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.

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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.

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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.

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Mexico Day 1: Cancun to Merida

At the end of February, we took a week and a half trip to the Yucatan peninsula. Looking back, we could have done several things better, but it wasn’t a bad trip (except for getting quite ill the last two days). With our busy lives, it’s taken a long time to go through photos and memories. I am always surprised by how much time the process takes. In any case, here we go!

We had an early start, although fairly normal for our daily work day routine. Rolling out of bed at 5 a.m., we took a quick shower. We caught a taxi for our 8:45 a.m. international flight departure with Sun Country, who charged extra for everything and with already overpriced tickets. The flight was quiet, and we arrived on time. Going through customs and immigration in Cancun only took fifteen minutes, but we had to stand around for forty five minutes for JJ to get through from a Denver flight.

Then we had the car fiasco. It took forever to get a car (Volkswagen Jetta as a large vehicle?) we had reserved in advance, and it cost us a great deal more than they made it appear on the website. Second time in our travels using EuropCar, both experiences miserable for different reasons. In all, it took us over two hours to drive away.

By then we were famished as neither four hour flight offered any food service including snacks. Driving through down we came across a “tacos and beans” restaurant called Frijoleros, with a western theme and American bluegrass music playing. The staff was nice and food decent. Herr and JJ had burritos while I ate a chicken taco and chili con carne y queso dip.

Once the GPS was programmed correctly, we hopped on 180D towards Merida. The road proved to be unusually straight and dull, and we lost concept of time. Once we finally made it to the hotel Doralba Inn in Merida, we discovered why. Only Quintaro Roo is in a different time zone than the rest of the Yucatan peninsula. This we learned the hard way the next morning.

Retrospective: while the Doralba Inn was inexpensive, its location in downtown Merida made it a rather inconvenient place to stay for our purposes. I would have splurged to stay at a hotel right next to Uxmal (this was the original plan before we had to cut costs). We didn’t take advantage of the Merida location by doing anything in Merida (I still don’t think I’d do anything in Merida…).

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