Cobá and Cenote Choo-Ha, Quintana Roo
Spending the night at Cobá isn’t necessary for visiting the ruins, as the town is only a short drive away from Valladolid and from Tulum, but once I read the words ‘spider monkeys on the grounds,’ I couldn’t pass up spending the night at Hacienda Cobá.
The property is small, with only 12 rooms or so, on a manicured jungle property. It is full of song birds, metallic blue butterflies, lizards of all sizes, and at 2 a.m., the chattering of spider monkeys. The rooms are elegantly simple and very comfortable, and while there’s not much around the property, it is only a 5 minute drive away from the Zona Arqueológica Cobá.
Let me say it again about visiting an archeological site, GET THERE EARLY and bring mosquito repellent. This is a large site spread out throughout dense jungle, and the walk to cover all the ruins is a few miles; there are bikes for rent, including child size, and rickshaws for hire.
Visitors are still allowed to climb Nohoch Mul, a rise of 120 steps to get an arial view of the jungle top. Avoid the shiny worn down side of the steps, and frankly I’m not sure the rope helps much. If in doubt, go down sitting, one steep step at a time.
The site has two restored ball courts, tiny in comparison to the vast size of the court at Chichén Itzá, and extensive carvings protected under shelters. The jungle itself is of great interest here, with a multitude of colorful birds swooping by, those electric blue butterflies, and large beehives seeming to grow out of tree trunks.
With the town of Cobá being small, dining choices are small, and frankly, that is sometimes such a good thing. We stopped at the open air Chile Picante, where the seafood soup is as good as I’ve ever had. Unfortunately I lack photos of this meal, and many of the other meals mentioned on this trip. Frankly, I’m not so dedicated in food photo taking like to keep up with it while dealing with a very active toddler and a lot of restaurant meals.
Not far from town is a trio of cenotes, Choo-Ha, Tankach-Ha and Multum-Ha, operated by a Mayan cooperative. Of these, we only visited Choo-Ha, a shallow cavern cenote, recommended for those with small children. While it wasn’t the best smelling cenote we visited – a combination of bat droppings, enclosed mold and dampness – the experience of floating alone in a still and dark underground swimming hole was extraordinary. The cave is sufficiently lit for safety, but not so bright as to ruin the underground experience. Be aware the water is very cold, and the occasional bat does make an appearance.
The other two cenotes are open to above, though Tankach-Ha less so. Each cenote has changing rooms and showers, to make sure any sunscreen and insect repellent is washed off before entering. Entrance fee to each cenote is $60. I am not certain, but I do not believe life-preservers are available.
Aldea Ahau Chooc, Quintana Roo
If my memory serves me right, on the same road leading to the cenotes, we stopped at Ahau Chooc, a Mayan village with a sign clearly welcoming visitors. Seeing Mayan villages in this area is not rare. Being welcome into one is.
As soon as we parked outside the village two boys ran up to the car to greet us.
Me: Que onda?
Boys: Naaaaaada. Quieren entrar a la aldea?
Me: Si. Tienen algún sitio donde podríamos comer?
Boys: Si. Tenemos comida que pueden probar, y enseñarles plantas medicinales, y… es que… tenemos que preservar nuestra manera de vida, para el futuro…
From that point, one of the men of the village took over as tour guide, showing us indeed medicinal plants that grew in the area – milky liquid extracted from leave stems to clean teeth, a pair of trees related trees, one burning the skin, the other healing it, chicle trees, etc – and how they live in small flexible palapas adapted to withstand hurricanes.
One such palapa was filled with artifacts from the village, the oldest of which going back some 200 years. Everything was an object of every day life – different types of metates for grinding corn and herbs, wash basins, large ceramic containers for water, farming tools – but the villages valued this connection to the past enough to display them for themselves, rather than donating them to a museum. ‘If we give them to a museum, we have to pay to see them,’ the man said. ‘Here, they are part of our lives.’
What looked like a rough shelter made of short lengths of logs with a flat roof turned out to be an apiary, housing 7 types of bees native to the American continent, as well as European honey bees. Many non-academenic sources will cite the bee as being an European contribution during the Columbian Exchange. This is true when it comes to Apis mellifera, not when it comes to the stingless Meliponines cultivated for thousands of years by Maya people. Not every type of bee in this tribe produces honey, and certainly not in the abundance of the European honey bee. The honey is used as a sweetener and as a base for fermented beverages, but it plays are more important role in medicine. One of these bees produces a fragrant black wax, used for candles to light the village, which does not have electricity.
We were then taken to the community kitchen, where a group of women were seated at a low table around a large bowl of freshly made masa. Each would scoop out a portion, each portion the same as the previous, the same as the woman’s on either side. Then in swift motions, the portion would be pressed with the fingers of one hand, while the other hand, cupped around the edges, would turn the plastic sheet the masa was pressed against. I had never seen this method of pressing tortillas in person. It does not look easy, and it is not easy. My rather sad attempt rendered a tortilla that was round, but looked as if a savage beast had already taken a bite off of it.
The tortillas were thick and soft, meant to scoop food with. We ate them with a spread of toasted pumpkin seeds and roasted tomato, and scrambled egg with chaya, a type of spinach. I also ate several of those soft tortillas alone.
Our guide was the only man in the village at the time. He explained 6 families live there, but the other men were at the milpa, the farm. The embroidery and weaving work of the women was proudly displayed, and available for purchase, and this is a better place than most to buy a hand made hammock.
Entrance to the village is free, and all are welcome, but they do ask for donations in return for opening their doors.
Tulum, Quintana Roo
Tulum is the newest star of Mexican tourism. Chances are someone on your Instagram or Facebook feed has visited recently and professed their undying love for the area. Well fine, the area is worth loving in every way. The heat isn’t so bad, the breeze is soft and constant, the sea warm and calm, and the seafood is cheap and plentiful.
Tulum is where the contrast between locals and tourist is most clearly evident. billboards advertising new ‘ecological’ condos and resorts featuring smiling tanned golden haired men and women push up against neighborhoods of small tin homes, mostly lacking doors and windows, round black water tanks sit next to the shacks. The neighborhoods were often fenced off, signs reading ‘Propiedad Privada’ attached to it. Meaning, these are private homes, this land is not for gringos. The land with the new overpriced beachfront ‘eco’ hotels, that’s where gringos need to go. You get to call a hotel ecologically minded if there’s nothing separating you from the lizards and mosquitoes but some netting.
There are three types of accommodations in Tulum. These new fangled Instagram ready eco-chic #vacationgoals hotels, campgrounds, and hostels. I’m old-fashioned, I like walls, and a lot of those hostels have private rooms.
With this in mind we stayed at El Jardín de Frida, in the María Félix suite, for approximately $55 a night, getting solid walls, a kitchenette and breakfast included. During our visit, it consisted of whole wheat crepes served with fruit preserves and two different banana spreads. The first with cardamom, and the second with chocolate and fresh coconut. Banana mush is usually not appetizing to anyone over the age of 1, but trust me, I would happily steal it from a baby.
I don’t need to say to get to the archeological zone in Tulum early. You know this already. What I will say is this. There’s a small tractor pulled train which can take you to from the parking lot uphill to the entrance. Take the train. It’s MEX$30, or about $1.60. Don’t be the sweaty tourist grumbling about it being a rip off while huffing and puffing. If the low cost doesn’t sell you on taking the train, then think of it this way. If you walk, you’re on the same narrow road as the tractor train, being squeezed to the side and getting a mouthful of fumes. TAKE THE TRAIN.
Tulum was never a large city center during pre-Columbian times, serving more as a religious center and trading post. Built on high ground, the site overlooks the impossibly blue Caribbean, and was walled off from three sides. Beach access at the ruins has been closed off for at least a year, due to high tides and unusually high numbers of jellyfish in that area.
The city seems to have been dedicated to the Descending God, an upside down figure associated with the setting sun and bees, a motif appearing on several structures. Other prominent buildings served more as navigational aids, and to track the movement of the sun.
Tulum is one of the sites throughout Mexico in which the Danza de los Voladores is performed as a way to promote awareness of the tradition of the UNESCO recognized intangible cultural heritage. For those not familiar with the ceremony, 4 to 6 men, dressed in red and white, and as bird like in appearance as man can get, climb a 30 meter pole, and slowly and meditatively descend in a graceful spiral, head first, holding on with nothing but their legs. This is a huge simplification of a beautiful ceremony, of course, thought to have originated in Veracruz, on the Gulf of Mexico.
The beach at the ruins may not be swimmable, but further south in the hotel zone the beach is the same shade of blue, calm, though not terribly accessible. While all beaches in Mexico are free to the public by law, it doesn’t mean hotels can’t make access to them difficult. Public beaches in Cancun are very well-developed, with clean restrooms, changing rooms and at least some parking. Tulum may be a very old city, having been settled in the 6th century AD, but in terms of beach resort town, it is still a baby. With the beachfront as crowded by resorts as it is now, those public amenities are unlikely to pop up now.
If you’re willing to forgo the convenience of free public bathrooms, the beaches in Tulum are beautiful, with a young crowd, making with excellent people watching. And good luck finding a parking spot.
For a much mellower beach experience, we headed to the nature preserve Xcacel-Xcacelito, less than a half hour drive north of town. Lacking in all services except for bathrooms and showers, this area doesn’t see many human visitors, but the two coves in the park are turtle nesting grounds and are therefore protected from development. The humans who do venture here – not many, if at all any, Americans – will find a very nice ground level cenote and a gorgeous beach they can have almost to themselves.
As this is a wildlife sanctuary, donations are requested at the entrance, and life-preservers for use at the cenote are available free of charge. The park closes at 4, and is monitored by a life guard.
Back in town, almost everything is on Avenida Tulum. The souvenir shops are surprisingly pleasant, and the displayed hammocks are never more enticing than when swaying in the seabreeze. But there’s also seafood, and that is far more enticing than a hammock.
For mounds of ceviche, the very busy El Camello Jr seems to be the only place for the locals. It’s busy, tables packed as tightly as possible, with the sea breeze not quite cooling off this open air family restaurant. It isn’t fine dining, and it’s not supposed to be. This is one of the many differences in perspective between Americans and Mexicans. Americans hear the words seafood restaurant and think ‘fancy tablecloth joint with lobster and crab legs’ or in the other extreme ‘crapshack of the side of the road with good cheap tacos.’ Americans are all about subtlety. Mexicans hear seafood restaurant and think ‘yeah, the seafood here is good, let’s get everyone together and go have some! Ceviche tostadas for everyone!’ Or something very similar. Take my word for it, it’s true.
The service is chaotic, but the ceviche is fresh, tart, and not too spicy. The only flaw in the meal was the michelada and it not quite being the michelada I was expecting. A michelada is normally a tall cold drink of tomato juice or Clamato, spiced with hot sauce, Worcestershire, lime juice, chile powder, salt, and soy sauce if you’re really feeling the need for overkill, mixed with a Mexican lager. In this part of the Mexico, that is called a Rojo Ojo, or red eye. The michelada here was a mix of lime juice, Worcestershire, salt and chile powder, served with a Tecate roja. Strangely enough, the mix almost tasted like a Coke with lime. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t knock my socks off either.
Tecate roja, by the way, is what you ask for if you won’t want a Tecate Light, or Tecate Titanium. These do not exist in my reality.
Don Cafeto is praised for the quality of the breakfast, but their bowls of glistening escabeche don’t make an appearance that early in the day. It’s impossible to resist the thick large slices of carrots, onions, whole jalapeños and habaneros. This bowl gives you a warning: the food here tends towards the spicy. If you’re like me and share everything you eat with a toddler, it’s good to get that warning, even if it means you’re skipping the seafood soup and opting for chicken soup and ensalada de nopales instead.
Playa del Carmen and Puerto Morelos, Quintana Roo
Are you snorkeling? Taking the ferry to Cozumel? Are you crazy and love tourist traps of the worst possible kind? If you answered no to all three of these questions, skip ahead to Puerto Morelos. If you didn’t, I can’t help you. Our time here was exactly one hour, long enough to visit Plaza de los Fundadores, find it closed off for a TV taping, and enjoy the breeze and view at the pier.
Puerto Morelos was a disappointment only in that the bookstore I had been looking forward to visiting, Alma Libre Books and Gifts, was closed for the summer. Dissapointment is easy drowned with seafood soup and smoked fish tostadas at Merkadio del Mar. Don’t forget the deliciously tart carbonated limonada. This place is about as perfect as a beach seafood restaurant gets, with not just a view of the sea, but a few steps from white sand and torquoise water. Rounding out the perfect scene, for an extra MEX$50 during lunch, and we enjoyed a seranade.
It’s worth taking the time to visit the Faro Inclinado, the Parroquia San José Obreo and taking a walk through the artisan zone on Av Javier Rojo Gomez.
Isla Mujeres, Quintana Roo
Isla Mujeres would be a tranquil island paradise were it not for the swarms of scooters, golf carts, bicycles and tiny cars buzzing every square in of road on this long thin island. As it is, it is beautiful, but for tranquil, stare at the waveless blue-green sea at Playa Norte and stay off the roads.
Considered one of the top ten beaches in the world, it is known for its calmness, and the shallowness of the water, being able to walk out some 30 meters and still have the water level chest high. When you’re a beach and you’re popular, you get crowded, and here is no exception. The narrow stretch of white sand is packed with palapas for rent, well worth it if you’re spending the day here, but not so much if only passing by. There’s a good stretch of public access beach north of Tarzan Beach Club.
Two thirds of the way down the island is the government operated Tortugranja, or Turtle Farm. As the name implies, this is a turtle breeding facility, rather than a full aquarium, with a focus on restoring turtle populations in the area. The exhibits are therefore minimal, and the staff here is busy taking care of the turtles, rather than entertaining visitors. During hatching season, visitors can help release baby turtles into the sea. The rest of the year, get a kick out of feeding the turtles and watching them chomp at the water.
Admission to the farm and a bag of turtle feed are MEX$30 each. At the time of our visit, the Tortugranja was also home to a rescued injured dolphin, which is unfortunately a frequent occurrence.
Cancún (again), Quintana Roo
There’s a few things worth doing in Cancún besides frying on the beach. Mercado 23 is the city’s favorite one-stop-shop for anything. Produce, meats, spices, seafood, party supplies, candy, piñatas, voodoo dolls, herbal remedies, huipiles of all sizes, guayaberas, toy size versions of Mexican kitchen utensils, and endless food options. Prices here are extremely reasonable, everyone is open to haggling, and Spanish is a must. This is a locals market, with few tourists around. For the tourist experience, head over to Mercado 28. I skipped it, and can’t help you there.
The midday hours in Cancún can be brutally hot, and the Interactive Aquarium Cancún, inside La Isla Shopping Center, is air-conditioned. The aquarium is bigger than it first appears, and offers the opportunity to get handsy with starfish and sea cucumbers, and watch awkward interactions between people with too much money and dolphins needing a fishy snack. All in all, a good time.
If you don’t scuba or snorkle, and the idea of being trapped in a glass bottom boat for 2 hours with your toddler, but really want to get a look at some of MUSA’s statues, visit the replicas displayed across the street from Playa Langosta on Boulevard Kukulcan.
And as we said goodbye to Cancún and the Yucatán, the airport brought us one more good giggle, at the sight of a Guy Fieri restaurant, complete with a guacamole station in the dining room.