret (pronounced "Shcar-et") which is a sort of theme park.  The entry fee is astounding.  We paid $200 U.S. for the day!  And it was not exactly what we expected (which was something equivalent to Disneyland.)  But, it did have a lot to offer.  I think, for a lot of visitors, this sums up the whole Yucatan Peninsula in one day.  There is a beach for swimming, zoo exhibits throughout, several "lazy rivers" to float, swim, or snorkel through, a boat ride, a Mayan village with educational exhibits, genuine Mayan ruins to explore, bat caves, the largest butterfly house in the world, a Space-Needle-style ride, the most incredible cathedral I've ever seen, a fantastic folk art museum, mushroom farm, orchid farm, jungle walk with labeled plants and trees, a sisal factory, horse show, and this underground crypt with a cemetery that is indescribable.  And more.  In the evening, there is a performance in an auditorium modeled after ancient Mayan ball courts.

While waiting for the performance to begin, we discussed whether we felt it was worth the entry fee.  At that point, we both felt, adding all of the things we had done, we would have paid about $160 for the experience.  By the time we left, we really felt it was a fair value.  The show was much better than I expected.  It included a dramatization of the history of the area (the brutality and the blending of cultures) and demonstrations of dances and costumes from different areas of Mexico.  The most impressive part for all of us was a recreation of the Mayan ball games, which were incredibly athletic.  One involved a ball of fire being volleyed through the air with sticks.  I expected it to be a cheesy Vegas-style show, but it was actually very well done.
I love this church dedicated to the Virgin de Guadalupe at Xcaret.  The carved tree overhead, the cave pulpit, and it is full of art.
On the 3rd day, we drove to Coba to find cenotes.  Following signs, we eventually found a cluster of three that we could visit for about $10 total.  These were all completely underground.  We had to descend via long stairways, finding deep pools underground with that crystal clear water.  You can see all the way down, except where it appears to be fathomless.  In some, you can dive from a platform high on the stairs.  The first was more shallow, but very beautiful.
A shallow underground cenote.

This view is from near the top of the stairs.  The little black thing in the water is an inner tube.
I think the cenotes were my favorite part of the whole trip.  Granted, we try to visit caves on every trip we take and many people are not as enchanted by entering the depths of the Earth, but I can relate to the Mayan belief that these are holy places.

On our last day, we decided to spend more time enjoying the beach and ensuring that I return home with a painful sunburn.  We did go into Tulum to walk around and we found a very out-of-the-way cenote called Isla Adonis that was different from all of the others, and worth the confusing drive over many rocks and pits.  Then we picked up some salt, lime and tequila and spent the last evening playing at the cabana.

We drove to Cancun for the last 2 days of our trip.  While others stay in the fancy Hotel District, we stayed in town at an affordable chain hotel that was completely without charm, but was comfortable.  We were easy walking distance from a market for locals and one for tourists, and we enjoyed both.  This was our easiest and most enjoyable trip to a foreign country thus far.  It offered history, geology, culture, and archeology.  It was a warm break from our chilly winter weather.  We found it safe and accessible, people were friendly, we never ran into trouble, and we never found ourselves holed up in a room eating dry bread and cheese because there was a holiday where all of the businesses had closed.

Things we would have done differently:
  • We would have gotten pesos before leaving and not taken U.S. dollars.  (Much of the advice we received was that everyone takes U.S. $$, so there's no need to have pesos.  Many do take dollars, but will round up the exchange rate and not have change, so you spend a lot more.  This is probably not the case in resorts.  ATMs are plentiful and the exchange fee is minimal.
  • I would not have taken make-up or jewelry.  It was too hot for make-up and there was no occasion to dress up.  It was just extra stuff to carry around.
  • I would have brought nail clippers, antihistamine ointment, facial toner, immodium, snack bars, talcum powder, and athletic sandals like keens or tevas.
  • Somehow, I only packed tank tops.  In the inland cities, I wished I had a more modest, light blouse.  On the coast, people walk around in tiny bathing suits, but Merida and Valladolid were very traditional.
  • I would not have packed all of those almonds, pistachios, and dried fruit that had to be tossed at customs.  Sealed snacks would have been acceptable, and would have been handy on long drives.  
  • The water bottles and to-go coffee cup would have been left at home.  Maybe one water bottle for the flight, but the rest were just extra luggage.
  • Most things can be purchased when you get there.  Pack light.
If you are planning a trip to Yucatan or Quintana Roo, feel free to email me if you have any questions.  We were only there for 2 weeks, but we managed to do and see a lot.  I'm happy to share what we learned.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for sharing about your experiences. It sure sounds like you managed to see and do plenty of things! I also love the cenotes, or natural sinkholes, and recommend them as a must see during a vacation to the Riviera Maya. I've been swimming in two different types of cenotes. It is a wonderful way to get in touch with the nature of the Yucatan Peninsula. There is even a new "Xenotes" tour where you can swim, kayak, zipline and rappel in various types of cenotes. Check it out! http://bit.ly/12IZtEy