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Mexico Day 5: Tulum

Breakfast starts at 8 a.m., but not promptly so we learned. Only green tea (and the hot water took a while), only watermelon juice (once they cut up the watermelon), then the standard array of fresh fruit (papaya, cantaloupe, and watermelon), yoghurt with optional granola, toast, and egg scramble. One tasty addition was warm ham and cheese quesadillas. I ate 4 or 5 of those.

Today we chose to go to the Tulum ruins, which would have been our afternoon activity the day before but were too tired, especially when we had planned a day to relax the next day… So once breakfast was over we drove to the local archaeological site. I was once again surprised by how touristy it was. And expensive. Not as much as Chichen Itza, but close. We spent a considerable amount of time in line as the one ticket window that was open closed for nearly ten minutes. I was investigating the bookstore and other ticket options when it finally reopened. 225 pesos a person and we were in.

Tulum ruins.

The ruins are beautifully situated on the coast albeit mostly on the cliffs rather than a beach. The style was more simplistic and structures smaller, mostly I imagine, because living on the sea didn’t require large structures. We had walked down to a small bit of shoreline when the rain hit. I was in a swimsuit under my dress so didn’t mind too much until it turned into a downpour. When it finally let up, we made our way back up to see the remaining ruins.

Tulum ruins.

The views from the cliffs were fabulous and made me excited to check out the beaches, which are claimed to be nicer, quieter, and have whiter sands. This last bit seemed more aesthetic than useful until I felt the sand and how cool it was. Being so fine and white, it does not gather much thermal mass. Sadly, the books we purchased also got wet, so they are slightly water damaged now.

Tulum ruins.

Despite being burned out on ruins by this point, they were still lovely. The walk back to the entrance didn’t take as long, so we spent more time in the shops to avoid another bout of rain.

From the ruins, I wanted to mark out where we would go for beach time the next day. Tulum has a huge stretch of beach front supposedly with plenty of public beach access. So we turned down the road to the main drag and spotted El Capitan, a seafood restaurant, on the right so decided to stop for lunch. Herr and JJ both ordered ceviche, a plate of chilled fish and shrimp. I ordered a pot of rice with seafood, which turned out to be a lot like soupy paella. I enjoyed mine, but the other two couldn’t eat half of their dishes. Based on that and the price, we would not recommend it.

Afterwards, we took the ominous drive south along the beach, except we didn’t see any beaches. Everything was private resort property along a narrow road, no place to stop, and we couldn’t even find an ice cream shop (the horror!).

The rain really started to come down at this point, and we had passed through the southern gate into Si’an Ka’an before realizing the only way out was back the way we came. Herr made the not-so-fun drive back, our mission not accomplished.

Across the street from El Capitan is a supermarket called Chedraui. On the way back from the “beach”, we bought a handful of drinks and pastries, as well as a new swimsuit for myself. Then when we returned to the hotel we indulged in our goodies and napped like good tourists, except I just cannot nap. At sunset we went for a walk along the main road and explored some shops. One rather evident point about Tulum is it has a strong “hippy” vibe. From dreadlocks and man knots to wheat grass and vegan options. Yoga on the beach is a thing, and one can smell marijuana at least once every walk.

We chose a Mexican fare restaurant called Malquerida, where the guys ordered food and I went with flan. Food was decent, music from next door was nice. We had a long day planned next, so we returned to the hotel for the night.

Mexico Day 4: Coba and Tulum

One annoying difference we experienced in Peru as well as Mexico was no flushing of toilet paper. I can understand the lack of sanitary services, but discarding used toilet paper into a basket is disgusting, and it floating around a dump like dispersed dandelion seeds or even incinerated (I am not sure how it is disposed of) is questionable.

Anyhow, today was planned to be a less intense day where we arrive at our final hotel by the end of the day. We woke up to the alarm but only after more poor sleeping and a rooster next door that cock-a-doodle-dooed starting around 4 a.m. We rolled out of bed closer to 6:30 a.m. to shower and finish packing the bags for check out. Breakfast was served starting at 7:30 a.m. with fresh fruit, yoghurt and granola, pound cake, and Mexican mini croissants.

Coba happens to be in Quintana Roo, so despite our efforts to get there early enough to avoid the high heat of late morning, we lost an hour to the time zone shift as we drove from Valladolid. Eager to get to the pyramid so we could climb to the top, we were surprised to find bicycles to rent as well as pedal taxis. I was tempted to take a bicycle taxi simply to have the experience but wasn’t interested in what was likely a decent fee. Also, the exercise is rather necessary with the Mexican diet.

Wow, what a walk! The ruins are spread out, the climbable temple being a kilometer walk through the jungle. We were warm by the time we arrived. Herr and JJ thought running up the partially restored steps would be fun, so I watched from the base as they dashed up and nearly crawled the last dozen stairs. Then I took my own time, the stairs very smooth in the middle near the rope (provided to aid climbers) and rougher towards the crumbling edges with sheer drops to the ground below.

Coba pyramid.

Once to the top of the 120 stair climb, the view was fantastic. Coba’s Nohoch Mul Pyramid sits well above the forest canopy cresting a road sightline. A great panoramic picture opportunity. We stayed long enough to cool down and catch our breaths. The walk down was scarier, the slippery stone feeling even more precarious with gravity working with us. Despite the danger, I am glad the experience is still available, unlike at Chichen Itza (we were told its temples were no longer available because of a tourist falling to their death).

Coba pyramid.

A single vendor sits near the base of the pyramid, and we took advantage of it. With cool drinks in hand, we wandered along the long paths to various parts of the ruins. Not many of them have seen thorough restoration, similar to what we saw at Uxmal and Chichen Itza, so while I would recommend going to Coba, it should only be as a supplement to the other two sites (and Uxmal being number one). On our way out, I picked up a passion fruit frozen fruit bar that was delicious. I could eat frozen fruit bars all day…

From there we drove another 30-45 minutes to the Gran Cenote. We quite enjoyed the previous two, so we were filled with anticipation. To our dismay, it too has become aggressively touristy, charging 180 pesos a person where we paid 60 (80 at full price) per cenote in Valladolid. And it was full of tourists. Granted many of those tourists weren’t American, but they were closer to what one expects of young people visiting Cancun and the coast. The cenote itself was nice. They required us to shower in advance, and lockers, life jackets, and snorkel gear were made available to rent. We opted to trust our fellow cenote goers and simply set our items in a pile off to the side.

The Gran Cenote consists of two water holes connected by an “underground river”, which seems a “grand” way of saying part of the cenote is a cave with openings on either end. We didn’t see many fish – too many people – but a family of turtles hung out in the larger of the two pools and bats slept on the cave ceiling. Despite the number of people, the cenote was still enjoyable. The Yucatan, and this area in particular, has many cenotes, so quieter options are available.

Instead of overdoing it, once sun dried, we drove the five minutes into Tulum to check into our final hotel, Hotel Posada 06 Tulum. JJ’s room was ready but our suite wasn’t (we were early), so we went for a late lunch on the main street. I had an urge for a burger, so the concierge suggested Don Cafeto. Herr had fish tacos, JJ something quite Mexican, and burger with fries for me. We caught the last few songs of a live duet, and three children serenaded the restaurant patrons, out of tune vocally and instrumentally. We still gave them a few coins for effort. I rather enjoyed the burger once I pulled off the bacon, and Herr liked his fish tacos more with the bacon.

Back at the hotel we moved into the suite. It’s unique in that the furniture, including couch and bed, are made out of smooth concrete, all attached as one cohesive slab with the floor. Not much rearranging possible. It reminded me of The Flinstones. We took a couple hours to relax before a jaunt along the main road again followed by some ice cream. We were done by that point so called it a night.

Mexico Day 3: Chichen Itza and Valladolid

After finally enjoying breakfast at the Doralba Inn, we left for Chichen Itza. This took us back on the tool road for a short distance, and we arrived an hour after opening. It was already packed. Having experienced Uxmal, the atmosphere here was disappointing. Vendors lined every shaded spot, starting outside the welcome center.

This would become an ongoing theme for the extensive and spread out site. It’s understandable why the site is so popular; if you are going to visit one site it would be this – a UNESCO site and much closer t o the touristy cities of Cancun, Cozumel, and Playa del Carmen. Several tour trips are offered for a full day excursion, where Uxmal we had to plan two days in another hotel.

Chichen Itza pyramid.
Chichen Itza El Castillo

The grounds also have a wide array of building types, although nearly everything is roped off. The pyramid is a marvel in that it is built as a calendar, 91 steps on each of the four sides and the final platform on top totaling 365 steps. The ball court is huge with two temples attached. We took a dirt path laden with vendors to a sacrificial cenote (full of bodies and jewels), and ended up buying a turtle shaped flute with four notes. Herr would later succumb to the vendor onslaught to buy a drum (which after a couple weeks we found was infected with termites…), and JJ followed suit buying a couple obsidian “stones”.

Chichen Itza ball court.
Ball court hoop at Chichen Itza
Chichen Itza nunnery.
Nunnery at Chichen Itza

My favorite was the column plaza, and something that was unique to this site of all the places we visited. Other ruins included several temples, a “skull pit” for decapitated heads, an observatory for astrological observations, royal houses, and many more. The whole Mayan experience in one location, if one can ignore the vendors. Good luck…

The entry fee came to 242 pesos (several larger locations had a local and national fee, paying two different amounts for one visit), so a tour guide was out of the question (often ranging between 700-800 pesos a person). Once we were exhausted, we returned to the welcome center and ate at one of the sit down restaurants rather than trek to a place I found half an hour on the road back (after the previous restaurant gaff, I was happy to spend a little more for the convenience). I ordered what turned out to be a hill of avocado with chips, followed by flan. Flan! So much guacamole, I had to share it with the others and still didn’t finish.

As we drove through Kuau, the town I had selected the restaurant in, we drove right past it and saw the price of Herr’s dish was only 70 rather than the 165 pesos at the ruins. Welp. Now we know how much tourist markup pricing is like.

That was on our way to the twin cenotes, Samula and X’keken, just south of Valladolid. We picked up tickets to both of them for a slightly discounted price of 140 pesos (instead of 160) from a fellow promoting them at Chichen Itza. JJ and I were both skeptical about actually going in the water. That changed when we got there. X’keken is an underground cenote with stalactites dripping nearly to the water. The fish freaked me out, but they avoided us. The water was clear and cool, rather refreshing after two hours walking around Chichen Itza.

Xkeken cenote.
Xkeken cenote

Herr joined us in his boxers. No one judged. Neither Herr nor JJ were particular interested in leaving, but I was curious to see the other cenote. Samula likewise did not disappoint. It was much more cavernous, but the way the light reflected through the two holes in the ceiling was beautiful. Cenotes are a great way to cool off after some rather eventful couple of days.

Valladolid.
Convent in Valladolid

From the cenotes, the hotel wasn’t much farther (it just took a drive around the block to find it). The grounds were lovely and serene (though the next morning we learned the neighbor had at least one rooster) with a small court full of flora and a pool surrounded by rooms on three sides (the reception, front entrance, and neighbor’s yard wall make up the remaining sides).

Herr and I took a king that had a balcony overlooking the pool from the second level. This hotel was much cleaner than the first, but the fauna generates a lot of noise. Herr opted for a massage after so much driving. While he waited for that appointment, we walked a block to Yerbabuena, a restaurant that had some great drinks (they serve breakfast and lunch so close at 5 p.m., and we arrived a little after 4 p.m.). The drinks were good; I enjoyed a strawberry milk shake extra cold, JJ got his mango iced drink, and Herr a strawberry iced drink. The waitress brought us complimentary chips and salsa that was delish. A recommended place to eat.

Valladolid.
A door in Valladolid

We then dropped Herr off back at the hotel and walked to the main plaza where a carnival was happening… except it had just ended, so we stopped at a few shops on the way back. Herr’s massage went late so I was locked out of the room for a while until I caved and asked for another key at the front desk. They were quite friendly. I watched Captain America in Spanish before calling it a night.

Mexico Day 2: Uxmal

This was our busiest day. It started with a hard night sleeping because I was still anticipating being awoken and don’t want to hear the alarm. Our air conditioner at least worked properly whereas JJ’s un-renovated room, which was the only available room since his reservation never went through, had serious issues including a flaky loud AC unit.

I woke up at 5:43 a.m., saw the phone synced to Topeka instead of Cancun, and jumped out of bed dragging Herr with me. We were downstairs a little after what we thought was 7 a.m., except the whole time zone thing was explained. So, awake and ready to go an hour before the continental breakfast opened, we skipped out and started the drive south to Uxmal. Driving through Merida, especially central Merida, is painful; lots of pedestrians, narrow or no sidewalks for them, and significant traffic including motorbikes, bicyclists, and trucks.

We thought to pick up some food along the way, but nothing was open. We noticed the speed bumps now that we were driving through towns rather than the 180D; they vary from rumble strips of used tire rubber to massive even-going-three-kilometers-will-bottom-out “bumps” or sharp painful hills of concrete. We were just outside Uxmal, a UNESCO heritage site, when we finally spotted a white hotel with a restaurant. It would have been a great place to stay – walking distance from the site. The breakfast was decent as well.

Uxmal pyramid.
Uxmal Pyramid of the Magician

Uxmal is fantastic. It is somewhat spread out but has few people; we were able to get a lot of photos of buildings and lizards, which were plentiful. In fact, it has a Temple of the Iguana. We walked all over the place, and while the main Pyramid of the Magician was roped off, a pyramid farther back was open to walk up. Steep steps, no safety rails, and a great heat under the scorching sun… totally worth it for the view and experience. When done exploring, we shopped a while at the few stores in the visitor center and imbibed some tasty frozen mango drinks.

Uxmal pyramid.
Uxmal pyramid and temple

Uxmal.
Uxmal temple

From there is a series of ruins clustered together in a “U” shaped path. Originally, Kabah was taken off the list due to time and ruins overload, but as we drove along it is literally on the side of the road. So we stopped and were happy we did. Kabah only had three or four other couples visiting, so we weren’t crowded at all. It has a façade chalk-full of Chaac masks, the rain god, and some great glyphs.

Kabah Chaac masks.
Chaac masks at Kabah

Afterwards we found Sayil, which was much different than Uxmal and Kabah. Rather than stairs and lots of up and up, this was deep in the wooded jungle (not rainforest jungle, more like tropical woods). At first the shade was a relief, but we quickly grew more uncomfortable due to the lack of wind. The palace was okay and lookout tower mostly in ruins, but we still appreciated this slight variation (this might have been one to cut if only considering architecture).

Sayil palace.
Sayil palace half restored

Sayil watchtower.
Sayil palace half restored

By this point we were melting but determined to continue on to Labnah. This fourth site of the day was completely empty of people and no one else arrived while we were there. This is definitely worth seeing, with an intact causeway, or Sacbe (white road) as the Mayans called it, that connects the main gate to the palace.

White road.
Sacbe in Labnah

Arched entrance.
Labnah arched entrance

Each of the smaller sites was only 50 pesos each, which is worth it if one can survive the heat and make the time.

While each site had its own interests for us, we were quite done with ruins after Labnah. I had planned one final site, the Grutas de Loltun, caves that were inhabited thousands of years ago, as a nice cool activity to wrap up the day. Our extra stop made this tight; in fact, we were nearly ten minutes late for the 2 p.m. tour. They weren’t busy, thankfully, so after a brief lecture on why the visit needed a tour guide, Ricardo brought us down into the caves. Just the three of us for most of the tour (he ran through it quick enough to bump into the previous tour), and it felt great to be in cooler temperatures out of the sun. It has mostly stalactites due to annual flooding that washes away the minerals needed for stalagmites to form.

Ancient handprints.
Grutas de Loltun handprints

We saw 10-12k year old art work, and other remnants of human habitation were visible. At the end was a beautiful cave with sunlight pouring in and which may have once been a cenote. The tour guide suggested a tip, and we did pay it although I didn’t feel too great about it in the end.
By then we were hungry but rather than eat the restaurant across the street, we opted to go to the one I had found online. It proved harder to find in person though, and we almost turned around when we came upon it. On the second floor was a huge thatched roof with many fans running. Not much English spoken, so ordering was a challenge. My meal ended up being a large slab of cheese floating in gravy and topped with ground meat and salsa. It was okay but not something I would eat again.

Cave.
Grutas de Loltun cave

We made the long drive back to Merida, but after a quick shower were back out to buy some dessert. We walked around many blocks looking for local ice cream before resorting to a DQ Express with the cutest mini blizzards. While not Mexican, still fun because of the size (one that should be available in the U.S.!). We were done after that, and ready for a new hotel.