We were up bright and early, with not a cloud in the sky, and ready for our adventure to Tulum, Grand Cenote, and Coba!!! Our van picked us up “almost” on time at 8 AM, and it was a full bus load. After picking up one other couple, and the van was at max capacity, we headed out to meet up with all the other groups at a little cenote that was owned by the touring company.
They had a little shop where you could buy some Mexican related gifts (like skulls, T-shirts, and ceramic items), a little snack bar, and a cenote, but you couldn’t swim in this one. For a minute, Jake and I thought this was the Gran Cenote we were supposed to do some snorkeling at, but it wasn’t (thank goodness). After a half hour or so, I was a little let down that this was how our adventure was starting, but we finally got back on the van and were on our way.
Our first stop: The Tulum ruins
Also known as “The Walled City,” in the Yucatec language, Tulum means “wall.” According to many researchers, in the Mayan language, Tulum was originally called Zama, which means “dawn.” Though Tulum’s rediscovery is credited to explorer Juan José Gálvez in 1840, the city was only later called “Tulum” by two explorers, John Lloyd Stephens (American) and Frederick Catherwood (British) in 1841. Their book, “Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan,” describe the events in more detail.
Our van parked 20 minutes later at Tulum Beach, where we walked about a quarter mile or so the entrance to the ruins.
We entered the ruins through one of the five doorways which were cut through a seven meter thick limestone wall that surrounds the entirety of the ruins on three sides (I’m pretty sure we entered the exit though). The fourth side sits on a 12 meter (39 ft) high cliff overlooking the Caribbean coast.
We walked along the path that was mostly shaded by the trees, passing many iguanas ranging in size from inches to feet. Our tour guide mentioned that the iguanas are seen as protectors of the ruins, but mainly because they are able to bask in the sunlight and warm their cold blooded bodies. After visiting in 2012, a Guatemalan film director and photographer, Alejandro Ramirez Anderson, suggests in his blog (in Spanish) that the iguanas have been inhabited by the spirits of the founders to protect the ruins:
“Hoy, cuando uno llega a Tulum,
la antigua ciudad está habitada por iguanas,
como si los seres que la fundaron se hubiesen metamorfoseado
para seguirla custodiando discreta y clandestinamente.”
“Today, when one arrives in Tulum,
the ancient city is inhabited by iguanas,
as if the founders of this city had metamorphosed
to continue protecting it, clandestinely.”
When we finally emerged from the trees, we came upon multiple buildings that were well preserved and protected by the iguanas. Our tour guide was very knowledgeable, and described (in three languages no doubt, Spanish, English and German) in great detail what some of the buildings were uses for. Sadly, you cannot climb or touch these ruins like others in Mexico, but they are the most visited and, in my opinion, very beautiful.
The most important, and tallest, building is the Castillo (or Castle). It sits on the cliffs imposing an authoritative stance with a view of the ocean and coast for miles. It is by far the most famous of the buildings, and is also referred to as the lighthouse.
At the base of the Tulum ruins, is a beach, where many locals as well as tourists are able to lay in the sun, swim, and snorkel. The Mayans used this beach to dock their ships as trade around the Yucatan Peninsula was important to the Tulum settlement. We were told that the beach here gets very crowded, which it definitely was the day we were there. It was hot out too, so that made them worse, so we did not climb the stairs down.
Admission Fee: $59 pesos / person
Parking Fee: $70 pesos / car
Hours of Operation: 8 AM to 5 PM
Location: Carretera federal 307 Cancun – Chetumal Km 230, Tulum 77780, Mexico
Both Jake and I were getting very warm, so we decided to head back to the van, where we found the Santa Fe Tulum Beach Club which sat right on the beach. We ordered some drinks and a couple little feral cats (one a kitten) came out from under the porch for some food. Me being me, pet both of them. There were so skinny it made me sad, and I wanted to love on them, so I did. We noticed our group was heading back, so we paid our tab and climbed back onto the bus for a quick 20 minute drive.
Our next stop: Gran Cenote
And grand it was indeed! By far Jake and my favorite place of the day! A cenote is described as a natural sinkhole formed by the collapse of limestone bedrock that exposes groundwater, or as the locals call it “Secret Swims.” The name cenote means “sacred well,” as the Mayan people consider cenotes sacred waters. The water is fresh and crystal clear as it has been filtered by the earth’s natural elements.
At this particular cenote you can swim and snorkel, as well as dive if you’re so inclined. Jake and I decided to snorkel. We changed clothes, rinsed off, and made our way down into the cenote. It was absolutely beautiful before we even got in the water. We rented snorkel gear and a locker to put our belongings in, the hopped in the water, which is not as warm as the ocean water for sure.
There was wildlife everywhere, turtles, fish, plant life, etc. And the stalactites and stalagmites were breathtaking. At first we were swimming in water about ten feet deep, then it opened up and became this massive under water cavern that took your breath away (or that could have just been me trying to breathe with snorkel gear for the first time).
When our time was up, we turned in our gear, retrieved our belongings, and climbed back up the stairs to the grassy area where we changed back in to dry clothes. At the entrance to the cenote, there is also a small kitchen / snack bar where you can buy drinks and order some food. However, they did not have much food to order and they were out of pretty much everything to make you food with, but we did ask for a cheese quesadilla, which was AMAZING!!! I’m not sure if they have more food other times of the year, but from our experience don’t expect a meal, just snacky foods and bottled drinks.
Admission Fee: $120 pesos; and $150 pesos for divers
Parking Fee: $0
Snorkel Gear: $80 pesos
Scuba Diving Rentals: Click here
Hours of Operation: 8 AM to 6 PM
Location: In Tulum take the road to Coba just under 4 kilometers. Right side of road. (They don’t actually give you an address)
Then it was back to the van. And we were starving, even after splitting a quesadilla, so thankfully we made a stop to eat near the Coba ruins at a hole in the wall restaurant called Restaurante Nikte Ha where all of the tour groups were eating lunch (I think the company owns this place as well, which makes it cheaper for them), but the food was pretty good, and it sat right next to a really pretty lagoon (pictured above)! After lunch, we were back on the van for, literally, a one minute drive to the entrance to the Coba ruins.
Our last stop: The Ancient Mayan Ruins of Coba
Coba means “waters stirred by the wind,” which seems appropriate as there are two lagoons that surround the ruins. The Coba ruins are not as popular as other ruins because of its location, which is a shame because I enjoyed them more than the Tulum ruins for sure. It is also one of the ruins that are still un-excavated and covered in trees, which I enjoyed because that meant it was more shaded than Tulum.
After entering, we walked an easy walk to the beginning of the ruins. Most of the ruins that have been excavated include the Nohoch Mul structures (the main pyramid), Conjunto Pinturas (the spiritual area), and the Macanxoc structures. Coba also has one of the largest systems of stone causeways called sacbéob or “white roads,” 16 open to the public but more than 50 have been discovered. These roads lead to the largest pyramid, Ixmoja, and other residential areas along the way that are part of Nohoch Mul.
We spent a great deal of time with our tour guide who explained (again in Spanish, English, and German) what each of the structures were. I found the information quite entertaining, especially when discussing the two ball courts. They use to play ōllamaliztli, a traditional Mayan ballgame where a heavy rubber ball that weighs roughly nine pounds is propelled (without using hands) through a ring. Our tour guide told us that as a ritual, the captain of the winning team was sacrificed to the gods, which was a huge honor.
Our tour guide left us here to either walk, bicycle, or bike taxi to Ixmoja, the heart of the city. Jake and I each rented a bicycle and rode to Ixmoja pyramid, where we parked our bikes to look up at the 137 foot pyramid above us. Then, we began to climb. With 120 steps to the top, the Nohoch Mul pyramid is the tallest temple on the Yucatan Peninsula. Chichen Itza (a more popular site to visit) has only 91 steps to the top of the Kulkulkan Pyramid.
It took us no time to reach the top, maybe three minutes, tops. But we were also booking it, not using the rope in the center for balance and we are both in decent shape so we didn’t need to stop to take a break. When we reached the top the view was magnificent! You could see for miles in every direction, which made sense as to why they would want to build pyramids so tall.
We sat on the top of the pyramid for a few minutes before we decided to head back down. The climb down was much more slow and it was steeper than I remember it being going up. I had to grab the rope once or twice when going down a large step, but otherwise we were down almost as fast as we had gone up. Don’t get me wrong though, it was steep and you had to be careful, definitely had to step with more of an angle than you would going down steps in your house. Kids were going up and down the pyramid as well, so definitely doable without falling, unless you weren’t careful.
We were told by the man who we booked the tours through, that 2017 was the last year they were allowing people to climb the ruins at Coba, so that sold us. Now, I think he was just telling us that so that we would go. I’m glad we did though because it was a great little adventure through Mayan history.
We rode the bicycles back to the entrance and headed out to our van. We still had some time before our groups needed to be back at the vans so we stopped at one of the little shops outside of the entrance. I ended up buying a cute little handmade dress for my niece. I’m sad that she will eventually out grow out of it, being she is only a few months old, but it is probably one of the most beautiful things I had seen made down there, and she can keep it for when she has kids one day (a very long long long long long long long long long long long long long long long long long long long long long long long long time from now). The handmade items are much more interesting and beautiful than the factory made ones for sure.
Admission Fee: $38 pesos
Parking Fee: $15 pesos
Bicycle Rentals: $25 pesos / bike
Bici Taxi Ride: $100 pesos round trip
Hours of Operation: 8 AM to 5 PM
Once back in the van we started to drive through some of the slums and homes in the area. For a second I was worried because I wasn’t sure where the driver was taking us, but we stopped at a little Mayan village where some Mayan villagers still live. They offered to sell us some of the things that they make daily, which is how they make their living. The children try to hand you flowers and hand drawn pictures for money as well. I was absolutely devastated by the conditions that these people were living in, but they also knew nothing else. I meant to take some pictures here, but I was so shocked at how these people were living that it slipped my mind. To give you an idea of the state of the village, the primary school was a one room, concrete shack and the roof had collapsed.
Now, I have found a few other blogs of people who have seen these local Mayan villages, but their pictures of the villages are much nicer than the one we were taken to. Here is one that I found where the experience of the writer was much better than ours and the villagers seem to be much better off.
I did end up buying a very beautiful necklace from one of the villagers, then it was back on the van to head back to the resort. It was about a two hour drive, which included dropping some of our group members off at their resorts as well.
Enjoy a little video I put together of our excursion:
We learned a lot of this excursion too. I believe we paid the excursion company about about $350 total for the day (not including snorkeling gear or locker rental), it included transportation, Tulum, Gran Cenote, lunch, and Coba, as well as a guide at Tulum and Coba. Thinking about it, we did some math:
Tulum Admission: $59 pesos / person = $118 pesos
Tulum Parking Fee: $30 pesos / car = $30 pesos
Tulum Guide: $1441 pesos / group (you can negotiate this price, although each ruin has a display with an explanation, so you don’t really need one)
Gran Cenote Admission: $120 pesos / person = $240 pesos
Snorkeling Gear Rentals: $80 pesos / person = $160 pesos
Locker Rental: $20 pesos
Lunch: $96 / person = $192 pesos
Coba Admission: $38 pesos / person = $76 pesos
Coba Parking: $15 pesos
Coba Guide: $250 pesos / group
Coba Bicyle Rentals: $25 pesos / bike = $50 pesos
Total: $2,892 pesos or $150 U.S. dollars (not including transportation)
We definitely learned our lesson here. From now on, whenever we go anywhere, we are going to just go ourselves and save ourselves some $$$. If you don’t want to worry about transportation, then the excursion are the way to go!
Once we were back at the resort, the Bride and Groom, as well as some of their family and friends had finally arrived, so we went out for some drinks and dancing! It was quite an eventful day, and there was more fun to be had!
Days Four & Five: Playa del Carmen, Mexico October 28 – November 4, 2017