Coba Ruins and Cenote Tankach-Ha

We don't much care for Tulum, so good thing we have another day trip planned.  It's off to more ruins and cenotes!

Figuring out how to visit these places independently using public transport was a challenge.  We could easily book an all inclusive tour for $90  a person or hire a private taxi for $100 plus admission to the ruins and cenote ($15).  Tulum seems to be set up for tours only, but I knew it could be done! The bus station and our hotel both said there are no colectivos, just one inconvenient 10:00 am bus which would get us to Coba way too late.  The key to handling the crowds at these ruin sights is to get there when the gates open, otherwise you'd literally be swept up in a flood of people.  Even extensive googling and travel forum stalking didnt give me a straight forward answer, so I  peiced together bits and peices of information and hoped for the best.

On the way back from Muyil yesterday we asked the colectivo driver if there was a colectivo to Coba.  He told us where to find the stop in town and that it left around 8:00 in the morning.  The LP book confirmed that the Coba colectivo stop was on Osiris Norte at Tulum Ave, next to the Kahlua Restarunt. Sure enough there was a sign so that was a good start.

The van left when finally six people showed up, around 8:30.  It surprised me that this travel option was so unpopular.  There's usually no many people waiting for colectivos and this time is was like pulling teeth to get people there.  It just confirms that most tourists here are visiting Coba on tours.  Anyway, we paid our $4 each and 45 minutes later we arrived outside the gates of Coba shortly after they opened.

We paid the $4 entry fee and went straight to the bike rental area.  Coba is a massive site so it was well worth the $3 each to rent bikes.  We originally had decided to spring for a guide so we would know what we were looking at but had a change of heart.  It costs $35, and while worth it for the quality of information we decided that we didn't have the patience to be a captive audience and follow a guide around.  We mooched a minute or two here and there if we happened to be near a tour group's English speaking guide and would get a snippet which is all we want we anyway.

We hopped on the bikes and made a beeline for Nohoch Mul, the Great Pyramid, about 2 km from the enterance and usually the last structure on the tour.  We made it our first stop so we could beat out the crowds already forming at the enterance.  The path was peaceful and almost deserted.

   It's the 2nd tallest in the Yucatan Peninsula and still allows climbing to the top.  We were smart to skip the smaller structures along the way, knowing we would backtrack to see them on our way out.  Arrivng at the pyramid we had it almost to ourselves sharing it with just a few others.  

By the time we made our way down, there were hoards of people scrambling their way up.  We had a lovely time cruising  around the paths at Coba and left quite happy.Outside the enterance there are many restaurants to choose from.  Even though they are twice the price as in town, we didn't want to walk much further.  Luckily we chose one that also gave us great information on getting to the cenotes by bike and the return time of the ADO bus (3:30 pm, 2 shops down from the bike place).  Two shops over from where we ate we rented bikes for $3 and with a map they provided pedaled the 6.4 km to Tankach-Ha on a well signed road.  The cenotes are big business for Mayan communities and they want to make sure people can find them.

Like the last bike trip we took this one was just as hot.  Really really hot. But at the end we knew we had a cool cenote to jump into!

At the destination there are three cenotes to chose from, but we chose to spend all of our time at Tankach-Ha because they have 5 and 10 meter jumping platforms.  You can bet Maya was super happy about that! This cenote is a really nice cave, and not too crowed at all. 

I didn't do the jumping part because I felt I had used up all my daredevil luck with the Tarzan swing, zip lining, and repelling at the other cenotes. But you can bet Maya jumped the 10 meters, twice!

Just a recap for anyone wanting to do this day trip from Tulum.  I have no clue if there are additional colectivos or busses, but this is what we did:

8:00 am colectivo from Osiris Norte, leaves when full, 70 pesos
70 pesos Coba enterance fee
50 pesos bike at Coba, no time limit
50 pesos bike rental to get to Cenote Tankach-Ha
55 cenote enterance fee
3:00 pm ADO bus, departs outside Coba gate, 80 pesos
80 pesos for lunch

385 pesos or about $23 per person, sure beats a tour or taxi!


Sian Kaan Biosphere Reserve

Easy as pie, we caught our bus to Tulum from Bacalar.  It wasn't so easy on the bus though because it seemed the AC wasn't working and the windows would not open.  Imagine riding in your car in the middle of summer but with 50 other sweating and oxygen deprived people....lets just say that when the bus pulled into the Tulum  station three hours later I grabbed my day pack and was the first one off the bus.  

Tulum Pueblo  (not to be confused with Tulum Playa) is considerably less than charming.  The only reason we are here is for the day trips we have planned.  It's cheaper, generally, to stay  in Tulum Pueblo but the beach is a 20 minute bike or 10 minute colectivo ride away.  We didn't come here for the beach crazy as it seems, plus we have had lots of days of clear blue water to enjoy already.  There are a million tourists, travelers, backpackers, etc here and we are just one more drop in the bucket.  The place is completely over run, over priced, and over rated, but like I said we are here for the day trips.  The food in the small local places is dang good though, what's not to like about delicious 45¢ tacos? And the people who live here are nice too.

Day trip number one is to the ruins at Muyil and the Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve to float down Mayan carved canals.  It's not easy to find clear instructions on how do take day trips from Tulum independently, the hotels seem to only know how to direct you to an expensive private taxi or a tour.  We found 
this link from roamingaroundtheworld.com to be a huge help.  We followed their advice about the bus and the trip worked out perfectly. We walked around some low key ruins for about an hour and were just about the only people there.  

Follow this path behind the main temple and it leads you into the jungle of the Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve.

Another  small enterance fee is paid and the trail becomes a raised boardwalk through the forest.  

The first stop is the observation tower.  I'm not good at estimating heights, but the tower goes well above the tree canopy for a beautiful view of the jungle and lagoon.  The tower was strudy and well constructed but  I'll say it was a bit unnerving climbing up basically slightly inclined ladders to a thatch roof hut.  

Continue along the path and it opens up to a dock where small boats wait to ferry passengers across the lagoon to the canals for about $35 per person.  It's a steep price but it is sustainable tourism run by Mayan people who live here. More of that crystal water!

Arrivng at a small dock,  the driver instructed us to leave our things in the boat and step into the canal which is crystal clear and has a gentle current.  Water feature #4, canals dug by Mayans 1000 years ago.  The 30 minute float cuts through whispering grasses and shady mangroves.  Just a few small  fish here and there and a very mellow flow.  

Over too soon, another small dock appears where our shoes are waiting but no sign of anyone.  The dock leads to another elevated Boardwalk that leads a long long way through hot grassy marsh lands.  Our boat awaits, we jet across the lagoon and back to the Reserve.  We traced our path back through the jungle, the ruins, and finally to the highway where we have lunch and coo over another stray kitten.  We wait about 10 minutes on the side of the road for a Tulum bound colectivo.  Back to the room for siesta and later hop on bikes to find yet another great meal.  


Laguna Bacalar

Vacation water feature #3, Laguna Bacalar, a stunning freshwater lake in 5 shades of blue.  It features submerged cenotes created by meteorites, a canal used by pirates for raiding and Mayans for trading, and sulfuric mud for a "'Mayan Spa".

We used Veleando Ando at the Marina Bacalar and spent half the day on the water in a 14 foot hobi cat with an Argentian hippie captain.

Luis had a comprehensive knowledge of the biology, geology, and history of the lake which he explained to us in great detail.  Almost as good as having my Luis with us to explain the how and why of everything we were seeing.  There's lots of ways to experience the lake, most on crafts with engines.  We went with the mas  tranquilo way of a silent boat powered by wind.  The lake has a lot of sulphur in it (but does not smell of it at all, except for the "Mayan Mud" spa which was like rubbing rotten eggs into the skin) so there is very little fish or animal life.  In other words no predators, crocs, snakes, or other nefarious species.  Just lots and lots of blue clear water.

The submerged cenotes were unique in that they were created by meteorites hitting the lake, so we could stand in the hip deep clear water then step off into a 90 meter deep black abyss.  You can see the ledge going down and down, unnerving!

Evenings here are spent pretty much the same way in every town we visit.  Eat some good, cheap, traditional food then hang out in the town square with a sweet from a street cart and people watch.  We usually add souvenir shopping and a stop in a market for water and breakfast stuff.  I've been making avocado toast with tomato and a boiled egg on torta bread and a side of mango all for $2.

We've been staying in a cute Airbnb, Maria Maria Hotel.  It has four rooms with balconies and a shared common space with small kitchen.  

It's 1 block up from the lake and a public access point which I thought we would use but we ended up going to Cocalitos, enterance fee $1.75, a beach side camping area for families on holiday.  It's a cool place and we weren't the only ones that though so.  There were lots of multigenerational families having their vacation there so the atmosphere was really festive and friendly.  We were even able to just leave our bag on the shore and swim and kayak all day with no worries about it at all. The place also features stramatolites, freshwater coral that creates oxygen as a byproduct of consuming the sulphur and calcium in the water.  

Our guide from yesterday told us about a phenomenon on the lake that happens unpredictability a few times a year where the water becomes glass like and perfectly reflects the sky.  He said it was particularly stunning when it happens at night as the lake mirrors the starry sky and you feel as if you are sailing in a endless sphere of a galaxy.  We didn't witness this event but caught a glimpse of the glassiness.

In the afternoon we visited the Spanish Fort San Felipe built in 1729. We paid $4 to get in and spent about 30 minutes here.  Built with the stones from a destroyed Mayan Temple, it has a good vantage point and a very small museum.  

It is also a virtual stone oven inferno said as soon as we left we got a snow cone like treat where the vendor has to scrape the ice by hand from a block on his cart.

We are leaving Bacalar today on the 11:50 bus for Tulum, our final stop on the small Yucatan loop we are traveling. Just a few more days left where the homestretch is bitter sweet.


Just Before Heading Home

An eighteen day loop in a small region on the Yucatan Peninsula: water, ruins, tacos, sweat.  It's a very easy and remarkably safe area to travel in.  So many people worried about us going to Mexico, but the chances of dying by Cartel are slim to none.  We walked darkened streets, took busses, meandered jungle paths, and consumed loads of street food without incident.  The Mexican people we encountered, bus drivers, shop owners, random people on the street that helped us with directions, were some of the nicest people I have ever met.  And it wasn't until we got to Tulum that we experienced unwanted male attention.  Even then it was just one time from a pick up truck of older teenagers driving by.  Just that one time!  I prepared Maya how to react and told her it would probably happen a lot.  Happy to say I was wrong about that.  

You really have to wade through the masses of tourists to find some "real" Tulum.  On the main drag there's tons of hipster trendy places to eat, where the tacos are 150 pesos a plate, out at the beach it's even more.  But walk one block back and you can easily find where the locals are having the same food for 35 pesos a plate.

Another place the tourists don't seem to find in Tulum in the Zocolo, the town square which is the social hub of every Latin American town.  Our favorite routine is to have a snack from a vendor and sit in the square, chat, and people watch like everyone else.  In Tulum it's like there was a force field around the Zocolo as only once did we see other tourists hanging around.  It wasn't like that anywhere else we went, it was a shame others were missing out.  We had a funny experience in the Zocolo a few nights ago.  We arrived with our cones of coffee ice cream, not really paying attention to the bible thumper preaching through a loud speaker to a smattering of folks.  Things got interesting when a traditional Mayan dance group showed up and began playing instruments and performing a very hypnotic and ancient sounding dance with music.  Full body paint, complicated feather headpieces, instruments I've never seen before, and a story in the Mayan language accompanying the performance.  I thought it was cheesy at first but they were really really good and honestly they transported me back in time, it was weird.  Anyway, all the folks in the square, mostly locals, very quickly lost interest in the Evangelical and wandered over to watch the historical reenactment.  Ten minutes later, the evangelicals hoisted their amplifier up on their shoulders, which was as now very loudly  playing modern Christian music, walked over to the dance area and tried to divert the attention back to them.  Hands held up in praise, singing and swaying.....it was the ultimate street battle of the religions.  Christians vs. Indiginous in the modern age.  The Evangelicals successfully ruined the traditional Mayan performance by drowning out their voices with their blaring Christian music and eventually the Mayans packed up and left.  We observed the situation through a historical lense and analyzed the cultural significance  but its just as likely that we witnessed a simple turf battle for money as both groups passed the hat for donations.  

I should briefly mention that we did visit the Tulum ruins and beach and pretty much did not care for it.  We got to the ruins by bike, an easy 15 minute ride from our hotel.  We did beat the crowds but when we left the line was two hundred people long with entire platoons of people joining the cue. We paid 70 pesos to get in pretty much so I could take the iconic picture of the ruins on the cliff overlooking the sea.

The beach is Tulum is pretty much blocked off by hotels, restaurants, and resorts.  You usually have to buy something or be a guest to pass through.  We opted to go the one (that I know of) public access area, Santa Fe Park, just south of the ruins but before the T junction.  I think we hit the beach on a not so great day.  The sea was rough, the water and shoreline swamped with seaweed, and it was windy.  The heat was relentless and there was no shade.  I put sunscreen on every ten minutes and wrapped up in my sarong, waiting for my sun kissed beach baby to decide when to leave.  Thankfully, by 11:30 she'd had enough and was ready to hit the road back to the hotel.  That was our Tulum ruins and beach day and I wouldn't do it again. Ugh.

Here's a few other things we noticed about our little journey in this corner of Mexico:

You can buy bus tickets in advance and reserve your exact seats but in reality no one sits in their assigned seats. So if you want a choice window seat up front be the first in line to board.  Maya would board the bus first and get our seats while I stowed the backpacks under the bus.

Always carry your own toilet paper (but never put it in the toilet, like all Latin American countries we've been to it goes in the trash) because there often isn't any and expect to pay about 30 cents to use the bathroom. Sometimes the attendant gives you tp, sometimes it's in the stall, other times there is one common roll dispenser by the sinks and you take what you think you'll need before you go in.  It's better than Nicaragua though, where you also have to bring in a scoop of water from a trough to achieve a flush. And for whatever reason there usually isn't a plastic toilet seat, just the porcelain.  I have no idea why.

Obey the siesta. There's a reason it's after lunch during the hottest part of the day.

F**k the damn yoga outfit I brought. Why would I want to excercise and sweat even more than I already am??  When I had downtime the only thing I wanted to do was lie down in my air conditioned hotel room.  I would have gladly traded the space in my backpack for a longsleeved swim shirt.  I'm not doing yoga every day, but I am swimming every day in blazing hot low land Mexican sun.

There are tons of places where your can get a dorm bed for $13 a night where you share the sleeping space and a bathroom with up to 10 others, there's no AC, and maybe only cold water.  I've done that a gajillion times in my life, but like all the other family trips we've taken, I don't want to do it with the family.  I don't even want to do it anymore myself.  And I want AC.  Hopefully I haven't made Maya too soft!  We have cheaped out in other areas though like only eating street food or the cheapest restaurants and using public transportation.  

Next to Peru, Mexican food is the best we have had in all the years of Latin American travel! Pork is the king of meats here so my consumption of that is at a life long high, but the way the food is prepared and the blending of flavor is really unique.  It makes it seem like all the other places in Latin America we've been the staple has been black beans and rice with chicken and plantains.  We were a little tired of that combo and very pleasantly surprised that we aren't getting that here in Mexico.   The best places to eat are in people's homes where some have 2 table "restaurants" and have a speciality that they only cook up for lunch or dinner time.  These spots have had the best traditional food, it's like someone's mom is cooking for you.  

Traveling with Maya is a joy.  Ever since the first trip to Costa Rica in 2009 she has worn the crown for best over all traveler attitude.  Sure, she gets a little cranky/moody, spends too much time on her phone in the hotel, and I have to drag her teenage behind out of bed every morning to get the day started...like the adolescent that she is.  At home and on the road she is amiable, funny, observant, brave, even keeled, always willing to try new things, and a daredevil at every opportunity.  She's one of the best people I have ever known, but she really doesn't see these things about herself. I was  probably 30 years old before I really allowed my dad's love and admiration for me to sink in, and he had to be in the last stages of dying for me to finally do it. I pray it doesn't take Maya that long or to that extreme to embrace her own positive qualities and truly see what I see I her every single day.  It's hard to let them make their own way.  I studied up on how to form a strong attachment to my kids, they taught me about unconditional love, patience, selflessness, and service.....but I didnt prepare myself for the letting go part.  I didn't expect that I would be painfully learning about how to release them and I had no clue how hard it would be for me....like a hatchet to the heart I sometimes think.  Like most things in my life I only know how to hold on, sometimes for dear life and despite unintended consequences.  As they hurtle through their teenage years  I am very slowly (reluctantly) beginning to see that the Universe has another lesson to teach me through my children, this one about letting go and trusting that they have their own higher power which isn't me anymore.  Back when they were babies is was so "easy" to just love them.  Now, I have to love them fiercely but simultaneously  let them go and trust that's it's all gonna work out.  Please remind me of this next time I freak out about what my teenagers are doing or not doing, ok?

Thanks Sean, for the inspiration.

A Few More Days in Valladolid

We have been here  four full days, leaving for a two bus journey south east to Bacalar today. Yesterday was a hang around the town and explore day.  There's a decent market with the usual almost complete bodies of meat animals hacked open and hanging on giant hooks.  Piles of entrails next to a pigs head on the counter, it's gruesome  but that's how the meat is sold.  In a separate area are colorful fruit and vegetable stands, a sweets section, and finally a huge variety of small restaurants to choose from to get a cheap and delicious meal.  

Since Mexican folk art is so appealing to us, we paid a visit to Casa de Venados, a private 18,000 square foot restored colonial home that houses the owner's massive collection of folk art with a focus on Dia de los Muertos themed pieces.  A tour in English, for a donation of  $5, taught us so much about this type of folk art.  So many beautiful peices.

Back to our beautiful hotel,  http://casavalladolidboutique.com/, for a long rest, a swim, and then another great dinner.

Today we decided to rent bikes again and this time ride 4 miles out to Cenote Samula.  We rode through through Valladolid to the outskirts of town where we had an easy pedal on a dedicated bike/pedestrian road that ran along a main highway.  

This cenote is part of another Eco park that also includes Cenote X'Keken.  We paid only to go into Samula because it was more of a cave with a smaller hole on top.  It was pretty crowded so that made the interior echo very loud.  Half the folks there were on a large tour and were not really swimming but instead sat at the foot of the steps in a large group blocking the way to the water.  We had to slip through the crowd to get to the water, which we only swam in for about 45 minutes.  We lost a mask in the deep water  so that made the vibe worse.  We just wanted to leave.  We made our way up and out and soon after the tour group came out and went to X'Keken which made us decide not to bother going there, a crowed cenote is so not fun.  Further up the road is Cenote Saamal.  That place had two gigantic tour busses in the parking lot.  We were swarmed by tour groups! We had such a great time at Oxman we decided to bike 4.5 miles along a different highway, no shady path this time but in the blazing sun...... 

We made it, of course , and recreated our delightful afternoon at Oxman with only a sprinkling of people that came and went. 

Riding the 3 miles back to Valladolid, trying to beat a thunderstorm rolling in, we were treated to clouds of butterflies flittering in patches on the way.  Pretty magical.


Valladolid, Cenotes, and Ek Balam

I'll tell you what is pretty special about Valladolid, there are several nearby limestone sinkholes filled with clear blue fresh water for swimming called cenotes.  We rented bikes for the day pedaling through different neighborhoods and out into the Mexican countryside.  

Once we crossed the railroad tracks the road turned into a single lane dirt path.  It felt like we were the only people out there as we didn't pass even a stray dog.

We arrived at Hacienda San Lorenzo and the Oxman Cenote just at they were opening so we had the place to ourselves.  We paid the $4 entry fee, locked the bikes to a tree, and descended  8 flights of stairs down through the door of a hut to the cenote.

We had the place completely to ourselves before anyone else came, including the attendant! We were giddy with excitement, it was so incredible.  The water is a deep clear blue with just some small black catfish swimming around.  There are ropes that cross the water and along the perimeter.  Those dangling things are roots of the trees above reaching all the way down for water.  We swam here for 5 hours, we couldn't bring ourselves to leave.  There were never more than a few other tourists here.  We took a break and ate a tasty and enormous plate of nachos poolside at the hacienda on the property.

This Cenote had a super fun Tarzan swing that swung you way out to the middle and launched you into the water.  So great!

The next day we got a 3$ colectivo  taxi for a 30 minute ride to the Ek Balam ruins and the adjoining X'Canche cenote.  I've seen lots of ruins, but not Mayan ones so I was looking forward to it.  We arrived about 9:00 am and were just about the only souls there.  There is a shaded and pretty path that takes you to the ruins.

It only took about 90 minutes to cover the whole site, including climbing to the top of the main pyramid.  Surrounded by jungle, it's one of the newly excavated sites and stunning. Climbing the steps is tough, but coming down is vertigo inducing.  I just went down sideways with my eyes glued to the steps.  I didn't dare look out while descending or I would have gotten really dizzy.  Tip: bring a bandana or something to wipe the continuous pouring of sweat off of your face.  It's wicked hot.  

Time for another cenote! From the ruins there is a path to the cenote ticket booth.  The whole place is very organized with toilets, changing areas, showers, and lockers. Tip: bring your own lock for the lockers unless you want to rent one for $1. 

This cenote is an "eco park" so it's petty organized and offers some interesting activities.  You can just pay the $3 enterance fee and walk 2 kilometers on a shady lane to the cenote.  We opted for the complete package where for $17 we had a round trip ride in a bicycle taxi, enterance to the cenote, 2 turns on a zip line that went across the cenote, and then repel down into the water below.  Utterly fantastic and worth every dollar.

We were content with the little rope swing and 10 feet high diving platform....until we saw someone jump off one of the stairway landings.  My best guess is it was about 45 feel or so.  Maya knew she had to do it! It took her a good while to work up the nerve but by the time she was ready she had the whole place cheering her on.

Returning  back to Valladolid was easy as there was a colectivo waiting to be filled.  We ate quesadillas and empanadas for lunch for a whopping $3 then returned for siesta at the hotel. Speaking of the hotel we are staying at the brand new Casa Valladolid Boutique Hotel which is a restored colonial building and is absolutely beautiful.

We are truly enjoying our time in Valladolid.  We are safe and at ease.  Walking at night for the square back to them is completely benign and safe as there are many people walking around.  Thus far there is a notable absence of catcalling and unwanted attention.  People have been extremely kind and helpful.  We have 2 more full days here before departing for Bacalar.

I'll end with picture of the many vintage VW bugs we see every 5 minutes here!