Sunday, July 24, 2016

1MB Travels: Cancun, Mexico: Day 3: Tulum Cenotes, Mayan Ruins and Casa Jaguar Jungle Dining

Our excitement rose with the sun on the third day:  we were heading to Tulum for many firsts: first time diving in cenotes, first time visiting Tulum's Mayan ruins, and first time dining 'in the jungle'.

We started our hour and a half drive south from Cancun at 6:30am to make our morning dive call time.

Where Cancun is a mass of commercialism, mostly packed with tourists, day drinking, nightly debauchery, and sensory overload, Tulum (at least the parts we saw) was all beauty, authenticity and calm.

Aside from ancient ruins, gorgeous beaches and jungles, there are also thousands of cenotes (sinkholes created by collapsed limestone over ground water) that form a large and fascinating underground cave system in Tulum and Mayan Riviera.  We had chosen two that sounded amazing but would also suit our level of experience.

Despite a hiccup with our guide at Calypso Dive Center waking up with clogged sinuses (making it dangerous for him to dive), when he heard how far we traveled, he called in a favor from a dive master friend to lead us.

After a gear fitting and quick debriefing, Julio drove us north through the jungle to arrive at our first stop, which initially was difficult to tell was a destination at all.

What only looked like a small clearing from the road turned out to be a gorgeous shimmering pond of clear turquoise, framed by lush greenery: and the 'gateway' to Casa Cenote.

The entrance was actually underwater, so we slipped our gear on while sitting at the pond's rocky edges, then dove below gorgeous root forests to get to the start of the passages.

The inner sanctum of Casa Cenote was nothing short of transcendent. The way rays / panels of light shone down through the crystal clear water, through natural chambers and passages between towering limestone walls, with nothing but the sound of our breath and fins rhythmically fluttering, brought a sense of indescribable spiritual calm and peacefulness. I felt like we were in an hallowed place, an underwater cathedral.

Click below to watch a video of our dive, captured with GoPro Hero Silver 4:


If you're wondering why the colors change dramatically midway through the video: it's because Casa Cenote is part fresh water and part salt water: where the two meet is the halocline.  Experiencing it in person is nothing short of breathtaking.  It was one of the most life changing dives I'd done so far - and I was grateful to have been able to experience this one as our first cenote dive - Casa CEnote was going to be extremely hard to top!

 Our second cenote was the better known Dos Ojos - the visitor center is also located there.

This was a more physically demanding dive, even before we hit water.

From the parking area, all visitors must haul their own gear (~50-60 pounds? for us including tanks) down flights of stairs to reach the dark lip of the cavernous entrance to the cenote.

We pulled our gear on, then scampered down a few underwater steps to the passage entrance.

Where Casa Cenote was mostly lofty turquoise and azure beauty and light, Dos Ojos was a lot more intimidating to a rookie diver - most of the dive was in the dark, flashlight required, and through narrow passages filled with stalactites and stalagmites, where you could not surface immediately if something were to go wrong.

Yellow rope threaded throughout the system helps guide tourists to stick to the known, safest route.  After completing this dive I would recommend other rookies work to master buoyancy before attempting it - otherwise, like me, you will struggle trying to stay in the middle of the passage and not get poked by the rock formations above or below.  When trying to control my buoyancy, I kept ping-ponging up and down wildly.  It was by sheer luck (and the watchful eye of our guide) that I think I got through that dive without incident or injury.

Another note about Dos Ojos: since it is a more frequented site, they've got more set up to support common tourist needs, like a camera with flash near the end of the dive like at an amusement park - and you can buy a print of the photo at the info center after; there are t-shirts and other souvenirs for sale at the center - but it is cash only so be sure to prepare accordingly (no ATMs there), USD is accepted as well as pesos.

As always starving post dive, we headed to El Camello Jr.  Seeing a long line wrapping around the block, and that we had to get to the Mayan ruins before the park closes for the day, we got food to go and scarfed everything down on a bench at the park entrance.

Here is the seafood ceviche.

Fish tacos.

And shrimp tacos.

It was a beautiful hike up to the Tulum ruins from there.

The only Mayan city built along the coast, and one of the few with a wall ("tulum" translates literally to "wall" and was designed to be a seaport), gorgeous architecture dating back to the 13th century overlooks sheer limestone bluffs and the impossibly blue Caribbean.

It was incredible to see these historical relics that stood the test of time.

For dinner, we ventured back into the jungle - a very unexpectedly chic stretch of it, minutes from the ruins.

We originally intended to check out Hartwood, a World's 50 Best Restaurant, but as they do not accept reservations and were already full for the night, we skipped down the road to Casa Jaguar.  The kitchen was al fresco, with rustic touches like a wood burning oven and reclaimed wood everything.

We dined and toasted with craft cocktails to the sounds of birds in the jungle - such an incredible experience.  (But as a reminder, when in nature you have to be prepared for the bad with the good - be sure to bring an arsenal of mosquito repellent or you will become the thing that the buggers feast on!)

The food was fine dining quality, but not mind blowing like we imagined Hartwood would be.  It was upscale Latin American with influences from the chef's travels to Asia and Europe, using local ingredients, from grilled shrimp with garlic butter, guajillo chiles and mezcal, to plantains.

Tulum was an amazing day trip down from Cancun, but since we all loved the diving, food and whole laid back, small town vibe of Tulum - next time we visit we will definitely look to find a place to stay there.

It would be very difficult to pick a favorite day out of our incredible Cancun/Tulum trip - special thanks to @jennybawel for all the hard work researching and booking the dives and handling transpo logistics! - but if I had to choose, Day 3 might be it.

Looking for more activity ideas for Cancun / Tulum / the Yucatan? Check out how we maximized our trip in my recaps of Day 1, Day 2, Day 4 and Day 5. For more photos from this trip, please visit my Instagram @onemorebiteblog


Tulum, Mexico

Ontime Car Rental
Blvd. Kukulcan, Km 11.5 Loc. 101-B
Cancun, Quintana Roo, Mexico 77500
Ph: +52 998 883 0160

La Calypso Dive Center
Tulum Quintana Roo Mexico 
Ph: +52 (1) 984 106 80 02
+52 (1) 984 100 73 85

Casa Cenotes 
Tulum 77780, Mexico

Cenotes: Dos Ojos
17km north of Tulum

El Camello Jr
Carretera Chetumal-Cancun Locales 1 y 2 Lte 3 Mza 40, Centro, 77600 Tulum, Q.R., Mexico
Ph: +52 984 871 2036

Mayan Ruins Tulum

Casa Jaguar 
Carretera Tulum Bocapaila km 7.5, Tulum, Quintana Roo

Westin Resort & Spa Cancun
Boulevard Kukulcan KM 20, Cancun, Quintana Roo 77500, Mexico 
Ph: +52 (998) 848-7400

Day 3 costs breakdown:

  • Car Rental: $40 USD per day = $10 per person per day including mandatory liability insurance
    • Gas: 200 pesos per day = 50 pesos per person per day (~$3 USD)
  • Cenotes Dives: $130pp includes dive gear rental, entrance fees, transportation from dive center to dive spots, guide and water
    • Dive tips: $20 per person
  • Lunch at El Camello Jr ~400 pesos total, 100 pesos per person (~$5 USD)
  • Tulum ruins: admission: 40 pesos per person (~$2 USD)
  • Casa Jaguar 
    • Dinner: 350 pesos entree + 150 pesos cocktail (~$27 USD)
    • Parking: 50 pesos (~$3 USD)
  • Hotel: 8,500 Starwood points
  • Total: ~$200 USD per person

(Check out how we maximized our trip in my recaps for Day 1, Day 2, Day 4 and Day 5.  To see more photos from this trip, visit my Instagram @onemorebiteblog)


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