Biking Mayan Style

Tulum ruins

During the holidays, I had the good fortune to vacation in Tulum, Mexico, for 5 glorious days.  Awful multi-multi-leg flight notwithstanding, this was one of the most awesome vacations ever.  We had a activity-packed itinerary yet still felt too relaxed to return to the office afterwards.

I’m a fan of Mexico and I won’t deny that food has A LOT to do with it.  Prior to this trip, however, my experience has

The SMALL order of shrimp ceviche at El Camello Jr., Tulum town

been limited to Baja and its fabulous fish/shrimp/arrachera tacos (those who know me have long tired of hearing me brag about that one trip where I ate Nothing.But.Tacos. and then returned to the States wanting more tacos).  (On a further tangent: visit Taqueria Mexico in San Jose del Cabo for shrimp ceviche and Rancho Viejo in La Paz for arrachera tacos.)  I was utterly clueless about the wonders of Mexico beyond the peninsula just south of me.  Turns out, the states of Yucatan and Quintana Roo are treasure troves of sights, activities, and yummies for the tourist.  I am confident that more action-packed adventures in this region await me still.

We arrived on a balmy December day along with plane loads of other merry-seekers.  Our flights sucked, and the car rental experience left a very bitter taste.  But once we dumped the bags on the floor of our room and ran about 200 yards directly into a turquoise, warm, setting-sunlit ocean, nothing about anything mattered anymore.  Tulum Beach is pure magic.

In the next few days, we snorkeled in a cenote, tried to avoid swimming into sea turtles, played with tropical fish, chilled out on soft sand, and pigged out on TacosTacosTacos with almost-painful habanero salsa.  We also paid visits to both the Coba and Tulum ruins (OK, FINALLY, this is where the bike-related part begins).  The Tulum ruins are, according to some, less architecturally significant than other major Mayan sites.  I am in absolutely no position whatsoever to comment on the architectural blah-blah-blah of anything, but I can say that the Tulum ruins, with their clifftop setting against the backdrop of that almost-Photoshopped Caribbean, make up one of the most breathtaking sights on Earth.  Especially considering that you could bike there from the beach hotels.

Coba pyramid

Coba, in contrast, is a large archaeological site seated deep within the Mayan jungle of your imagination.  We arrived right when the doors opened (highly advised) and were able to to be completely alone at times with the ruins.  Traversing between different buildings was made especially pleasant by the fact that Coba is serviced by a sophisticated bike rental operation (!!!).  For 35 pesos, choose one of a huge selection of bikes and off you go to explore the wild jungle (try to avoid laughing at the poor pedestrian suckers).  Riding on the  paths, with dilapidated temples, ball courts, and pyramids lurking behind every turn, was pure magic.  It was honestly not difficult to fancy myself a Mayan just going about my day (minus the wheels, of course) or trying to outrun the jaguars hidden behind the trees (that’s what the Mayans did on a daily basis, right?).

At every well-marked stop, an attendant will park and watch your bike while you go off pretending to be Indiana Jones.  The highlight of the complex is, of course, the Coba pyramid, which is the equivalent height of a 12-story building.  Climbing the bugger, while breathing in the heavy, humid air of the jungle, is not a walk in the park and is complicated by the fact that the steps are worn and there are obviously no handrails (you can hold on to a rope for support).  But, by all means, try to get to the top if you ever come here.  The view of the rich green of the forests, punctuated by specks of gray hinting at more mysterious Mayan vestiges, way more than balances out your efforts (besides, you would need the exercise after all the chips and tacos consumed).

Another bike-related (“What??  There is more??” you ask) attraction is Xel-Ha, which is kind of like Raging Waters and Sea World and Spring Break combined and then multiplied by 1000 in terms of fun.  It is essentially a beautiful natural lagoon that was privatized to make someone very rich.  I was a bit hesitant initially about patronizing such an establishment, but after the visit I could do nothing but applaud this guy’s genius.  Yes, the $80/person admissions fee is steep (especially for the average Mexican family), but once you pay that you could leave your wallet in your locker for the rest of the day.  Everything you would need to enjoy yourself once you have donned your Speedo and slapped on some sunscreen is included, from the locker to towels to snorkeling gear to food (4 BUFFET!!) to drinks (we are talking cocktails, beer, wine, juices, horchata, and sodas) to caves to jungle hikes to cliff jumping to bike rental.  Yes, you can grab a bike and hop on the path and have yourself a merry time flying through the jungle.  Although the aquatic attractions are the obvious star of Xel-Ha, there really is a plethora of activities for those who want to stay dry.  We spied a shy family of coatis and some iguanas while exploring the land portion of the park.  We also learned that the entire Yucatan peninsula is actually an ancient coral reef that became exposed when the water level receded during various ice ages.  One cave shows life forms that fossilized during one such event.  Finally, take a nap on the sunny spot where the lagoon meets the ocean, if you can manage to stop staring at the insanely gorgeous scenery.

In general, this magical region is best explored by motorized vehicles.  However, for providing mobility and transportation within a defined recreational area, such as a national park, the U.S. could learn a few things from the the efficient bike rental operations found in both Coba and Xel-Ha.