The trip to Cancun for my brother’s wedding also doubled as our 20th anniversary present to ourselves. While the main goal was to relax and spend time with family, we still wanted to get out there and be tourists. There is so much to see in the area, the difficulty is choosing your poison: shopping, nightlife, ancient ruins, quaint villages, water-based theme parks, sailing (no), snorkeling, diving, swim with the dolphins, fishing trips… you name it. So twice we stumbled out of bed early from our food coma for all-day excursions. Monday was Tulum/cavern adventure day by ourselves and Thursday we went to Chichen Itza with my parents and Amanda’s parents.
At $140pp the price was steep, but this included: the 2hr van-ride both ways, our knowledgeable guide, a small 12 person tour, entrance to Tulum plus guided tour, entrance to the Mystical River and at least an hour of guided underground river swim, plus yummy tacos and beer for lunch on the beach.
Tulum was beautiful - archaeological ruins in a spectacular seaside setting. It was HOT. But beautiful. I’ll let the photos speak for themselves. Iguanas are everywhere. Our guide fed a banana to one who had been sick; they are like little dogs, sitting and waiting for scraps to fall. No, I don’t want one as a pet.
The Yucatan peninsula is rife with underground caverns, rivers and “cenotes” or open sinkholes. Crystal clear and cold, the refreshing water shocks the senses - a stark and welcome contrast to our 98-degree pool or almost-as-warm ocean water. 365 miles of subterranean river connect over reportedly 6000 cenotes throughout the area. Essentially, the entire peninsula is one big potential sinkhole. After Tulum, we negotiated a 9-mile, twisty-turny, sandy road through the jungle to our underground river adventure.
I was a titch worried there might be snakes, but the only creatures swimming in these waters are smallish catfish and tiny, 1-inch minnows that nibble at your toes unless you keep moving. Glad we bought water shoes. These fish are used in the local spas as an expensive pedicure treatment – not kidding. One young woman in our group was so scared to get in the water with them that she started crying. It was 10 minutes of one foot in, eeekk, out it came… one more time, shrieekkkk… backing out and literally trembling with fear, and all of us encouraging her…”you can dooo it!” She finally jumped in and relaxed after realizing once you were in the water you couldn’t see or feel them swishing around.
I wasn’t afraid of the fish or the bats, but there ARE a few spiders on the cavern walls… BIG ones. Fortunately they don’t go in the water and if anyone spotted one with their headlamp, well, I just didn’t look at it. La, la, la….it’s not really there. Except for the few spiders and one lost scorpion (they don’t live there, our guide said it got washed into the river by the recent hard rains), we didn’t see any other creepy critters. Quite a few bats were sleeping near the cavern entrance at the end of the tour. Don’t look up with your mouth open. Why? You don’t want a mouth-full of guano droppings. Ewww.
While not awe-inspiringly massive like Carlsbad Caverns, this guided spelunking experience was an intimate, up-close-and-personal caving tour. We viewed stalactites smoothed by endless river forces, cool-looking tree root systems and lovely limestone icicles. Zero back-lighting meant the only illumination was via our 12 headlamps (and my hundreds of camera flashes). This natural setting made us feel like explorers discovering the cave for the first time.
Chichen Itza (Ceech-in eat-sa)
Or is it Chicken Pizza? Apparently so many Americans mispronounce Chichen Itza, the locals like to make fun of how we can’t seem to get our tongue around the word.
Normally a 2-1/2 hour one-way bus trip, ours was 4 hours that day. The main artery road had collapsed into a sinkhole overnight and traffic was a nightmare. Hmmm, did I not just say the entire peninsula was one big potential sinkhole? Despite almost 7 hours of bus-time book-ending a seemingly endless 13-hr tour, the Chichen Itza experience is a must-see wonder of the world. The sheer enormity of this Mayan temple and its surrounding preserved ruins are a sight to behold.
The main and most recognized structure is called El Castillo, the Temple of Kukulkan. You can see in my photos the difference between the fully restored side of the pyramid and the crumbling, untouched corner. Unfortunately, but understandably, you can no longer climb the 91 steps to the top. All four sides total 365 steps, signifying the Mayan calendar year they are celebrated for devising. The Mayan understanding of engineering, math and astronomy, in particular, was incredible. For example: twice a year, during the summer and autumnal equinox, the sun’s angle forms a shadow of a snake appearing to slither down the side of the temple, connecting with the stone serpent head at its base.
El Castillo is the main attraction but the entire plaza sports other ancillary buildings showcasing intricate stone carvings, The Warrior’s Temple surrounded by a thousand stone columns, an imposing domed observatory, and a grand ball field. The fact that these structures are still standing, some since 400 A.D., is mind-boggling. Centuries later, the Toltecs conquered the Mayan people and re-made the city into a religious center. Mystical and brutal tales of this era abound: of the losing team captain’s head being chopped off, of virgins and babies sacrificed into the nearby cenote, beating hearts lain onto a stone temple as offerings to the gods. Indiana Jones type stuff. But 'for reals'.
The one disappointment is the over-commercialization. Visitors are confronted with hundreds of courting vendors lining every pathway INSIDE the park. While the products are very cool…silver jewelry, wood carvings, stone Mayan calendars, brightly painted pottery and fabrics...there are about 100 more vendor stands than necessary. Cat-calls come at you from everywhere: “Cheaper than Walmart”, “Almost free!” Then as you walk past… “OK, Free!” Riiiight. Nothing is ever free my friend.
Haunting jaguar screams emanate from wooden duck-call-type-contraptions for sale from every other vendor. “Rrrrouuwww!” Jump out of skin. “What the h…?” Walk another 20 feet…another scream….we figure out these tricky merchants are blowing into a piece of wood to create the sound. Walk another 20 feet…another scream. Dammit already. I’m going to take that thing away from you…and you…and you…and 50 more of you, if you don’t stop making that noise right now. Brian: “Should we buy one for Jack?” Me: “Oh my God, NO!”