Our fearless explorer was last seen deftly departing the pre-Columbian city of Chichen Itza tracking off in the general direction of Ek Balam, another intriguing Mayan settlement buried deep in the jungles of Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula…
Sweating like a pack of dainty pigs, we bid Chichen Itza goodbye and literally run to the ahhhhhh-conditioned van for our next stop — the highly touted “cenote experience” which sounds like cool, refreshing fun to me!
Being from Florida, a.k.a. the limestone state, I am familiar with fresh water springs where the aquifer gurgles clean, clear goodness to the surface thereby creating swimming holes, meandering rivers and such. And while cenotes are similar in nature, they are completely different when it comes to form. You see in the Yucatan, the fresh water spring is found at the bottom of a collapsed cave system, and by that I mean a deep cave system. The one we are visiting today is located more than 300 feet below the surrounding land and is made accessible by a winding stairway carved directly into the cave walls. The ambiance is magical — cool crystal clear water, birds twittering overhead, the sun dappling through the surrounding forest, roots reaching ever downward to drink greedily from the waters below. Deep sigh…
Fully refreshed we journey onward to our next big adventure… Ek Balam.
Prior to this visit I had never even heard of Ek Balam… or Tulum and Coba for that matter. What I have discovered is that these imposing communities — along with Chichen Itza — made up the core of the pre-Columbian Mayan culture that thrived more than a thousand years ago.
Each massive compound is impressive in its own right, with opulent temples and pyramids, ceremonial ball courts and sacrificial platforms. In Ek Balam and Coba, you are free to climb and explore the ruins to your heart’s content. As for me, I volunteered to stay on the ground filming my companions as they cautiously scaled the crumbling, uneven steps leading up to the pinnacle. I couldn’t help but notice that coming down from those dizzying heights most climbers reverted to what I like to call the toddler scoot, taking one step at a time, butt firmly planted in place. (I should probably mention that in the spirit of keeping you safe a “handrail” has been installed for your convenience. Uhhh ya… it’s an ankle-high, frayed piece of rope cascading limply down the steps. Good luck with that one.)
During its heyday in the early 10th century, these four pre-Columbian Mayan cities were not only important centers of worship they were titans of commerce with interconnecting roads splayed out through miles of dense jungle and mosquito infested rain forest.
Today it is much easier to visit these places with full and half day trips offered through any number of tour companies. Because of the great distances traveled the tours are usually offered in sets of two; the inland Chichen Itza with Ek Balam, and the coastal Tulum with the slightly inland Coba.
When visiting Tulum make sure to bring along your bathing suit, towel and sunscreen for it is located on a cliff overlooking the sea where swimming is not only allowed, it is encouraged. A truly welcome respite from the hot humid clime.
If “natural” theme parks are your thing the Yucatan has a couple of those to offer too with their captive dolphin encounters, zip lines to nowhere and the (ours is bigger than yours) all you can eat buffet.
Any and all of these tours are available on the web or (literally) on the street, prices vary as do the number of people you will be traveling with. When in doubt plug the phrase complaints about such-and-such company into your web browser to see what other people have to say about any downside of the tours.
Here’s a tidy tip for ya: When booking tours to any of the sites mentioned above, the tour company will pack you up and drop you right back off at your hotel. For those staying out on Isla Mujeres the tour company will pick you up and drop off at the Puerto Juarez ferry terminal for no extra charge.