Click, whirrrrr. The camera shutter closes on yet another brilliant moment. To the west, the setting moon dangles on a deep blue background while eastward the rising sun guilds the facades of the scattered buildings below, highlighting the edges of palm fronds. Magenta, bronze and azure streak the sky overhead. Caribbean colors. Maya colors. The colors of our dreams.
It’s our first morning on the playa (beach) in Akumal, Mexico. From our balcony, we enjoy the breathtaking view of Half Moon Bay, the smell of the ocean, the sounds of birds, the tropical fauna. Akumal, “the place of the turtles” is located on the Yucatan peninsula, one hour and ten minutes drive south of Cancun.
At the time of this post, Akumal was still very much a secret getaway, discovered only by those who ventured south of Cancun along Mexico’s Caribbean coast. Here, the “Mundo Maya” steeps the intrepid traveler in a small, primarily Mayan seaside community with sandy white beaches, swaying palms, sun, surf, and serenity. Check out pix Here!
The “Mexican Riviera” of Cancun and Playa Del Carmen (“PDC”) are left far behind in Akumal. Instead of casinos, hotels and high rises, Akumal offers a friendly, village atmosphere complete with a local vegetable market, eateries and a delightful muffin shop. Resorts are non-existent (until the developers arrive!). Instead, visitors stay in local “casitas” and small condos that rent by the week.
On our arrival day, we rented a car at the Cancun airport and drove south along highway 307, a seemingly endless, dry, limestone-dusted concrete umbilicus that ties Cancun to the Belize border and beyond.
We had monitored Akumal message boards on the Web for months and knew to stop at the San Francisco market in PDC for cheap groceries and cervesa (beer!). We found an open Banco, exchanged dollars for pesos and left the hurly-burly. Soon we passed through the lovely arches at the entrance to Akumal Centro (village central) and were unpacking in our room at Hacienda De La Tortuga.
Our third floor view encompassed Half Moon Bay and a world class beach at Akumal Bay. A reef line just offshore tantalized these snorkelers–we planned to join the fishies after lunch!
On Sunday, we pack a few drinks in our collapsible cooler, we head 23 Km south to the ruins of Tulum. We roar along at 110 kilometers/hr, the jungle a blur on either side of the road. We pass infrequent landmarks like Aventuras Akumal (rental condos) and Aktun-Chen dry cave (tours!). We whiz past the community of Chemuyil and, further south, Xel-Ha (Shell-Ha), a Disney-esque water and eco park. Before you know it we’re at the entrance to the ruins at Tulum.
Sundays, entrance to Mexican national parks is free for Mexican nationals. We’re here early, at 8:00 am. It’s already hot. We head into the remains of the only major ancient Maya religious center on this coast. Tulum looks just like the books and documentaries–mysterious and magnificent. This walled ceremonial site was ancient when the Spaniards first spotted it in 1518. Numerous buildings are scattered throughout the site. The most prominent structure is The Castillo (Castle), which sits atop a 90-foot cliff overlooking the ocean below.
Gazing out over the layered blues of the Caribbean from the heights of Tulum is a peaceful reverie and a terrific photo op! We walk around, taking pictures and reviewing the history of this ancient citadel. We notice local Mayan families coming in and, behind them, the tourist buses. We take the tram in and out–it’s only 10 pesos, and worth avoiding a mile-long walk to the archaeological site in the heat. Hire a guide if you’re so inclined–we did our homework and didn’t really need or want one.
We head a few miles north from Tulum to Casa Cenote to swim and chill and join the famous Sunday BBQ. The turn-off to Casa Cenote is easy to spot, so we bangity-bang in second gear down the rutted and potholed track toward the beach, follow the curve to the left and we’re there. The cool, fresh water cenote is on the left, restaurant on the right. We dunk in the cenote then duck under the thatched roof of the restaurant to get a seat, enjoying the very welcome breeze and the exquisite view of the Caribbean. Whoa! There’s Kootie, the resident coatimundi (South American raccoon) jumping from her hammock to a nearby table as her human “mother” chases and admonishes her charge. Everyone in the place is cooing and laughing at this wonderful, friendly and mischievous creature. We shoot pictures like fools…
Early evening, and we’re back on the beach in Akumal, sitting at the La Buena Vida, swinging in the swings at the bar, drinking a cold one and trailing our toes in the sand. We witness an awesome rise of the full moon–orange, then yellow then white, hanging over the horizon like a spotlight. Click, whirrr. I take a mental photo of the moon with a silhouette of a coconut palm frond waving to and fro, a streak of white moonlight dusting the darkened ocean in front of the restaurant.
Bushed, we retire to H. de la T. to discover the sleeping accommodation–a raised cement slab with a four-inch mattress. Oh well, we’re tired and crash without further discussion.
Noisy birds in the nearby jungle wake us at dawn. We pack for a trip around the corner to Yal-Ku (Chal-Ku’) lagoon.
Snorkeling in the most gorgeous and pristine setting imaginable, we are amazed as we watch fresh and salt water being mixed by our movement, turning the formerly crystalline view into Jell-o, and blurring the view of brilliant juvenile tropical fish. After a day in this fantastic setting, we find ourselves back in the swings at the bar, laughing and reliving the day. We have another drink then head back to our unit, where we sip beer and eat chocolate cookies for dinner. Too wound up to sleep, too tired to go out to dinner, but hungry. Oh well–it’s vacation! We kill off the entire package of cookies and head for bed.
The next day, we’re off to world-famous Chichen Itza, a couple hours through the jungle by car. Up before the sunrise, we find the Coba road and head west through the awakening jungle. I jump out of the car to take a picture of the ribbon of concrete piercing the endless green. I hear roosters crowing at a nearby ranchero, the only sign of life for some miles. The mist is rising off the jungle, insects are droning in the background. I hear no engines, no airplanes, no voices, no human sounds. Just the jungle and my own breathing. The camera shutter sounds unusually loud.
An hour or so west, we come to the quaint town of Vallodilid. We eat breakfast at the buffet advertised on a big sign on a hotel on the southwest side of the town square (zocola). Decent food for a few pesos and a clean el banyo (restroom). Onward to Chichen Itza!
We catch the toll road out of Vallodolid and twenty minutes brings us to the Chichen Itza parking lot. We arrive early, as the place is opening. We get our tickets, stop in el banyo, hire a guide (350 pesos but be prepared to tip a lot more!). Juan is knowledgeable, in a rote way. Clearly he knows little beyond the script. This place is everything we expected, everything we’ve seen on TV and read in magazines. We’re riveted. We learn about the “acoustics”, apparently deliberately designed sound effects created by clapping in certain spots on the plaza between the Pyramid of the Sun and the Temple of the Warriors. A single clap causes an echo of 7-11 claps, clearly heard. The same clap, if one tunes one’s ear toward the pyramid, brings forth a wonderful, mystical or whistle. We wonder why the ancients designed these effects and to what purpose.
We carefully climb the scary, steep stone steps up 90 meters to the top of the Pyramid of the Sun in time to observe two large rainstorms sweeping across the jungle toward us. I stay and shoot film while people scurry to get down those steps before they get wet and slippery (not to mention the steps!) We enjoy the energy of the approaching storms, breathing in the smell of the rain mixed with the dank damp of the temple interior. Luckily, the storms hold off long enough for us to make our way gingerly down the steep decline to a timely rendezvous with our car, just as the sky and another tourist bus unloads.
On the way back to Akumal in a rainstorm, we get lost and nervous, watching the road practically wash out from under us. We drive past a totaled SUV being pulled out of a treetop by a wrecker in the middle of nowhere. Dodging two large fallen trees across the road, we see a few scattered huts and some pigs out in the rain. We finally get directions from a young boy riding his bike on the road, oblivious to the rain. We tentatively make our way back to Akumal…
The following day, snorkeling at the Gran Cenote is on our schedule, so we drive south along highway 307 and park in the shade of the grounds. We tromp down an ill-defined “path” among limestone boulders and loose rock that threatens to turn an ankle at every step, arriving at a large, uninviting hole in the rocky ground. Large, shy iguanas dart from our path. Soon, we arrive at rickety, narrow wooden steps that lead straight down into the cenote. We carefully haul down cooler, backpacks and snorkel gear, arriving some 40 feet later at the bottom of the opening.
Narrow “walkways” have been roughly crafted from short lengths of tree limbs- watch your balance! Butterflies flit in the sun, birds swoop from unseen nooks and caverns, chirping crazily. Grey iguanas race across sun-bleached limestone rocks then freeze, posing just long enough for a quick photo, then off again, chasing moths and other breakfast tidbits. Small trees and stunted greenery accent this wet, strange place. We follow one “walkway” to a platform over crystalline waters.
We manage to get into the water of the cenote without slipping off the hand-hewn rough ladder that leads some five feet to the surface. Small fish swim placidly around us. We paddle around in clear, cool water looking at the rocky bottom some 15 feet below. The sun pours down from the hole in the trees above, spearing ribbons of light through the mirrored water surface.
Snorkeling into the deep shadow under the cavern overhang, we drift through a litter of bat guano and bird droppings on the water’s surface. We think positive thoughts like protein treatment for the hair. However, we will put hydrogen peroxide in our ears later!
We change clothing at the el banyo on the property and head toward Tulum pueblo for some planned shopping. The 90-plus degree heat of May fails to wilt our enthusiasm for bargain hunting at the “Stop and Shop,” located near the bus station. The lady proprietor is really sweet and kind to gringas who speak terrible Spanish!
The next day we tour the dry cave at Aktun Chen.
If you are claustrophobic, as we are, you will probably do okay as there are few tight places. Generally the cave is very open, with lots to see and learn about. Just look out for the “road” into the attraction. Go slow.
Speaking of road conditions, the track through the jungle to Dos Ojos (“Two Eyes”) cenote is treacherous, a series of crazed limestone moguls, twisting and potholed and crumbling at the edges. The cenote itself is isolated and spooky and seems to emit attitude, as if it’s waiting patiently for something. We had the place to ourselves and snorkeled in the gloom of the overhanging cavern, watching swarms of swallows swoop around the circular opening to the cenote.
Then it was on to Zamas restaurant on the beach south of Tulum pueblo for lunch. What a magical place! Beautiful scenery, a windswept coastline and rocky crags reminded us of the coast of Maine. We enjoy a very nice meal in a paradisiacal setting, with the onshore breeze whipping through the stunted coconut palms that surround the restaurant. No Kootie here–just acres of peace and the roar of large breakers thundering upon cliffs.
Some afternoons we snorkeled over the shallow reefs at the mouth to Half Moon Bay. One day we spotted a school of giant parrotfish, each as large as a calf. The loud crunching sounds of powerful beaks pulverizing their coral snacks could be heard distinctly underwater.
Our last day we saved for the Mayan ruins at Coba. We arrive early, just as the archaeological site opens. Coba is serene and magical, with mist hovering around the tops of huge trees that sprout from the rubble. Mayan workmen rested from sweeping and raking leaves from temple steps–we could hear their quiet voices drifting through a grove of trees. Something about this place encouraged hushed tones.
We walked softly for several kilometers along an old sacbe-ob or road, wondering how many ancient feet had trod the very path we now walked. After hiking through the jungle for four kilometers, we came to the Great Pyramid, all 138 feet of it. Taking a deep breath and a large swig of water from our packs we clambered up the rough-hewn, awkward steps to the top. The view of the jungle from the temple summit was spectacular! We walked around the edges of the small temple at the top of the pyramid.
The only sounds we could hear were bird calls and the background drone of insects. Looking across the sea of green, we could see lumps along the horizon and just below it, near the two lakes that are part of the archaeological area. We pondered if these were un-excavated ruins, like the numerous mounds of rubble we passed on our hike to the Great Pyramid.
All too soon it was time to leave the Mundo Maya. We have so many stories to tell: of leaf-cutter ants creating endless trails through the jungle, of hermit crabs tickling our toes while we ate dinner on the beach, of moon rises over the sea, of sunsets over the jungle and the faint sound of palm fronds clacking in the warm night breeze. Some day, we will return to the mystical, serene Mundo Maya.