It was early when I woke- maybe just a little after 6:00 in the morning. I was more excited than nervous to see how I would handle leaving my hotel room. Would OCD get the best of me? Only time would tell. As usual, I gave myself too much time. Being the Type A person I am, I was already pretty much packed the night before. All I had to do was change into my bathing suit, find my dress and grab some cold bottled water from the fridge. With about 20 minutes to spare, I left the door with what could only be called sympathy checking (I felt bad about this being my first BIG trip alone in Mexico so I gave myself permission to perform some minor rituals) which only took about 60 seconds. It was a relief to be walking away, the no turning back rule has been strictly enforced for months now.
Breakfast is the only meal at the all inclusive hotel that I don’t have to force myself to eat. After a couple days of trying different things, I settle on my usual- French toast, eggs, sausage, fruit and an orange juice. Some days when there are strawberries and whipped cream, I treat myself. I stuffed down my food, too nervous to enjoy eating, but smart enough to know that if I don’t eat I will regret it later.
At 7:05 I arrive at the lobby. I’m greeted by a small white van and a man who introduces himself as our guide, Miguel Moo. I am the first person to arrive at the plan and I immediately I pick a window seat in the front, hoping we won’t have a full tour and I can have some space. Eventually we make our last stop and pick up a young, cheery Brit named Steph who asked to sit next to me. Without hesitation I invite her to sit next to me, excited for some company.
Our guide begins talking about the Mayan people. He has a confident, but humble and playful heir to him. He switches between Spanish and English with ease. Everyone stops when he speaks because his presence commands respect and attention. He begins by addressing all of the common stereotypes of people. He begins with pointing fun of Americans, Mexicans and the many travels from all over the world with their hats, ball caps, strong accents and speedo swimsuits. Afterwards, he asks us to share some stereotypes about Mexicans and then challenges us to re-think what we think we know, about the Maya- the idea that that they suddenly disappeared after the invasion of the Spanish, that Ancient Aliens came and showed them how to build the pyramids or that human sacrifices were unwilling captives.
He talked about how the Mayan culture and people are alive and well and that many of the hotel staff and guides are the direct descendants of the Maya. He went on to explain that the Maya are a shorter, dark skinned people with little to no body hair, black almond shaped eyes and round faces. The further North you go, the more Spanish looking Mexicans with lighter skin, and more oval faces you will find. Often time their names being traditional Spanish names Martinez, Rodriguez than the traditional one syllable last names of the Maya. He told us that there are over 3 million Maya that live across Mexico, Guatemala and Belize, 80% of which speak Maya as their first language. He also told us that later today, we would have the chance to meet some of the Maya and visit on of their cooperatives where their way of life, religions and language are still practiced.
But first, we are given the standard history of the pre-Spanish Mexico, which includes an explanation of its unique topography, which consists of entirely flat terrain with porous limestone rock which allows groundwater to flow through underground rivers and pool into Xenotes (pronounced senotes), or sink holes. As a result, there are no above ground rivers in Mexico and any topographical changes are likely ruins which have become overgrown with trees and vegetation. After a 2 hour ride, we arrived in Tulum, one of the oldest and best preserved of the Mayan ruins, which lays just 130 kilometers south of Cancun on the Caribbean shore.
Upon exiting the tour bus, I was greeted by a dusty street and a slew of vendors. Before entering the ruins, Steph and I stopped for a quick bathroom break where I discovered the strangest and most unsanitary faucet system I have yet to see. To activate the flow of water when washing your hands, you nudged a small stainless steel pin, the size and shape of a short pencil you’d use to jot down your lottery ticket number or the number of sushi rolls you want to order, with your fingers, while washing them. I wish I had a picture because the design made no sense to my OCD mind. I made sure to squeeze a normal size amount of sanitizer on my hands upon exiting, ignoring the urge to sanitize again, and quickly met up with Steph and the rest of the group to enter Tulum.
We walked a little less than 100 meters into where stone walls mixed with dense jungle greeted us to our right. After navigating along a limestone pathway we made a sharp right and scuffled through a small stone arch way with a pack of 10 other tourists. On the other side was what can only be described as a beautiful beach side estate with views of the nearby beach and a stone wall encircling you on three sides. Ruins, green grass and sun basking iguanas greeted you wherever you looked. Dots of tourists floated around the cleared land like busy ants weaving in and out of the ruins with cameras, sunglasses and hats in tow.
Our guide tried his best to keep us in the shade while he pointed out several of the structures dedicated to the Spring and Fall Equinox celebrations. He explains that 20 is the basis of the Mayan calendar (10 hands and 10 toes) and that daily life was closely tied to numerology and cycles of the Sun, moon and planets. He also discusses the basics of the Mayan social system and how they were separated by building and religious activities. Miguel pointed out the largest of the structures with huge plazas and Ocean views, which were occupied by the rulers and their immediate family.
Immediately surrounding those large estates were more modest, but intricately designed buildings occupied by lesser nobles and skilled aristocrats (astronomers, priests, architects). The remaining city inhabitants lived in stone and straw homes outside the boundaries of Tulum.
It’s hard to explain how open and vast, but cozy Tulum feels. The Ocean is comforting and every where you look there is something more to see- intricate buildings with pillars and windows and hints of where color use to be. Statues honoring various Gods with iguanas poking there head around and often hissing if you get too close. And the jungle, slowly creeping over the stone walls, surrounding the Ocean like a silent gate keeper to the ancient city.
Hands down the best part of Tulum are the views. One of my favorite views was the private beach front and cascading rocks. The waves near Tulum were smaller than Cancun but more tumultuous. And unlike the beach at Cancun with its shell crushed sand, the sand at Tulum was finer and whiter. It’s easy to imagine what it would have been like to wake up near the beach and stroll around this city walls, passing through beautiful bright buildings and eventually ducking under the archways as you entered into the nearby jungle.
It’s crazy to imagine being one of the Maya, looking out onto the shore and seeing a strange ship with sails huge the coast. And how strange would it be to have sailed across the big Ocean from Spain to see beautiful buildings on the coast of a blue Sea. Okay I total stole that from our guide and one of the information signs, but check out the pictures and you will see what I mean.
Miguel gave us an hour to wonder Tulum on our own. Steph and I took turns taking pictures of one another. I found out that she too was a blogger and hoped to quit her job someday, travel and write until her money runs out. I admire her for that and was delighted to share Tulum with her. It made me even more excited about my own journey, and all the other places I would visit and all the other travelers I would meet.
After Tulum we stopped at a Mayan cooperative to swim at a Xenote and eat some lunch. Before entering the Xenote, we were treated to a Mayan smudging ceremony so that we could enter the village and the Xenote. Afterwards we met a young Mayan mother who was making tacos fresh on a kern. Our guide invited us all to try some with a pinch of salt. The taste of the fresh corn taco muted any doubts I had about the unsanitary handling of food by lots of sweaty tourists. It was definitely worth it.
Lunch wasn’t so bad either and swimming in the xenote was amazing. Steph had an underwater camera and we took tons of photos. I can’t wait to share them with you because the xenote was probably one of my favorites in retrospect. Some areas of the water spewed warm air trapped from beneath the ground while deep caves running 150 feet deep and one mile long ran were connected to the sides of the xenotes.
Scuba diverse surrounded us and little kids floated in life vests while Steph and I swam in circles around the xenote. We even took turns taking pictures of one another jumping off the bridge.
After a quick pit stop and swim, we were on the road an hour or so to head to Coba- our final destination and the 2nd to last of the Mayan ruins I would see that lay deep in the Mexican jungle. My cell phone was nearly dead and I accidentally left the charger chord plugged in the backup charger, which drained the battery. Luckily our guide let me plug my iPhone into the car console. 15 minutes lent me nearly 20% of a battery- just enough to capture the rest of my day if I played my cards right.
It was nearing 3:00 when we arrived at Coba. A zip line tower and a small gift shop greeted us at the entrance. Coba was a lot less crowded than Tulum and we didn’t have to walk long or maneuver through too many other groups before arriving at one of the ruins called “La Iglesia” or simply the Church. Our guide spends the next 30 minutes talking about Mayan religion and the confluence of Christianity. He explains that many of the ruins are actually stacks of pyramids from previous rulers, and sometimes previous Indigenous groups who conquered the city. Jesus Christ and many of the Christian Saints were worshiped by the Maya, who were told they were the same Gods as theirs, just known by another name.
We moved onwards to a large passageway with two tilted stone walls with large hoops to our right and left sides. This was the site where the game called “Pok a Tok” by the Maya was played to help priests make predictions about future affairs involving upcoming battles, the fate of crops or weather patterns. Select members of society were chosen to bounce a nearly 8 pound rubber ball through a stone hope using only their hips, elbows and knees.
The game seems complicated and hard to imagine, with the passageway being so narrow, teams being able to win and lose points, and the dimensions of the passageway way and height of the hoop.
Most significantly, was the fact that it was the captains of the winning teams who were sacrificed following this religious game. According to our guide, it was an honor to be sacrificed because it meant you would bypass the underworld and go straight to heaven. Apparently this game was practiced in various forms by the Toltecs, Olmecs and Aztecs. It is also still practiced today by the Maya people on special occasions at Chichen Itza, where it is commonly referred to as Ulama.
The last part of Coba was a treat. We had the option of taking what our guide called a Mexican limousine (really just a pedicab), or walking a little under a mile to the base of Nohuch Mul, the tallest pyramid in Mexico. We opted to walk and hear a little bit more about the Mayan people from our guide Miguel who was constantly spewing useful information. If you look over there you can see the termite nests. Because it rains so much in the wet season, they build their nests up in the trees. If you ever get lost in the jungle you can poke a hole in their nest and eat them to survive he says-Miguel is definitely my kind of tour guide. He also points out another amazing feature I had never heard of. The Maya constructed perfectly straight roads that connected their cities. They used stucco and limestone to make paths that could be followed under the cool light of the Moon for religious travelers and traders. In fact, the very paths we were walking on were the original paths laid out by the Maya thousands of years before.
We had an hour or so to walk around Coba and climb the top of Nohuch Mul. Being the adventurers we are, both Steph and I blazed ahead, water bottles in hand and descended the steep steps to the stop without a single break.
When we got to the top we were huffing and puffing and overwhelmed with a breathtaking view. The ruins stood over the landscape, it’s rocks and paths giving way to building foundations and walls covered in jungle growth. It was majesty in the truest sense.
After a few brief photo opps, many moments staring off in the distance questioning the meaning of life and checking our phones to make sure we gave ourselves enough time to make the mile long trek back to the bus, it was time to head back down. I told that I would meet up with her at the bottom in a few minutes. I brought my crystals with me to charge in the Sun and needed just a few minutes to steal away and say some prayers.
The tourists at the top of the pyramid thinned a little and I was able to find a quiet spot to utter prayers for gratitude and for loved ones back home. I breathed slowly in and out, being mindful of how my body felt before opening my eyes and taking in the vast scenery that surrounded me. My heart melted and I felt a heaviness leave my body when I looked to my left and saw that someone had left an offering of beans, cacao and corn. I closed my eyes again and leaned my head back towards the sky. I felt so big and alive and aware of myself and my surroundings. I was exactly where I needed to be, content to share the Maya’s passion for the Earth, Sun and Moon and in awe of the precision, execution and expression their pyramids exuded.
Getting up the pyramid was the easy part. There was a slow line of travelers easing their way down with the safety ropes, and they were taking their time. I opted for the lean and step down approach for a quicker descent and quickly met up with Steph. We had run out of water and once again were running late to the bus. Steph treated me to some cold water (my hotel atm wasn’t working that morning and I had run out of pesos and cash) which was an absolute treat. I literally jogged to look at two ruins hidden just beyond the pathway to the bus and snapped a few quick shots- so much to take in and so little time.
Steph and I exchanged information, promised we would stay in touch and follow each other’s blogs. If you’re interested in reading about Steph’s adventures check back here later for a link to her site. Hopefully by the time you’re reading this, she has already quit her job to travel the world and blog for 6 months until her money runs out. Steph if you’re reading this- hello future you and safe travels my friend, I hope we meet again soon.
It was 7:15 when the bus dropped me off at my hotel. I had 20 minutes or so to shower and meet my good friends from Los Angeles for a special dinner at the hotel restaurant that requires reservations (fancy shmancy I know). Dinner was awesome. Tequila shots were awesome. The company was amazing and our service was on point. It was one of the worst tasting, best dinners of my entire life and I will never forget how sweet, kind and tolerant our waiters were of drunken banter. One positive thing to note is that my Spanish is excellent when I drink.
One shot turned to two and we braved our fear of ice cubes and tried the hotel’s margaritas. Afterwards we headed to the dance floor for the cupid shuffle, the Macarena, the electric slide, the wobble and pretty much ever other group synchronized party dance you can think of. In a rather rare moment, I also got caught up dancing bachata with one of the hotel staff for an entire song. By myself. Because everyone magically left the dance floor. And for a moment in time, I pretended I was on dancing with the stars only really it was dancing with OCD ‘cause it was sticky and sweaty and awesome and amazing and the best kind of ERP ever.
More dancing, more drinking, lots of bottled water and a skinny dip in the Ocean commenced for some time afterwards (don’t worry mom, there were no boys involved). It was a day to remember and a night bucket lists are made of. One helpful word of wisdom I wish to impart for future beach vacationers- don’t sit on the beach and let the waves hit you on the sand to exfoliate your legs, unless you are committed to spending a good 10 minutes cleaning out sand from inside your lady parts.
But it was all fine and dandy. I enjoyed every second of it, knowing full well I would feel it in the morning regardless of how much water I drank.