A Travellerspoint blog

Swimming with sea turtles: just another day at the beach

sunny 33 °C


I wanted to finish off our Tulum adventures, as we leave tomorrow for an overnight stop in Chetumal (right on the Belize border), on our way to Palenque. We have learned our lesson. When Google map tells us to expect a 8-hour drive, we know they are just playing with us. I want to tell you all about our snorkelling adventure, while it is still fresh in my mind, and I probably won't get another posting out for a few days.

The photos above are of Akumal Beach, about 25 minutes from Tulum. While Tulum has a reef, and some terrific snorkelling, Akumal's is even better. It has a beach with a reef and a lagoon, and draws bigger crowds because of the many fish, the manta rays and the big draw - giant sea turtles. Neither of us have ever snorkelled before, so we could have seen goldfish and been happy.

There are two or three big dive shops in Akumel, and they take out groups of 10-12 people. We spoke to a small independent operator, and went with him - for 500 pesos (about $45 CAD), we had a private guide, José, and all the equipment - life jacket, flippers, masks and snorkels. We really appreciated José's approach with us and his respectful consideration for the ocean. First, he took us out to about waist-deep water, and then helped us on with our flippers. Because we were absolute beginners, he had a life-preserver ring with him, and instructed us to hang on on that, and stay behind him at all times. He showed us how to walk in our flippers to avoid churning up the sand, to keep our flippers up when going through the coral beds, and under no circumstances, to touch the turtles (it is actually illegal). On went the masks, in went the snorkels, and we were off.

We headed over to the left side of the beach (top photo), where we saw a number of submerged Spanish cannons. (credit to a Tripadvisor pic).


Up until now, the attraction of diving to see wrecks, and rusted paraphernalia (yawn) was incomprehensible to me. Not that I am ready to jump from a rental snorkel to full scuba gear, but, whoa - whole other world down there. (That's not the only cliché I mentally lapsed into - "mysterious", "unknowable" - I worked them all). We were out for an hour, and I did not want it to be over.

This is where the "epiphany" comes in. I have been known to describe exciting moments in my life as being "epiphanal", which often overstates the case, and has provided Alex with rich material to mock his mother. In this case, "epiphanal" is the exact right description of an experience which I feel was life-changing.

images-7.jpeg images-6.jpeg

I know it is a poor carpenter who blames her tools, but my little Coolpix (which is very limited at the best of times) simply balked at the idea of taking underwater photography, so I have swiped a number of Internet images to accompany this story. These teeny photos do not begin to do it justice, but they do show a few examples of the fish we saw. There were no great schools, but always something to look at - over there, a one-foot iridescent blue fish, a few little black fish with angel wings and emerging from behind a coral fan, a brilliant yellow, blue and white striped fish. Just as I had imagined it to be, swimming with tropical fish. There are barracudas out there as well, but José never pointed any out. Sharks reside safely beyond the reef.

After we left the cannons, we swam over to the reef, which is about 200-300 metres offshore. The water became a lot bouncier, as waves washed over us, and this was the point I was very grateful to have a guide -this is the point I may have bolted for shore. Soon again, the water calmed, and the impression was of being in an enormous, spectacularly stocked acquarium. José led us very slowly; our three faces just below the surface of the water, and our snorkels just above. Stephen and I kept pointing out various things to each other, and as soon as I got the hang of not talking with my snorkel in my mouth (impossible), we simply existed in a silent, stunning world. Crystal clear water, absolutely perfect visibility.


Most of the reef area is from 12-20 feet deep - beyond that, the sea drops dramatically. In the reef, coral beds feature prominently, and again, my imagination was far out-stripped by reality. Huge cactus-like formations provide hiding places for fish and sit solidly alongside delicately waving coral fans. Stubby coral branches reach out in shades of whites, yellows and pinks. Depth perception is shot - I moved my hand down to touch a coral branch and it shimmered far, far below me.


We moved out of this coral "room" into a more open area, and there they were: two gigantic sea turtles. They glided up toward us - their magnificent shells like mosaic, and piggybacking remora - the sucker fish that help to keep their shells clean. They almost looked like they were checking us out, and one of them surfaced for air - its curious turtle face out of the water for just seconds. I did not want to embarrass myself by tearing up in front of José, but...seeing these creatures is like seeing a whale close up - it feels like an immense privilege, and it is very moving. We watched them for a while, then swam on - saw more fish, and more turtles, including a young one.


"Manta Ray!" The power and mystique of these strong, silent types is not to be underestimated. We saw two; each of them close to the ocean floor, with their sides folding in and out, feeling out their territory. They are magnificent.

Up until this point, we had not been overly aware of other snorkellers, but when we spotted the Manta Rays, the call went out. "Okay guys, this is your Nemo moment", shrieked one of the guides to his large group. I was so grateful to have José with us; his dignified presence and obvious pleasure at our enjoyment added so much to our experience.

As we left the water and walked back down the beach, I looked out over the bay, and felt amazed that it looks so benign and there is so much going on out there. I cannot wait until we have the chance to explore that world again. I can't stop thinking about it.

As we were gathering up our belongings, Stephen started to talk to this man, who was sitting in the shade, weaving palm leaves to make hats, bowls, little mats, flowers and grasshoppers.


His name is Denys Toquetti, from Brazil, and he is travelling around the world for $1.00 - the cost of the knife he uses to create his art.
His blog is: http://fibraverde.blogspot.mx/, and if you happen to understand Portuguese, you can follow his journey so far. From what we were able to understand with our English/French/Spanish, Denys arrives in a place (presumably limited to countries with palm trees), and sets up shop - a beach or market - to create small objects that people want to buy - this funds his travel. We were charmed by the idea and bought this basket for $150 pesos ($12) that he made in front of us. He then whipped up a flower and a grasshopper, and added them as gifts. On the way back to our car, a woman from Kelowna stopped us to see the basket - she had bought a similar one in Hawaii years ago, and she was so excited to see ours.


Back down to earth - today was our last day in Tulum - our last day at the beach and it felt quite bittersweet. Folks we had met on the beach a few days ago had told us about the many fantastic birds they had seen, including parrots, and we were keen to try and find them. They are staying in a condo compound halfway between town and the beach, and it has to be seen to be believed. Apparently it has been under construction for 10 years, with NO expenses spared. Tulum is expensive, but this is beyond. If it is ever finished, it will be its own destination. There are acres and acres and acres of jungle, with two condo complexes completed so far, and the beginnings of a pyramid built, as well as a mysterious courtyard. The plan seems to be to create a small village, and certainly the infrastructure would suggest that - so many paths and nowhere to go.


You can walk or bike for miles, and in the early morning, the birds are out in full force. We set the alarm, arrived over there before 7:00, and set out to bag some birds. The chirping and the chattering and the squawking sounded very promising, and poco a poco, they began to reveal themselves. We saw orange birds, and yellow birds and pink birds and blue birds - tropical birds galore. More specifically, we saw orange orioles, yellow orioles, Yucatan jays, tropical kingbirds, chachalacas, vultures, owls and quail. No parrots, and no photos worth keeping - outlines of birds on branches.

Still, very exciting to see what we did, and to see them in this strange half-finished world in a Tulum that is moving so quickly from hippie to haute.

Posted by millerburr 18:39 Archived in Mexico Comments (4)

Tulum: A Tale of Two Towns

sunny 33 °C

As I mentioned in my last blog posting, Tulum has three distinct areas: the ruins, the town and the beach. Ruins - self-explanatory. The town - straddling the highway, and located about 3 km. from the beach. Those without cars rent bikes, take taxis, or walk to the beach. The beach - one half is populated by beach clubs and the public beach, and the other half is built-up with hotels and restaurants, and with a bio-reserve at the end.

The law in Mexico states that ALL beaches must be accessible to ALL citizens, but try telling that to the security guards whose job it is to keep their particular establishments clear of riff-raff non-patrons. This spot did not have a guard, but left a no-nonsense sign by the entrance.


We set out last night to explore the area, known as the Zona Hotelera, stop for a drink, and perhaps have a bite to eat, and quickly discovered that security guards are not the only obstacle to joining the fun. The entrance to this area is guarded and the road is heavily patrolled by police, and dotted with topes about every 100 metres. The road is just wide enough for two lanes of traffic, leaving cyclists and walkers to dodge the steady stream of cars. There are no public parking lots, and parking on the side of the road is fraught with peril, as spots large enough to squeeze your car into are few and far between. Large banners welcome "Dear Drivers" to park, but warn that cars will be towed if they are on the road. When we finally found a spot, we realized that our front tire was about 6 inches on the pavement. We locked up with a bit of trepidation, wondering if this mis-park would result in being hauled to the compound.


By now, all of my buttons have been seriously pushed, and I am starting to feel annoyed. Where's the hospitality? Where is the spirit of customer service? Why do we have to park in an inconvenient location because we arrived here with NO IDEA of where we might want to eat, or drink, or purchase something? We decided to cut through an eco-lodge (surely they would be nice to us) to check out the beach. Since there was no-one around to stop us, we just walked through. Am I imagining that we strolled through because we are white, older and respectable-looking?


This was their view of the beach, and will give you an idea of the build-up. Every business is linked by fences, so there is absolutely no way for the public to get to the beach unless they are staying in a hotel, or eating at one of the restaurants. There is a small public beach at the beginning of the strip, which is rocky and rough, with no amenities.


Before I go on, let me say that in spite of the petty annoyances, I REALLY like Tulum and the area around here, and would happily come back for a holiday, stay in the Zona Hotelera, rent a bike, and dive right into that vortex. Tulum does have a spiritual energy, borne by the stunning abundance of nature, sun and the very interesting mix of people who have been drawn here to build businesses. That old-school spirit of "travel with a dog and a drum" is alive here - this campground and its groovy entrance sign no doubt hosted the 60's and 70's wave of hippies who discovered Mexico long before the idea of all-inclusives were dreamed up.


Now, take it up a notch, and add numerous really beautiful zen-like retreats and yoga studios. Pure bliss.


Food is great (so we are told, we didn't stay) - definitely pricier than in town, but for the most part, still reasonable, and fresh, local, organic, and inventive. A number of chef-transplants from the U.S. have switched life priorities, moved here and set up shop. Raw food restaurants and juice bars are just as abundant as wood-fired pizza, and line-caught grouper.

What threatens Tulum's future, to my mind, is the untrammeled growth that surrounds the area, as well as the trend toward being a bit of a "scene". Gwyneth Paltrow- types have made their languid presence felt, and establishments are cropping up to suit that clientele. I have a question though - are you hip if you proclaim yourself to be?


Let's zip over to the other side of the tracks - the town of Tulum. It's spunky, busy, noisy, full of life and messy - just like Mexico. The main street is filled with restaurants, bars, and shops. There are a number of small hotels, and hostels - the bus station is a few blocks over. It is not pretty, but it's not ugly, either, it is just lively and interesting.

Here is our 'hood - one block off the main drag. We are staying at Posada Tulipanes, in a very Mexican neighborhood, filled with modest homes, modest posadas, grocery stores, and the usual cast of characters - men hanging out drinking beer, vendors riding by selling ice cream, kids playing in the dirt, dogs sleeping in the road. It's not unsafe, but it's not necessarily safe - it is simply typical.


This is our street, and our car, and our posada - a building with about 6 apartments. At night, when we sit on the back balcony in the dark to see the night sky, the bats swoop down beside us. We have a stray cat, missing half an ear, who visits us. We had two little girls come to our door the other night, looking for money. Despite Stephen's protests, I gave them some pesos, but the building manager Manuel, who lives downstairs, cautioned us against doing that. He told Stephen the girls are sent out to beg by their parents. This kills me - the older girl, maybe 8 or 9, already had a very cunning edge to her - childhood gone. Manuel and Isobel's children most definitely have a childhood. Here, Jesus, Luis and Allah, playing on their dad's truck. I discovered Steve can tease children in at least two languages. Little Jesus fell for the "tu nombre es Manuel" trick a few times.


We went out for a walk the other night in our neighbourhood, and life unfolded in front of us. First, we saw these two posters - a campaign to stop domestic violence. We watch Mexican men with their families - they are so tender and loving - how does that jive with the effects of alcohol, machismo and the frustration of working so hard for so little? Not for me to try and figure out the root causes, but there does seem to be a push toward educating young men.


Just around the corner, I saw a bush of tulipanes (our posada is named after them), so I stopped to take a photo.


Too late, I realized a family was sitting in their yard, right behind the tulipane bush, and of course, they all looked out at me. The dogs started barking, and the best I could do was ask if these were indeed tulipane flowers. They were, we walked off, the dogs still growling and barking.


Then, the lady called out to me. She had come out of her yard, plucked 3 flowers off the bush, and handed them to me. I was so touched - I gave her a big hug, and asked if we could have a photo. Like women everywhere, she pulled at her blouse, and patted her hair, and we moved in for the photo. A memory I will carry with me, and SO typical of the people we have met.


This wall, just filled with bougainvillea - they are everywhere in Mexico, and so gorgeous - like silk.


This is one of our favourite taco shops - packed all the time - we're heading there in a few minutes. On the way home, we will stop by the festival that has been set up about three blocks from our street. They have crammed in a bullring, a Mayan ceremonial centre, gambling, roasted corn stalls, and rows and rows of vendors . This festival will last for two weeks, and culminates EVERY night with music that reverberates for a 10-block radius, and does not end until 4 or 5 am, EVERY morning. Luckily for us, our bedroom faces a back wall, so there is a bit of a buffer, and between the air-con and earplugs, we mainly block it out.

Not to contrast beach Tulum ( touristy and self-contained) with town Tulum (real, authentic - aren't we the brave ones) - not at all. They both have their appeal. But the geographical divide has created another divide, and the comparisons are inevitable.

Not done with Tulum yet - we went snorkelling today for the first time and - as our son Alex is so fond of teasing me - there was an epiphany. Too much to go into here, and tomorrow (our last day here) we're off in search of parrots, so I'll send out another quick one in the next day or so before we begin our slow trip back up north.

Posted by millerburr 15:59 Archived in Mexico Comments (3)

Hogging the shade in Tulum

sunny 31 °C


The beach at Tulum is just as advertised - water fans out from the palest turquoise to the deepest marine blue. The pale beige (it's not white) sand really is the texture of baking soda. Waves roll in gently, colourful boats bob by the shore - at first glance, this is someone's marketing dream.

But... there is the not insignificant matter of finding shade. You have two options. You pay $15-$20 a day for an umbrella and lounge chairs at the exclusive El Paraiso Beach Club, plus the cost of lunch and drinks (even water), as all outside food and beverages are prohibited. Or... you join the Mexicans - park on the adjoining road, walk in to the beach and stake out a spot. Naturally, everyone wants shade, but the palm trees in the background belong to the beach club - the lone palm tree in the foreground (the one we have come to think of as "our tree") is one of the few spots for shade. It is prime real estate.

The chair you see in this photo? That is one of our chairs. No idea who the man is - he was just sleeping peacefully when I arrived. By today - our third day at the beach - we have our strategy honed. We arrive before 10:00 am - just the joggers are out then. I run down the beach to grab that spot before anyone else can get to it, while Steve finishes parking the car, "tipping" the police officer, and struggles to join me, carrying our cooler and his chair. Once we are settled in, we position ourselves advantageously, so as to move with the shade, and not get boxed in by interlopers. I feel for all the world like my Aunt Edie, who could clear the food court at Granville Island Market, just by virtue of wanting that empty table. Seriously, though, we can't afford $50 a day to go to the beach, and we scoured Tulum to buy a beach umbrella (there are none to be found).

Anyway, decorum in Mexico and in Canada have two different meanings. Back home, we maintain personal space - here it is a free-for-all, once the crowds start arriving. People move right in, as they should, and it becomes a little party. I even rubbed sunscreen on the bald head of a very amusing Italian who was trying to talk to us in our mash-up of Italian and Spanish. The people-watching is just fantastic. Selfie-sticks are a dime a dozen and these two young women must have taken two dozen photos - peace signs, duck lips and all.


"Our tree" is a magnet for photo ops - it swoops low and curves back up, so it is irresistible to climb up, hang off and pose beside. We figure we must be in at least two hundred holiday photos by now.


There are no shortage of beautiful bodies on the beach, a number of topless women, and a whole lot more women wearing shoelaces for bottoms. Stephen looks with discretion, and I look with the detached interest of someone who has not been 20 years old for a very long time. Beauty is beauty.

We had a very funny thing happen yesterday. We had just pulled out our sandwiches, and were eating our lunch when the Corona Girls arrived. Four glorious creatures in Corona bikinis - posing and arching their backs and playing to the camera - about four feet from where poor Steve was busily chewing away on his sandwich, not knowing where to look. We had a good laugh at ourselves - and needless to say - there are no photos!

One phenomenon this year is the amount of sea grass that is in the water and deposited up on shore. Apparently this only happens once every 10 or 15 years - normally the beach and water are pristine. The beach resort next door has their employees working non-stop - wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow hauled away each day - only to have fresh sea grass reappear the next morning. Aside from that, which really isn't a problem, the swimming is fantastic - sandy bottom, lovely bouncy waves without currents or undertows, and a perfect temperature - warm, yet cool at the same time - very refreshing.


If you look carefully at the horizon on this photo, you can see a wavebreak. This is a reef about 400 metres offshore, and apparently the snorkelling on either side of the break is great. Boats go out on a regular basis. We had some very entertaining folks from Summerland beside us today - they arrived late last night, and the men, still in that adrenaline-fueled holiday state, actually swam all the way out to the reef, snorkelled around for a good while, then swam back and stood around, drinking copious amounts of beer.

One thing almost everyone does say about Tulum is that "it's not Cancun." Not to cast aspersions on Cancun (we've never been), but apparently it is crazed with spring break revellers in March, and the tone here is way more laid-back. Good to know - I never enjoyed spring break, even when I was that age. I'd hate it now.

Water sports are the thing here, of course - cenotes, ocean swimming, snorkelling, boating, fishing and kite-surfing. It was really windy two days ago, and we had a lot of fun watching these two just flying along the water. Everything active and water-based reminds me of our boys, as in "The boys would love to try that", or "Wish the boys (and Alanna) were here to try this."


So that is Tulum, the beach, as we have experienced it so far. Tulum is a bit different, in that it is not all contained in one place. The town is about 3 km. from the beach - imagine the letter H. The town is on the left side of the letter, the bar in the middle of the letter is the road leading to the beach, and the beach is on the right side of the letter. We drive along the bar, and turn left - that leads to a few resorts and the public beach. If you drive along the bar and turn right, you will drive along the Zona Hotelera. If we were just here for a brief holiday, that is likely where we would stay, as we would be able to walk everywhere and have the beach at our fingertips. There would be no unsightly jostling for shade. This part of Tulum is very attractive, has loads of interesting restaurants and shops - yoga studios, hand-made soaps, asymetrical linen skirts, that sort of thing. Hotels vary from very luxurious to basic, but even the basic hotels are pricey, so this time around, we just get to look.


The town of Tulum is not especially pretty - it is small, with the highway intersecting it, but it has a certain charm. The streets named astrologically - Sagitario, Orion, Saturno - and the street art is quite outstanding. I want to research Mexican street art more when I get home (along with all the many other things I want to find out more about). It enhances the landscape so much and in the Yucatan, there are a lot of Maya symbols. I think about the fuss on Gabriola over our painted telephone poles, and it makes me feel a bit sad.


No idea about these two - these are so familiar - the animal heads on the human bodies. Does anyone have any ideas - not of this artist, but of the artistic concept?

Lots more to report on Tulum - we have booked another three days here - this will be our last ocean swim until Gabriola in June. I'll be back in a couple of days with stories about the dear people we have met here.

Posted by millerburr 15:07 Archived in Mexico Comments (5)

Tulum: between a rock and a hard place

Back-to-back ruins

sunny 33 °C


Tulum is considered by some to be a vortex - a mystical, magical blend of age-old ruins and New Age hippies. After two days here, we are starting to feel "the vibe". Actually, we have to drive everywhere to feel anything remotely New-Agey, but more on that in a minute.

First, a quick break from our regular program to introduce you to our Mexican version of road food.


You know when you're on a road trip - part of you wants to drive 3 kilometres off the highway in search of a great diner. The other part of you just wants to eat up the miles, and since you a) haven't researched "great diners" before you left and b) haven't packed a lunch, you pull into the next rest stop and choose (pick one) - Subway, McDonald's, Tim Horton's.

In Mexico, we have OXXO. They are ubiquitous, often right next door to Pemex, the national gas station. They carry coffee and coffee products, slushies, a wide variety of processed food, and sandwiches that (this is true), have a one-week expiry date. Steve has developed a great fondness for these food-like products - white bread, 1 slice oily ham, 1 slice processed cheese. My lunch is a small package of fig cookies. There are eight to a package, and I have been known to eat six in one sitting. If we are in the car for one of our marathon drives, you can bet we will be making an OXXO stop.
Our VW is not the only thing that will need a tune-up once we're home again.

Back to Tulum. We are in Tulum for one week - we've rented an apartment through Air B&B, situated in a Mexican neighbourhood, which so far has had fireworks, live music until 4 a.m, drumming sessions, roosters, and all the other attendant noises we are almost immune to by now. I thought someone got shot yesterday, but it appears to be a gun designed to go off every 10 minutes or so - we're not sure why. It sets off the dogs each time. They bark for 6 or 7 minutes and then, just when they've calmed down again, another shot is fired, and so it goes. Our building is owned by an American, and managed by a young Mexican couple with two kids and another one almost on the way (I'd say she has about a month to go) , who live on-site. Our apartment is HUGE , we can cook, and we have a back deck, it is situated in town (which is about 3 km. from the beach), it is not as pristinely clean as it could be ( pregnant, tired manager), and it's noisy. But...we are paying $50 a night - which is at least $100 a night cheaper than anywhere on the beach, and fits into our budget. I think this is true for most of the Caribbean side - Cancun, Playa del Carmen, Cozumel, etc. - they are pricey for long-term travellers like us.


More on all of what Tulum has to offer in the next blog - this time I want to concentrate on the ruins in the area. I will try to inject a little colour into what promises to be a collection of monochromatic photos. We spent our first two days here visiting the local archealogical sites - we're saving beach time for the rest of our stay. The photo above was taken at the Tulum Ruins - which has a splendid setting on a cliff overlooking the sea. Located just outside town, very affordable, (about $5 entry fee), and not too crowded - this was a pleasure to spend a couple of hours in. The entrance is lined with dozens of vendors, but they are restricted to being outside the gates. While there are a lot of European and Asian visitors, the vendors seems to gear their products to the North American market. On our way out, we could have stopped for Haagen-Daz ice cream, a Subway sandwich, or an Edmonton Oilers poncho.


There were plenty of people at this site, but it never felt congested. All of the structures are roped off, so there is no climbing of stairs, which in the 32 degree heat, I was quietly thankful for.


This plaque reminds us that while 2012 has come and gone without incident, we are not yet out of the woods.


This beach was accessible to visitors, and there were plenty of swimmers; we chose a shady spot to cool off instead.


The next day, we drove out to Cobá - an archealogical site about 45 minutes out of town. This site is set deep in the jungle, and where Tulum is all open and breezy, Cobá feels like a movie set, complete with tangled vines, swooping birds and a murky lagoon. There is this weird mix of Lost City with Portland, OR - bike lanes come to 1000 AD.


There are bikes to rent and bike "taxis" for hire, as the site is laid out over several kilometres. The shady paths are called "sacbé", or stone-paved - they are smooth and white and inviting, by whatever means of transportation.


Cobá's ruins are on a grand scale - buildings are enormous, grounds are really spread-out, and there are pyramids. There are stelae everywhere - they are very worn, but outlines remain. This one bears the date 730 AD, and a helpful modern drawing accompanies it to give you an idea of the original.


Then, we turned a corner, and the Nohoch Mul pyramid appeared - a near-vertical climb of 42 metres, (116 steps), the second-tallest Maya structure in the Yucatan. I am not afraid of heights, but my stomach did a flip. "No way," I said. Stephen picked up the gauntlet.


I sat in the shade with a group of very expressive French tourists who had all survived the climb and were now in animated conversation about their accomplishments. As I watched Stephen crabwalk the ascent, between you and me, I was imagining a bad end, and wondering if I could drive the car back to Canada by myself. The steps are shiny, worn and uneven (as they would be), and there is nothing but a single rope in the centre to guide climbers up and down. I tried to imagine this in Canada, if we had ruins. There would be waivers, there would be helmets, and there would be harnesses to that single rope.

Stephen stopped midway, and again at the top, as vertigo overtook for a bit. I lost him for a while - he was taking photos of the jungle, and trying to collect his nerve for the hardest part - the descent. Stephen took this photo of the view from the top. Luckily for him, he was preceded by two young women who went down step by step on their bums - the safest and calmest way to manage.


I took this photo of the victory lap (last step)


After all that, it was time for a reward - a swim in Zacil-Ha - one of the many cenotes in the area. This one is above-ground, but with an underground room to swim into. No little fish this time - just delightfully cool, clear water. That's me in the middle of the pool.


And ledges to jump from. That would be Stephen, fueled by his climbing success


See you in a couple of days when we get back from the beach.

Posted by millerburr 19:50 Archived in Mexico Comments (6)

The Yucatan: From ruins to roseate spoonbills

sunny 31 °C


While we were staying in Progreso, one of our intended day trips were the ruins at Uxmal, about one and a half hours drive away. Friends had told us about them, I had read a lot about them, and even forums re: Uxmal (UNESCO site) vs. Chichen Itza (UNESCO site and one of the New 7 Wonders of the World) , weighed in favour of Uxmal (if you could only do one). These are two of the biggies in the Maya world.

So how did we end up in a minor ruin, Dzibilchaltun, instead? I'm ashamed to say - we slept in, then we felt disorganized and out of sorts and the idea of walking around ruins in 34 degree heat for hours, bracketed by 3 hours of driving, became more than we could bear. So, we left Progreso, and headed south, intending to visit Dzibilchatun, just 30 minutes away ( from this point forward known as Dzib ).

However, once we saw the signs for Uxmal, we thought " are we crazy?", and pointed our car in that direction instead. "This is better," we said. "How can we miss Uxmal?" Well, we did. We missed the turn-off, drove almost into Merida before we could turn around, and then could not find the sign to Uxmal again. "Rats!", we chorused, "let's go to Plan B." So off to Dzib we went, and we had a grand time. I'm still feeling annoyed at ourselves for missing Uxmal, but hopefully, we will make up for it with a number of other ruins we have on the agenda, including Tulum and Palenque.


Dzib is a three-part wonder - ruins, museum and cenote. It shares with Chichen Itza the same significance of having the astronomical orientations that light up the temples with the sun rising and setting on the spring and fall equinoxes. The site is small, but well-kept, and has the usual massive central square, with several structures to climb up on, and a temple.


I have been very keen to swim in cenotes, and this was our first one. Cenotes are fresh water sinkholes in the limestone shelf of the Yucatan Peninsula; considered by the Maya to be magical entrances to the underworld. In many cases, they are underground, accessible through caves and complete with stalactites and stalagmites. This one was above ground, very shallow at one end, and over 140 feet deep at the other. After our hot walk around, it was a real treat to jump in this cool, clean, crystal clear water.


There were a pile of teenage girls when we first arrived, and about every 10 seconds, one of them would scream because the cenote is filled with tiny fish that "nibble" on you. It was quite hilarious - scream and laugh, scream and laugh - like teenage girls everywhere.


This site has an amazing museum - modern, well-laid-out, everything in 3 languages (Spanish, Maya and English), and filled with Maya artifacts. The entrance is lined with statues and columns that were excavated from the site. Dad, I'm thinking of you a lot in this part of Mexico. You would love this museum.


Some of the displays inside the museum

On to Rio Lagartos, in search of flamingos.


There are two major flamingo sanctuaries in the Yucatan - both on the northern edge of the peninsula - one west of Merida, and the larger one, Rio Lagartos, to the east, within the Biosphere Reserve. This area has a huge estuary protected from the Gulf by mangroves, and it is a natural habitat for 58 mammals and over 395 birds, as well as crocodiles. While there are about 40,000 flamingos in the Yucatan, the best time to see them in terms of sheer numbers, is late spring - fall. This is the beginning of mating season, so we only saw a few dozen of them, but it was still an amazing sight. They did all the comical flamingo things - standing on one leg, tucking their long necks into the water, and sort of loping around. The water is very shallow where they gather - perhaps a foot at the deepest, closer to 6 inches. From a distance, it looks like they're walking on water.


The little grey one is a youngster - they gain their pink colour from the crusteceans they eat, so it takes a while for the feathers to change.


Pelicans hanging out with the flamingos - the white pelicans as well as the more common brown ones.

We booked our tour through a company called Rio Lagartos Adventures. The owner, Diego, speaks perfect English, and his sons, Diego Jr. And Jorge have trained as guides as well. They are all committed environmentalists and conservationists, and act like gatekeepers for this precious region. Jorge was our guide - an affable and knowledgable young man who made every effort to see as many birds as possible in our 2-hour trip.


At one point, Jorge was angling the boat in to see a crocodile (who immediately dove under the water), but as we slowed right down, this fish jumped in our boat! It is a young tarpon - they are born in the ocean, grow in the mangroves in brackish water, then swim out to the ocean again to mature to up to 280 pounds. As Jorge noted, "they are fighters!"

After our flamingo sightings, we headed to the mangroves. These mangroves are incredibly adaptive - their tangled root system allows for twice-daily tides, and provides a safe home for so many birds and animals. The estuary is filled with narrow pathways - at times we had to duck our heads as Jorge steered through.


Look closely, you will see a baby crocodile - perhaps 2 weeks old, already kicked out of the nest


We saw a lot of birds - snowy egrets, cormorants, vultures, hawks, sandpipers, roseate spoonbills, magnificent frigatebirds, great blue herons - managed to get photos of some of them. Gord - you would be in heaven here. Their land birding tours are pretty awesome, too.

DSCN7047.jpg IMG_1111.jpg

IMG_1088.jpg IMG_1022.jpg

We had fun playing with the pelicans. They are food slaves - Jorge pretended to throw his sandal into the water, and that was all it took to get them excited. Jorge explained the difference in the colouring on the pelican's head - the yellow are the younger ones, the white are the older ones. "Just like you", pointed out my darling husband.


We stopped by salt mines further up the estuary near Las Colorados. It is quite the sight - the incredibly salty Gulf water is fed through and extracted, and then shipped to North America for road salt. It goes through two extractions, and the one channel we were looking at has the salt concentration of the Dead Sea.


Jorge told me I could swim in it, so I gingerly slid in (mucky bottom, kind of freaky), but it was amazing. I lay on my back like a flipped turtle - did not move a muscle - the water held me afloat. That is not a smile, but a grimace - still not sure that a crocodile might not sneak in.


From there, we went for the mud bath - I told Jorge that women pay big bucks for this spa treatment. We slapped on white clay found in the area - Maya people used it as a sunscreen if they were outside all day. Very cool - we then found a beach close to the Gulf to jump in and wash it all off.


There is no reason to visit Rio Lagartos except for these tours, but the town has a pretty malecon, some sweet little houses with a bit of a Caribbean look to them, and it was an extremely enjoyable stay. So many firsts in the past few days - cenotes, flamingos, mangroves, swimming in the Yucatan's "Dead Sea", white clay mud bath. Tomorrow - we're off to Tulum for a week.


Posted by millerburr 19:10 Archived in Mexico Comments (6)

(Entries 61 - 65 of 192) Previous « Page .. 8 9 10 11 12 [13] 14 15 16 17 18 .. » Next