The Wilder West Of Tulum

By Mari Pintkowski

casita day
Travel westward in the cool morning hours toward the ancient ruins of Coba on a newly improved highway, bordered by verdant jungle. I invite you to explore each of the three pueblos you encounter along the way; Macario Gomez, Francisco Huy May, and Manuel Antonio. The topes (speed bumps) in each village will slow your pace so that you will be able to catch a glimpse of a daily life of the people who live in the wood and palapa structures in the villages and the smiling faces of their children. There they go, heading for school or walking towards home holding a bundle of warm tortillas with a few skinny, street dogs trailing behind hoping for a tasty morsel of food. You may see a Mayan mamacita with a baby wrapped in her shawl, or a few turkeys pecking at who-knows-what in the middle of the unpaved side streets. Smell the chicken cooking on the open-air grill in front of a restaurant or grocery store and notice the inviting open-air souvenir stalls.

But donít linger now in these shops selling Mayan treasures along the highway. There will be time for that on the way back to the B&B later in the day. Lean your head out of the window and listen for the concert of the jungle birds, and observe the many species of butterflies frolicking in the breeze and hurry on to the ruins before the many tour vans and buses arrive around 9:30.

Coba ballcourt
At the first large round-about (20 min. from the first pueblo), follow the signs to Coba. After passing the town cemetery, baseball field, post office and a few small hotels and restaurants, you will approach the large shimmering lagoon inhabited by a few well-fed crocodiles. Turn left and park in the car-park and move toward the ticket booth in front of the archaeological site. Coba lies deep in the medium-growth tropical forests of Quintana Roo. If you arrive even earlier, by 7:30 am, you may be lucky enough to see a spider monkey or colorful Tucan in the towering trees overhead, but once the crowds arrive the animals retreat to their hiding places till the sun sets.

I encourage you to hire a guide; many of them speak English. This will enhance your tour experience, and you will walk away with stories not found in a guide book. Even though each guide has been trained in the history and archeology of Coba, they each bring stories handed down from generation to generation to enrich the tour. There is no written history of the Mayan civilization.

You will see ruins of one of the largest Mayan cities of the Classic Period (300 Ė 900 AD). One of the two ball courts has been reconstructed recently, and only 95% of the estimated buildings are excavated. Observe examples of pure Mayan architecture which include: the corbel arch, rounded corners on the temples, gigantic staelas (carved plaques telling about the ruling king and his family), and structures built on top of ones from earlier periods. The most delightful part of the Coba ruins is the tall jungle that you navigate through from one grouping to another. At the end of the short, hour-long tour, you can continue with your guide or decide to explore on your own. Rent a bicycle for a reasonable rate and pedal through the rest of the park. We often hire a three-wheel tricycle with a colorful umbrella and a driver and sit back to soak in the jungle ambiance, and to speculate about the many mysterious mounds that have yet to be freed from their prisons of vines and trees that surround you.

Coba pyramid
Close you eyes and envision a culture that migrated here from the jungles of Guatemala and built one of the largest cities in the Mayan world. Save some energy to climb the 12-story pyramid, Nohouch Mul. At the top of the pyramid you can view two lagoons, tops of pyramids nestled in the jungle and the carvings of the god of the bees. For those who have a fear of heights, grab onto the rope at the center of the stairs and creep down backwards and silently depart this ancient city of commerce along what remains of the sacbes, or white roads.

As you leave the Coba parking lot, turn left and drive to the cenotes that are less than 15 minutes away along the road that winds around the lagoon. The signage is good and the road is superb. At km. 3 you will see Koopi-ox, and area with a zip-line through the trees where you are able to float over an open cenote. Donít stop now, but hurry to Choo ha and Tankah ha cenotes before the tour buses arrive. Tell the attendant you want to visit both underground sink-holes.

cenote entrance
Proceed to the second cenote, Tankah ha, and the attendant will ask you to shower first to remove sunscreen and other pollutants. The caretakers are trying their best to preserve this jewel for future generations. Gather your courage and enter the underground magic of this dimly lit place by way of a somewhat spooky-wooden, spiral staircase. Your eyes will soon focus on an amazingly large, deep pool of crystal clear water below you. On your way down you pass several diving platforms protruding out into the darkness to entice you to plunge in and submerge yourself in this transparent world. It is fun have a mask and snorkel to see the rock formations below the surface and the small catfish that live here. There are life-vests provided for those who want them.

Chooha Cenote
When your body is cool and you are refreshed and ready for more surprises, climb back up to the surface and drive back along the sandy road to the first cenote, Choo ha, to explore this underground cavern decorated by nature with fantastically shaped stalactites and stalagmites. Donít miss the opportunity for one more swim before leaving.

If you have a bit more adventure left in you, stop to soar on the zip-line above a Mayan jungle that you passed earlier. Or you may be listening to your growling stomach telling you it is time to sample some Yucatecan food back in Coba at one of the restaurants that border the ruins. For an upscale meal in relaxing and elegant surroundings, Iíd advise you to drive to the Club Med Villa Archaeological at the end of the lagoon road. Here you can sip a cocktail while your meal is prepared, or take a dip in the hotelís tiled pool surrounded by a lush tropical garden.

It is officially siesta time in Mexico and you can linger by the pool until you are ready to meander back to your jungle retreat. I always think that this is a good time to stop at some of the inviting shopping palapas along the way to purchase authentic souvenirs such as: hammocks, carved masks, museum quality plaques carved out of wood or stone, or brilliantly woven and embroidered table cloths.

grotto at night
I recommend the last artesian shop on the left as you depart Manuel Antonio, the first pueblo. The artist, Miguel and his English/German speaking wife, Beatriz, have a wide assortment of fine crafts and each one comes with a story to describe and remember your treasure.

For a delightful change of pace, check into La Selva Mariposa, an elegant jungle retreat just off the Coba road in the last pueblo, Macario Gomez that you drive through on your journey back to the coast.

Hungry again? Ready for a sunset cocktail overlooking the sea? Remember that you are only 15 minutes from the beach in Tulum to the East, and the stars are shining bright and inviting you to dine under their dim romantic light at the Mezzanine or one of the other restaurants on the beach. Maybe youíll be lucky enough to watch the moon rise over the Caribbean. Enjoy a delicious dinner and a stroll on the beach before returning to your jungle oasis off the Coba road to fall asleep with the soft sound of the flowing waterfall outside your casita and dream of all you have encountered today on your back-door tour into the world of the ancient Mayans.

Mari Pintkowski is author of a newly published book, Embarking on the Mariposa Trail, about following a dream to build a B&B south of the border. The book is available at the Mezzanine on Tulum Beach.