Sometimes the best travel adventures are spur of the moment, throw caution to the wind journeys that reward with incredible experiences and end with promises to return. Heeding a friend’s advice on a recent visit to Cancun and after a day in which to me is quite a sterile, could be anywhere type of place, I hired a car, booked a guesthouse and sped off to explore Tulum an hour and a half south.
While it’s undeniable the sand is white and sea is clear and blue in Cancun, the entire Riviera Maya is blessed with what is surely some of the clearest ocean in the world. Tulum provides a more authentic Mexican vacation spot devoid of the high rise hotels littering the beach at its northern neighbour, where instead, ecotourism is front and foremost in the minds of locals where it’s hard to spot the number of beachside clubs and hotels hidden beneath the trees clinging to the sand along an almost endless coastline being washed daily by the same unbelievably clear, blue water.
Long ago Tulum provided the gateway and lifeline to the inland city of Coba though it’s port and the area is treasure trove of ancient Mayan ruins where one of the most advanced pre western civilisations flourished. Skilled astronomers and mathematicians, they developed a written language and were the first to cultivate chocolate!
I’ve chosen the Secret Garden Hotel, a small hotel with a few rooms built around a central garden (surprisingly!) perfectly located a block back from the main street. Having downloaded an offline Google map finding my way around proves easy although the hotel doesn’t come up on an offline search. Note to self for next time. The street however does and after a few kind directions from another hotel reception I am relieved to know I am on the right track, a few hundred metres along.
Dropping off my bags I consider leaving the car at the hotel and walking to explore. A thought relegated to the trash heap after the local sightseeing map provided by the hotel proved very useful, however was not drawn to scale. Hiring a bike seems a popular way to get around, however it’s a distance to the site and with the temperature pushing 35 degrees, well good luck with that! Back in the car I head down to visit the ruins which date back over 1500 years.
El Castillo is perhaps the most recognisable image of Tulum. Sitting on the cliffs twelve metres above the sea crashing below it’s the focal point of an archaeological site with perhaps the most stunning view in the world. I’m surprised to see steps leading down to a beach, tucked in under the shadow of the castle looking down from above as the ebbing tide allows towels to be laid out on the sand while the water invites with gentle waves. Sharing the sand with a select group this is private beach club privilege without the minimum spend, except for the $4 site entry fee. I’m not prepared for this so give the sea a miss although in the heat I would no doubt be dry in minutes. Others have weighed up the odds and splash about with gay abandon.
I’ve parked the car along the beach road and walked into the ruins so while driving back ‘happy hour margaritas’ grabs my attention. I drop off the car, hail a cab and allow Mezzanine, as the name suggests, a cool spot sitting above the rocks, to draw me in. While others sit on the deck I follow the steps near the bar that head down to the beach and settle into a nook in the wall with two chairs and a table a metre from the sand. A turtle nest roped off with a warning not to touch greets as I pop to the beach for a swim (now I’m prepared). Fans of David Attenborough or National Geo will be familiar with the plight of the annual migration of sea turtles and their offsprings’ struggles for survival. If you’re lucky you’ll witness the mothers climbing up the beach or the babies dashing for the sea. Only 1-2% survive and the locals do everything they can to give them the best chance. Anyway, it’s Mexico so the Margaritas are alway good. Frozen suits me although they don’t remain frozen for long and I’m soon adding ice into my second one as I sip quickly to stop the melting ice overflowing the glass.
While Tequila is synonymous with Mexico, once you’ve visited, Mezcal will be on the tip of your lips. At least it should be at least once. Sipped like a fine Cognac or Scotch it will either get you going or knock you out. Forget the stories you’ve heard about eating the worm at the bottom of the bottle. You won’t find this grub in the good stuff!
Tulum has taken ecotourism under its wings and many restaurants and hotels here operate with solar power, use organic produce, grow their own fruit and veg and even raise and prepare their own animals. Zero carbon footprint is the goal and many are close to and some have achieved this. The rest of the world take note. Restaurants prefer not to hand out plastic straws as they point to images of distressed turtles displayed on tables. The USA alone uses enough plastic straws to wrap around the world 2½ times EACH day! Something to think about where you’re snipping your next cocktail. Besides Margaritas taste better when you lick the salt on the rim of the glass. There’s a ‘jungle kitchen’ across the street hidden in the trees. Octopus is on many menus here and the chargrilled tentacles emerge from the open kitchen perfectly cooked, tender and a little crunchy on the ends. A Tequila cocktail of some sort washes it down.
The next day I’m heading into the jungle to explore Coba, 45kms inland, the site of ancient Mayan ruins dating back to 600-900 AD where they struggle to free themselves from the trees, reminiscent of those in Angkor Wat. Along the road I pass through a small town where the main street is lined with shops and boutiques. Beautifully ornate hangings, furniture and hammocks in every imaginable colour spill out onto the footpaths. I’ll browse on the way back as everything I’ve read advises to get to Coba early. I arrive just before eight when the site opens with only a handful of others although not before the sat nav guides me down the wrong roundabout exit. I’ve heard the stories of people being blindly guided over cliffs and down dark alleys and as I can still read the street signs which are positioned to guide even the novice explorer, I turn if off and follow my nose on the way back.
Hiring a bike I peddle around the jungle exploring like Lara Croft or perhaps Indiana Jones and head for Nohoch Mul Pyramid, the tallest pyramid on the Yucatán Peninsula. You can still climb this one, although I guess it’s only a matter of time. Unlike the Egyptian pyramids which were built to house the remains of royalty, these are stepped, so you can climb closer to the stars. Forty-two metres and 120 steps up the panorama over the canopy of trees is awe inspiring as the ruins of stone towers pop up here and there through the greenery. Weaving in and out along the dirt tracks there are towers and huge monoliths craved with artwork standing like tombstones around almost every corner and it’s incredible to be a solitary explorer at most of them. Hitting the exit just as the tour buses start dumping the masses I am ready to explore the cenotes. Perfect timing.
Cenotes are sink holes that form limestone caves with sparkling clear waterholes and they are scattered all over the place. After trekking through the jungle I am ready for a swim, although not before showering to keep the water pristine. Descending the winding staircases into the earth where spotlights illuminate the dim and the luxury of fans stir up the air, you can see the bottom of the pools which in some places are thirty metres deep. There are three cenotes close to Coba (Tamcach-Ha, Choo-Ha, Multum-Ha) and as they are down windy dirt roads they are secluded and quiet. The tour groups are relegated to the largest ones lining the highways where carparks can accommodate tour busses by the dozen and where swimming resembles a public swimming pool on a hot summer’s day. Here however after waiting for one couple to leave, I am alone, floating on my back looking at the stalagmites hanging from the ceiling and playing with the few fish that have somehow found their way here while bats and birds dart about.
I’ve worked up an appetite and have already decided on El Camillo Jr back in Tulum. The ceviche here is said to be one the best anywhere and I’ll second that. Their mixed ceviche with prawns, fish, octopus and sea snails is delicious. I order the small and am thankful as it’s enough to feed a small army. There’s a limit to how much raw fish I can eat at once however most locals are tucking into large portions resembling seafood platters. And that includes the kids. An obligatory Cerveza from a list of twenty local brews while dipping homemade corn chips into a spicy molé (like chocolate sauce with a kick) completes a lunch that will keep me going until dinner. I am always planning my next meal!
The drive back to Cancun is easy and I follow the signs, although the speed limit seems to change with concerning frequency for no apparent reason. I see some signs that are barely legible, the numbers faded into oblivion by the scorching sun. Perhaps they were meant for the road before the highway connected the dots along the coast? I decide to follow the flow of traffic although I settle at 120km/hr in my little three door compact as others fly past.
Neil Brook will try anything once and agrees with the bizarre foods motto, if it looks good eat it! He now calls Vietnam home and is looking forward to discovering more of Asia, making the most of this opportunity. A regular contributor to the Aussie travel site The Big Bus Tour and Travel Guide he enjoys sharing his experiences, endeavouring to create a fresh perspective as he travels the globe.
@treadingtheglobe I www.treadingtheglobe.com