Dec. 21, 2012- the day the world ends. Or ended. We weren’t sure, as we were at about 32,000 feet flying over the Gulf of Mexico, and couldn’t really observe much going on below. However, we were aware that we were headed for one of the hot-spots for that supposed ending- Chichen Itza, Quintana Roo, Mexico. Yeah, that Chichen Itza. The one with the snake descending the stairs of the pyramid during the Spring Equinox. The same place that would, likely, be mobbed by thousands of people on the fateful December 21st.
Of course when we’d planned this Christmas vacation we didn’t pay a lot of attention to the End of the World racket and media play. Our chosen dates were based on more prosaic concerns like joining 5 of our pals who were planning to vacation in Cancun, and on our work schedules.
Back in the summer, when our friends were planning this trip, they kept after us to join them. We dillied and dallied and by the time I got around to finding a relatively inexpensive Delta vacation package (air and all-inclusive resort stay for 7 nights), we ended up staying at a less-expensive, “kid-friendly” resort just up the beach in the Hotel Zone in Cancun rather than joining our pals at their rather more expensive digs.
Ever the conscientious shopper, I earmarked the money we thus “saved” for a rental car and day trips. My plan was to visit our pals at their resort and also schedule several day-trips OUT of Cancun (a destination I’ve always considered as Miami South, simply a place for air transfers) to visit Mayan ruins and other places I explored when I stayed in the Akumal/Tulum area in 1999.
Robin had never visited Mayan ruins or Mexico for that matter, and had been studying Spanish for a couple of years so, I thought What the Hell, Let’s Go, I’ll be tour guide and Robin can be Translator!
Well, as I was reminded, there’s a reason I’ve had this long-standing aversion to the All-Inclusive (AI) experience. Like cruise ships, to me the very idea of being “cooped up” with 2500 of my newest friends and people sharing their germs over buffet meals and SCREAMING, poorly-behaved KIDS and their I-don’t-believe-in-discipline-and-am-not-responsible PARENTS is, just, OMG, anathema. Hell. On. Earth.
True to the AI experience, resort “guests” were treated more like medium-security prisoners, and as a result we never saw our pals after we all got off the same arrival flight in Cancun. The resorts do not allow anyone to visit from another resort (without paying an $80.00+ fee, which I do understand, with food and drink being included but really, guys, there should be a way to ”tag” visitors who don’t want to eat or drink without paying for the privilege). The resort main reception phones aren’t answered, so you can’t leave a message for anyone at a hotel Reception desk. You can’t even leave an envelope or a message for a guest at Reception—there’s no cooperation to try to help anyone off the resort to communicate with any guest of the resort. In fact, the lack of cooperation is very emphatic and made quite clear.
Remember- this was 2012, before the advent of widely available WiFi at tourist destinations. We didn’t have the international plan from our telecom carrier, as we would routinely have for subsequent trips abroad.
At this time, it would have taken an international call placed from a one-off cell phone we would have needed to purchase simply to call one of the girls who had an international account with HER mobile carrier, and that was Way too complex cuz after all, hell, they were just like 4 kilometers from us! Believe me, both parties tried almost daily to connect with the other and next to pulling a James Bond-esque stunt, it simply wasn’t worth it to keep trying to find and visit our friends.
We were so happy to have the freedom afforded by our rental car “Sneezy”- aptly named due to the sneezing sound it would emit about every 30 seconds while the AC was running. We laughed about Sneezy, with Grumpy and Dopey, making the rounds of the Mayan Riviera! I swear, every trip we take that we rent a car, that car always has something weird and problematic about it. Stories about our rental cars would make up a blog in itself!
Thus, we were delighted to haul ass every day to get away from the seething mass of noisy people and the traffic of Cancun. A couple of different days, we headed down the coast some 2-3 hrs south to visit Tulum and Coba ruins and snorkel in cenotes and eat at some great restaurants on the beach.
Xmas eve was the day we chose to drive west some 3 hours through the jungle to visit Chichen Itza, avoiding the End of the World hoards of 3 days earlier. Turned out to be a smart move–we got there early in the morning, before the tourist busses arrived, and managed to see most of the sights that this awesome World Heritage site offers.
Our Chichen Itza photos here.
In the heat of mid-day, we drove a few klicks east to Ik’ Kil cenote, a spectacular cenote I had missed during my 1999 visit. The photos and video I took managed to capture a real sense of this place, which must be simply breathtaking when it isn’t mobbed with screaming kids.
In the early afternoon, on our way back to Cancun we wandered through the scenic, old Mexican town of Valladolid. We used our handy printed-out Google map to locate Taberna de los Frailes, a simply splendiferous restaurant I’d read about on Trip Advisor.
This place was everything reviewers had reported— a marvelous find lost in the maze of narrow, dusty alleys and back streets of the old town, next to a small park and nestled against the walls of a Spanish nunnery dating from the 1500s. The food was genuine Mayan fare, from scratch, inexpensive, fresh and totally yummy.
After our late lunch we drove slowly through narrow streets leading to the town square. It was late Xmas eve day, the sun was shining, the air was cool and dry, and the narrow and dusty streets were swarming with smiling, laughing crowds. People clutched all manner of bags and boxes and crossed the street willy-nilly, seemingly unaware of the traffic crawling past. All colors of the rainbow swirled in the rugs, serapes and clothing for sale hanging over the sidewalks and in shopfronts. An open truck pulled up to the curb next to us and people began to help the driver unload very large and colorful pinatas. The hurly-burly and energy were distracting, I was glad I was only able to roll the car along at a creep.
But we had to head on to Cancun, which after a two hour drive, we arrived in the city “centro”, once again caught up in the last-minute holiday shopping frenzy, this time in the main market area for the locals. This place was simply insane– traffic every which way, drivers doing pretty much as they pleased with dangerous aplomb and blowing horns frequently and with elan. I almost hit 2 pedestrians and we barely avoided being rear-ended. Even a cop who was directing traffic gave us a shrug after he stopped crosswalk traffic, gestured for me to move along and watched as a pedestrian ran right in front of me. That person just missed an ambulance ride on Xmas eve.
We made it back to the hotel zone, finally, nerves totally frayed but, for once, glad to be back in the room. Ah now for some rest. Well, not so much, with the boom-boom of the disco reverberating through the walls until 11pm. Earplugs were useless against this nightly onslaught. Another amenity of our lovely AI…
I was delighted to take Robin on an extended tour of the seaside ruins of Tulum and the extensive ruins of Coba nearby. I had spent a week in the area in 1999 (my blog post is here) , so I knew the area quite well, the roads, the best times to arrive at different destinations, and nearby restaurants, and cenotes to snorkel.
These places simply do not disappoint. They have many faces: mysterious, atmospheric, scenic, aromatic, spooky, exhilarating and quietly pensive. It’s well worth doing one’s homework to walk (or in the case of Coba, bike) the many ancient sacbeob (raised, paved roads) and paths that cut through the jungle or connect different buildings and sites.
Another day we caught the ferry over to Isla Mujeres, and rented a golf cart with a ridiculous governor on it that had us creeping around the island at a crawling pace. But we did find a quiet spot or two from the maddening Isla crowds.
Basically, we stayed the hell OUT of our medium-security resort (Oasis Palms Hotel), where the elevators were tiny, cramped, airless and slow (and only 1 worked for ½ of the total resort property!); the shower hosed down the entire bath area and was never repaired; we never got towels we asked for (we took them off carts instead), the reception/desk staff were uniformly rude and completely unhelpful (so we stopped talking to them), items were routinely stolen from the rooms (a young woman frantically reported a male hotel staffer using an electronic card to enter her room, uninvited, through her locked door while she was alone) — etc etc.
To be sure, Trip Advisor had provided ample warning, with simply dozens of “Run Now, Don’t Stay Here!” reviews, and they were right. The place was simply mobbed with tons (and I mean, tons) of Fat American Families knocking you down as you minced your way to the buffet to get a banana for breakfast or dodged running kids to get near enough to stab a bit of the mystery-chicken-thing at dinner. The noise from live music, drums and bass-back-beats clearly reverberated up the seven stories to our room from the plaza below, from 8-11pm every night, augmenting the nearby disco racket. Geez, and this was the BEST option Delta vacations offered, after the expensive digs! And let’s see…. No chairs at the pool or tiny beach cuz they were all grabbed by the people at the “Grand” sister property next door, whose guests had exclusive access to better rooms and food (for a price) but their pool was in shade all day so they took all the lounge chairs at the Kid-Friendly crap sister resort with the terrific pool.
I’m the only person I know who went to an AI resort, brought in my own bottle of rum and some cokes, drank 25% of the rum, left it behind with the too-sweet cokes for the maids, and only ordered soda water with lime from the (quiet, out-of-the-way bar) the few times we sat at it after a day trip!
So forget the resort experience: check out my page with Mexico Trip Pix , with helpful captions.
Trip Coda: We flew home after 7 days in Cancun, drove into the house from the airport Thu. night, tossed dirty clothes into the hamper, repacked our suitcases, woke up early Friday and drove 7 hours down to central FL to arrive at my niece’s wedding exactly on time, 30 mins before the music cued up. Missing this wedding truly would have been The End of the World!
Check out my lengthier, meatier blog entry from my 1999 trip to the Yucatan.
Click, whirrrrr. The camera shutter closes on yet another brilliant moment. To the west, the setting moon dangles on a deep blue background while eastward the rising sun guilds the facades of the scattered buildings below, highlighting the edges of palm fronds. Magenta, bronze and azure streak the sky overhead. Caribbean colors. Maya colors. The colors of our dreams.
It’s our first morning on the playa (beach) in Akumal, Mexico. From our balcony, we enjoy the breathtaking view of Half Moon Bay, the smell of the ocean, the sounds of birds, the tropical fauna. Akumal, “the place of the turtles” is located on the Yucatan peninsula, one hour and ten minutes drive south of Cancun.
At the time of this post, Akumal was still very much a secret getaway, discovered only by those who ventured south of Cancun along Mexico’s Caribbean coast. Here, the “Mundo Maya” steeps the intrepid traveler in a small, primarily Mayan seaside community with sandy white beaches, swaying palms, sun, surf, and serenity. Check out pix Here!
The “Mexican Riviera” of Cancun and Playa Del Carmen (“PDC”) are left far behind in Akumal. Instead of casinos, hotels and high rises, Akumal offers a friendly, village atmosphere complete with a local vegetable market, eateries and a delightful muffin shop. Resorts are non-existent (until the developers arrive!). Instead, visitors stay in local “casitas” and small condos that rent by the week.
On our arrival day, we rented a car at the Cancun airport and drove south along highway 307, a seemingly endless, dry, limestone-dusted concrete umbilicus that ties Cancun to the Belize border and beyond.
We had monitored Akumal message boards on the Web for months and knew to stop at the San Francisco market in PDC for cheap groceries and cervesa (beer!). We found an open Banco, exchanged dollars for pesos and left the hurly-burly. Soon we passed through the lovely arches at the entrance to Akumal Centro (village central) and were unpacking in our room at Hacienda De La Tortuga.
Our third floor view encompassed Half Moon Bay and a world class beach at Akumal Bay. A reef line just offshore tantalized these snorkelers–we planned to join the fishies after lunch!
On Sunday, we pack a few drinks in our collapsible cooler, we head 23 Km south to the ruins of Tulum. We roar along at 110 kilometers/hr, the jungle a blur on either side of the road. We pass infrequent landmarks like Aventuras Akumal (rental condos) and Aktun-Chen dry cave (tours!). We whiz past the community of Chemuyil and, further south, Xel-Ha (Shell-Ha), a Disney-esque water and eco park. Before you know it we’re at the entrance to the ruins at Tulum.
Sundays, entrance to Mexican national parks is free for Mexican nationals. We’re here early, at 8:00 am. It’s already hot. We head into the remains of the only major ancient Maya religious center on this coast. Tulum looks just like the books and documentaries–mysterious and magnificent. This walled ceremonial site was ancient when the Spaniards first spotted it in 1518. Numerous buildings are scattered throughout the site. The most prominent structure is The Castillo (Castle), which sits atop a 90-foot cliff overlooking the ocean below.
Gazing out over the layered blues of the Caribbean from the heights of Tulum is a peaceful reverie and a terrific photo op! We walk around, taking pictures and reviewing the history of this ancient citadel. We notice local Mayan families coming in and, behind them, the tourist buses. We take the tram in and out–it’s only 10 pesos, and worth avoiding a mile-long walk to the archaeological site in the heat. Hire a guide if you’re so inclined–we did our homework and didn’t really need or want one.
We head a few miles north from Tulum to Casa Cenote to swim and chill and join the famous Sunday BBQ. The turn-off to Casa Cenote is easy to spot, so we bangity-bang in second gear down the rutted and potholed track toward the beach, follow the curve to the left and we’re there. The cool, fresh water cenote is on the left, restaurant on the right. We dunk in the cenote then duck under the thatched roof of the restaurant to get a seat, enjoying the very welcome breeze and the exquisite view of the Caribbean. Whoa! There’s Kootie, the resident coatimundi (South American raccoon) jumping from her hammock to a nearby table as her human “mother” chases and admonishes her charge. Everyone in the place is cooing and laughing at this wonderful, friendly and mischievous creature. We shoot pictures like fools…
Early evening, and we’re back on the beach in Akumal, sitting at the La Buena Vida, swinging in the swings at the bar, drinking a cold one and trailing our toes in the sand. We witness an awesome rise of the full moon–orange, then yellow then white, hanging over the horizon like a spotlight. Click, whirrr. I take a mental photo of the moon with a silhouette of a coconut palm frond waving to and fro, a streak of white moonlight dusting the darkened ocean in front of the restaurant.
Bushed, we retire to H. de la T. to discover the sleeping accommodation–a raised cement slab with a four-inch mattress. Oh well, we’re tired and crash without further discussion.
Noisy birds in the nearby jungle wake us at dawn. We pack for a trip around the corner to Yal-Ku (“Chal-Ku'”) lagoon.
Snorkeling in the most gorgeous and pristine setting imaginable, we are amazed as we watch fresh and salt water being mixed by our movement, turning the formerly crystalline view into Jell-o, and blurring the view of brilliant juvenile tropical fish. After a day in this fantastic setting, we find ourselves back in the swings at the bar, laughing and reliving the day. We have another drink then head back to our unit, where we sip beer and eat chocolate cookies for dinner. Too wound up to sleep, too tired to go out to dinner, but hungry. Oh well–it’s vacation! We kill off the entire package of cookies and head for bed.
The next day, we’re off to world-famous Chichen Itza, a couple hours through the jungle by car. Up before the sunrise, we find the Coba road and head west through the awakening jungle. I jump out of the car to take a picture of the ribbon of concrete piercing the endless green. I hear roosters crowing at a nearby ranchero, the only sign of life for some miles. The mist is rising off the jungle, insects are droning in the background. I hear no engines, no airplanes, no voices, no human sounds. Just the jungle and my own breathing. The camera shutter sounds unusually loud.
An hour or so west, we come to the quaint town of Vallodilid. We eat breakfast at the buffet advertised on a big sign on a hotel on the southwest side of the town square (zocola). Decent food for a few pesos and a clean el banyo (restroom). Onward to Chichen Itza!
We catch the toll road out of Vallodolid and twenty minutes brings us to the Chichen Itza parking lot. We arrive early, as the place is opening. We get our tickets, stop in el banyo, hire a guide (350 pesos but be prepared to tip a lot more!). Juan is knowledgeable, in a rote way. Clearly he knows little beyond the script. This place is everything we expected, everything we’ve seen on TV and read in magazines. We’re riveted. We learn about the “acoustics”, apparently deliberately designed sound effects created by clapping in certain spots on the plaza between the Pyramid of the Sun and the Temple of the Warriors. A single clap causes an echo of 7-11 claps, clearly heard. The same clap, if one tunes one’s ear toward the pyramid, brings forth a wonderful, mystical birdcall or whistle. We wonder why the ancients designed these effects and to what purpose.
We carefully climb the scary, steep stone steps up 90 meters to the top of the Pyramid of the Sun in time to observe two large rainstorms sweeping across the jungle toward us. I stay and shoot film while people scurry to get down those steps before they get wet and slippery (not to mention the steps!) We enjoy the energy of the approaching storms, breathing in the smell of the rain mixed with the dank damp of the temple interior. Luckily, the storms hold off long enough for us to make our way gingerly down the steep decline to a timely rendezvous with our car, just as the sky and another tourist bus unloads.
On the way back to Akumal in a rainstorm, we get lost and nervous, watching the road practically wash out from under us. We drive past a totaled SUV being pulled out of the jungle by a wrecker in the middle of nowhere. Dodging two large fallen trees across the road, we see a few scattered huts and some pigs out in the rain. We finally get directions from a young boy riding his bike on the road, oblivious to the rain. We tentatively make our way back to Akumal…
The following day, snorkeling at the Gran Cenote is on our schedule, so we drive south along highway 307 and park in the shade of the grounds. We tromp down an ill-defined “path” among limestone boulders and loose rock that threatens to turn an ankle at every step, arriving at a large, uninviting hole in the rocky ground. Large, shy iguanas dart from our path. Soon, we arrive at rickety, narrow wooden steps that lead straight down into the cenote. We carefully haul down cooler, backpacks and snorkel gear, arriving some 40 feet later at the bottom of the opening. Narrow “walkways” have been roughly crafted from short lengths of tree limbs- watch your balance! Butterflies flit in the sun, birds swoop from unseen nooks and caverns, chirping crazily. Grey iguanas race across sun-bleached limestone rocks then freeze, posing just long enough for a quick photo, then off again, chasing moths and other breakfast tidbits. Small trees and stunted greenery accent this wet, strange place. We follow one “walkway” to a platform over crystalline waters.
We manage to get into the water of the cenote without slipping off the hand-hewn rough ladder that leads some five feet to the surface. Small fish swim placidly around us. We paddle around in clear, cool water looking at the rocky bottom some 15 feet below. The sun pours down from the hole in the trees above, spearing ribbons of light through the mirrored water surface.
Snorkeling into the deep shadow under the cavern overhang, we drift through a litter of bat guano and bird droppings on the water’s surface. We think positive thoughts like protein treatment for the hair. However, we will put hydrogen peroxide in our ears later!
We change clothing at the el banyo on the property and head toward Tulum pueblo for some planned shopping. The 90-plus degree heat of May fails to wilt our enthusiasm for bargain hunting at the “Stop and Shop,” located near the bus station. The lady proprietor is really sweet and kind to gringas who speak terrible Spanish!
The next day we tour the dry cave at Aktun Chen.
If you are claustrophobic, as we are, you will probably do okay as there are few tight places. Generally the cave is very open, with lots to see and learn about. Just look out for the “road” into the attraction. Go slow. Speaking of road conditions, the track through the jungle to Dos Ojos (“Two Eyes”) cenote is treacherous, a series of crazed limestone moguls, twisting and potholed and crumbling at the edges. The cenote itself is isolated and spooky and seems to emit attitude, as if it’s waiting patiently for something. We had the place to ourselves and snorkeled in the gloom of the overhanging cavern, watching swarms of swallows swoop around the circular opening to the cenote.
Then it was on to Zamas restaurant on the beach south of Tulum pueblo for lunch. What a magical place! Beautiful scenery, a windswept coastline and rocky crags reminded us of the coast of Maine. We enjoy a very nice meal in a paradisiacal setting, with the onshore breeze whipping through the stunted coconut palms that surround the restaurant. No Kootie here–just acres of peace and the roar of large breakers thundering upon cliffs.
Some afternoons we snorkeled over the shallow reefs at the mouth to Half Moon Bay. One day we spotted a school of giant parrotfish, each as large as a calf. The loud crunching sounds of powerful beaks pulverizing their coral snacks could be heard distinctly underwater.
Our last day we saved for the Mayan ruins at Coba. We arrive early, just as the archaeological site opens. Coba is serene and magical, with mist hovering around the tops of huge trees that sprout from the rubble. Mayan workmen rested from sweeping and raking leaves from temple steps–we could hear their quiet voices drifting through a grove of trees. Something about this place encouraged hushed tones.
We walked softly for several kilometers along an old sacbe-ob or road, wondering how many ancient feet had trod the very path we now walked. After hiking through the jungle for four kilometers, we came to the Great Pyramid, all 138 feet of it. Taking a deep breath and a large swig of water from our packs we clambered up the rough-hewn, awkward steps to the top. The view of the jungle from the temple summit was spectacular! We walked around the edges of the small temple at the top of the pyramid. The only sounds we could hear were bird calls and the background drone of insects. Looking across the sea of green, we could see lumps along the horizon and just below it, near the two lakes that are part of the archaeological area. We pondered if these were un-excavated ruins, like the numerous mounds of rubble we passed on our hike to the Great Pyramid.
All too soon it was time to leave the Mundo Maya. We have so many stories to tell: of leaf-cutter ants creating endless trails through the jungle, of hermit crabs tickling our toes while we ate dinner on the beach, of moonrises over the sea, of sunsets over the jungle and the faint sound of palm fronds clacking in the warm night breeze. Some day, we will return to the mystical, serene Mundo Maya.