Affordable aventuras is what I was seeking when I started planning a trip to the Mexican Yucatan for winter break. Jungles, pyramids, beaches and the whispers of ancient civilizations were calling. I checked passports, bought very inexpensive round-trip tickets to Cancun (scored with a Southwest, non-stop flight) and started planning.
Upon arrival in Cancun, you must go through customs. Knowing at least a little Spanish helps and I suggest you memorize some basic words. If you checked luggage, you will be able to pick it up after customs. You then will be directed to a screening area. The green light indicates you are free to exit. The red light means you were randomly picked for a more extensive screening. I’ve had to participate in the screening and it really is not a big deal.
Upon exit, people offering to assist in one form or another will approach you; if you need help with your luggage, directions or like what they are selling then engage with them. If not, a firm ‘no-thank you’ and minimal eye contact is enough. Keep the kids close, know where you are going and proceed. I recommend booking your transportation from the airport a head of time, especially if you have young children. Wandering around trying to book a shuttle with tired kids in tow is a hassle and probably not the best way to start any trip.
We stayed in Cancun’s Zona Hotelera the first night because we arrived in the evening. We did not want to drive to our Airbnb, located outside of Cancun, at night. You can find some pretty amazing deals in this area for all-inclusive resorts but again-I was craving adventuras, so we did not stay long.
The car rental company met us at the hotel the next morning, and then we were off to our Airbnb in Chan Chemuyil. Navigating to highway 307 (Carr Cancun-Tulum) was fine, but prepare for a general disregard of safety and speed limits from other drivers. Do not behave this way because you will be inviting the police to stop you. Drive defensively, again know where you are going and ALWAYS wear seat belts. Highway 307 is a major highway, well maintained and well labeled. You can use buses or collectivos (vans that travel up and down highway 307, pay as you go) to get around, but I wanted this trip to be on our own time-line so we rented a car.
After picking up groceries and getting acquainted with our rental, we then went exploring. Geologically, this part of Mexico is composed of porous limestone bedrock, which has collapsed in many places to form thousands of sinkholes. Most of these sinkholes are filled with fresh water and they form a series of connections to underground rivers that eventually flow out to the sea. These sinkholes are called cenotes, which is a Mayan word. Historical evidence shows these openings to the underground rivers were sacred to the Mayans and upon visiting one you can certainly understand why.
Literally a few blocks away from our rental was the Xunaan-Ha cenote, one of the lesser visited ones. We shared this mystical fern encrusted, emerald-green pool with just one other family during our visit. Bring your goggles or snorkeling gear because there are lots of fish to get acquainted with. It is pretty deep in some areas and if you explore the container walls of the cenote you will find the underwater cave entrance. Remember, you are in a pretty remote area and use common sense, just because the cave entrance is there doesn’t mean it is safe to enter. Keep this in mind through out your travels in Mexico.
My family’s first visit to a cenote was magical, the lush jungle setting absorbs sound and creates a serene quiet swimming experience. However, this was interrupted by loud shouts of pure joy as the kids took turns jumping from the sketchy looking diving platform. We visited multiple cenotes on this trip and each was unique. Don’t just go to the most popular ones; seek out some of the lessor known ones-I promise you it will be worth your time.
Also close by was Xcacel beach, a favorite among the locals. Picture a beautiful, remote Caribbean beach with a jungle cenote steps away from the shoreline and that is Xcacel. There is snorkeling at the north end of the beach and we could have spent all of our time here and been perfectly content with the trip. However, the ancient ruins and pyramids were calling.
The Tulum ruins are one of the most popular Mayan vestiges in Mexico. Note, the entrance line can be very long and it is usually hot and humid. So get here early, bring cold drinks and a bathing suit to swim in the sea afterwards. Tulum is the only coastal Mayan city historians know of and evidence shows it was used as a seaport for trade. This Mayan walled city situated on a tall cliff overlooking the Caribbean Sea is enchanting.
I found the figures and faces chiseled into stone particularly striking.
We also visited Coba, another ancient Mayan city, but this one is located in the jungle. Only small portions of these ruins have been cleared by archaeologists and as you walk through, remember that when you see the small hills around you. Those are most likely ruins underneath. This place is as mystical as Chichen Itza and if you stop and listen you can hear the ancestors speaking.
Coba is a very large area so wear sturdy footwear because you are going to do some walking and climbing. Bikes are available for rental as well.
We paid for a guided tour of the front area only and enjoyed learning about the structures and customs that were practiced. We toured the rest of the ruins by ourselves.
Historians estimate that as many as 50,000 people may have inhabited this city. There are several pyramids and the tallest one, Nohoch Mul, is 138 feet. You should climb it because the view from the top is beautiful. Use caution coming down because the steps are steep and small, there is a guide rope you can use if needed.
The large pyramid was most of the family’s favorite but I found the series of interconnected roads fascinating. The roads are called sacbe, and the longest one is more than 60 miles long and leads to another Mayan city. Here is a great article from the Yucatan Times about them. They were used for trade commerce and are made of white stone that illuminates in the moonlight so they could be utilized at night. The complexity of the planning that went into this entire site is astonishing. It is proof the study of urban planning and development goes back much further in time than most of us think.
In summary, the Mexican Yucatan is where you can immerse yourself in ancient cultures and history, walk till you drop through jungles and swim in the birthplace of underground rivers. It is the perfect climate during winter and offers something for everyone in the family. Prepare to be amazed.
Side note: my kids were on a Nacho Libre kick and streamed this movie on Netflix every night while on this trip. They eventually talked us into buying them lucha libre masks, which they proceeded to wear everywhere coupled with movie quotes…“I only believe in science” …“Summon your eagle powers” …“Sometimes you wear stretchy pants in your room-just for fun”. Yeah-shout out to Jack Black, fun times.