The Yucatan, Mexico – The guidebook makes the town of Tulum seem like a dusty truck stop, but it’s actually kind of cute. The streets are lined with restaurants, hotels and souvenir shops – but it’s not too tacky and the town has some charm. We paid way too much for our hotel, but that is how it goes when your traveling in Mexico durning high season with an impending apocalypse just days away. Anyway, it was a nice place with two-story bungalows with hammocks on the porches.
The beach is three miles from town and most visitors have to decide whether to stay in town, with easy access to restaurants and shops, or on the beach where you are pretty much at the mercy of your hotel’s chef, and prices. We didn’t really have to decide because almost everything was booked so we stayed in the only place that wasn’t super expensive.
The beach, Playa Maya, is stunning. Maybe you’ve heard us say this about every other beach we’ve been to, but wow. Once again we were taken by the turquoise water and white sands. The water was kind of cold though – at least compared to the water in Zhiutanejo and Mazatlan. Interestingly, there were no people walking the beach trying to sell stuff – which is a change from almost every other beach we’ve been to. I don’t know if people end up making more money in town or if there is an ordinance against it.
We tore ourselves away from the beach for a few hours to visit the ruins – the location is great, right on the cliff overlooking the ocean, but we were disappointed to find that all the ruins are roped off and the manicured lawns were reminiscent of a golf course. Frankly, it was hard to concentrate on the ruins anyway with that turquoise water calling our names.
By then, a few days before the end-of-the-world, hippies were definitely starting to fill up the town. Dreads and those baggy travel pants that every hippie traveler seems to be sporting were covering Tulum. I have no idea where they intended to sleep – maybe on the streets? It even looked like the second class bus station had become some kind of makeshift camp. We also saw some actual Mayans celebrating their upcoming new calendar cycle by performing a dance on the beach. A cop drove up to them on a 4×4 and I thought maybe he was going to ask them to stop, but he was just there to take pictures of them with his iPhone.
We still had no place to stay between the 20th and 22nd thanks to all these doomsday revelers so I called a place in Coba and managed to have an entire conversation on the phone in Spanish and booked us a room. I was so impressed with myself and relived that we wouldn’t be sleeping on the streets with the hippies.
I know our readers are tired of hearing about how great the beaches are, so I’ll move on to the cenotes. Apparently a asteroid hit earth a million years ago and created thousands of sinkholes around the Yucatan. These filled in with water, creating wonderful swimming destinations for locals and loads of tourists. The Gran Cenote near Tulum was our first experience – the first of many of these that we would visit in the next couple of weeks. The water was cool, refreshing and crystal clear. This is also a big destination for divers to explore the underground system of caves connected to the cenote.
Coba is a tiny little town on the edge of a lake one hour from Tulum. When we arrived at the hotel I realized that while I had conveyed the information to them correctly over the phone, I had failed to understand how much the room cost. Like everything else this time of year, it was overpriced for the small, very basic room that it was, but again we had no real alternative. Most people just blow in and out of Coba to visit the ruins, and maybe the nearby cenotes, or they come on group tours from Playa del Carmen, so the town is fairly quiet after the ruins close. It reminded us of some of the small towns we visited in Southeast Asia and it was a nice break from the hustle and bustle of the cities we had been visiting in Mexico.
We walked around town for quite a while trying to find out information about the bus to our next location and had a very frustrating time of it. First we went to the de facto bus station in front of a deserted-looking hotel across the street where a guy eventually showed up on a bike. After some confusing conversation we discovered that we could not buy a ticket in advance, and that we would just have to take our chances that there would be space available when the second-class bus passed through town.
We then tried to find out what times the busses come through and that took more wondering. A guy selling tickets to the local centoes was very helpful and told us the times and then pointed us in the direction of yet another bus stop where he thought we could find more information. Hopping to finally get some concrete answers, we discovered upon arriving to the other bus stop that the same man on the bicycle that we spoke to first also “worked” there. Aye Carumba! Well, if we had to sit on the side of the road waiting for the bus for a few hours, it wouldn’t be the end of the world. Or would it?
In Coba we started talking to some of the weirdos that had come for the end of the world. One guy from Marin County told Stuart all about how there would be an eight minute window at 5:10am on the 21st that would be his opportunity to ascend to some other planet or something. I guess he was hopping to be on top of the main temple at 5:10am – the park didn’t open till eight – so we wished him luck with that. We also met a group of younger Americans who told us they heard there were hundreds of thousands of people planning on being at Chichen Itza on the 21st and that they partying would be “wicked”.
Anyway, we decided to visit the ruins at Coba the day before the 21st so as to avoid the crowds of weirdos. The temple, Nohoch Muul at Coba is one of the few that you are still able to climb, and the tallest in the Yucatan (42m high). The site is spread out and we got there early and took our time exploring. In addition to the big temple it also has an impressively restored ball court. Mayans played a ball game in which two teams tried to hit a ball through a vertical hoop mounted atop a wall in a sloped ball court. The winning team had the honor of being sacrificed. I would so try and lose that game!
The 21st came and the world didn’t end at 12am or 5:10am. We still weren’t sure that it would be here after midnight so we decided to visit the local cenotes. We picked up half a grilled chicken and some handmade tortillas from a food stall and rode bikes to the three sites. These centoes were down inside caves and we had to descend staircases to enter them. They were artificially lit inside and super cool. There were very few people at the first cenote – one other couple and a dog, which forced us to tie our chicken lunch up in a tree so that it wouldn’t get eaten (by the dog) while we were swimming. The next two cenotes were a bit more crowded because the Playa del Carmen tour groups had made their way over to them by the time we got there, but thankfully tour groups never stay long.
Taking the bus from Coba to Valladolid turned out to be a bit of an adventure. We were told that the first bus would come through around 8am so we sat down by the street and waited and waited and waited and waited. Taxi drivers kept coming by to see if we wanted a taxi, but at 400 pesos, as opposed to 70 for the bus – it would be a pretty expensive trip. Eventually the bus came – a taxi driver made one last attempt to get us in his cab by telling us that the bus was full and that we wouldn’t be able to get on. We decided to take our chances – sometimes you just have to go with your instincts on these things. Besides, if the bus was full and we couldn’t get on, then we would have the taxi as a back-up. Of course the taxi driver was doing everything he could to get the fare before the bus showed up. The bus was pretty packed, but we managed to squeeze in- though we had to stand most of the two hour ride.
Valladolid, the town near Chichen Itza, was still packed when we arrived. We were grateful that we made a reservation as we watched the receptionist at the hostel turn groups of people away. All the wackos that had come down for the end of the world were still hanging around Mexico, I guess figuring out where to funnel their BS now that the world hadn’t ended. We met a girl at our hostel that first went on a rant about how horrible a book the Lonley Planet was and then proceeded to tell the woman next to us that she didn’t really know where she would be on the 21st but would use her pendulum to figure it out . It told her Ek Balam, which was lucky for her, I guess since Ek Balam is only a 45 minute bus ride from Valladolid. If her pendulum had told her to go to Guatemala or Timbuktu or “gftbvolkudswq” I’m not so sure she would have obliged.
In Valladolid I was also reminded why I hate dorm rooms in hostels. A German guy spent all night coughing and keeping us up and the bathroom was gross. I love the atmosphere and getting to meet people at hostels, but I still prefer to have my own quiet space and my own bathroom!
Our “Lonely Planet” (not a pendulum) guided us on day trips from Valladolid to Ek Balam and Chichen Itza – the last two of 12 ruins we would visit in Mexico (don’t worry, more await us in Belize and Guatemala). Ek Balam was cool because it had a different type of temple – asymmetrical with a intricate carving of a jaguar mouth around the entrance and wonderful 360 degree view from the top.
Unfortunately, we were drained by the time we got to Chichen Itza so we dragged ourselves around the massive site to explore before the usual masses of people started pouring in. Tthere must have been hundreds if not thousands of people there by the time we left. Chichen Itza is cool, not just because of the big, famous El Castillo temple, but also because it’s a lot more gruesome than most Mayan sites, with sacrificial stones and platforms of carved skulls.
The bus back to town was full of hippies who were full of themselves. This one old hippie guy was just going on and on about his hippie philosophies but the kicker was when he said this, “There is another way to pronounce ‘Jesus’, “jus us’, JUST US.” I’m not really sure the point he was trying to make, but the poor young guy he had the ear of was lapping it up.
With the end of the world out of the way, Christmas was in full swing. Back in Valladolid we saw a little parade with the following: Mary on a horse led by Joseph and a guy in a tee-shirt and jeans, three angels on foot, Santa in a horse-drawn carriage with three sexy santa’s helpers, and the devil on a horse accompanied by three more devils on foot. Leave it to Mexico to add a little bit of the morbid into Christmas.
It was Christmas eve, and we were looking forward to having some yummy tacos, but we discovered the place we had been the night before was closed as were most places. So we ended up having a Christmas Eve dinner of Cup-o-Noodles and Pringles while watching Moonrise Kingdom with some people in our hostel.
On Christmas we took a bus, a taxi, and then a ferry to Isla Mujers where we enjoyed our last few days in Mexico on the beach. Our hotel was way overpriced and a little disappointing but it was right on the beach sp we couldn’t complain about that. The water was a calm, clear blue – but cold. The restaurants were good, but a little pricey. It was warm, but rained off and on during our last day.
But again we couldn’t complain. It was Christmas, we were on the beach, and the world didn’t end. What a way to spend our last days in Mexico.