For the day ahead we had planned a visit to the Mayan ruins at Tulum, followed by the afternoon on the beach. We had realised on our visits to Chichen Itza and Ek Balam that it was important to be at the ruins at just after opening if we wanted to be through the site before the crowds of tour buses. We therefore got up fairly early to have breakfast at our hotel, the HM Playa del Carmen. After our stay in the Airbnb villa in Merida we were glad of the large selection of hot and cold food at the breakfast buffet. Even though I would have loved to enjoy my cup of coffee on the balcony outside for a little while longer I knew that we had to make a move to get to Tulum before the big bus tours arrived as it is possibly the most popular Yucatan site.
We drove back along the coastal road we came the day before on our way over from Merida. It took us about half an hour to reach the car park at the ruins and there were already a few cars parked. Even this early, vendors had already set up their souvenir stalls for the day ahead. We picked up an information leaflet about tours that was handed to us at the road that led us to the sites entrance. Children will love a ride on the shuttle train that goes from the car park to the entrance every few minutes. We did not want to wait, even though Jerome probably would have enjoyed the short ride. The queue for tickets was already surprisingly long but moved quickly. We animatedly watched a tame coati walk between the queuing people, I think Jerome was quite keen on getting closer to it as it was really cute. One of the guards told us not to touch or feed them though as they do sometimes bite.
The Mayan ruins of Tulum must have been an important port town during its heyday. Archaeologists believe that the Mayans must have sailed up and down the coastline and maintained trading routes all the way down to Belize. The city must have once served as a fortress, surrounded by ramparts on three sides (with the forth side the sea). We could see parts of these walls, which were several meters thick and between three and five meters high and to get onto the main ground of the site we walked through a hole in the wall.
Most residents of Tulum used to live outside of these walls and the ceremonial buildings and palaces we visited there were only for the ruling class. We very much liked the Tulum ruins for its location on the rugged coastline, the little beaches in between parts of the buildings and its smaller size of the overall site. It might be the best place to introduce Mayan culture to your little ones here, rather than being overwhelmed by the size of Chichen Itza or some of the other ruins. Also if the beaches are not closed off, which they were during our visit due to turtle nesting season and strong winds, you would be able to spend some play time in the sand as a break mid-tour. Make sure to bring something to drink and eat though as there is not opportunity to buy these on or near the beach or in the site. There are plenty of narrow paths, which can be fun to walk and run along, providing the crowds let you. Jerome also liked spotting the iguanas in the weirdest of places on the rocks and ruins.
At the heart of the complex we saw the El Castillo, the tallest structure of Tulum. On its wall we could see the God in the middle of the façade and the serpents, which reminded us of Chichen Itza. We walked along the back of El Castillo, the rough jade-green sea beneath us, to the spot where we got the famous view of the Templo del Dios Viento. Another note worthy building is the Templo de las Pinturas where we could just about make out some of the beautiful murals rescued by the archaeologists, besides seeing the columns and carvings on the outside of the temple.
The stream of visitors started to increase at a rapid pace as we returned through the ruins, with some of the early bus tours arriving. We then walked back to the car and drove into Tulum. Tulum is divided into two zones, the old town centre which feels more like a truck stop as it is located along the highway, the other part is the Zona Hotelera, along the coast. We headed here first as we wanted to find a quiet beach and a place for lunch. We had read in one of the guidebooks that the Reserva de Biosfera Sian Ka’an would be an off the beaten track place to visit in the area. After we left the long stretch of posh and eco hotels behind us, we found ourselves on a dirt track with one pothole after another. Jerome thought it was funny as Chris drove through the water filled holes, not knowing how deep they would be and making our car jump at times. We kept looking out for a watchtower that would supposedly give us a great view of the reserve, which consists of jungle, mangroves and a vast lake separated only by a few meters of land with the sea. We never found the tower, even though we drove along the road until after the end of the lake, which by the way cannot be seen from the car and only be accessed at one or two points from the road.
In the end we found a deserted abandoned beach bar/restaurant. We ignored the Do Not Enter signs as there was literally no soul around and it was not properly fenced off. We went for a brief break on the beach. The sand here was powder fine but we could see that no human had been on the beach for a long time. There were dead coconuts and palm leaves everywhere but they did not spoil our break.
We had noticed, like on our drive to Playa del Carmen the day before, that it was almost impossible to go to the beach unless you were in a hotel complex or restaurant. This really had started to annoy us about this coast. It was the same thing in Tulum and here, on our drive back, we saw most of the land behind the beaches fenced off, some of the grounds belonged to huge villas, others to hotels. When we arrived back at the Zona Hotelera we stopped at the Italian restaurant, Posada Margerita, as Jerome did not want to face another Mexican meal. We took our seats outside on the terrace, overlooking the beach and sunbeds. The restaurant had a very rustic feel, but in an arty way with lots of old doors and windows made into the front of the building. I must say we were quite a bit shocked when we saw the prices for a pasta dish, averaging at 20US$, we felt more like being back at home in London rather than being in Mexico. Everywhere else where we had stayed, the three of us ate for the same price of one dishes here at Posada Margerita. I have to say that Tulum in general felt like a rip off, I had originally wanted to book a hotel here but they were so expensive in comparison to other places on the Riviera Maya and Cancun coast so do research any stay you plan carefully. Most of the time the prices did not even seem justified. I am normally more than happy to book a luxury hotel and pay the price for it but not when it feels like I get a beach cabana with no air conditioning.
Anyway, the plate of pasta was generous and delicious and the sea view definitely made up for the disappointment about the higher prices. After lunch we ordered another jug of agua fresca and took it down to one of the beach beds. I am conscious of the fact that if we would have gone somewhere else we probably would have needed to pay to get a sunbed, so it was not all that bad in the end. The sea that day was quite rough, too rough for my liking but Jerome and Chris spent hours braving the waves and hand surfing. It made a great break from all the sightseeing in the past week.
We drove into the old town centre after having spent most of the afternoon on the beach at Posada Margerita. The village of Tulum felt more like a busy motorway junction and was not a place we wanted to linger for long. On both sides of the highway we found plenty of eateries and shops that were charging ridiculous prices for their souvenirs compared to other places we had been to. Even Playa del Carmen seemed more reasonably priced than Tulum. It was interesting to see the contrast of the posh hotel zone along the beach and the grubby village centre though. We much preferred our little hotel HM in Playa del Carmen.
Having said that, Playa del Carmen is not the small and quaint fishing village it once was. The town has fallen into the hands of the builders and big tour companies, with large scale projects, converting it into another tourist hub, where it is all about sports bars, condos, shopping centres and chain hotels and holiday apartment blocks catering to mostly cheap and cheerful US tastes. It surely is a place where people go to be seen, rather than an off the beaten track place where we normally like to stay. For us our hotel was an excellent choice there, we also went back to the Venezuelan restaurant Kaxapa, where we had another delicious dinner, a highlight of good food away from the middle of the glitz.