So Andrew and I booked a last minute trip to Mexico for one week. We needed some time to relax, and when we saw the flight prices we just had to book it. Somehow, Norway & Iceland didnt feel at all like a 'vacation' should, so we thought why not?
Rewind to December 12 - we were on the plane with a connection through PA to Cancun. Neither of us had been to Central/South America so we were excited. We'd also never been to an all-inclusive resort before. We didn't have any checked bags so as soon as we landed, we got on our transfer and within 40 minutes were checking in at the hotel. They greeted us with cocktails; I think Andy fell in love right there. We never stay in hotels when traveling, and if we do, they aren't that nice. We got to our room, and even though the place we chose would be considered 'budget' for where we were, it was a palace to us. Yes, the week went by too fast. The hot weather was the added bonus.
The grounds were pretty cool. Our favorite part was that this resort believed in maintaining the natural environment as much as possible, so there were little mangrove forests (with that sulphury smell) all around, and lots and lots of wildlife. There were deer in our 'yard,' iguanas everywhere, raccoons, and just gangs of coatimundi that would not hesitate to come right up to you. It made walking to and from the main area like a safari, at least for the first few days.
We didn't plan many activities for this week - it was meant to be a beach vacation. Unfortunately the entire coast of Mexico was hit extra hard by seaweed, so few people swam off the resort. We lounged on the beach, hung out by the pool as much as we could handle (which for me, is a lot less than most). After a few days of drinking and pigging out at the buffet (which was awesome - I've never seen a buffet have that much food, and be that delicious) we started to do some exploring.
Since taxis are a rip off, especially here where $1 USD = 17 pesos, and they charge upwards of $40 USD, we decided to take local transportation. Mexico has shared vans that run up and down the highway for commuters every few minutes. You can go as far as 45 minutes away for $2/person. You just stand on the side of the high way and they will stop for you if they have room. So we walked the long walk from our resort to the main road, and within seconds the van pulled over. We were off to the Tulum Ruins.
[Just a note to those who might be traveling south of the border and want to use the Collectivos like we did, be smart, carry a currency convertor, know the conversion rate, ask other riders about the fare, know where you are going, and don't let the driver rip you off. One of our drivers tried to get way more money out of us because we chose to pay in USD instead of pesos when we ran out (which they don't prefer) and thought we were ignorant enough that he could get away with it. He threatened to call the police, but they don't - pay the correct fare and walk away.]
Tulum was pretty cool. It is a major site of some of the better preserved Mayan ruins. It is located on the ocean, about an hour south of Cancun. El Castillo, the most recognizable sight you see from postcards, was used as a vantage point and lighthouse if you will, for the Mayans. It where the Mayans first became aware of the Spanish - called 'First Contact.' Tulum and all of the Mayan ruins have so many cool facts about them because the Mayans were very intelligent and everything they designed and built had something to do with the celestial bodies.
For example, It is called The City of Dawn because it faces the sunrise. Many of their buildings were constructed in such a way to allow light to penetrate them most fully only on the equinoxes. Like for Chichen Itza (the most famous) the sides were constructed at perfect angles so that on the equinox, the shadow of Kukulcan (a serpent) appears. So cool!
After, we went to the beach down the road. Tulum is known to have one of the nicest beaches in Mexico: white sand, really blue waters. We went out in a little boat owned by a little tour group on the shore and went snorkeling. I had no idea Andy had never snorkeled before so he was really excited. The water was really choppy though, and they took us out to a spot that was so shallow, I was pretty scared that a wave was going to push me right into a bed of coral - I came really, really close. And with all those huge spiny sea urchins, you really don't want that to happen.
The next day, I had booked a tour that has an almost 100% Excellent rating on TripAdvisor for a half day on ATV/Buggys and entrance to an underground river system. It appealed to me because they seemed small, fairly new, not overly expensive, and also took you to a Mayan village outside of the city where we would distribute food - to give something back to the community. The raving reviews made it look like a good choice. And I am so glad we chose them, because it was the best thing we did on our entire trip, and I'm not exaggerating when I say the cave portion was one of the coolest things I have ever done. If you ever visit this side of Mexico, do yourself a favor and book with them - linked here for your convenience!
We rode our buggys or whatever you call them into the jungle - legitimate jungle - about 30 minutes in away from the city. Andy drove, and hit every single mud puddle he possibly could and hit me with a few branches, too. We were flying through there - huge adrenaline rush and the biggest smiles on our faces under our bandanas. We eventually got to a secluded area, where our tour guides actually live. We put on hard hats, water-shoes, and they showed us this huge underground cave, right next to us. I had no idea they would bring us somewhere that was completely closed off to the public.
Inside the cenote was nothing short of incredible. Our guide was teaching us about the geology of it, of the Yucatan, and how the Mayans interacted with cenotes and their caverns.
Cenotes are sinkholes where the cavern ceiling has collapsed, usually leaving an open source of water. They take on different forms, such as open-air, cylinder, basins and caves, and can be found basically everywhere - there are literally hundreds of miles worth of underground river systems in Mexico. They are very protected; they hold up entire cities like Playa Del Carmen and Cancun, and they are just magnificent examples of how amazing the Earth can be. Some of amazing stalactite and stalagmite formations, such as the cave we were in, and encase entire ecosystems.
I have to say though, it was a little scary at times. I did not realize we would be crawling on our hands and knees to maneuver through tight spaces, literally treading water underground because I couldn't stand, and swimming from open space to open space, mostly in the dark. Our guide kept asking us if we recognized anything familiar; apparently they had taken us in a circle. No one noticed. It was very disorienting. It seems caving is an extremely specialized skill and requires a lot of precaution. I'm bummed I didn't get any photographs of this place, but it just wouldn't have been practical. I mean, there were parts where we would be swimming and we would have to dunk half of our heads in the water and swim forward, so that our heads wouldn't hit or break any of the stalactites. We also saw lots of bats, a scorpion spider (the thing in Harry Potter where they demonstrated the Cruciatis curse) and lots of catfish.
Cenotes, to the Mayans, were sacred. They viewed them as doorways into the underworld - Xibalba. Hence, many people were sacrified as offerings within them. Cenotes also served as the only source of water in the Yucatan, because there are no surface rivers or streams. Archaeologists and divers have found all sorts of objects in them, such as weapons, idols, jewelry, and human remains, etc. They were vitally important to their culture.
What's also interesting, to me, is that back during that time, there were no such things as flashlights, or headlamps. They were down there with a torch, navigating cave systems. Our guide also told us that because they used flames, the cave formation's shadows would project on to the ceilings, lending to their belief that cave formations are their guardians to Xibalba. That's pretty cool. Our guide had us shut off our lights, and navigate to the exit as Mayans had done - by allowing your eyes to adjust to the only light available, and moving toward it. Just got to watch your feet. It was a little scary (especially when you start thinking about that movie - The Descent). After that, we went to the village. This part was a little different in terms of the wonderment we felt.
We drove in, and the first thing we noticed was the smell. These people are poor - extremely poor. This is poverty you don't see in the United States. Houses were made of tin sheets and wood, and trash was just - everywhere. Lots of very thin animals, flies and dirt. Dirt and trash. We parked at the shop to purchase some food. The shop must have been maybe 15 foot diameter. On our left, was a family, a father and two children eating lunch or dinner. On our right, the cashier slicing up a freshly killed chicken on the counter. The flies were ravenous. Now, I don't mean to sound negative, I'm just pointing out the stark contrast between the way these people live, and the way we imagine Mexico from a beach chair in a huge resort.
Handing out the food was a mixed bag. It felt good to help out, and even though our guide would tell us the people here live happily and are healthy, it still left us feeling a little bit guilty. You can't really help it when both children and adults are literally swarming you and poking at your back, legs and shoulders for what you have in your hands. But I'm glad we did it.
And with that, we were on the bus and on the way back to the pool bar and beach. We spent the rest of the day, and most of the rest our time, relaxing.
On our last day, we heard about a beach on the coast where you could go and snorkel with endangered turtles; just put on your gear and you're good to go. We took the collectivo out about 35 minutes to Akumal, only to find there was no public beach access today: the residents were protesting. We gathered that the ecological society that is meant to protect the turtles is looking to restrict access to both residents and the public by selling off rights to nearby resorts (which probably shouldn't even be constructed there anyway). As crappy as it was to find out we wouldn't be seeing any turtles, we support that decision. So we moved on.
We headed back up the highway and followed through with a recommendation to see Cenote Azul - a cenote known for it's really blue water and lots of fish. And lots of fish there were. You know those spas you can go to that you can pay for a bunch of fish to nibble at your dead skin? We basically had free pedicures; you could stick your feet in and fish big and small would feast. It didn't feel like I thought it would and you need some strong resistance to sit still. They tickle, a lot. After some snorkeling here, it began to rain a lot and we figured we'd head back. The sun makes it really difficult to stay outside too long (at least for me).
The week just flew by. Looking forward to the next trip!