This article is from the December 2001-January 2002 The Mexico File
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Hidden Secrets of the Riviera Maya
by Dan Millington
Dan Millington is a freelance writer and photographer. He has been covering Mexico (and loving it) for the past seven years. Publications he has worked for include: AAA Mexico TravelBook, Fodor’s Yucatán Gold Guide, Moon’s Baja Handbook, Departures Magazine. Orange County Magazine – and he is currently on the masthead as Travel Consultant for South Coast Magazine. Dan is currently residing in San Clemente, California.
I’ve been covering Mexico for some seven years –– I never seem to tire of it. I’ve been to Cancún many times and often wondered what mysteries lie south in places like Tulum, Coba, Pac Chen, Akumal, Xel-Ha and Muyil. I thought it was time to dig a little deeper and find out what this area of the Maya world really had to offer. After some research on the Web, I decided that Tulum would be the first stop and I chose Ana Y Jose Restaurant Bar & Cabañas for the first couple of nights lodging. I don’t know why, it just felt right. I was in for a pleasant surprise. From Tulum I would work my way north.
I booked a flight on Aero Mexico, which has direct flights out of Los Angeles, and flew into Cancún. Upon arrival the first thing on my agenda was to get out of the Cancún airport without paying a fortune in taxi fares. An important thing to know about obtaining transportation from the Cancún airport is that no price is set in stone, particularly with cabbies. My objective was to nail down a collectivo (Chevy Suburban) that was going to Playa del Carmen with other tourists and negotiate a reasonable price. I found one just outside the terminal and managed to arrange a fare of 15 dollars.
Playa del Carmen is situated, just inland, on the Mexican Caribbean about 40 minutes south of the Cancún airport along Highway 307. From there I would rent a car and continue my journey south to Tulum.
Once in Playa del Carmen, I found Budget Rent-a-Car and managed to negotiate an open-air jeep for $30 US per day since early May is considered out-of-season. I paid about half of what it would have cost at the airport. This out of the way, my Maya journey was about to begin.
The newly paved road from Cancún through Playa del Carmen to Tulum, Mexico 307, is in great shape. It is a straight 30-minute drive from Playa del Carmen to Tulum. About five miles before arriving at the town of Tulum, I was looking for a sign along the highway that said, Coba. Instead of turning right to Coba, I turned left and followed the road until its end and turned right. I was now heading for what’s known as Tulum’s hotel zone, an exquisite area of small hotels on the Mexican Caribbean.
I didn’t know what to expect when I arrived at the Ana Y Jose Hotel, but I do remember feeling a wonderful sense of tranquility. “This was nothing like Cancún,” I thought. Hugo Solis, the hotel’s manager was there to greet me. “Welcome to Tulum, Mr. Millington. We have your room ready.” Room eight, upstairs (of which there are only 15), overlooking the pool, gently breezing palms and the talcum-powdered beach. The room was decorated in bright Mexican colors with two double beds and an open-air palapa roof. I immediately felt the warm Caribbean winds flowing through me. The first order of business was to open my suitcase and take out one thing, my bathing suit. I have never undressed so fast (except for love making) to get to where I wanted to go – the turquoise, crystal clear, 75-degree Caribbean Sea. The plan, to lie in it for hours.
That night, Hugo invited me for dinner in the hotel’s restaurant – a large palapa structure with a sand floor and cool ocean breezes that relaxed the heat of the day. I ordered the fresh, whole-fried snapper with sautéed julienne vegetables and a curiously seasoned bed of rice. The fish fell off the bone and melted in my mouth. I imagined some weathered old Mexican fisherman bringing in the catch just hours before, still wiggling with life. During dinner, I asked Hugo, “I would like to visit Pac Chen and Coba. Can I do this on my own?” “Coba you can, sorry, Pac Chen you can’t,” Hugo said. It turned out that the Mayan village of Pac Chen had recently opened its doors to a limited amount of tourists after hundreds of years of isolation. Only one company was allowed to take visitors in, Alltournative Tours. The eldersof the village had voted for this company because of the respect they had for their culture and their environment. “Can you arrange a tour for me?” I asked Hugo. “Sure, when would you like to go?” “Would day after tomorrow be OK?” I replied. “Done,” he said. I was to be ready at 9:00 am.
But, first on my agenda for tomorrow, was the archaeological site of Tulum and the freshwater lagoons of the park, Xel-Ha. Tulum (Maya for ‘The Wall’), located about four miles north of Tulum’s hotel zone, dates back to the Post Classic period (A.D. 1200-1524). The Mayans here, some 900 years ago, must have been visionaries. They realized the value of oceanfront property.
I had heard this was the most visited site in the Maya world so I arrived early to avoid the crowds. At first glance, I was somewhat dismayed at how many kitschy shops surrounded the area where you hop-a-tram for the short ride to the site. Once there, guides are available to escort you through the ruins along with an explanation of its history. I chose to go this one on my own.
Notice this is the first time I have said ruins. Why? Because that is exactly what the site is. Ruined. The most imposing building, El Castillo (The Castle) overlooking the Caribbean, was the highlight for me. However, it was roped off to prevent closer inspection. Temple of the Frescos with interior murals that display typical Maya motifs was interesting. But that was about it for me. I guess I’m somewhat jaded after having been to such sites as Edzna and Palenque. “Perhaps Coba would be different,” I thought. After about a half-hour walk through Tulum and photographing every iguana I could find, I began to see more and more people arrive, hundreds in fact. It was time to make my exit. I was thinking on my way out that the site of Tulum is definitely worth a first-time visit; however, a short visit and a very early visit – on to Xel-Ha.
Xel-Ha (Maya for ‘place where the water is born’) is located several miles north of the archaeological site of Tulum. There is no way I could have missed the entrance. The sign Xel-Ha, along highway 307, is clearly indicated and massive. For all intents and purposes this is an aquatic theme park, but a nice one. This is where spring-fed inland rivers, cenotes, caves, jungle flora and fauna intertwine in a symbiotic relationship with the Caribbean Sea. The owners, Grupo Xcaret, have gone out of their way not to spoil this natural wonder.
At the park’s entrance I decided to splurge and pay the full price, $45 US. What I got was this: a locker, a towel, snorkel gear, a wristband indicating I could eat at any of the four restaurants – at anytime, an inner tube, and environment friendly sun-block. The latter took quite a bit of scrubbing to remove. Once inside, I located a path that would lead me to the locker room. On my right, exotically colored parrots, and on my left, the beginning of the translucent lagoons. Suddenly, to my surprise, five dolphins leaped out of the water and performed an acrobatic display. Normally, I’m opposed to the captivity of these animals. However, here it seemed different. Here they have the room they need to swim and it appears as though they seem to be content. Another high mark for the owners of Xel-Ha.
I determined that the best way to explore the park was to let my inner tube take me wherever the currents flowed. At first glance, I was amazed at the variety of the tropically colored marine life. “A rainbow can’t hold a candle to this,” I thought. Secondly, the clarity and color of the water, emerald green and underwater views that seemed endless. I floated by mangroves, caves, inlets and dense jungle. I lost myself and all time seemed forgotten. For what could have been hours or days, I’m not sure, the sense of time finally came back to me and I began to make my way back. Time for a quick shower and a late buffet lunch.
The drive back to my hotel produced feelings of bliss and contentment. “God, I’’m lucky,” I thought. What I didn’t realize was just how lucky I was going to get.
That evening, I asked Hugo if there was another restaurant nearby that I could experience. “Zamas,” he said. “Just down the road. You can walk there.”
The moon, like a diamond jewel above, was full, illuminating the sky and all my surroundings. During my walk to Zamas, I had the distinct feeling I was being followed. Not by a person, but by spirits, Maya spirits. It was as if they were saying, “Welcome, welcome to our world.” What I was about to realize was just how spiritual this area of the world really was. During my trip to the Riviera Maya I recall having one regret which I was to realize later that evening while at Zamas’ restaurant. Zamas (Maya for ‘tomorrow’) is located on a secluded stretch of beach that hugs a pristine Caribbean Sea cove. This small hotel is done in traditional Mayan style with thatched roofs, mosaic tile and all rooms with private porches and hammocks. The restaurant sits on a rocky bluff overlooking the serene cove. What I later found out, much to my liking, was that this property was completely self-sufficient – powered by the sun and the wind. “No rolling blackouts here,” I thought.
With its open-air seating and thatched palapa roof, Que Fresco Restaurante at Zamas offers a wide variety of dishes from which to choose. Their wood-burning oven offers 16 different varieties of pizzas along with traditional Mexican cuisine, pasta dishes and of course fresh seafood. I had heard the owner, Dan McGettigan, a jovial semi ex-pat, had the best eye for the freshest catch of the day. I chose the special, Filette Cernia, fresh grouper (caught that day) grilled in a mango sauce with rice and black beans. The flavors of the sauce, coupled with the seasons used to cook the fish, exploded in my mouth – another superb meal.
After dinner I reclined in one of the beachfront lounge chairs to digest not only my meal, but my surroundings as well. That’s when it hit me, my only regret. It was that I was alone. My wife Libby was not with me. I have never missed her more than at that particular moment. I kept thinking of the immortal words of Mick Jagger, “You can’t always get what you want.” The following day – the Maya village of Pac Chen and the archaeological site of Cobá.
The next morning, precisely at 9 am, Alfredo, who was to be our guide, pulled up to the hotel in his Chevy Suburban. Along with him were several of his Mexican cohorts. Later I would realize just how valuable these guys would be. “Hello Dan, are you ready for a Maya adventure?” Alfredo asked. “You bet, let’s go,” I replied. With camera gear, comfortable walking shoes, insect repellent, a towel and bathing suit, we were off.
The road to Pac Chen (Maya for ‘packed hole’ or ‘cenoté’) it turned out was the same road to the archaeological site of Cobá, about a 40-minute drive inland through dense jungle. I would have never found the village on my own. “I hope you’re all in good shape,” Alfredo blurted out. All meant, to my surprise, that there were several other journalists along for the expedition. “Why?” I asked. “Well, we’re going to be climbing, rappelling, Z-line crossing, hiking and canoeing,” Alfredo replied. Several days later I was to realize just how out of shape I was.
The village of Pac Chen consisted of 20 families (about 100 Mayan people) and is nestled overlooking a placid lagoon (Laguna Mojarras) with a backdrop of thick forest. Upon arrival we were greeted by the women and children of the village. The men were conspicuously absent. The first order of business was to change into our suits and begin the 25-minute trek through the jungle to Cenoté del Caiman. Along the way I was astonished by the variety and color of the butterflies, some as large as my hand and as small as my fingernail, all with colors I didn’t think existed. Just as I was about to lean up against a tree, “Don’t touch that tree,” Alfredo shouted. “If you do you will puff up like a balloon and we will have to go to another part of the jungle to find the antidote.” “OK,” I thought. “Good Eco tip.” Once at Cenoté del Caiman, an open-air lagoon, we were given instructions about our harness and how to Z-line down some 250-feet across the cenoté. Here, I would like to give fair warning to the men who may want to try this. That is: make sure your seat harness is adequately separated. Otherwise you might be speaking in higher than usual tones for awhile. Since the others seemed somewhat nervous about this, I decided I’d be the first to jump. “Geronimo,” I yelled. I flew over the lagoon at 40 miles per hour and gently landed at the water’s edge. “What a thrill,” I thought. Next, it was on to Balam Kin.
‘Rappel’ – Webster’s defines this word as: “The act or method of moving down a vertical face by means of a double rope secured above and placed around the body and paid out gradually in the descent.’ I was about to find out exactly what that meant.
After about a ten-minute hike from Cenoté del Caiman we arrived at Cenoté Balam Kin. This was no ordinary cenoté. Balam Kin was a rather large cave; 45-feet below the Earth’s surface where existed crystal clear, fresh spring water that extended some 60-feet further down. Here is where Alfredo’s team became invaluable. “OK everybody, listen up,” Alfredo said. “There are two ways to go down. My boys here can lower you down in a harness or you can rappel.” With that came a quick lesson in rappeling. I chose to live dangerously. Down I went, inch by inch, until finally reaching the cool, lucid pool of water. The beams of sunlight emanating from the cave’s entrance could only be described as spectacular. At the bottom were several inner tubes. I grabbed one and began my exploration. >From out of nowhere I heard a voice. “Hey Dan, come here. I want to show you something.” It was José, one of Alfredo’s gang whom I had become friendly with. I waded over and he proceeded to direct me to a remote area of the cave. With flashlight in hand he said, “Look up.” The light hit the cave’s ceiling and there they were. Bats, hundreds and hundreds of bats. The light awoke them from their daily sleep and they took flight. “What an awesome spectacle,” I thought.
After about an hour of wondrous exploration it was time to ascend. As with coming down, there were two ways back up. Hoisted or I could climb up a 45-foot rope ladder. I chose the ladder, which turned out to be a challenging test of all the strength I had.
During our trek back to the village where lunch would be served, suddenly from deep within the jungle came this loud bellowing roar. I thought, “that’s it – we’re going to be eaten.” From out of the bushes Alfredo announced, “That’s my imitation of the Yucatan Black Howler monkey. Maybe we’ll get lucky and see a few.” “Very funny,” I thought.
Lunch was served overlooking Laguna Mojarras and consisted of chicken cooked with traditional Mayan ingredients, rice, beans, hand made tortillas and watermelon for dessert. This simple food never tasted so good. During lunch I was mesmerized by the faces of the Mayan women and children, “angelic,” I thought. Here was a race of people who did not know the meaning of guilt, greed or anger. At that moment I felt blessed just to be in their very presence.
After lunch it was time for a quick canoe ride through Laguna Mojarras in search of the elusive Howler monkey. “Hey Alfredo,” I yelled up to the lead canoe. “Do the funky Howler monkey.” Sadly, a sighting was not to be the case that day. Next, it was on to the archaeological site of Cobá.
Cobá (Maya for ‘ruffled waters’) is south of Pac Chen about twenty minutes by car. The site is surrounded by two of the largest lakes in the Yucatan – Lakes Macanxoc and Cobá. At the site’s entrance were several small stores where water could be purchased. I advised everybody to stock up on water. “We’re in for a long walk,” Alfredo said.
More than a thousand years ago the Maya here began building what are known as Sacbé (white roads). These roads connected parts of Cobá to each other and as far as Yaxuná, 62 miles away. These ancient roads were marvels in engineering in that the road’s planners had no vantage point in which to plan and yet were able to penetrate dense jungle and arrive at precisely where they had planned. It’s no wonder they accomplished this. Here was a race of people who had developed the mathematical concept of zero.
We began our trek on a Sacbé heading towards Nohoch Mul, the tallest pyramid in the state of Quintana Roo. Later I would realize just how high it was.
At Cobá’s entrance I noticed an old Mexican gentleman with bikes for rent. If and when I return to Cobá (and I know I will), he will be the first person I make contact with. Cobá, I later found out, would have been better seen on a bike. Off a path on our right as we entered was the first set of structures, the Cobá Group, whose pyramids are built around a sunken patio with covered stelae depicting ancient Maya beliefs. Unfortunately, most stelae have been badly weathered, making them difficult to decipher.
Next we were to encounter an ancient Mayan ballcourt. Basically the game consisted of two Maya teams running up and down a slanted stone court trying to slam-dunk an eight-pound rubber ball through two stone hoops on either side. What made the game so challenging was that the hip propelled the ball. Some historians believe the captain of the winning team was sacrificed to the gods. I would have definitely coached my team on the art of how to lose. As I was viewing the site, I thought, “What we now know as basketball and Michael Jordan was invented right here.” It all made perfect sense.
Further down the main path we arrived at Nahoch Mul. This is where Alfredo, who had been silent for awhile spoke up, “OK everyone,” he said. “This is where your legs will be tested.” I sat at the base of the
pyramid, looking up twelve stories, 120 large steps, and thought, “Do I want to do this? Yes, I need the photography.” After downing half of my bottled water, I began my ascent. About three quarters of the way up I made a mistake. I looked back down. A mild sensation of panic set in. It was strange because I had climbed pyramids before and had never encountered this feeling. Luckily there was a rope nearby which I grabbed. Feeling a bit more secure I began taking my photographs. The canopied jungle stretched as far as the eye could see with a view of the Temple Iglesia (a Mayan church) in the background. After a very slow descent on my part, we began to make our way back to the entrance.
On the way back, other than an occasional long wailing cry of the Spider monkey, there was a serene silence as we walked through this mysterious area of the world.
During the drive back to Tulum we noticed a white nosed coati-mundi (resembling a large furry possum) which had been struck down by a passing car. I looked over at Alfredo and could see the anguish in his face. I thought to myself, as long as there are people like Alfredo here, this part of the world was in good hands.
Back at Ana Y Jose I had made arrangements with Hugo for another tour company to arrive the following day for the excursion to the archaeological site of Muyil and Cenoté Escondido. At 9 am the next morning Eco Colors and Jorgé, our guide, arrived at the hotel.
Muyil (Maya for ‘place of rabbits’) – I didn’t see any – is located 14 miles south of Tulum just off Highway 307. It is situated along the northern section of the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve which UNESCO has declared a “World Heritage Site” – which means it cannot be developed.
At the site’s entrance on the right is an ancient Maya dwelling dating back some 1,400 years. Jorgé, who spoke only twice during the entire trip, advised us at this point that insect repellent and plenty of water would be a good idea. Further down the main path was El Castillo, a temple reaching a height of 55 feet. I decided to photograph this one from the ground up. From the Castillo a trail led north to Temple 8, one of the more preserved structures at Muyil. Here is where we detoured along a path through the jungle to reach Lagoon Muyil. This is where the attack began – mosquitos, relentless and determined. It didn’t matter how much repellent we had on. They were going to get their lunch. I’m convinced I now hold the world record for the 200-yard jungle dash. Once at Lagoon Muyil the attack subsided and it was time for a quick kayak tour and on to Cenoté Escondido.
Escondido (meaning ‘hidden’) is exactly that. No signs mark its entrance except that it is directly across from the Robinson’s Club along highway 307 north of Muyil. Cenoté Escondido is an open-air, fresh water lagoon connecting with a small cave system suitable for a two-person dive team and great for snorkeling. Once there, the attack began again. I must have looked hilarious running down the path, wildly flapping my arms and hurling myself into the pool of water. Here I want to recommend that if one visits this particular area during the rainy season (summer months) bring two items – long pants and long sleeve shirts, and a repellent (which is non-toxic) called Cactus Juice. After about an hour of snorkeling we were off to Don Cafetto restaurant in the town of Tulum for a late lunch.
During lunch, which consisted of hearty portions of chile relleno, chicken tacos, enchiladas and frijoles, I began to incessantly scratch my wounds. This is where Jorgé spoke for the second time. “Dan,” he said,
“rub this lime juice on your bites.” I did, and, remarkably, the need to scratch stopped.
That next morning I bid farewell to my newfound friend Hugo and began my 20-minute drive north along highway 307 to Akumal.
Located in the heart of the Riviera Maya between Playa del Carmen and Tulum, Akumal is a water lover’s paradise. The diving here is unparalleled, with the largest barrier reef in this hemisphere just off shore. Winding unpaved roads around Akumal Bay and Half Moon Bay reveal quaint, Spanish-style architecture accommodations. I had chosen Hacienda de la Tortuga for my one and only night.
Hennington, the owner, and Roberto, the manager, were there to greet me. Later that evening I would realize what an integral role Roberto would play in the awe inspiring event I was about to witness.
For the remainder of the day I decided to wander down the beaches of Akumal in search of a good snorkeling spot. I found it at Half Moon Bay at the north end of town – where rock formations and abundant sea life made for a pleasant afternoon.
Later that evening Hennington invited me for dinner at his friend’s Italian restaurant, Lol-Ha, in the center of town overlooking Akumal bay. “What’s good, Hennington?” I asked. “I like their pizzas.” We ordered one large pizza (everything on it) and a salad Nicoise. During dinner we had a lively conversation about art. I later found out that Akumal attracted artists, writers, musicians and actors from the world over. After dinner we sat back and enjoyed a high-energy Flamenco dance show on the restaurant’s stage.
Later that night back at the hotel I ran into Roberto. “Dan, you have camera equipment for a night shoot?” he asked. “Sure, in my room,” I replied. “Please go get it and meet me on the beach,” he said. On the beach I asked, “What’s up, Roberto?” “Have a seat. Maybe we’ll get lucky tonight,” was all he said. About a half-hour later, from the other end of the beach we saw an infrared beacon of light flashing on and off. “That’s it,” as Roberto jumped up. “One has arrived. C’mon, let’s go.” “One what?” I thought. As we approached, Roberto’s friend had his infrared light on an animal moving up the beach. “Ah, isn’t she beautiful,” Roberto commented. What a vision, indeed. It was a large female Loggerhead turtle arriving in Akumal to lay her eggs. After her dig, she began the arduous process of laying some 100 eggs. “Can I shoot this,” I asked? “One shot from behind, then wait,” Roberto said. I sat there spellbound watching this extraordinary event. As she covered her hole and began making her way back to the ocean Roberto announced, “OK Dan, shoot away.” Roberto immediately began his routine of protecting the nesting site with rope, rocks and a sign. He then would begin the vigil of guarding the site for the next 90 days.
The next morning I said goodbye to Hennington and gave my sincere and profound thanks to Roberto. On the way out I heard, “Dan, you send me photos, OK?” Roberto asked. “You bet I will, Roberto.”
I dropped the car off in Playa del Carmen and took a cab to the Cancún airport. During my flight back to Los Angeles, again, I kept thinking of how lucky I was. To have experienced the many cultures and people of Mexico has, without a doubt, enriched my life and made me a better person.
Hacienda de la Tortuga in Akumal www.haciendatortuga.com Phone: (52) 987-590-68
Information on the Riviera Maya www.rivieramaya.com
To order the repellent, Cactus Juice www.vtarmynavy.com/insect_repellents.htm