When we first started planning this trip, Daughter Deanna told us about Viator, a tour company that they used when she and her husband stayed at Vidanta Riviera Maya with their friends. Following up on her suggestions, I booked a tour for us that included early entry to the ruins of Chichen Itza and Tulum on two separate days, with the hope of enjoying the sites before they became completely overcrowded.
Chichen Itza, Tulum, The Yucatan, the Mayans, words that bring to mind all sorts of magical, mythical thoughts of ancient cultures. It always amazes me how archaeology manages to string together so many little unlinked parts into some kind of cohesive whole, developing an entire story around a few stone images, pieces of old pottery, a random tool in a random place. Fascinating.
Like many people, I had always wanted to visit the Mayan temples, but also knew that so many of these sites are now completely overrun with tourists. I knew it might be hard to really experience the temples in the same way that some of my friends have talked about who visited many years ago. Still, I didn’t want to miss out and was really looking forward to the next two days of seeing the magnificent ruins.
Once again, we discovered that Vidanta is not particularly excited about guests leaving the resort with any kind of private tour. If you book through them, it may be a bit easier, but I didn’t know that at the time, and I am sure their tours are probably more expensive as well. For us, we would be required to be at the main entry gate for our early morning pickup at 5 AM. I called the concierge, the main desk, and anyone else I could think of to try to be sure that a shuttle would be at our building to pick us up in time. I was told that we needed to be ready at least 45 minutes early, even though it was less than a mile to the gate from our room. Still, we were as yet unsure of the layout of the resort, and had no clue how to actually walk to the main gate on our own in the pitch dark jungle morning, so we made plans to be outside at 4:30 AM for the shuttle.
As luck would have it, the shuttle was actually on time and we were at the gate half an hour early, along with one other couple waiting to go on a similar tour. We laughed together in the dark, and once again the world got smaller when we discovered that the couple was from Pacifica, where Mo taught school for 25 years. They knew many of the same people.
The tour bus was big, quite roomy, and comfortable, and we were the only guests on it at the beginning. There were several stops before we actually got on the main highway leading to Chichen Itza, a toll road that was in excellent condition. The Yucatan peninsula outside the window was broad and very nearly featureless, with miles and miles of thin trunked trees and vines. I only discovered later why this jungle looks so not like a jungle. The entire peninsula is formed in limestone and there are no above ground rivers or lakes, and as our guide said, it is like a giant green pool table. No mountains, no rivers, and very flat. All the water is underground, in the form of ceynotes and underground rivers that connect them, sometimes very deep below the surface, and the trees have to reach deep to get to the water, so they are skinny but have very long roots.
We arrived at the site a bit after 8, before most of the tourists, but there were definitely a lot of people already there. Our guide, Frank, was Mayan, and talked incredibly fast, first in Spanish and then English, going from one to the other mid sentence, rapid fire. He was interesting, and knowledgeable, but then once we were at the site, he turned us over to another guide, an archaeologist who conducted our part of the tour in English. Carlos was also Mayan, and gave us lots of little tidbits of information about the current status of the descendants of Mayan people in Mexico, and his thoughts on some of the interpretations of the temples, the art work on the temples and what life was like during the time when Chichen Itza was the most powerful center of the Mayan culture.
I think the most fascinating thing were the acoustics in the “Ball Court”, where the rulers could hear every soft spoken word of visiting guests several hundred yards away, and yet the guests could not hear the rulers at the opposite ends. Talk about surveillance! The guides all demonstrated this in one way or another and it was fun to hear the echoes and the conversations.
He showed us some interesting images that indicated there was a great diversity of cultures that visited the city, including what he interpreted as a Viking, another as a Middle Eastern person, centuries before Columbus and his supposed “discovery” of the Americas. He pointed out several images that showed how revered the snake was in Mayan culture, and images of eagles which do not exist on the Yucatan Peninsula, among other indications of a lively and varied trade with many cultures.
The main pyramid follows the cycles of the sun and the Venus Platform follows the cycles of Venus.
Our guide showed us the interesting angles of the Pyramid of Kulkucan, the iconic image recognized by most everyone as the most famous Mayan temple. He explained the complex astronomy of the temple, and its connection to the nearby Platform of Venus. He discussed what is called the Temple of the Warriors and said it was really a marketplace. (and he knows this how?)
The Sacred Cenote was not on our tour, with a long path leading to it that was a bit daunting for the time period we had to explore, and there were several other locations that we missed seeing simply because we weren’t sure what we had actually missed. I should have done a bit more research before we traveled here so that I would have known better what to look for at the site.
I really wished for more information, more in depth detail, but realized again that as I perused the internet about the site, there are as many theories as there are scientists expounding them. I learned that it is difficult to take in all the information given during these tours, especially when someone is talking fast and there isn’t a lot of background.
After the guided portion of the tour was completed, we were given about 45 minutes to walk around and look at the buildings and take more photos. I did get a few of the big pyramid, but the people were starting to pour in and I was worried because Mo and I had separated. Seems we didn’t communicate well enough about our meeting point and I went outside the gates to find her. We were told definitely that I couldn’t return once through the turnstiles, but with no Mo in sight, I convinced them to let me back in, and sure enough she was waiting for me at the place were she thought we had agreed to meet. Lesson: don’t separate for any reason in a really big crowd!
The three hour drive home was broken up by a buffet lunch at the small town of Pista. There were handcrafts, but more expensive and not nearly as charming as what was sold at the temple site. I fell for the tour guides instructions not to buy at the site because where they were taking us had much better goods. Stupid me, of course they say that. How could I have forgotten. I guess it was a good thing, I came away with no souvenirs of the place except photographs.
There were also a few moments of entertainment by some Mayan women who danced, and I literally mean a few moments, maybe 4 minutes at most. They were waiting at the door for tips as we left the restaurant. I don’t mind tipping for something like this, if it is at least some real entertainment. Call me a scrooge, but I didn’t tip the three girls.
Lunch was OK, with some typical buffet type food that wasn’t recognizable, but a big bowl of really good pica de gallo and some nachos that were yummy.
We arrived back at the resort just before 3pm, and as we had been instructed, asked the gate guard to call a shuttle for us. Excuse me? “There are no shuttles until 6pm, you will have to walk to the Main Lobby and get a shuttle from there to your room”. The main lobby was much farther away than our room was, so we decided to take the service road I had seen that led along the back side of the resort directly to the Grand Luxxe Jungle. Suddenly a nice little man tried to stop me, saying, “No, No, cannot go”. He insisted we walk the other way.
Walking home on the “service road” where we are not allowed to walk
Well, my red haired temper started rising, and I said, “Try and stop me!” and I said to Mo, “Come On, I know the way”. We didn’t go down the little guy’s road, but wandered off a bit till we found another entrance to the service road and in 15 minutes we were back at our room. Man I was ticked off! By that time of day the walk was hot, and I was really worried about Mo’s ankle, but we did fine and got to see the back end of the resort where all the dirty work is done in a way that isn’t usually visible.
Just to add a little perspective: The blue line is our prohibited route that we took home. The red line is what they wanted us to do, with the pink circle in the middle the lobby of the Grand Mayan. We are in the second to the last building where the red and blue line join together. The other pink circle by Azur Restaurant is where the front desk told us we would be located when they “upgraded” us.
That evening we skipped supper, with a good lunch in our bellies, and neither of us had any desire to wander around the grounds looking for shuttles and food and instead relaxed at home in our comfy space.
The next morning was another repeat, only we had an extra hour before having to get to the gate by 6:10. I was a little less stressed about it because I knew the back road and could get us there even in the dark if I needed to and if the shuttle didn’t show up. But it did, and we got there in time for our second day tour, this time on a less comfortable bus.
Our destination was the ruins of Tulum, about 2 hours southeast of our hotel right on the coast. We stopped again to pick up several different people at different locations before continuing. Just let me add a little side note here. I spent the entire time on the Yucatan Peninsula trying to figure out which direction I was facing. The sun was in the wrong place, the ocean was definitely in the wrong place, and no matter which direction we were traveling, it felt like the wrong direction! I pride myself on my sense of direction, but that peninsula, with water on all sides and everything at crazy angles completely confused my map maker brain.
When we arrived at the site of the Tulum ruins, there was just a slight cloud cover, in spite of the day’s prediction for rain. There is a small area of shops near the entrance, and then a long walk down a rough gravel pathway leading to the ruins. Once we were through the entry gates, however, everything turned really magical.
Both of us immediately loved the place. It felt different, probably because there has been a lot less restoration here than at Chichen Itza, and the ruins really feel like ruins. There is also more vegetation, and the location is magnificent, right on the coast overlooking the sea.
Our fast talking guide held up tattered photos of what the temples and houses looked like. I can only imagine how colorful the city must have been in its heyday. Sophia was quick, especially in Spanish, and she was sharp tongued and a bit funny, but her part of the tour really didn’t last very long. She gave us a few tidbits of information, but once again, I really wished I had done my research before I came to visit these amazing sites.
Later, at the resort, I attempted to find some kind of library or book store to follow up on some of the sites we visited, but they have nothing, except for a few tattered travel books scattered about the buildings here and there. In my comments at the end of the visit, I begged for a bookstore or a library!
Tulum felt like a place where people lived, even though we were told it was only the wealthy rulers who actually lived within the walls and the rest of the folks who tilled the soil lived in the jungle outside. The city was inhabited later than Chichen Itza, with theories that the Maya moved there as drought dried up the ceynotes inland. At Tulum, there was more rain, and they had the sea to provide food even in times of drought. Again, all theories, and I hope I can find the time to dig in a bit more into the assumed history of these places. The Conquistadors destroyed the people with their diseases when they landed on the beach here at Tulum, and the city was found rotting in the jungle in 1842 by more explorers. The Mayans had no gold, no silver, no metal of any kinds, and so there was nothing for the conquerors to take from them except their health and their culture.
After the tour ended, we were again given a short hour to wander a bit, and to walk the steps down to the beach. We had been told to wear swimsuits so we could swim in the water, but with all the algae the water seemed murky. It was also quite windy, and the sediments were stirred up too much to even consider swimming. Our snorkel gear is safely stashed in our suitcase back at our room. Turns out the windy weather kept us from any chance to explore life beneath the surface of the water during any part of our Mexican vacation this time around.
On this day, there was no lunch offered, just a simple “snack”, which was a cookie and a box of some kind of tropical juice. We were glad that we had taken the opportunity to pick up some snacks at the 7-11 type store in Playa Del Carmen when the bus stopped there to pick up a few people. Eating lunch under the trees while we watched the coatis was delightful. They are quick little animals related to raccoons, with prehensile tails like monkeys.
There are still beautiful flowers and gardens around Tulum, and for the first time we saw the endemic Yucatan Jay. The young birds have the yellow eye ring and yellow bill and the mature birds have a black ring and black bill. As with all jays, they were friendly and noisy, and made for fun watching.
Once back home in the early afternoon, with Mo’s ankle feeling OK, we decided to walk the suggested route to the Grand Mayan Lobby and get a shuttle from there. It took quite a bit longer, but was a pleasant walk and we got to see another part of the resort that we had previously only seen in the dark.
As we entered our room once again, the rains started in earnest. Hard rain, and even a bit chilly. We had no really warm clothes with us, and curled up in the big fluffy white bathrobes provided in our room while we tried to decide what to do about dinner.
The Taco Bar at Greens was the closest place, but in the pouring rain we thought better of walking and decided to take the shuttle instead. Our concierge in the building was very helpful, and for a $300 peso deposit gave us a large umbrella. With a shuttle ride to the Grand Mayan lobby once again, we just had a short walk along the boardwalks to get to the restaurant. I think that was the hardest, thickest rain either of us have experienced, and by the time we walked the distance, in spite of the umbrella, we were soaking wet. And in spite of the hard rain, the little taco bar was completely filled. Our friendly hostess once again found a place for us to sit while we waited for a dinner table, but the rain was bouncing off the sidewalks and all over the table as well.
No photo can show how hard that rain was coming down, but it was a true tropical magnificent crazy rain, and we laughed a lot as we got wetter and wetter waiting for our dinner. Finally a table emptied, and we had one more luscious dinner full of Yucatan flavors that are so different than the typical Mexican food you find in a typical restaurant in the US. Fabulous. Not sure I even managed a photo of that dinner, and I cannot even remember what I ate, but I remember the flavors and how incredibly good it was.
When we finished the hostess told us to wait and she called a shuttle for us. We stood under our trusty umbrella in the pouring rain and within 5 real minutes were on a shuttle scooting us to our warm and dry suite where we both immediately took a very hot shower and called it a day. And yes, I DID manage photos of the dinner, including my quesadilla with a magnificent hand made corn tortilla, and the most perfect flan I ever tasted.