Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Tulum

Leaving Cuba was nothing short of a relief. There would be little more to say about it, except for a funny moment as we were checking in at the airport. Like many airports, they Havana displayed a list of things you couldn't bring on the plane, but this had a small difference - see if you can spot the odd one out:


When we landed back in Mexico, it was with great urgency that we escaped the tourist town of Cancun.

Driving through the resort district of Cancun after a week in Cuba and 4 weeks in Mexico was truly otherworldly. The resorts themselves were massive and decadent beyond belief. The "town" was full of restaurants like Planet Hollywood, "Jimmy Buffet's Cheeseburger in Paradise restaurant and Pina Colada bar" and other such Slice-of-Americana wonders. For those of us who had been trying to see Central America, not The-"Best"-of-USA-moved-south, it was nothing short of horrifying.
Fortunately, when we got into Cancun proper (e.g. past the resort district) the town was actually quite cool. We found good food (such a relief after Cuba!), some supplies which had been sorely missed and internet that actually worked, and overall felt much better about Mexico as a country. Then it was on a bus and down to Tulum.

Tulum is a funny little town. The town itself is little more than an extended truck stop, with only 1 or 2 roads running parallel to the main highway, but the beach - 10 minutes drive away - is a major tourist attraction. Needless to say, we planned to stay in town. There was, however, one small problem. Being "high season", none of the hostels would take reservations, and as we pulled into town, it decided to rain for the practically first time since we arrived in Mexico. It appeared to be saving it up for us, because the roads all flooded, and even the taxi drivers were sitting in the bus station with a very definite "you seriously want me to go out in that?" attitude. It took several excursions into this torrential downpour to find anywhere with a room for us, and then another dash out to get the taxi. Finally, however, we found Rancho Tranquilo which had a little thatched cabana just waiting for us, and we ended up staying 4 nights.

Our first day was spent in total recovery mode, revelling in the luxuries of edible vegetarian food, functioning internet and breathable air. Unbelievably, despite being situated right on the main highway, the air in Tulum was almost completely clean, and the almost jungle-like environs of the hostel made for lung-restoring cleanliness. We also met a local who took daily tours of people from the hostel out on snorkel tours of both a cenote (flooded cave system) and also out into the bay to see sea turtles and other such creatures of the sea. His rates were reasonable so we signed up for the following day.
Before then, however, we went out for dinner at a truly fantastic Thai restaurant, situated right on the beach looking straight out into the carribean. The food was absolutely phenomenal, but sadly the price tag was too heart-attack inducing to repeat :(

The first stop on our snorkel tour was a little intimidating: the cenote. This part of Mexico is riddled with underground caves, mostly flooded, and extending hundreds of miles. The part we went into was just the mouth of one such system, but it was home to some pretty incredible sights. However, neither Juliet or I had been snorkelling in several years and the combination of having to relearn this skill while swimming voluntarily into almost complete blackness was challenging and slightly terrifying - but worth it:


We were taken into a dark cave and one at a time pushed down to see the sunlight reflecting through the water from outside - a spectacular sight. A little further in, we discovered that trees had sent their roots through metres of solid rock to get to the fresh water available below.
We also saw bats flying around a second cave and got bitten by a host of tiny fishes that clearly thought we were insufficiently clean.
The final challenge for this spot was a 6m jump from the cliffs into the deep pool. While I did complete the jump, I'm ashamed to say that my fear of heights kicked in about 1/10 of a second after my feet left solid rock and my eyes were tightly closed by the time I hit the water. I came out shaking, and not just from the cold water. By far the scariest thing I've done so far this trip.

Next up was a trip out to Akumal, a overcrowded tourist beach, but our guide didn't seem to mind that. It was snorkel on, and into the waves in search of turtles, and turtles we found!

What a beach!
video
Turtle!

Not only that, but the reef and sea-grass was teaming with almost tame critters:

And suddenly, a wild sea creature appears :O


All in all, an incredibly rewarding trip.

We found an entirely vegan restaurant just across the road for dinner (we'd been looking for it, but both google and happycow were less than helpful in this endeavour) and ended up going back several times - The Hungry Veggie. If you happen to be passing through Tulum any time soon, make sure to stop in and say hi to Steve and his dog Cheeky (aptly named).

Our last day in town involved a mission out to the main ruins of a Mayan village, full of temples and similar stone structures. While, frankly, the remains of the town were reasonably uninspiring (after you've seen four or five ruined 2000 year old cities...) the sizeable stone wall which surrounded it was quite unique, and while no humans lived within the now crumbled village, the iguanas had happily moved in. Dozens of the critters scrambled all over the remains of walls, pedestals, altars and temples. Funky stuff.



Finally, after all this, we planned on catching a bus to a town on the border with Belize, and catching the boat across to San Pedro to spend a night or two on the beach. Unfortunately, while the first part of this plan went off without a hitch, one of us (*cough*me*cough*) forgot to pack the passports. So it was a 3 hour bus trip back to Tulum, a short run back to the hostel to pick those us (they had been safely stashed in the hostel safe during our absence) and then after a short wait, onto the next bus back to Chetumal. A very silly, and potentially dangerous, mistake. It also meant we missed the last boat out of town so got to spend a night in Chetumal. A very uninspiring town overall, we did discover a museum of Mayan history which turned out to be one of the better museums of its type that we had encountered.

From there, it was out to the docks, and finally we said goodbye to Mexico for goodbye. On to Belize!

-Kevin

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