Sunday, November 6, 2016

Tulum Day 1: cenotes and ruins, part 1

We got a slightly late start because, well, we wanted to. But after breakfast and a dip in the pool to cool off because it's 85 degrees and humid by 10 a.m., we drove to our first activity, snorkeling in Cenote LabnaHa just a few kilometers north of town.  The GoPro waterproof camera was one of the things I forgot to pack (along with sunscreen and Jean Luc Picard) so we have no pictures to share, but I'll try to paint a picture for you.

What is a cenote? 

The Yucatan Peninsula is composed of fairly young limestone. Limestone is fairly porous. The limestone dissolves as the copious amounts of rain the Yucatan gets infiltrates into the limestone. This creates pockets and caverns geologists call karst. Sinkholes are pockets that have collapsed. A cenote is one of these pockets at about the level of the groundwater table with a small to medium sized opening to the surface. Many of the cenotes are connected by passages under, at, or above the water table, so you can scuba, float, or spelunk through them, respectively.

Who owns the cenote? 

A lot of the cenotes around Tulum are on Mayan land. Emilio spoke to the gate keeper in Mayan, a language that sounded more like American Indian than Spanish. Emilio said most people in this region learn Mayan at home and Spanish at school. The developer has an agreement with the Mayan landowner to use the cenote.

What do you do in a cenote? 

So this particular cenote was only discovered about 20 years ago. The guy that discovered it and has developed it for tourists to enjoy is still there doing it. After paying $47 USD per person, he handed us off to Emilio, who drove us in a Jeep Cherokee that had 130,000 miles on it and absolutely no struts down a very rough bedrock road through some Mayan houses to the cenote. We put on life jackets and grabbed a snorkel mask and flashlight and went down a non-OSHA approved wooden staircase about 20 steps to a platform in a cavern about 40 feet across with clear water in it. It was almost dark except of the beams of sunlight coming through the 10 foot diameter hole we had descended through.  We were instructed to jump in. Brrrrrr! The water is about 77 degrees*. Once in, we followed Emilio through a series of passages and rooms of various sizes looking at different things above and below the water with our flashlights.   It's really dark and nearly sterile down there. Stalactites and stalagmites grow from the roof and floor. There are some pockets on the roof where bats roost. We saw one big family of 12 or so big and little guys. Other life included spiders up to 3 inches in diameter, strings of what looked by spider silk made by filamentous worms so thin they looked like part of the silk, and lots of blind minnow-sized fish and a small white catfish. Emilio said the fish eat minerals. I'm not a biologist, but that seems like a hard living for a fish.  Huge roots from the trees above also protruded from the ceiling but stopped at the water surface.

*By comparison, groundwater in the valleys of Utah is at about 56 degrees, which is the mean average annual air temperature. Now that would be really chilly to swim in!
We swam around into different rooms, bumping into stalactites here and there. At one point we all turned our flashlights off to total pitch darkness. I would not do well as a blind fish.  After about 40 minutes we made our way back to the platform and the heat of the jungle above. It was the only time we would be chilled in 10 days of vacation.


Activity #2 for the day was the Tulum Mayan ruins on the coast a few kilometers from Tulum town. The parking was a rip off and they make it hard to get to the entrance without passing shop after shop of tourist trinkets, but once inside the ruins ($65 pesos or about $4 USD entrance fee) the ruins are quite nice. The complex is small, about the size of a wide football field, and not all the buildings are well restored, but the beautiful setting on the coast made us understand why they Mayans would build a fort here to occupy between 1200 A.D. up until disease brought by Spanish conquistadors in the 1500s wiped out the population.    
Temple at Tulum Ruins
Temple to the wind God
Detail of the temple to the wind God. The god is upside down.
The Caribbean Sea from the Tulum ruins

Coming through the barrier wall that served as protection from enemies and a separator between the privileged class and commoners.
The grass behind us was where people lived in huts made of perishable materials.
We stayed until they closed the place down. At 5 pm sharp, archaeologists came in start restoration work. They get to climb in and around the buildings. So lucky!
Detail of the building being restored
No people live in these ruins anymore, but iguanas like the rocky sunshine.
Ringtails and feral cats feed off human trash in the vendor area.
I don't take the most graceful animal photographs!
After we had had enough ruins, we popped down for the first look at the beach up close.

The rocky part of the beach

  It's a nice beach, with warm water, soft white beautiful sand, and barrier reef and gentle slope that make it perfect for swimming.

 Then back to clean up and head back into town for some delicious fish and shrimp for dinner at El Camillo Jr. Restaurant. Day 1 success!  

Tulum Day 0: Off the hamster wheel

Life's been busy lately. With Drew taking on check airman duties at Southwest and me being in the field a lot for work, we've had little time to be together.  We decided it was time to use some of those Southwest employee benefits and extend our vacation from New Orleans a few more days. Our criteria were somewhere tropical, somewhere cheap, and somewhere to get to easily from Louisiana for free on Southwest. A coworker of mine went to a tiny Mexican fishing village 15 years ago and said it was really laid back. Our bike friends went to the same place a couple of years ago and said it was fun and easy. We decided to find out for ourselves: Tulum here we come!

We chose a Southwest flight that had 50 empty seats on a Monday during shoulder season for tourist services. Worked like a charm. We landed at the Can Cun airport mid-day with enough time to get our rental car and drive the hour and a half south to Tulum on the east coast of the Yucatan peninsula.

First stop: the supermarket for some snacks and beers. I love looking at the variety of fruits and vegetables in foreign markets.

There are more varieties of dried chilies in the Mexican supermarket than dried and fresh put together in our market back home.
Drew found us a lovely 8-room boutique hotel at the west end of town down a super quiet gravel road called Villas H2O.

The pool and breakfast cabana at Villas H2O in Tulum, Mexico.

Colorful mural -so Mexican

The pool and reception building. The owners live above the reception area. Although they were there for part of our stay, they never interacted with us, which Drew found to be somewhat off putting.
The breakfast area, where managers Carla and Israel took great care of us

Our room is the second floor balcony overlooking the pool.
Modern style with towel swans - so "Resort"

After a couple of beers and a dip in the pool, we wandered into town to see how Tulum celebrates Dia de Muertos, or Day of the Dead. It was October 31 after all. We ate at a delicious vegetarian restaurant called La Hoja Verdeoff the Main Street for about $10

Drew's yummy squash and mushroom thing.

then headed over to the town square.

Excellent Dia de Muertos dancers at the town square. Drew and I were sweating in shorts and flip flops; I can't imagine how hot they were dancing vigorously in full costume.

There were many alters like this set up in the square. People put them up with pictures of their deceased loved ones and small offerings of food, drink, or special items for them.

Some of the locals in costume. We learned that the face paint is supposed to represent death coming for you.
That was enough activity for the start of our relaxing vacation. For what we had seen of the hotel and the town, we had a good feeling that the next 3 days would be interesting and enjoyable.