Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Mayan Ruins and the Turquois Caribbean--Tulum, Mexico!

Impossibly beautiful Caribbean water, powdery sand beaches, enormous nesting sea turtles, freshwater cenotes, homemade tamales... I can tell you that if I were an ancient Mayan I would have put up my civilization in Tulum too!


Mayan Ruins Overlooking the Turquoise Waters of the Caribbean Sea in Tulum, Mexico

Tulum is the much less frequented (read that infinitely superior to) city on the Mexican Riviera than the alcohol-soaked hot spot of Cancun.  Take my advice, if you would like to see the Mexican side of the Caribbean, once you hit the ground in Cancun get in a car and drive south for an hour and a half and leave the Spring Break side of the Caribbean behind.

New 3 Bedroom Villa in Tulum Mexico

Here's the part where I let you in on some travel secrets, so pay attention!  Tip number one: Rent a home/villa/condo on vrbo.com.  We found a new 3 bedroom, 2 bath villa with a full kitchen, 2 pools, washer and dryer, full-time onsite grounds keeper in a gated community in Tulum for less than $900/week on VRBO.com (vrbo listing# 194243).  Having a kitchen and using it for most (not all) of your meals (Tip number two) is one of the best ways we have found to reduce the cost of travel.  This kitchen just happened to include 3 bedrooms for almost $100/night!  Try finding that at a hotel in Cancun...

Amazing Homemade Tamales Bought from a Mexican Woman on the Street in Tulum Mexico

Notice how I said cook almost all of your meals in the kitchen above?  Well, you can't really experience a place if you don't eat at least a little local homemade food.  These tamales were handmade (beef, chicken, pork, red, green, picante, and more) by a Mexican woman daily.  We noticed her sitting near a local shop with a huge pot, so we stopped to see what was in it.  When she opened the pot, the aroma of all those tamales made me instantly hungry.  She didn't speak any English, but it wasn't hard to communicate--just try and you'll find they are friendly and willing to try too.  These were only about $.70 each, and we ended up buying most of her supply on both days we stopped to pick them up for dinner (yes, we did go back again... they were that good!).  

Travel tip number three: Engage with the locals, ask them what they like, and what things you shouldn't miss while you are in their home city.  Be genuine.  Smile.  Try to speak their language even if you only know a few words.  This is probably the best tip I have for anyone who travels--and should really have been number one.  It has paid off so many times and in so many unexpected ways over the years that I can't emphasize it enough.


Sign at the Entrance to Sian Ka'an Biosphere Tulum, Mexico

Case in point.  While I was driving us down another crazy dirt (mostly mud actually) road doing my usual exploring off the beaten path, we pulled into the visitor's "center" of the Sian Ka'an million-and-a-half acre biosphere (I think of it as the Yellowstone of the Mexican Riviera). It was closed because it was Sunday, but I found a guy as I was walking around and struck up a conversation.  It turns out that he did work at Sian Ka'an, was a native Mayan, and was excited that we wanted to explore.  He offered to take us (all 6 of us for less than $200) on his boat the next day from the ocean inlet, through the huge lagoon, up the miles of natural canals (the Mayan highway), to ruins of the ancient trading post used by the inland and costal Mayans.  Having grown up in the area, served as a fly-fishing and birding guide, and working as a conservationist in the biosphere, he knew everything we could possibly have wanted to know, and exactly where to find everything--Manatees, Caymans (small Alligators), endangered Storks, Fish Eagles, and a lot more.  It was epic!


Guided Tour up the Mayan Highway Canals in the Sian Ka'an Biosphere in Tulum, Mexico

There were so many forks and branches in this natural canal system that we were amazed he didn't get us completely lost.  It was like walking to school for him--he knew every stretch like the back of his hand.


Ancient Mayan Trading Post Ruins Deep in the Middle of the Sian Ka'an Biosphere in Tulum, Mexico

Above is a picture of the ruins of the ancient Mayan trading post used by inland and costal Mayans to bring their fish, produce, and other goods to trade.  This is a ruin only accessible by an hour-long boat ride, so it is quite untouched.  We never saw another person the whole time we were there.  This was even more off the beaten path than I usually get us ;-).

Floating the Mayan Highway Natural Canal System in Sian Ka'an Biosphere in Tulum, Mexico

Our guide then took us to a dock and gave us lifejackets and said, "go ahead and jump in!"  It was a real lazy river experience with tropical (freshwater) fish, crabs, exotic birds, and the family floating down the Mayan Highway for about a mile or so where he picked us up in the boat.

Flooded Ruins in the Lagoon of Sian Ka'an Biosphere in Tulum, Mexico

On our way back to the visitor's center, we stopped at some flooded ruins in the middle of the huge lagoon in the middle of the Biosphere.  And then, as if he had some innate sixth sense, he found a family of Manatees poking up their noses for a breath every few minutes way out in the middle of the lagoon (no markers, or other distinctions to indicate where we were, let alone that the Manatees would be right where he knew they would be...).  You just don't get these kinds of experiences when you stick to traditional guided tours that are easy to find in a tourism-driven area like the Mexican Riviera.

The Beautiful Sandy Public Beach at Akumal Mexico

Another tip we got--first from a neighbor, Russ, back home, then validated and expanded upon by our grounds keeper in Tulum--was to go to the public beach at Akumal which was about a 15 minute drive from our Villa in Tulum.  There is a tourist beach here too where they will charge you an entrance fee, rent you snorkels and lockers, and sell you expensive food (plus tell you that it is better snorkeling than anywhere else--even though it is only 200 yards around the corner from the public beach).

The public beach was awesome.  Besides my family, there were only some elementary school children there for a half-hour recess, and about 12 other tourists.  Oh... and huge sea turtles, Lion fish, stingrays, Parrot fish, eels, Barracuda, Iguanas, and a bunch of other aquatic and beach wildlife.  The water was warm and clear, with a very gentle slope from the beach (you could walk out 50 yards or so and still not be in over your head).  The reef--in pretty good shape and teeming with tropical fish--was an easy swim from where we put down our towels.  I could have snorkeled for 3 straight months without getting out of the water once.  Just ask my wife if you don't believe me!  This was definitely our favorite beach of the whole trip, though there were quite a few in contention for the top spot.


We took this trip in June--the day after school let out--and that is turtle nesting season in Mexico.  Everyone in our family is crazy about turtles.  We swam with them (and they with us) out at the reef, and found many the huge egg nests they had made during the night.  As you can see in the picture above, there are conservationists who protect the turtles while they are nesting and mark/watch the nests so that as the hatchlings get a good chance for survival.


The Public Beach at Akumal Mexico All to Ourselves at Sunset

Travel tip number four:  Try to travel in May (or as close to it as you can).  This has been the best month for us regardless of the destination.  It is a "shoulder season" and airfare, lodging, and even food are usually significantly less expensive--not to mention you will have the place mostly to yourself (that's why they consider it a shoulder season and are glad to have you come even at discounted rates).  The picture above was taken only a few hours after the previous one.  See how many people you can find on this huge stretch of pristine beach.  That's what traveling in the Spring can get you.


Tiny Gecko on Brigham's Finger

Also, do your best not to miss out on the little things.  My boys never do, especially if it is a little reptile, amphibian, or crustacean.  This little gecko was on the wall of our Villa.  I'm glad every time they remind me because I have a tendency of not wanting to miss anything big, spectacular, or sensational, and as a result I often miss all the things that are tiny, spectacular and sensational.  Yet another big reason to travel with your whole family.

This blog post has already gotten quite long, but guess what... I still haven't even gotten to most of the unbelievable ruins around Tulum.  But, since I have kept you long enough on this one, I'll continue with the rest of the great stuff from our Tulum trip on my next post.

Are you convinced to take your family traveling with you yet?  If not, I have just gotten started, and if you keep tuning in I'm going to get you convinced--you'll see ;-)  

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