I had a couple days away from the conference to explore the Yucatan. I rented a car and took off on my own. Chichen Itza, covered in the last post, was my first stop, but my main goal was to experience swimming in cenotes and seeing the Mayan ruins at Tulum, along the Mexican Riviera.
My first stop after half a day at Chichen Itza was the Ik Kil cenote, just a few miles down the road from the Mayan ruins. Cenotes are sink holes or caverns that are filled with fresh water, and the Yucatan is full of them. Due to its proximity to Chichen Itza, an immensely popular tourist destination, and its large size and relatively easy accessibility, Ik Kil is also a tourist hot spot. Many of the bus loads of tourists that visit Chichen Itza daily also make a stop at this cenote in the afternoon before the drive back to Merida or Cancun. The place is still worth seeing though, if nothing else than for taking the plunge into the cool blue water from the diving platforms seen here.
Swimming in the hole is quite an enchanting experience as well. Looking up through the jungle coated, nearly perfectly cylindrical walls while wading through the water leaves one with an otherworldly feeling. Watching the drops of water dripping from all those dangling roots is pleasantly hypnotizing. It fills you with a sense of amazement that such a place exists on Earth.
Onward... driving through the remnants of a tropical depression and the pounding rain that comes with such a storm, I arrived at Tulum around sunset. Being the off-season, it wasn't difficult to find accommodation along the beach. Tulum has become a hiyuppie (hippie-yuppie hybrid) and eco-tourism hotspot. Along the beach, only primitive structures (thatched huts) are permitted, and electricity and hot water are limited. Thanks to this, yoga studios, meditation classes, and "medicinal herb" use can be found all over. Watch out for those "herbs" though.. I heard rumors that the local cops and dealers work together to scam tourists for hefty bribes at the threat of serious punishment. Overall, the place is pretty awesome. It is ultra-laid back and very relaxing. I stayed at one of the newer places (Papaya Playa), which obviously catered to the more upper-middle-class hippies. The cabanas were definitely primitive, but they had fresh mosquito netting over the beds and fresh linens. The best part was the bar and restaurant, which served up one of the better meals of the trip: fresh, large, plump shrimp in a pumpkin seed mole with some kind of mashed, spiced squash... amazing.
A view down the beach. One nice thing about Tulum is because of the primitive buildings ordinance, the beach still looks quite natural! I love having a coastline uninterrupted by high rise hotels. Thatched huts actually add a bit to the remote and tropical feel of the place too. Now if only the weather had played along... I can't complain too much though. I got to swim in the wonderfully warm and crystal clear water and lounge in the powdery soft sand. It was a nice relaxing break away from the hustle and bustle of Merida and the meeting.
South of Tulum lies the Sian Ka'an biosphere reserve area... like a national park that preserves the coastal wetlands. This is another of the major tourist attractions of the area, testament from the groups of Jeep Wrangler's and various other 4x4's that are perpetually carting loads of eco-tourists to and from the reserve. I didn't get the chance to visit, but it is supposed to be quite beautiful, particularly if you are a birdwatcher. The reserve and coast line through Tulum is also a sanctuary for sea turtles. I saw several nests that were fenced for protection. One of the nests had apparently hatched, as there were plenty of little turtle tracks in the sand going toward the water; another one had obviously been found and raided by either birds or dogs or both... the combination just exemplifies the complex beauty and insensitive cruelty of nature.
The lounge area at the guesthouse... super chill. I lounged around here for breakfast in the morning... fresh local fruit and cottage cheese with a couple cups of steamy coffee. Mmm mmm
My goal for the day was to explore the ruins at Tulum and then make the drive back to Merida with a few stops along the way. When I arrived at the site of the ruins, this is the view that met me. Those clouds made it look like it was the end of the world (ironic if it actually did happen while I was visiting an ancient Mayan site...). There's no doubt that it was atmospheric, but it wasn't quite the atmosphere I had been hoping for.
I got a few shots of the site before the downpour hit. It was quite impressive to watch the wall of rain coming in over the sea and to feel the winds building up ahead of the front. Several groups of people had obviously never seen a rain front approaching quickly over water... it was quite amusing to see them frantically scatter when the wall of rain hit.
Throughout the downpour, which only lasted about 15 minutes or so, I ended up huddling with a few other tourists in one of the tunnels through the fortified wall surrounding the site. Afterward, we slowly emerged to take in the rest of the doused site.
Those gray clouds killed the usually turquoise-gem color of the water. You can just do an image search online to see what this beach looks like under clear blue sunny skies... quite different. The main temple, which is dedicated to the Mayan "diving god", is seen on top of the cliffs above this beach. According to the Mayans, the diving god was incarnate as the planet Venus, and the main temple's commanding view of the night sky would have offered a great platform to view our tempestuous sister planet. Beaches surround the main temple, sitting just below the cliffs. These playas are open for bathing, though with the weather the way it was, it wasn't the most inviting day for a swim.
As I mentioned above, Tulum was a fortified city, as many of the later Mayan cities also were. On the seaward side, steep cliffs and the sea itself were barrier enough against attack. For the other 180 degrees, the Tulum Mayans surrounded their city with walls, making Tulum a very defendable spot. This was for good reason, Tulum was a much smaller city than Chichen Itza, but it had good access to major trading routes by land and sea, so it was probably a relatively wealthy city. Also, as I mentioned in the last post, the Mayans were a pretty violent bunch, waging wars against their neighbors to acquire their resources and slaves for "games" and human sacrifices.
The architecture at Tulum is quite interesting... walls flare out and the doors angle in. The effect is kind of odd... it makes the place seem as if it might fall down on you and it also makes the buildings appear bigger than they really are. These features were intentional.
The calm after the storm... I never got those perfect pictures of Mayan pyramid atop cliffs overlooking a beautiful turquoise Caribbean Sea. So, I guess I'll just have to return to Tulum again in the future, hopefully when I have more time to indulge more in the eco-tourist life. Of course, the weather cleared on my drive back through the jungle. With the sun shining, butterflies started pouring out of the trees and into the roadway... they were all different colors and sizes. It was quite beautiful. Then I saw my first wild tarantula. The spiders must have been driven out of their holes by the rain; there were many of them on the road. I didn't hit any, and I had to slow down to convince myself that I wasn't going crazy. I was right though, there were big black, hairy spiders, each of which was bigger than my own hand, just crawling across the road. Pretty crazy cool driving experience.
Next stop, Valladolid for lunch. This city turned out to be a hidden gem... I was enchanted by the calm, sleepy pace and brightly colored colonial buildings all around the city center.
Obviously other travelers have also been enchanted by Valladolid. There were several hotels and a few souvenir shops around the centro, as well as plenty of restaurants and cantinas.
The place was charming... just something about those colors shining in the sunlight I guess.
I ate lunch at this little cantina on the main square. I had tacos with local Yucatecan specialties like poc chuc and cochinita pibil. They were served up with fiery habanero salsa, and they were easily one of the top meals I ate on the trip. The place was nice and atmospheric too. I sat outside under the arcade and enjoyed watching people go about their business throughout the main square.
I don't have too much more to say about Valladolid... hopefully these pictures convey that is is a charming place, great for strolling around, and very photogenic.
Ah ha... a Mezcaleria/Tequileria. Most people know about tequila, the spirit derived from blue agave grown only in Jalisco State. Many fewer people know about mescal, another spirit but derived from the maguey plant primarily from the state of Oaxaca. Mescal often has a worm in the bottle, something that many people mistake for tequila (no worms), but the "finish the bottle, eat the worm" is definitely a tradition. Despite the worm, mescal is a complex and tasty drink, kind of like the scotch of Mexico. It has smoky and earthy flavors, and each one is different. I found it to be good stuff (ask the bartender for a good one and sip it, don't shoot it) and worth checking out if you are a spirits aficionado or enthusiast.
Valladolid also makes a great base for exploring more cenotes. I stopped by two that were just a few miles outside of town, X'keken and Samula. These two cenotes sit on either side of the rough road leading into the area. You'd never know they were there if it weren't for the signs, parking lot, and shops set up at the entrances. After getting tickets, it is just a short walk into both though, and it is pretty neat walking into a hole in the ground and finding this:
This was inside X'keken, which was my favorite of the two. This cenote is inside a cave, and there is a hole in the ceiling, letting in a spotlight of sunshine from the world above. Definitely the neatest features are the stalactites hanging above the water, with dangling tree roots seemingly emulating them, and the stalagmites growing up underneath the water. The water is so incredibly clear and blue too... it's just beautiful. You can swim here, and locals rent goggles and flippers for those that want to explore the depths.
X'keken also has a population of these black fish, which looked a lot like tiny black catfish. They had no fear of people, and you could swim amongst them and touch them freely.
My spot of weather bad luck changed entirely at X'keken. I got sunny skies above and shining spotlights within the cavern. This is something I was particularly interested in because I had read in National Geographic about such cenotes just a month before my trip. When the beam of light comes in, it not only lights up the surrounding water and sends a refracted beam down to the bottom of the pool, but it also reflects from the surface and casts a bright spot on the ceiling of the cavern! For another clear example of this, see the first picture of this post. Historians think that the ancient Mayans used cenotes like this to determine the equinoxes. On equinox days, light from the midday Sun will enter straight into the cenote, causing no reflected spot on the ceiling or walls! The Mayans studied this, finding that such days happened twice per year. This allowed them to better predict the motion of the Sun in the sky throughout the year, which were calculations critical to the placement and geometry of sites like El Castillo at Chichen Itza.
Here you can see the beam shooting down to the bottom of the pool. The cenote was quite deep away from the hole in the ceiling (which formed a mound of fallen earth and debris beneath it). Over on the far side in this picture, I could no longer swim to the bottom and quickly lost the light in the depths. Most cenotes are not closed pools, but are interconnected via a complex network of flooded caves, cracks, and tunnels. This makes them very popular spots for divers, though they are also very dangerous dive spots... it would be a nightmare to become lost in the submerged, subterranean maze beneath the Yucatan. Cenotes are definitely a highlight of the region and easily one of the most spectacular geological features I've ever experienced.
Next stop, across the road to Cenote Samula.
Like X'keken, Samula also is a cavern cenote with a hole in the ceiling. However, it is a much larger cavern, and there are roots from a massive tree growing down through the hole in the ceiling! These roots used to reach down to the water, but I'm guessing they were trimmed to keep stupid tourists from climbing them and filling onto the jagged rocks below.
The pool in Samula is seemingly deeper and much darker than X'keken. It also has a very private feeling about it... as if you're in a natural sanctuary... in some ways, you kind of are.