So, when we left off, it was Saturday, and we had finished with the Mayan Ruins. Our guide, Daniel, grabbed the wet suits, life jackets, and flippers, and we jumped into the van and headed a little ways north of Tulum to another part of the Riviera Maya–Selma Maya or literally translated Mayan Jungle. Daniel and David chatted about where we were from and what we do. When David told Daniel that I do wetland tours (or swamp tours), he got very excited. “What? My brother, Ed, who owns our business, is in New Orleans right now taking a swamp tour today. I’m gonna call him!” I ended up talking with Ed via cell phone, and sure enough, he had just returned from a swamp tour in Honey Island Swamp. What a small world. We agreed to stay in touch and possibly swap out trips in the future. How’s THAT for serendipity?
We were outside of any city limits when the van turned into a nondescript parking lot, where we then jumped into a Polaris ATV with Daniel. (At this point, you should know that my big camera did not make the trip with me–too cumbersome–and with the rain, it would have been ruined; but I was lost without it. However, Daniel brought a camera in a waterproof case and offered to take photos for his throughout the day. You will have to use your imagination to conjure up some of the images described herein.)
We headed directly into the jungle, on a natural limestone and dirt road, about eight feet wide, cleared by hand by a little Mayan man, who also lives back in the jungle. More about him later. The Polaris bumped us up and down and all around, through huge water-filled potholes, (remember it was raining). As we rounded one curve, an entire herd of raccoon-like creatures, called “Coati” crossed the path in front of us. They are related to the raccoon and are quite common there. After four miles of travel at an average speed of about 20 mph, we finally reached a huge open-air pavillion called a “palapa” surrounded by jungle. The palapa was made from trees cut down right there in the jungle and had a roof thatched with some sort of dried straw. Here we donned our wet suits and were joined by our next guide, Caesar, and a few more adventurous folks.
Caesar quickly strapped us into harnesses and then gave us a quick lesson on how to zip line safely. Surprisingly, I was up for the challenge, even though I am (was) scared of heights. It was just a short walk through the jungle to the first set of wooden stairs leading up to the first platform. Daniel explained that he would place himself along the zip line route and try to get some good action photos for us. Once I’d climbed to the platform, I was a little shaky, and after reminding us what to do and not to do, Caesar stepped off the platform backwards, and off he went through the jungle. David went next, and then it was my turn. I didn’t step bravely off the platform, no! I sort of squatted and slid off, not very gracefully, I might add. But once you’re off, you’re really off and flying through the jungle. I immediately spun around in a circle, and when I landed on the next platform, I did so backwards! Piece of cake!
The next obstacle was crossing the rope bridge that led to the next platform that led to the next zip line. So, just to give you the short version, there were nine separate zip lines and five scary rope bridges of different types we had to cross. At many of the platforms, we were given a challenge so that we might earn extra points in order to get a taco for lunch. Seeing as how we hadn’t eaten all day, those tacos were starting to sound better and better. While this photo isn’t my most flattering side, it just goes to prove that I took the dare, which was to let go of my hands and zip line upside down! Ayeee!
After the zip lining, we walked through the jungle to a tall rock wall. I’m not a rock wall climber, so I took the steep steps to the top, while David pretty much schooled us on climbing a wet rock wall! Once at the top, we repelled down the other side. It was another first for the both of us. To be honest, after what I had just experienced? I felt like I could conquer the world.
David, Daniel, Caesar, and I continued on to another little palapa in the jungle where we traded the harnesses for life jackets and snorkeling masks. At this point, Daniel shared a little family history with us. He explained that as a local resident, his father was given 25 acres of jungle. He talked as we hiked through the rain to a half-cave hanging over a pool of beautiful, crystal clear water called a cenote (si-NO-tay). Called collectively Sistema Dos Ojos, these cenotes are part of the underground freshwater river and cave system. SIDEBAR: Many of the communities get their water from these systems. While driving through the cities, I had noticed black plastic tanks on top of the roofs with PVC pipes running into the tanks and out of the tanks. Daniel explained that the cenotes feed up into those tanks, and then the water is gravity-fed down into the home for the tap water, which is why we are warned not to drink the water.
Caesar told us this cenote is called La Bonita and that at one time, it was a full cave. At some point, the front half of the cave collapsed, leaving the water exposed and accessible. It’s 12 feet deep, and we could see clear to the bottom. Daniel encouraged us to jump into the cenote from the platform, so we did! Once in the water, Daniel gave us a snorkeling lesson, and it was time to test our snorkeling skills After we were comfortable with the gear, he told us to go ahead and explore the half-cave on our own while he took some snapshots. It took me a little while to relax my breathing enough to enjoy this new journey, but once we got the hang of it, it felt like second nature. Little fishes swam right up to us without fear. Oh, and with the water temp around 75 degrees, we were very thankful for the wet suits!
After we had gone as far into La Bonita as we dared, it was time to get out of this cenote and hike to the next surprise–an actual cave called Celestial. Daniel led us down into the dark cave, handing us waterproof flashlights, and what was the first thing I saw? Bats on the cave ceiling! I asked Daniel, “Are those fruit bats?” He said, “Yeah, and they eat insects, too!” That made me laugh. Caesar meanwhile, somewhere outside the cave, cranked up a generator that lit up a few underwater lights, enabling us to see clear to the bottom.
Heading in face first, Caesar led the way as Daniel swam around taking photos of us. It really was like a magical kingdom, with the light reflecting off the stalactites under the water, the stalagmites coming down from the ceiling, and the columns where they met in the middle. I noticed bottom-dwelling fish down there that scurried away every time I shined my light on them. In my awe and excitement, I failed to ask my guides the name of the fish, but I’m certain they must have been some kind of freshwater catfish. Also among the fishes were the same little fish that swam with us at the first cenote.
Cave snorkeling almost defies description, and comes with its own challenges, like not hitting your head on a stalactite while gazing at the bottom! I only hit my head once before cutting my finger on a very sharp stalactite, simply because I didn’t see it. It was quite painful, but the cold water kept it from bleeding until I got out into the warm air. But try to imagine snorkeling in a cave, with your face down in the water and no way to see what’s above your head or on either side of you. It’s really quite unsettling or thrilling, depending on your nature; but I will admit that because I had a fear of being left behind, my breathing became a little labored, making me grow tired. So, I was very ready for a little break when Daniel said, “Swim over here and sit on this stalagmite with your son so I can take your picture.” Whew, thank you!
We left the cave, cool and refreshed, and hiked back to the main palapa, where Daniel asked us, “Are you ready for your lunch?” Are you kidding me? It’s 3:00, and we’ve hiked the ruins, hiked the jungle, zip lined through the jungle, repelled a rock wall, swam in two cenotes, and all without breakfast. The Mayan man who made the road and the foot paths had cooked us an authentic Mayan meal—pork and chicken, seasoned, marinated, wrapped in banana leaves, and cooked underground for hours. The meat was falling-apart tender, in its own delicious juices and beautifully seasoned–nothing like any Mexican food I’ve ever tasted. Ceasar demonstrated how to “fluff” fresh corn tortillas before placing one atop the other in their traditional fashion. Then he placed the meat on top and told us to put the rice and red sauce on the pork, and to put the marinated purple onion and green habanero sauce on the chicken. Oh my gosh, my tastebuds were singing and my tummy was humming along!!! Again, I’m so sorry to say, we were so starving that we didn’t bother to hike to the Polaris and grab a camera. We just chowed down.
Before we knew it, it was time to hop into the Polaris for the bumpy, wet, and somewhat chilly ride back to the highway. Along the way, we scared up some Chachalaca birds. They’re sort of like noisy chickens that hang out in the jungle trees. Ceasar yelled to us from the front seat that they are very noisy birds, and so anytime someone talks a lot, they call that person a Chachalaca! Oh, and we heard wild parrots, although we never saw them. We also saw a big woodpecker on our way out, which they called a Carpenter. I thought that was appropriate!
We climbed in the waiting van and hit the highway heading south from the jungle to a little resort town called Akumal. First, we stopped by a little freshwater lagoon to snorkel again and see beautiful fishes, but the gatekeeper said it was too late. By this time, it was 4:30 p.m. So, after showing us a home once owned and occupied by Daniel’s friends, the Grateful Dead, Daniel parked in front of Half Moon Bay, and we disembarked with life jackets, snorkel gear, and flippers. We walked along the beach until just the right spot where we entered the salty water of the inlet, and Daniel showed us the best way to put on our flippers walking backwards until the water was deep enough to swim. but Daniel asked me to hold onto a life ring, allowing him to pull me while I kicked in order to avoid my getting stung by any high-reaching coral we might pass over. David followed along, freestyle!
The water was rough and a little turbid from all the wind and the rain, but before long, Daniel pointed to the bottom, indicating we had found what we had come for. There on the bottom a huge green sea turtle scooted along eating grass with a sucker fish attached to its shell and a little companion fish by its mouth, slurping up the crumbs. The only rule was that we stay an arm’s length away, so we swam around them and above them and they were not the least bit disturbed by our presence. Eventually, we came upon about five or six more, eating causally along the bottom. We watched them surface for air and go back down within just a few feet of us. It was a truly amazing experience. Finally, we left the turtles and swam through the coral, which was a beautiful eco-system with lots of colorful fish and sea urchins.
I’m so grateful to David for researching these activities online for months to find just the right ones for us. He wasn’t satisfied to buy a packaged deal where we got on a big tour bus with 50 other tourists. Instead, he found us a private excursion, on family-owned land, where we got one-on-one attention for most of the day. That’s definitely the way to go!
Where to stay: Le Reve` Hotel and Spa
What to do: edventures.com
Webcam at Akumal Beach where we swam with the turtles