The Ruins of Chichen Itza and A Grand Cenote

Ruins of Chichen Itza

Over a thousand years ago Mayan engineers laid down the plans for a mighty undertaking.  One that required precision, patience, insane amounts of manpower, and a shocking scientific knowledge about the world, solar system, and engineering.

Sunrise in Playa del Carmen

My morning started shortly after 7.  As the sun rose over the bay, I meandered my way along the main drag in Playa del Carmen.  I walked lazily, hoping to find something edible and affordable for breakfast, before connecting with the day-long bus tour to Chichen Itza and a large Cenote I’d booked the afternoon before.  I was curious and a bit anxious.  The all day tour was only $40 USD.  A fair bit less than a lot of the other competitors and dirt cheap for an all day tour.   Especially one that included the entrance to the ruins, a buffet lunch, and entrance to a large stabilized cenote/swimming area.

Sunrise in Playa del Carmen

The weather was incredible.  The remnants of the previous day’s storm were lazily clinging to life as the sun gently pushed its way towards apex.  All the while the Sun’s rays cut giant holes through the clouds, lancing giant golden rays towards the coast and into the water.  It was truly one of the most breathtaking sunrises I’ve seen in a very, very long time.  In many ways, it was the most majestic thing I’d see all day. Eventually I found my way back to a bench in front of the closed restaurant where I was schedule to meet my driver.  Ere long I noticed a few other travelers doing the same thing and struck up a conversation.  As it turned out, several of the women near by were traveling together and from the west coast.  The younger ones were in their late 20s/early 30s and were loads of fun.  We quickly exchanged stories and laughed as we anxiously tried to figure out what/where/how we would be finding our way to the bus. As it turned out, the ladies were actually scheduled with a different tour company, much to our collective disappointment.  My disappointment increased as I was led to the vehicle we’d be using: Unlike the van I’d been promised we’d be taking I was greeted by a 16 person mini bus.  Annoyed at the increased size, my frustration deepened as I realized that I’d also been lied to about the tour language.  I’d been told it was an English only tour, instead it quickly became obvious that the tour would be delivered in Spanish 2/3 of the time with the occasional English follow up.  Uncomfortable in my tiny seat, pissed off about being lied to and anything but happy about the Spanish historical video playing on the Van’s TV I settled in for the 2+ hour drive from Playa del Carmen to the ancient Mayan city of Chichen Itza.

Ruins of Chichen Itza

The city itself is thought to have become a regional power around 600 A.D.  For the next 400 years the city enjoyed varying degrees of power before eventually collapsing around 1,000 A.D. – though the site itself retained a significantly reduced population there after and is believe to have remained active for several hundred years, largely due to the large Cenotes. Upon our arrival we made our way down dirt pathways that were lined by local Mayan craft art supplemented by the usual tourist crap.  The sheer number of small table stands and vendors is a tribute to the immense draw Chichen Itza has as a tourist attraction. I recently read that Chichen Itza is Mexico’s second most popular/visited Archaeological site.   The site itself was fairly sterile.  Major buildings have been restored/stabilized, vegetation cleared, and grass planted in major areas. As we paused in front of the main pyramid, “El Castillo” our guide explained the incredible details of the pyramid’s construction and orientation.   The pyramid was built with painstaking attention detail so that every step, tier, and decoration had some sort of powerful meaning or purpose. The most impressive of which was the way the steps and edges of the pyramid aligned during the equinox twice a year.  Wikipedia explains the event, “On the Spring and Autumn equinox, at the rising and setting of the sun, the corner of the structure casts a shadow in the shape of a plumed serpent – Kukulcan, or Quetzalcoatl – along the west side of the north staircase. On these two annual occasions, the shadows from the corner tiers slither down the northern side of the pyramid with the sun’s movement to the serpent’s head at the base”. You can see the staircase sans shadows in the photo above.

Ruins of Chichen Itza

From the main pyramid we cut down and across towards the “La Iglesia” structure in the Las Monjas complex of buildings.  On the way we paused briefly at several small pyramids and temples before reaching a heavily decorated building, which had a number of powerfully carved decorates dedicated to/depicting the Mayan god of rain Chaac.

Ruins of Chichen Itza

From there it was on to the Observatory – another incredible piece of astrological/archeological mastery, before pausing briefly for a snack.  Then it was back to the main plaza by the primary pyramid – which, by the way, can no longer be climbed by the public.

Ruins of Chichen Itza

From there we explored several of the other smaller temples and archeological ruins, pausing to take in the impressive carvings and monster-like figures carved into the local stone.

Ruins of Chichen Itza

In addition to the site’s amazing archeological wonders, it’s also home to a plethora of unusual plant life.  The plant life creates a vibrant, often enthralling backdrop to the ancient Mayan wonders, and re-affirmed my respect for the Mayan’s resilience and ability to carve their way through thick jungle. In retrospect, I wish I’d seen Chichen Itza long before visiting Guatemala’s Tikal. While impressive in scale and scope I could not help but feel that Tikal dwarfed Chichen Itza in every way.  The pyramids were larger and more majestic, the jungle wilder, the ruin complex larger, the site itself less polished.  I had high expectations for Chichen Itza.  After all, the site has been selected as one of the “New Wonders of the World” and has drawn travelers, scholars and heads of state alike.  These expectations were somewhat disappointed.  That said, however, it truly is a wondrous place.  Just make sure you see it BEFORE you see Tikal.

Cenote Looking Up

From Chichen Itza it was back onto the bus for a brief trip down the street to a large cenote-turned water park.  The cavernous Cenote had been stabilized and reinforced, with a small, secondary tunnel carved into the side of the large cavernous area.  I quickly changed into my swimsuit, and began to make my way down through the cave/tunnel, pausing briefly at the two overlooks that opened up onto the sinkhole/cenote’s interior.

Mexican Cenote

The Cenote itself was incredible.  A large tubular sinkhole that stretched at least 100 feet down into the earth, before cutting into deep blue/green water, there was a small waterfall that cascaded down the sheer face of the cenote’s walls, before splashing across the water’s surface.  The whole area was surrounded by long vines, many of which stretched at least 100 feet from the surface, down into the cenote.

Cenote Jump

Once at the bottom, I jumped in and swam for a bit.  Pausing briefly to look up towards the surface.  All the while reveling in the natural beauty of the Cenote’s fern, moss and vine covered walls.  From there it was up a series of steps to a jump some 15-20 feet up.   Once there, after a momentary pause I launched myself out and into the dark green waters, dodging fish and hanging fines as I torpedoed down into the water.  As impressive as the Cenote was above water, our guide told us it stretched another 70 some odd meters below the surface. Truly an incredible place. From there it was back onto the bus for a tired nap and long drive home.  The following day I’d be piling onto a plane and making the short flight back to Arizona. The Yucatan is truly a wondrous place, one I hope you will all consider visiting.  It is home to amazing natural beauty, delightful food, amazing experiences, and a rich archeological history. On that note, this post is the final in my series on my December 2009 Central America trip.  Stay tuned for new posts, adventures and destinations.

Dos Ojos, Tulum and Akumal – the Video

Hopefully you’ve had the opportunity to read my post on my day long adventure exploring the cenote at Dos Ojos, ruins and city of Tulum and snorkeling at Akumal in Mexico.  For those who haven’t make sure to view the post and photos [here].

As promised here’s a video compilation of footage filmed throughout the day/during the adventure.  As always I value your comments and would appreciate it if you take an extra second to rate the video.  Enjoy!

 

Dos Ojos, Tulum, Akumal and Four Guys in a Car

**Make sure to catch the video [here]!

Despite forgetting to bring a watch/alarm clock/time piece of any sort waking up before 9AM was easy. Between the heat, the sun and the humidity it’s almost impossible to be anything but a morning person in this part of the world. With the sandy grit of sleep still heavy in my eyes I stumbled up to the top deck and found Zeno already up and waiting. We chatted briefly about the plan, then set off to roust Philipp and Shannon out of bed. Before long the four of us struck out across town in search of a dive shop to rent snorkel gear from and the car rental place Zeno had used in the past.

A good 20 minutes later we found a dive shop willing to rent fins/masks and snorkels for $5 us/day. Happy with the price we snagged our gear as well as an underwater flashlight and then continued on to the car rental place. I have to confess that the price of the car escapes me now – but it was dirt cheap split between the 4 of us. I want to say in the neighborhood of $60 US total for the day. Half a tank of gas and another $10 later we were on the road and headed south. The drive was easy with the only option being a lone major (two lane each way) highway that ran through town. The stops were all obviously marked and tailored to tourists.

Dos Ojos

A 45 minute drive to the south we began searching for the Dos Ojos exit. Before long we spotted and passed a small sign for Dos Ojos dive shop. Unsure if it was just a retail outlet, or the actual entrance to the caves we continued another mile before backtracking and re-locating the small turnoff. The entrance fee for walk-ins was 100 pesos or just under $10. Fee paid we were waved down a dirt road that wound 2km or so inland to the Cenote. The two eyes or “Dos Ojos” are two sinkholes that offer access to the Cenote system which is a series of underwater caves (typically flooded) that crisscross the Yucatan.

Once parked in a small dirt parking lot we stripped down to our swimsuits, lathered on sunscreen and made our way down the path towards the first of the two caves. The path wound through lush underbrush 15 meters or so before dumping us at a large wooden staircase that took us down 30 or so feet into a part of the sinkhole. The view that greeted us was was stunning. A large pool of crystalline turquoise water sitting in a large cave entrance with a small wooden dock built out into the water. Eager to explore we donned our fins and snorkel gear and jumped in. Much to my relief the water was warm and refreshing.

The exposed part of the cave formed a giant semi-circle that offered a large cavernous space that wrapped back and around a corner. The ceiling started some 20+ feet up before slowly drifting down, periodically dotted by massive series of stalagtights, before dipping under water and out of reach. The water was lit from outside and visibility was excellent. The submerged stalagtights were breathtaking. I’ve seen my fair share of caves and never, ever, seen anything quite like it. All set to a stunning backdrop as rays of pure light shot down from above and through the water in the most enchanting of ways.

Submerged it was possible to see the divers as they made their way from the second eye through the underwater cave system. Lights twinkling in the distance below us as they slowly floated along the bottom.

Dos Ojos Cenote Snorkeling in Mexico

Time and time again I caught myself as I returned to the surface, just narrowly missing the cavern ceiling or a a large stalagtight. As far as animal life – there were a few small minnows but that was it. They darted around us as though it were all some giant game.

Eager to explore the second cave we returned to the dock, donned our shoes, climbed the wood staircase, made the brief walk across the road and found ourselves at a slightly larger and significantly deeper cave entrance. This one had a raised dock perfect for canon balls/jumping in and lush vegetation, including hanging vines that came right up to the water’s edge. The bottom was also white sand instead of the collapsed rock that we’d encountered in the previous cave. Words cannot describe the beauty of the natural blue hues of the water. It was, truly, stunning.

Cave Tarzan at Dos Ojos

Eventually we explored every nook and cranny we could gain access to. I’d done my fair share of jumps and dives off the dock and could feel hunger pangs nagging for my attention. Amazed at what we’d seen we headed back for the car eager to continue the adventure.

Tulum Ruins in Mexico

Tulum

Eager to maximize our time with the car we set off straight for the ruins at Tulum. We parked in a small lot and walked the brief stretch to the entrance to what was once an impressive coastal Mayan fortress. I got sidetracked briefly as i purchased a fresh coconut and downed the coconut water in a series of deep gulps.

Maya castle wall at Tulum

50 pesos later and with tickets in hand we made our way into the complex. The first surprise it held for me was a thick fortress wall. For some reason I had never associated castle walls and the Mayans. It was a delightful discovery that left a smile on my face as I threaded my way through the tiny doorway/gate in the castle wall.

Tulum Mexico

The inside of the Tulum ruin is fairly sterilized as is to be expected of a major tourist ruin. There were paths to walk on, cut grass and stabilized ruins. Despite that the site was impressive. A mighty set of ruins set on top of small cliffs and a series of stunning white sandy beaches. The rich blues of the Caribbean ocean and added charm of coconut tree after coconut tree added to the impression of pure paradise.

Feet on the Beech at Tulum Ruins in Mexico

We wandered the ruins taking in the sights, paused briefly on the beach to kick off our shoes and play in the 80+ degree water and the wound back down to the entrance just as several light raindrops began to fall. By the time we got back to the car we were all fairly wet, but in high spirits. The rain was warm and refreshing. Hardly worth fretting.

Tulum Beach and Ruins in Mexico

From there it was in to the city of Tulum itself where we quickly found a small taco stand down a side street. The host suggested “Hecho” which turned out to be a heaping plate with rice, a side of bread and a delicious (mild) pepper, octopus and shrimp plate served with corn tortillas. We ordered a coca cola and orchata to drink and were delighted when the host brought out a platter with two types of ceviche, garlic mayo and chips. We also split an appetizer which consisted of 4 sealed/fried taco shells. Two were stuffed with cheeses, 2 with seafood. The seafood one I ended up with was delicious…a mixture of fish, shrimp and squid. The whole meal was less than $15 and absolutely delicious.

Akumal

Recharged it was off to finish the day with a brief stop at Akumal. A swimming destination known for the local sea turtles. Dusk was fast approaching and the storm clouds we’d encountered briefly at Tulum foreshadowed a far more ominous storm on the horizon. The normal park was closed which left an empty beach for us after a brief warning from the departing life guard to stay inside the buoys.

Eager to take advantage of the last vestiges of the day we donned our gear and snorkeled out towards the reef. We warily watched storm clouds out of the ocean and the telltale sign of heavy rains as we floated and enjoyed a spectacular sunset. While the spectacle above the water was magnificent, we enjoyed equally delightful discoveries under water – stumbling onto a huge sea turtle relaxing on the bottom, several types of rays and another smaller turtle.

Growing tired and eager not to get stranded at sea in the dark we paddled back to shore arriving just as what turned out to be a howling wind and fierce rainstorm hit. Pelted by stinging wind-driven droplets of rain we grabbed our gear and made a B-line for the car. Soaking wet we dove into the car trying to escape the rain – thoroughly entertained. We were all delighted to partake in the adventure and laughed heartily as we made our through the pouring rain back towards Playa del Carmen.

The drive back was uneventful. We escaped the rain after a few minutes and eventually got back in time to return the car and our snorkel gear. The rental company insisted on charging a “cleaning” fee because the car seats were wet – which was small – and more of an annoyance than real concern.

From there it was back to the hostel where we settled in for another evening telling stories, making friends and exploring the town. The highlight of which was an impressive fire show being put on for free at one of the ocean-front bars.

I’m off to explore San Ignacio now – i’ll edit in photos and video once I get home and have the bandwidth to upload them. Truly an incredible day.