And so, as we crossed the border from Belize back into Mexico, our Central American trip came full circle, at least in terms of countries visited. This time the border crossing was a breeze, completed in 2 minutes with neither the two-hour wait nor the 100 pesos tucked into the passport that we had the last time. We just had chance to take note of how instantaneous the move to full-force Mexicana had been as we crossed the border (zero English spoken, dramatically different mix of ethnicities, obligatory taco and pollo (chicken) stalls lining the street), before we were straight onto our fifth bus of the day, driving 4 hours northwards to the town of Tulum.
Tulum is most famous for its Mayan ruins, and having already seen 5 sets elsewhere in Central America, we’d decided that this would be our last set…sorry Chichen Itza, Uxmal et al, maybe next time. Arriving just before 10pm (after 14 hours of travel) we had little opportunity to appraise Tulum town, but just enough time to find a hostel (Casa del Sol) and grab a quick bite to eat before hitting the hay.
The next morning we planned to use the hostels rag-tail collection of free-to-use bikes (the kind only a scrap-metal collector would bother trying to steal) to ride the 5 or so km’s up the coast to the site of Tulum’s ruins. The ride took us out through the town, largely strung along a 4 lane drag, which although not completely charmless, certainly has nothing approaching the beauty or interest of Mexico’s many colonial style settlements. It’s essentially a tourist town, with restaurants, ice-cream parlours, internet cafés, and hotels accounting for the bulk of street-side buildings.
The ride to the ruins was fun though, cruising along on rattling American style single-speeders where you peddle backwards to brake, occasionally gasping as we met a particularly baking patch of air. As we approached Tulum ruins, the signs of what was to come were there in abundance; a huge coach-park, a collection of tackily themed restaurants, a bunch of heavily made-up ‘traditionally’ dressed Mayan warriors, and a guy draping a large iguana over tourists shoulders for ‘amusing’ photo opportunities.
As we entered the main complex, it quickly became apparent that Tulum’s ruins could well have been designed as the perfect tumbledown temple for the tourist masses; an easy excursion from the resorts of Cancun, and small enough for a steady stream of substantial American tourists to shuffle through in under an hour. Within the smallish rectangular enclosure, a single path runs from one end to the other, where after exiting, tour groups can take a shaded walk back down a track to hop aboard their waiting air-conditioned coaches to the next must see sight.
In case it doesn’t come across, we weren’t really fans of Tulum’s ruins. Compared with other’s we’ve seen, they’re small, architecturally underwhelming, but most of all they’re overrun with tour groups. Say what you like about the Maya though, they were all over ‘location’ a good 1,500 years before Beeny, Allsop, and Spencer got in on the act. Perched on limestone cliffs overlooking impossibly blue water and talcum-powder fine white sand…as far as private beaches go I suspect there was little to rival Tulum back in the day. It’s just a shame it was a bit like feeding time in the human enclosure when we went down for a quick paddle.
After a fairly anti-climactic visit to the ruins, we took the coast road back towards Tulum town, cutting through a narrow strip of forest to reach the wide expanse of beach that runs virtually unbroken all the way to Cancun and beyond, 100+ km’s to the north. Off all the beaches we’ve ever seen, the one here is definitely top-3 in the white sand blue water stakes….the white too bright to look at in the midday sun, and the water a shade of blue you on ever see on postcards. It was so nice, that after heading back into town for a bite to eat, we rode straight back out to swim under the last of the days sunshine. The only down side to this excursion was an encounter with Tulum’s voracious mosquito’s…I swear they’d seen us ride past the first time, and waited to ambush us on the return leg, springing out of the forest, easily catching up with us on our bikes and (to quote Rachael) “sticking their dirty little snouts in, even through our clothes”. Brutal.
Before leaving Tulum the next day, we paid a visit to Tulum’s second biggest attraction, the Gran Cenote. The whole of the Yucatan Peninsular has been described as a large Swiss cheese, riddled with tunnels and caves as fresh-water rivers and the rising and falling of sea levels have dissolved the limestone bedrock, in some cases for hundreds of km’s inland. The Gran Cenote is where one of these caves meets the surface, the roof partially collapsed letting sunlight stream through to light the perfectly clear water. Apparently limestone sediment is particularly heavy, sinking quickly if disturbed to leave sparkling clear water. Learning from our Tulum ruins experience, we headed out early on the bikes, arriving just as the cenote opened, and for a blissful half an hour, we had the place virtually to ourselves. This alone is definitely worth the visit to Tulum in our opinion…we’ve done a lot of amazing stuff over the last few months, but nothing quite like swimming through caves dripping with stalactites, where swifts and bats swoop around in the semi-darkness. Awesome.
Back at the hostel by late morning, we packed up our stuff and headed to the bus station to pick up a ride to Valladolid, a smallish inland colonial town that promised a less touristy feel than Tulum, and couple more cenotes to explore…