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Exploring the Real Yucatan Peninsula

The Hidden Side of Tulum

Most people traveling to the Yucatan Peninsula do so in search of the all-inclusive resorts and perceived luxuries of well-known Cancun and Playa del Carmen. But what most people don't know, is that there are quite a few hidden gems amongst these tourist hot spots.

A quick 90 minutes by bus will take you to Tulum, Mexico, a small coastal town with a laid-back feel and pristine white beaches. Although it's become very popular amongst influencers these days, you won't find the massive resorts and overcrowded beaches of Cancun and Playa. What you will find are boutique hotels, ancient Mayan ruins, crystal clear limestone sinkholes known as cenotes, cozy cafes lining the streets, and a plethora of wildlife to fawn over.

Naturally, I chose this as one of my main destinations after people-watching in a stuffy resort for a few days. Excited to see the real Mexico, I was not disappointed. I hauled my overstuffed backpack a few hundred meters from the bus stop in the center of town to Hostel Che, a quaint hostel boasting air-conditioned rooms, a bar, and a small pool. After dropping my bag, I checked out the courtyard and quickly met my fellow travelers. We discussed plans and decided that a few of us would rent bicycles and ride to the nearby cenotes.

Less than an hour after arriving, I was off with my newfound friends to explore some of the lesser-known sinkholes in the area. For a couple dollars US you could enter two of these cenotes, which were conveniently located across the street from each other. Cenote Cristal lived up to its name. The water was strikingly clear and particularly inviting after our 20-minute bike ride in the humid Mexican summer. The dense vegetation made it feel like a private tropical paradise. Vines engulfed the lush green trees which bloomed strange flowers that looked like something out of a Dr. Seuss book. We climbed the steps leading into the crisp water and perched ourselves on the ropes that crisscrossed the pool. As we admired our surroundings, we noticed a turtle swimming beneath our feet. We watched through the water as schools of colorful fish swam in and out of moss-covered boulders. After some swimming and sunbathing, we moved to Cenote Escondido, or “Hidden Cenote.” As before, we were the only ones there. We found a rope swing leading into the sinkhole, which was slightly deeper and longer than the last. We took turns diving into the water before heading back to the hostel for the evening.

An Impromptu Adventure into the Mayan Jungle

The next morning. I wandered out into the courtyard for some breakfast and coffee. With no sign of yesterday's crew, I sat quietly by myself until I was approached by a friendly local around my age named Alexandro. He was interested in taking a group into the jungle for an inside look at authentic Mayan life, as well as a tour of an elaborate cave system with underground cenotes. Wide-eyed, I jetted back to my room to pack a day bag and jumped in the car with Alex, a German couple, and a Brit, and off we went.

Windows down, we sped through the jungle in Alexandro's un-air-conditioned car until we reached a small house accompanied by a roadside stand of handmade crafts and art. Alexandro knew the family living there and agreed to bring people by to look at their trinkets in exchange for allowing us to visit with their animals. Among the many animals were alpacas, hogs, chickens, and a little spider monkey named Natasha, who we were told was found abandoned in the jungle. Natasha was undoubtedly the star of the show, and her feisty attitude came out immediately. The second I turned my head to pet a dog, or speak with one of the family members, she was in my bag seeking out the sandwich I had brought for lunch. Giving in, I offered her some of my apple, and we became friends. As I tried to capture the moments on camera, she became extra fond of my bright pink hair, which Alex joked must have reminded her of a dragon fruit. This earned me the nickname “Pitaya” for the rest of the trip.

We said goodbye and carried on our way to a small village. Here we met another family, and several more animals. They showed us around, and we climbed a very high, very questionable tower that overlooked the village and the surrounding jungle. We retreated into the jungle on foot for a short hike before reaching the cave entrance. Alexandro and another local man from the village provided harnesses and ropes to repel into the narrow opening of the cave. One by one, we descended into the cave, which opened up into a large cavern. Looking up, we could see a massive root system that encompassed one entire wall. It was a very surreal feeling to view the world from this angle.

We explored several different chambers of various sizes, some connected only by small tunnels. Stalactites and stalagmites grew from each side of the cave, and bats fluttered around our heads. Finally we reached a large opening. The striped walls displayed layers of the cave's history, and below, the clearest turquoise waters I have ever seen. Although it was relatively cold in the cave, we had been climbing and crawling for almost an hour, and the cool, crisp water was quite refreshing.

After a quick dip, we continued through the cave, passing what was once an area designated for worship by Mayans long ago. We had intended to participate in a ritual with a local Shaman, but unfortunately he was unable to make it. Ultimately we reached a wooden staircase that led us back above ground. A short hike later and we were back in the village, with the smell of fresh-cooked fish in the air. As we ate our fried fish and masa tortillas, we were greeted by the many animals roaming the property. I slipped a few pieces to a mangey white puppy aptly named Blanca. I badly wanted to put her in my bag and take her home, but I begrudgingly resisted. I finished my food hastily to wander around, gawking at all of the other animals. I managed to find the tiniest of turtles, some parrots, and a brood of chicks scurrying after a surrogate turkey. Several photos later, and with the sun quickly setting, we were ready to make the trip back to Tulum.

Day Trip to Coba Ruins

After a good night's sleep, although my body ached from the previous day's spelunking adventures, I set out to explore the ruins. Tulum hosts some of it's own ruins along the coastline. However, knowing I would not make it to the famed Chichen Itza, I wanted to see a little bit more than Tulum had to offer. Luckily, the ancient Mayan city of Coba is only 40 km from Tulum, and consists of a complex of pyramids, monuments, and tombs. With a small chance of rain, I took a risk and rented a scooter rather than take a taxi with my fellow hostel-goers.

I managed to avoid the rain, besides a few scattered drops here and there, however, that was made up for in butterflies, which were in no way scarce. Splattered in bugs, I pulled into a crowded lot, locked up my scooter, and acquired a bicycle for a whopping 50 cents US. The trails between sites were lined with shade trees and full of people, bicycles, and tuk-tuks. Although the complex extends over roughly 80 square kilometers (about 30 square miles) it was easy to traverse by bike.

I bounced between temples, monuments, and intricate carvings, finally arriving at Ixmoja, one of the tallest Mayan pyramids on the peninsula. The pyramid was overrun with tourists climbing to the top to oversee the ancient compound. A few hours later, I was back to slaughtering butterflies as I sped down the road leading back to Tulum.

Despite my rosy shoulders, I had yet to check out the beach, so I headed straight to the coast and parked my scooter. The beach was significantly nicer than anything I saw in Cancun or Playa del Carmen. Although there was definitely a tourist presence, it was uncrowded and had a calm peacefulness. Palm covered huts served as cafes and people played volleyball on the clean white sand. The sun was fully ablaze now, so I hid under a palm frond and sipped an icy drink while I took in the serenity.

That evening, I needed to make some plans. Sitting on the edge of the hostel pool, I dangled my feet into the water and looked up routes and sights, trying to make a decision. I was soon joined by the cenote group from my first day, and a couple new travelers. A few of them were going to Bacalar the next day, to La Laguna de Siete Colores (Lagoon of Seven Colors). I had heard of this place before. It was further south, and said to be absolutely breathtaking. We made arrangements for bus tickets and accommodations, and that is where I would spend the last portion of my trip.

If you liked the places you saw in this post, check out these tours by GetYourGuide:


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