First things first: the buses in Mexico are OUT OF THIS WORLD!
The seats are plush and comfortable, the air conditioning is plentiful, and they're largely punctual. Bus travel in Mexico is a dream! The two hours from Cancun to Tulum flew by (largely because I slept through it), and we hopped off into the blistering heat.
Oh the humidity!
It was unbelievable. The air felt physically wet, and within three blocks of the bus station, we were soaked. In the end, we gave in and jumped in a cab, and got dropped at our home for the next few nights, ContainMe. We checked into our converted shipping container room, dropped our bags, and headed out for lunch. We had an amazing meal at Burrito Amor (which we would visit again during our stay), before heading back to ContainMe to escape the overwhelming heat. Dinner was at nearby Camello Jnr, which was constantly packed, which seemed a good sign. Sadly it was a bit of a dud, especially after our amazing lunch, so we left a little disappointed.
Exploring the ruins in Tulum
The next day, we planned to be up early to beat the heat. Sadly, our plan failed, and it ended up being around 9.30am by the time we dragged our sorry asses out of bed to hire bikes from the accommodation. We surveyed our options. Of the four bikes there, one looked good. Naturally this turned out to be the owners bike, and it wasn't for rent. So we grabbed the two least crappy looking ones and hit the road.
It didn't take long for us to realise that neither of our bikes had brakes, which seriously slowed the proceedings down. We couldn't ride very fast, because we had to stop by putting our feet down. Also, neither of our seats were adjustable, so we were cycling with our knees around our chins. Not ideal.
We pulled over in the main shops for a spot of breakfast. It definitely made up for a lackluster dinner. Our 'avocado on toast' was one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen, and it was DELICIOUS!
Suitably refueled, we got back on the bikes, and very carefully rode the rest of the way to the ruins in the blistering heat.
After riding past the usual souvenir shops, touts selling water and fridge magnets, and men with iguanas on leads, we parked and locked our bikes (not that there was any way anyone was stealing them), got our tickets, and entered the site.
The first thing that caught our eyes were the coatis at the main entrance. fluffy little members of the raccoon family, foraging in the gardens. I was told in no uncertain terms by Zev that I was NOT TO PAT THEM. Spoilsport. We carried on to the ruins,
A 784m-long wall encloses the ruins on three sides, with the fourth side being the sea. It is 7m thick, and varies in height between 3 and 5m. After entering through one of the doorways in the wall, we climbed a short rise, and WOW.
The rolling green fields were dotted with ruins, contrasting against the blue sky. In the distance, the waves crashed onto the beach where tourists were swimming. It was like stepping into Narnia!
The site itself is relatively compact, and it didn't take is too long to explore the ruins.
We walked along the cliffs overlooking the beach, and were a little alarmed to see them covered in thick, green seaweed. It turns out it's called Sargassum, and it's a big problem along this coastline. Apparently it's always been around, but it seems to be getting worse. Scientists are putting it down to a combination of climate change, pollution and disturbances in ocean currents. Regardless of the cause, it's definitely having an impact on the local businesses. The whole coastline is covered in the seaweed, which gives off a pungent aroma as it rots. Some resorts employ people to rake it up and take it away, while others just leave it be. It's pretty unpleasant, and definitely a detraction from the pristine beaches tourists flock to Tulum for.
Going to the beach
After we'd had our fill of ruins, we tried to go for a swim at the beach. This can be a little difficult, because most of the coastline is filled with resort hotels. That means that to access the beach, you have to go through a resort, most of which charge you, or expect you to eat or drink at their restaurants.
We managed to find a public access path to the beach, so we parked our bikes and trotted down. Sadly, the whole beach was covered in seaweed, and it turned out you couldn't swim there anyway, because it was where all the tour boats launched from.
Even though we were both stinking hot, neither of us were willing to ride our bikes any further than we had to to access the beach, and neither one of us were willing to pay to swim, so we settled for an overpriced and underwhelming lunch and some drinks where we were.
With our hunger sated, we saddled back up. The ride home was absolute hell. By this time, it was mid-afternoon, and the heat had peaked. Halfway home I had to stop riding because my knees were killing me from my seat being way too short. Then I realised how much longer it would take us to get home if we walked, so I got back on the bike and forced myself to keep riding. By the time we got home, I thought I was going to pass out from heat exhaustion, and immediately threw myself in a cold shower. I felt like asparagus - even though I was no longer in the heat, I was continuing to cook.
Completely exhausted, we napped the afternoon away, before heading out to a delicious pizza restaurant called Pizzeria Manglar. It was a nice break from burritos and tacos, and it was GOOOODDD.
Cenote and Coba Tour
Since we'd discovered that it was WAY too hot to ride our bikes around, we decided to book ourselves onto a tour the next day to visit a cenote (limestone sinkhole that you can swim in), and the nearby jungle ruins at Coba.
When we'd booked the previous day, the booking agent told us that there would be around 20-30 people on our tour, so we didn't anticipate it being a standout tour, but we were too cheap to pay for the smaller tour. Really, we were more interested in using the tour as transport, and were less interested in the 'guide' side of things.
We stopped for breakfast at Babel, a nice cafe with cheap 'western' breakfasts, and headed to the meeting point. As predicted, it was completely full. We paid the nice man, and waited. Soon, the place started clearing out - it seems that most people there were on a different tour, and the only people coming on our tour were us, and two girls from the US. Perfect!
Despite the small group, things were a little chaotic. We piled into the van with no idea where exactly we were going. Soon, it became clear that we were starting our day at the cenote, which seemed strange to us. Surely you would start the day at the ruins, while it's cooler and less busy, and then head for the cenote in the heat of the afternoon? But hey, what do I know?
Soon, we pulled into a carpark, and it was PACKED. We climbed out of the van, and were told to take all our belongings because we would be changing vans. I was finding the whole thing pretty confusing because I speak zero Spanish, and while Zev seemed to mostly understand what was going on, some of it was going over his head too. It seemed that we were going to hang out at this cenote for 20 or so minutes, and then we were going to walk to another cenote with no water in it, and then a third cenote for a swim.
I felt my mood dropping. This place was completely overrun with tourists. Yes, I know I'm a tourist. But this was ridiculous. There were probably 200 people in what could only be described as a tourist trap. The carpark was full of vans from our tour company, and we were waiting in an area that contained an overpriced snack stand and souvenir shop. We walked down a nearby flight of stairs to check out the first cenote. At the bottom of the stairs was a guy dressed as a traditional Mayan warrior. He looked totally badass, but it felt a little... staged. I mean there was a dry ice machine. Come on people.
The cenote was ridiculous. I couldn't tell whether the whole thing was actually man made, or whether it was natural, but they were using a generator to pump the water back up to feed the 'waterfall'. And it was NOT subtle. It was spewing black smoke, and it sounded like a jet engine. Ridiculous.
As we made our way back up the stairs, the 'Mayan' guy started drumming at the top. He was terrible. Bless him, he was trying, but he couldn't keep a rhythm to save himself. I was starting to get pretty annoyed. I'm willing to admit we chose a cheap tour, but this was shit... My mood was brightened when we sat down and I found a kitten.
Finally our guide reappeared. It was time to go! Thank god. I said goodbye to the kitty, and we climbed back into the van.
Our guide introduced himself as Danny, and explained that he was a local. While he spoke some Spanish, his native tongue was a Mayan dialect spoken in the area, so between that, Spanish, and English, conversations were fun! The other two girls in the van spoke fluent Spanish, so I was the only useless potato that only spoke one language, but we made it work.
After a short drive, we started our walk to the first cenote. Cenotes are pits in the limestone bedrock often caused by erosion from tree roots, which expose the groundwater beneath. The Yucatan Peninsula is particularly famous for them, and they're a big part of the tourist industry here.
We climbed down some steps, and entered what looked like a cave. This cenote had more of a stream running through it than the traditional lake that you see in photographs. We walked through, looking at the stalagmites and stalactites, until I saw a scorpion and decided that that was enough cave for one day thank you very much.
From there it was a short walk to the swimming cenote. On the way, Danny filled us in on some of the local trees, and their uses in traditional art and ceremonies. Within a few hot, swampy minutes of walking through the jungle, we arrived, and WOW.
The cenote was incredible, and we were the only people there. We all stripped off to our swimsuits and jumped in. The water was cool, but refreshing, and so clear you could see all the way to the bottom, which was pretty damn deep. We spent about an hour splashing around, diving down, and being gently nibbled by curious fish. After the experience of the morning with the overcrowded carpark, and seeing photos online of people literally queuing up in life jackets at cenotes, we couldn't believe that we had the whole beautiful place to ourselves.
Eventually though, it was time to move on. After a short impromptu photoshoot with one of the other girls and Danny, serving as the Instagram photographer extraordinaire, we were back in the van, and back to our original waiting zone. Here, Danny explained that he would be leaving us (boo), and that we would be joining another group for the rest of the tour (double boo). We had to wait for them (booooooooo), but then we would be going to lunch (yay!), and then on to Coba (double yay!).
We settled down at the waiting zone, and Danny had one last trick up his sleeve - he brought over the kitten, who curled up on my lap and let me pat him the whole time. I nearly snuck him into my bag as we left.
It wasn't too long before we were back in the van, this time with 6 other people. The drive to lunch, which was very close to the Coba ruins, took about 40 minutes, and I'm pretty sure every single person fell asleep.
Lunch was a typical roadside tourist buffet - plenty of food, but otherwise just adequate. Of course, once we'd finished, there was a lot of waiting, but eventually we were back in the van for a short drive to the ruins.
We got out. We waited. We walked to the ruins. We waited. The whole process was chaos. No one was telling anyone what was going on and it was SO DAMN HOT that I was losing the will to live. By now, it was close to 3.5 hours since we'd left the cenote, which was the last time we really felt like we had any idea what was going on.
Finally a guide came over and said, "English?". Yes please! After a little more confusion (he thought we weren't with the group because we didn't have wristbands) he gave us our tickets, we entered the gates, and we waited. Sigh.
Finally we were on our way. The walk from the entrance to the main Coba ruin was about 2 kms, and our guide kept us entertained during the walk. He was ostensibly speaking English, but with such a thick accent that I actually think I would have understood him better if he just spoke Spanish. He still somehow managed to be very funny though, so it didn't matter that I didn't know what he was talking about.
The ruins at Coba are located around two lagoons, with elevated stone and plaster roads radiating from the central site to the smaller, surrounding sites. In additions to these 'local' roads, longer causeways link Coba to distant surrounding Mayan sites such as Cichen Itza. At the peak of its civilisation, Coba was estimated to have at least 50,000 inhabitants, and the site extends over around 80km2.
By far the biggest drawcard of the site is Nohoch Mul pyramid, a 42m high pyramid which can still be climbed for stunning views out over the jungle. The climb is steep, and fairly perilous - most other sites have closed their ruins to climbing, not only to protect the ruins, but also tourists, after a woman fell from one of the pyramids at Cichen Itza in 2005 and died. Not to be deterred, it was swarming with visitors, many stopping partway up, whether due to the height or fatigue.
We enjoyed the view from the top, before heading back down and back to the entrance, to be back at the bus for our 5pm meeting. Of course, we waited. But then we were back in the van, and on the road again. We stopped briefly at a 'traditional' Mayan village, which consisted of being swarmed by kids begging for money. I hastily got back into the van and waited there - this didn't seem like a sustainable way to provide money to the local community.
Again, it was about 40 minute drive back to town, and again, everyone fell asleep, exhausted after a day out in the elements.
Feeling completely wiped out, we opted to grab some roadside tacos on the way back to our container to avoid having to go out again. We definitely crashed pretty hard once we were home!
Moving on to Valladolid
The next morning we had a leisurely start, as our bus to Valladolid didn't leave until 12.30pm. We returned to Charlie's for a tasty breakfast, and jumped on yet another wonderful Mexican bus to head to our next destination, which would serve as a base for exploring the ruins at Cichen Itza!
Lots of love,
S & Z