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The Yucatan Peninsula – jungle, mosquitoes, monkeys, mosquitoes, butterflies, mosquitoes, powder-soft white sand, the brilliant turquoise Caribbean Sea, Bacalar lagoon with its crystal clear waters, limestone jungle cenotes and freshly harvested coconuts delivered upon demand to one’s cabana bed on the beach. What’s not to love?!
We hadn’t intended to go back to Mexico for the third time in 11 months but… after all… why not?! 🙂
I had already fallen hopelessly in love with southern Tulum Beach in February when we were exploring the Mayan Riviera from our base in Cozumel. Geoff was forewarned during that flying visit to the beach (squeezed in between dipping our bodies into the icy waters of a freshwater cenote and visiting the famous Mayan Ruins at Tulum) that at some stage we would most definitely be back to spend at least a few days in a posh beach hotel lying on a shaded cabana bed in the sand, being plied with coconut water, cocktails and guacamole 😉
But before the abject luxury of the beach, we headed 5 1/2 hours south into the jungle close to the border with Belize. On our previous visit we had already scoped out the pretty coastal fishing resort of Puerto Morelos 30 minutes south of Cancun airport where we had discovered El Nicho cafe overlooking the main plaza, so we stopped in for lunch again before the long drive south.
Yucatan Peninsula Part 1 – digital detox at the Explorean Kohunlich in the jungle. To be fair, the warnings of digital doom and denial at the hotel weren’t entirely accurate. It was non-existent in the thatched roof cottages because guests are expected to entertain themselves relaxing in their hammocks on their private patios listening to the monkeys in the trees and watching the butterflies flutter past. In the reception area and by the pool, those with extraordinary patience and determination could eventually make contact with the outside world if absolutely necessary. We didn’t bother. For once, we were happy just to sit by the pool, watch the butterflies and listen to the birds singing in the treetops.
Normally we wouldn’t get within 100 miles of an all-inclusive resort but, marooned in the middle of nowhere, circumstances dictated otherwise for this part of the trip. Breakfast, lunch and dinner were provided in the thatched roof open-air restaurant and were served with a variety of appalling and unusual musical accompaniments. Our first evening we were treated to a “Mayan” pan piped version of Robbie Williams’ “Angels” which took us a few seconds to recognize before dissolving into a fit of giggles. This was followed by an equally tortured version of the theme tune to the movie Titanic. With little else to entertain us as we swatted at the occasional mosquito we whiled away the evening trying to guess the provenance of each tune.
The following morning we were woken before dawn (semi-consciously scratching our mosquito bites acquired the evening before) disturbed by disconcerting scuttlings in the undergrowth and weird mammalian noises identified by Geoff (without the benefit of the internet – so probably entirely inaccurately 😉 ) as howler monkeys. This is exactly what we came to the jungle for… sleepless nights in our romantic, secluded, private cottage dabbing ourselves with After Bite 😉
At breakfast, there was a promising start to George Michael’s “Careless Whisper” until the pan piper burst into life again with all the skill of a talentless teenager forced to play the recorder at a school concert. Perhaps thankfully, the rendition was interrupted by a yelp from Geoff who was clutching his crotch. This isn’t the reaction I’d ordinarily expect to a George Michael song over breakfast in the middle of a busy restaurant. It transpired that a huge bug had crawled up his leg and was nestling comfortably on his lap. Even squashed flat inside a napkin it looked suspiciously like a cockroach to us but the wait staff rushed over and relieved him of his unwanted recently deceased guest waffling vaguely about it being something entirely different to a cockroach… umm… Well, we are in the jungle, after all…
Breakfast finished with a screeching and very mangled rendition of Streisand’s “Woman in Love”. Unable to bear anymore, we wandered off to claim our cabana bed in the shade by the pool and refused to move for the next 12 hours.
We didn’t come all this way, however, to do exactly what we can do at home (only with less bugs). It was time to move and to join the group activities – another thing we absolutely never do on vacation 😉 The hotel activity of the day was a kayak trip to Bacalar lagoon – the Lake of Seven Colours. As the van bounced down the dirt track off the main road (its suspension long-since destroyed) I explained with enthusiasm that the lake is the precise reason we had travelled so far south and that Geoff should be enjoying his day out. He launched into the roof as we drove over each divot and small crater in the road (of which there are many) looking far from convinced, rubbing his battered skull and mumbling about the perfectly comfortable cabana bed back at the pool.
As promised, the lake was peaceful and beautiful. It was positively serene gliding atop the mirror-clear waters in a kayak slathered in factor 50 sunscreen and dressed like Indiana Jones fit for a trek through the undergrowth. For someone who lives in the sun, Geoff doesn’t like its rays touching his baby soft skin if it can be at all avoided.
The teal and ultramarine water at Bacalar is so clear you can see to the bottom of the lagoon on a good day. We had a good day 🙂 We headed into the mangroves, moored up and stepped out of the kayak into the soft silt underfoot. We were being led on a walk in the middle of the lake – which is a first. Every step we sank up to our ankles as we followed a conga chain of people through a maze of submerged roots until we were invited to sit in the silt, wilting in the midday sun, in order to commune with nature. We sat for 5 minutes in utter silence listening to nothing but a gentle breeze blowing through the limbs of the mangroves, the occasional flutter of a dragonfly’s wings and distant birdsong until someone sneezed, giggled and ruined the atmosphere… Thank goodness for that – I had cramp in my left leg and something tiny was nibbling at my knees.
The Lake of Seven colors is glorious – its waters vary from milky turquoise to pale transparent blue, deep leaf green to deep ultramarine. We headed back into open water for a swim and to rub ourselves down with lake mud. There’s nothing quite like exfoliating ones mosquito bites with silt. A 3 course lunch in the shade by the waters edge and another bouncy suspension-free trip in the van back to the luxury of the poolside cabana bed – a day well spent 🙂
A trip to Kohunlich would have been pointless without venturing into the Mayan ruins 2 minutes down the road from the hotel. We wandered the ruins for a good hour and a half or so entirely alone in the peace and quiet save for the wind rustling through the trees and black spider monkeys swinging through the branches overhead picking berries in the canopy. We clambered through the undergrowth, tripping through the strangler figs slowly choking the life out of their host trees and the giant roots of kapok trees (smaller versions of the ancient and most famous giant kapok engulfing the ancient ruins of Ta Prohm at Angkor Wat, Cambodia). We spotted cactus wrapping themselves around palm trees and colorful bromeliads. We far preferred these ruins over the famous ones at Tulum where you are more likely to trip over a coach load of noisy tourists taking selfies than a strangler fig root.
Alone to enjoy the ruins at their best, of course, also meant that we were the only source of tasty fresh blood for the voracious mosquitoes. Only a double dose of Deet could eventually stop them in their tracks and by that stage we already looked like human pin-cushions.
The ruins at Kohunlich remain largely unexcavated. The site settled in 200BC and largely constructed between 250AD and 600AD contains pyramids, citadels, courtyards, temples and plazas and would once have functioned as an important regional centre along the trade routes heading south and west. It is best known for its Temple of the Masks (Templo de los Mascarones) pyramid built around 500AD. Interestingly (and barely evident today) the buildings would have been decorated and covered with red stucco, so it would have looked entirely different to the normal expectation of a Mayan grey limestone settlement.
As we headed towards the exit there were 2 other lone visitors arriving. Time to leave… it was getting busy! Suddenly, we were stopped in our tracks by an eery noise carried on the breeze. It sounded more like lions roaring in the savannah rather than any creature likely to reside in a jungle on the Yucatan Peninsula. Some bizarre soundtrack played over speakers intended to set a scene for the tourists or something more perilous? We had no idea but it was time to hotfoot it back to the car anyway and retreat to our sun bed by the pool 😉
Yucatan Peninsula Part 2 – we headed north again towards Tulum Ruins (see the blog post from February if you wish to see Mexico’s most famous ruins in all their glory against the stunning backdrop of the Caribbean sea) and sharp right along the Boca Paila coast road heading south towards Sian Ka’an Reserve. We passed the slightly seedier backpacker section of the coast road where the beaches are rougher, less pristine and more rocky and the bars are filled with divers and 20 somethings swigging giant Margaritas.
One of the reasons I was so adamant that we would return to Tulum Beach was our very first stop – Raw Love – a colorful wooden barefoot cafe in the sand, hammocks slung under the shade of swaying coconut palms and raw vegan food so good it should be legendary. We stopped in for an obligatory raw Pad Thai and chocolate pie.
And then… bliss. We finally arrived at the destination I had been day-dreaming about since February.
The beach is almost perfect… powder-soft, white sand as far as the eye can see… the Caribbean sea, crystal clear with a temperature of a balmy 82F. The waves were lapping so gently there was barely a ripple on the water.
Alaya Tulum is an eco-rustic boutique beach hotel with palm frond thatched roofs and a cabana bed with our name on it mere steps from the water. Shoes and flip-flops were abandoned for the entire 3 days (save for wandering out to one of the equally beautiful restaurants in the jungle for dinner) and our much awaited period of vegetation reclining in the sun, listening only to the sound of the waves lapping on the shore finally commenced.
We should perhaps have moved a little more than we did. We should have driven up to Cenote Nicte-Ha, behind the famous and very popular Cenote Dos Ojos. I had spent hours pouring over blogs and reviews of various cenotes in the area trying to find one which was more rustic, less popular and less overrun with tourists bobbing about in the water in orange life-jackets ruining my photo opportunities, than the more well-known ones. I think I must have enjoyed Cenote Cristalino in February more than Geoff had as I couldn’t tempt him away from the beach at all. Most unusual… Next time, we will definitely visit Nicte-Ha if I can prise him from the cabana bed!
The food is spectacular in Tulum Beach. Kitchen Table at the far north end of the beach road operates without power or running water and still produced one of the best meals we have enjoyed in Mexico. All of the restaurants and boutique stores along the beach road have sprung up in the jungle blending perfectly with their environment. Some are thatched roof buildings, some would be just as at home in NYC or Tokyo. They all have tables under the stars surrounded by jungle flora and fauna and the air is filled with the scent of citronella and organic mosquito spray (which all the best hotels provide in their rooms, of course!). Arca was equally as good but more trendy. We should have tried more options but we were too lazy to move and all of my restaurant research fell by the wayside once we had discovered Kitchen Table and Arca.
Tulum Beach is the epitome of boho beach chic and we love it. Sometime during one of the days whilst I was floating carefree in the warm waters, I decided that although we’re twice as old, twice as fat and twice as wrinkly as anyone else in Tulum, we are going to downsize, declutter and divest all of our pointless western possessions and investments… then we’re going to re-invest in a cabana bed on the beach (with or without curtains). We will probably take up yoga and not worry too much about showering twice per day. Then, as needs must, we will diversify from our previous investments into a lifetime supply of sunscreen and mosquito repellent 🙂 We will live on coconut water and wander 5 minutes in the sand to Raw Love cafe for breakfast, probably visit one of the taco shacks on the beach road for lunch and later on we’ll slip on our flip-flops and stroll down the road for dinner at Arca or Kitchen Table or any one of the other dozens of fab restaurants… but whatever else, I was definitely not going home.
Funnily enough, Geoff must have been having similar thoughts. The afternoon before we were due to leave he wandered back to the room and was gone for a while. When he returned he looked into my tragic tear-filled eyes and said “Fancy staying another 3 nights?”. “I’ve changed our flights, upgraded us to First Class for an additional $3 each and we now leave on Thursday”.
Yippee!! “Now” he said ” you need to go and find a hotel for us for the next 3 nights”…
Each day, whilst Geoff reclined in the shade surrounded by beer bottles and bowls of nachos, I had wandered out along the beach road for various unsuccessful shopping expeditions (I just can’t see myself in an embroidered kaftan however trendy they might be in Tulum). During my expeditions I had passed Sanara Tulum and gazed wistfully into it’s reception area wondering what chance I might have of convincing Geoff to return next November over the Thanksgiving vacation. So, if I’m honest, I didn’t really have to spend much time researching alternative hotel options. We skipped up the beach and offered our valuable yanky dollars to the lovely lady on reception who offered us a jungle room in exchange.
All very eco-chic South Beach, Miami. All very me 🙂
The following morning we walked 50 feet to check in to the new digs and deposited ourselves onto their luxurious cabana beds admiring the beach from our new, slightly different vantage point. Perfect.
Not quite so perfect when it came to heading off to bed, however. It was quite the strangest thing. Come 10.30pm the room seemed to be throbbing… or humming… or vibrating… we couldn’t put our fingers on exactly what it was doing, but it wasn’t doing what a normal room should do at 10.30 at night. It was rather like sitting in the middle of a room-sized crystal bowl, its vibrational sound field reverberating around us.
Even stranger, if you stood on a specific spot or lay down on the bed in a straight line with said specific spot on the floor there was total almost deafening silence. Roll over either way and you were actually deafened. I could possibly have slept on my side of the bed if I hadn’t moved a muscle all night but on Geoff’s side the wall was positively throbbing. He went out to explore and returned somewhat perplexed. It might have been the pool equipment which inconveniently ran under our room. Should he surreptitiously turn it off? It was getting late and I had visions of being slowly driven potty in the middle of the night by white noise. So he wandered off to reception returning with an engineer who spoke not a single word of English and the nice lady from reception. To give her her due she appeared just as baffled and could offer no explanation. 10 minutes later she returned with a key for one of the beach rooms. An upgrade to a room ordinarily $600-800 per night. Obviously, we weren’t going to kick up too much fuss that we had to re-pack and head over the road. The new room came with a claw-foot tub on our own private terrace under the stars. Obviously it’s important to have an outdoor tub in the jungle… very useful in 85F 😉
So, anyone planning on visiting Tulum Beach – Sanara is wonderful if your wallet will allow it but don’t check in to Room 17 in the jungle unless you’re comfortable sleeping with your body cavities reverberating throughout the night.
The rest of the vacation passed in a haze of fresh coconut water, green juices, lunch and Prosecco delivered to our beach bed. The only time it was necessary to move at all was to cool down in the sea, potter off in search of a massage cabana on the sand, wander the beach at sunrise for some mild exercise or flap about in the water taking photos of the soles of each others feet (courtesy of the underwater Go-Pro – in my opinion the most pointless camera ever invented).
November is simply fabulous on the Mayan Riviera. Uncrowded, perfect weather, warm with no humidity, the sea is a pretty standard 82F all year and at this time of year is as calm as a millpond. The weekend after Thanksgiving it was even quieter with many fellow guests checking out on Sunday which is probably a good thing because if we’d have been stuck in Spooky Room 17 it would not have been quite as idyllic as it was!