We rented a car and drove to our hotel from the Cancun airport – an easy, straight as an arrow drive on a very good road. There was traffic, but it was very orderly. The signage, however, is confusing. Hotels are exclaimed in huge writing on green traffic signs, as if they were distant cities. It is strange and probably free advertising. We didn’t see a lot of billboards, though, so I would say I prefer the green signs to billboards any day.
Playa del Carmen is about a 45-minute drive south of Cancun. It is one of the oldest cities in the Yucatan peninsula, having been a seaport. It is a large and well-developed city, and a relative newcomer to the tourist industry that now dominates the “Riviera Maya” as this coast has been trademarked.
Gerry and I came to Cancun 37 years ago for our honeymoon. So much has changed in those nearly 40 years, that if we had not made a cruise ship stop here about 10 Christmases ago, we certainly would have been shocked.
The GPS in Google took us to the service entrance of our hotel, (Melia) Paradisus La Perla & La Esmeralda. No one at the hotel seemed surprised; I guess that happens often. We made it to the main entrance, having to stop and ask at least twice, and then driving on what felt like a sidewalk but was just a brick street. (This is the famous Fifth Avenue, but not the famous part of it!)
The entrance to the Paradisus is grand. But it is only about a 5 on a grandeur scale (from 1 to 10) compared to the hotel entrances we saw along our drive. Some are so clearly over the top it is hard to square them with the flat, featureless landscape. There is, however, something reminiscent in them of the Maya civilization. Perhaps it is the way they dominate the landscape, like I imagine the Mayan pyramids did.
Our hotel, one of the Melia chains called Paradisus, is quite similar to the hotel where we stayed just last month in Punta Cana (DR). In fact the layout of our room is exactly the same! Different décor, but identical set-up.
Where the Punta Cana hotel was so new that everything was brilliant white, with no mature vegetation to break the harshness, this hotel is all of seven years old. Here the vibe is dark wood and rush roofs. The vegetation is mature and finding one’s way around is a challenge. What magnifies the challenge is that there are two parts to the hotel, one is La Perla and one La Esmeralda. They share the common spaces where there are restaurants and bars, the shop, sculptures and fountains in a central area called the Zocolo. La Perla is Adults Only, as are half the restaurants and pools.
Here there are swim up suites at the bases of all the buildings, which are arranged in a large square. There are no rooms on the outside; those areas are given over to parking space (which is very little utilized.) The view from our room takes in a few pool areas, sinuous walkways, lots of palm trees. The great expanses we could see in Punta Cana are not possible here.
The hotel is set back from the beach by a mangrove. Raised walkways conduct you over and through this protected terrain. The mangroves are large and dense and provide well-appreciated shade as you walk to the beach.
The beach has a fair amount of sargassum, a brown alga. This morning as I walked at low tide, there wasn’t much, but on Tuesday it was more than abundant and, at high tide, it was amassing on the beach. We learned that the sargassum is collected regularly and recycled, even into herbal remedies. I read that starting in 2011, there has been an outbreak (strange word, I think. I would have called it a over-bloom) of sargassum and that all over the Caribbean, the amount of the algae is disrupting tourism and the ecosystems that depend on it. (There are more than 22 species of animals that depend upon sargassum for some part of their life cycle including baby sea turtles and many fishes.) It is thought that this outbreak, which continues in 2019, may be due to rising sea temperatures as a result of (you guessed it!) global warming.
Walking down near the breaking waves, you may have to wade through the sargassum. Just watch where you put your feet, as you cannot always see the sand beneath.
The beach sand is soft and white. It is difficult to walk on the dry sand – great for those calf muscles! The beach is open and sits on a large bay. The vistas are wide. Lots of beautiful blue water and brilliant blue skies. The green jungle and mangroves are a perfect backdrop to the white sand.
Just north from the hotel’s beaches, you come upon a public beach called Punta Esmeralda. There is a strong, flowing current that winds through the sand and eventually into the sea. This is the outflow of an underground fresh water river! We, jaded by civilization, thought it was a man-made thing – maybe sewer effluent(?). How happy we were to be wrong. It appears to be a popular bathing place for locals. I returned this morning early to find several people basking in the cool, fresh water. Perhaps these waters have beneficial powers as the Maya claimed: I waded through them, but didn’t notice any special changes in the aches in my ankles or arches.
I find it very intriguing and want to explore the whole underground river idea. We have seen myriad signs for “cenotes.” These are places where the surface above the underground river has collapsed and left a sink hole filled with fresh water. The cenotes really look beautiful in the ads I have seen, and swimming in them is a feature of this region.
Besides walking the beach and swimming in the pool, we ventured out to visit Cobá, a Mayan site about 1 ½ hours from our hotel. Though Tulum is closer (just an hour away) we visited on our New Year’s cruise about 10 years ago. Having first visited it in 1982 on our honeymoon, we had been shocked and dismayed at the change. It was like a bad Disneyland – overcrowded with hawkers and flooded with tourists.
Some enterprising entrepreneur should get the right to give tours before and after public hours. There is a magic to the Mayan ruins that one just cannot feel when there are too many tourists all around and a cacophony of human sounds. We experienced the magic when we were in Tikal in Guatemala where modern Mayans still perform rituals in the ruins – and not for the benefit of the tourists, put despite them. Perhaps that is where the magic of the Maya sites resides – in the hearts and presence of the descendants of the people who built these amazing structures and a civilization in the jungle of the Yucatán Peninsula.
Cobá was inhabited for somewhere between 1200 and 1500 years. It was already abandoned when the Spanish came to the Yucatan, but there doesn’t seem to be much evidence to explain why. The heydays for this city was in the Classical and post-Classical periods of Mayan civilization, the first from about 600 to 900 AD and the second 1000 to 1100 AD. From its beginnings as a loose confederation of agricultural villages, Cobá grew to become an important political and economic city-state. It declined in the 800s due to competition from other rising cities, especially Chichen Itza. It had a resurgence of importance in the post-Classical period, most likely as a religious or ceremonial center, as evidence by another wave of building, this in the more coastal style. All in all, the site was well-maintained until the 1400s.
There are two characteristics of Cobá that distinguish it from other archeological sites in the Yucatán peninsula. The first is the raised, white stone and plaster roads that radiated from it to other Mayan cities in the regions. Forty-five of these roads have been discovered to date. If you’re a word nerd like I am, you’ll appreciate that the name of these roads comes in many variations! Called sacbes (as if it were English or Spanish), we also saw sacbee, sacbeob, sacbeeob, sacbob and others. I finally found an article on Wikipedia explaining that the word is Mayan. (Check out the etymology there. In fact the whole article is really interesting!)
The other is the numerous stelae that dot the site. A stela is an upright stone panel with an inscription or hieroglyphs, used to commemorate an event or person. These are very common here, and many are in such a good state that they can be read…and they furnish an amazing look at the life of this city. They focus on the ruling class, and many of these refer to women rulers. (This is so often mentioned that one must wonder if it is our modern day sensibilities that cannot fathom it, more than any surprise that there may have been powerful women in Mayan culture.) The stelae here are often associated with “altars” though our understanding of that word may not be the significance they had at the time they were constructed.
We loved visiting this site. Part of the fun (and for me, the agony) of this visit is that you can rent bicycles to move around the site. You can also walk or take a bicycle “taxi.” All get you around to see the same sites. In retrospect, I think that walking may allow you to see and experience more, as there are “sacbes” (see above) that you can only traverse on foot. These often provide direct routes between the structures, whereas on the bikes, you go the long way around. Also, on foot, you can choose the taxi option after the fact.
I mentioned agony … I managed to damage (perhaps break my tailbone on the POS bike I rented). If you are a moderately tall woman (something I would never have considered myself at 5’6”) choose a men’s bike. The women’s bikes are all for considerably shorter people, and mine was very uncomfortable. The tailbone issue may have occurred because the surface is quite bumpy and the seat of the bike quite hard. I don’t know how it happened, but there came a point at which it was so painful, I was walking my bike. Then, our bikes (mercifully) disappeared!
I was waffling between blaming someone who took our bikes by mistake and someone who took our bikes on purpose (i.e. because they didn’t like theirs… I could relate to that!). I didn’t even dream that someone who had not paid for a bike at all would take one! That was the opinion of the “taxi” driver who took us back to base. He said it happens all the time. The bike rental place was prepared for this, and we could have had our bikes replaced, but instead we opted for a taxi ride. (I was pushed for that though even sitting in the taxi was painful, too!) A replacement taxi ride was free, too, to people who had proof they had paid for bikes. I was so happy that I didn’t have to get back on that bike! It was fun, though I hadn’t ridden a bike in years.
The main attraction at his site is climbing the second highest pyramid in the Maya world. There is speculation about how much longer this will be allowed, and with good reason. It has already been banned at Chichen Itza, and in Tikal, you climb via a wooden staircase. The steps are really steep. Going up is ok as long as you don’t look down. Going down is a nightmare. Fortunately, there is a rope, and lots of people opt for the “bottom” method (going down on your bottom). I did not go up. I started out, but the rise of the steps was too high and I had a sore knee from a fall on the ice in Wisconsin just two weeks earlier. (Maybe I also had a cracked tailbone from a fall on the ice two weeks earlier…I fell 4 times.) I figured I didn’t have to prove anything, so I stayed behind. Gerry went up.
It is clear from the vibe at the bottom of the pyramid that going up is a way to prove how macho you are, man, woman or child. Although most everyone makes it safely, the attitude when they are back on the ground is quite a bit more humble and sober. Many talk of how it is worth it – not because they proved anything but because of what they saw when they were up there.
From my position near the base, I saw one man lose his balance and trip down several steps – but he stayed on his feet, fortunately. Scared the bejeezus out of me. I couldn’t look after that. A few minutes later there was the sound of crashing and falling, and people screaming. It was just a water bottle but the guide for the group was screaming at his peeps – “Let it go! Don’t try to catch it! It’s just a water bottle!”
I headed to a place where I couldn’t hear or see what happened to the climbers – and I saw a beautiful bird! A Turquoise Browed Motmot! (I know…it sounds made up even to me.)
Gerry came back proud of his achievement in getting up and back down safely. So much for the sobering and humbling theory! Gerry said it was exhilarating to get to the top and look out over the expanse of trees, trees, trees in every direction.
The experience in the ruins was a bit like a novel. Bicycling through the jungle, the terrain very flat, all of a sudden there were rocky hills next to the road. These piles of rocks are unexcavated structures – so you can imagine yourself an archeologist/explorer. The excavated structures are impressive because you can get so close to them. Certain parts you cannot climb on, but other parts you can. You can touch the stones and run your hands over them, thinking about their age, and about how well they have survived in a jungle where trees are climbing right out of the stones, wrapping their roots around the blocks and holding them in place even as they crush and break them.
I held a debate with myself: Was it better to hope that someday archeologists could excavate and recreate the city as it was in its heyday – or is it better to experience it like this – half excavated – and be able to imagine the rest? One thing is certain: The days of climbing on these pyramids are almost completely used up. Climbing at Chichen Itza was stopped after a fatal fall…how much farther behind can Cobá be?
Our favorite place in Cobá was the area called the Macanxoc Group (other areas are the Cobá Group, Chumuc Mul, and Nohoch Mul, the site of the great pyramid).
My suggestion for visiting the site is arrive early. Be there when it opens. From Playa del Carmen we left at 7:30 am to get there by 9. Once there, you can walk, bike or take a taxi to view the ruins. Which ever way you choose, get going immediately and go to the pyramid at Nohoch Mul. It is the farthest thing from the entrance. Don’t stop along the way there, just go straight there and climb the pyramid, if you want. There will be fewer people the earlier you go, which should make it safer and also more meaningful.
After the pyramid, you’ll have to go back along the way you came, and now is the time to stop and explore the structures and ruins along the way. If you’re a walker, I think the best experience might be by walking, because as I said earlier there are paths that cut through the jungle, where bikes and taxis are not allowed. If you go by bike, each of the places worth stopping has a bike parking “lot” nearby. Go to the Macanxoc Group last. Don’t worry – almost no one goes there. You’ll probably have the place to yourself. Better pictures and a more intimate experience. I think these ruins deserve the time to see them and connect with them. The Mayan people who built these were amazing people, and maybe some of their spirit lingers in the ruins. Try to feel that.
The ruins of Cobá are located between two lakes, Cobá and Macanxoc, and near the modern town of Cobá. It is picturesque along the coast of the lakes. The drive from Tulum to Cobá takes you through three little villages with interesting crafts – we did not have time (we spent 3 ½ hours art the ruins – most people spend 1 ½!) but you might make a plan to stop on the way back. We saw baskets, hammocks and dream catchers and lots of interesting things made from dried vines.
Our resort does not lend itself to going out and exploring off property. It is actually designed to be such a complete experience that you don’t need to go out, and bit of that seeped into our trip, especially when Gerry was out of commission for an entire day with stomach trouble (Montezuma or too much tequila…?)
We did go into the town of Playa del Carmen one evening before dinner. The town, as I mentioned, is a regular city. We could drive through the city streets to get there, though the expressway would have been slightly faster. Near our hotel the neighborhoods are pretty rustic, lots of cinder blocks and zinc, hand-painted signs for businesses, dogs wandering in the street looking for shady nap. The closer one gets to the center of town, the better the buildings and the streets become, and right in the center, there are lots of high end shops and the construction is also very attractive.
The “place to go” in Playa del Carmen is “La Quinta” (Fifth Avenue – pronounced “lah KEEN-tah”). This is a street that runs parallel to the ocean, is pedestrians only (except at the cross streets) and is lined on both sides with shops, pharmacies, restaurants and bars for tourists. People watching is great; specimens are plentiful and extremely varied! Don’t worry about what to wear – even in the evening we saw lots of bathing suits, some with cover-ups. There are lots of hawkers– trying to get you inside the shops. Being parked near one end of the street, we walked all the way down it just looking and making mental notes of shops we would like to check out…and for items we were interested in buying. On the way back, we shopped. Mostly everyone has the same things, but we found a shop that made lamps from jícara (fruit of the calabash tree). Dried and treated like a gourd, the lamps are decorated with perforations in Mayan designs and the addition of glass, shells or other seeds and woods. We were fortunate to buy ours directly from the artisan who made it.
I also bought some textiles, probably these will become pillows in the “red” bedroom. I really liked the multi-colored ones, but Gerry liked the simpler, single color designs which, truth be told, are less ubiquitous. We opted to buy these in a nice shop that sold other better and artistic crafts including silver jewelry and pressed and woven paper (like the piece I bought in Puerto Vallarta). There were inexpensive versions of most things sold by vendors right on the street and lots of tourist shops along the avenue.
We returned to Playa Del Carmen (town) another morning and again parked near the southern end of La Quinta. This day, however, we turned and went south into a planned community called Playacar in search of the Xaman-Ha ruins and aviary. The aviary had mixed reviews online, and the negative reviews were not unjustified. However, if you are interested in seeing and photographing birds up close and in naturalized settings – this place is a gold mine! It was not that easy to get good photos because of the high dynamic range (contrast!) between sunlit areas and shade, but the birds are very close and you will not need a super telephoto to capture them. You can also easily talk to them, something I enjoy but to which they seem indifferent.
In addition to these birds, we also saw (but didn’t get decent pictures) parrots, a great curasaw, grey-necked wood rail, and others that I was unable to identify. Especially the small birds, flitting in the upper canopy were hard to nail down. In the aviary, there are two enormous flight cages. You can walk in and sit down and watch the birds to your heart’s content, and we did.
One more bird picture, so I can let you in on something I learned…
I needed to know how to tell a snowy egret from a great egret, when I didn’t have a size comparison like I do here. A snowy egret, besides being smaller has a dark beak and and yellow feet; a great egret has a golden beak and black legs. Now it seems easy, right! But what is that bird with the orange beak and the orange legs??? A great ibis it turns out…they were not identified in the brochure. So much for a white bird is a white bird!
I want to take a moment to talk about other animals, too. “When it rains, it pours” is a good description of my wildlife experience in Playa del Carmen. Everywhere within our resort there were exhortations not to feed the coatis (raccoon-like mammals with long tails.) Do you think we saw one in the first 5 days we were there? Not a one! Then, the morning we were headed to the aviary we saw three in less than an hour. (PS They are adorable.)
In the aviary, we saw several agouti! Like overgrown guinea pigs, they are also adorable. (Can you tell I like animals?) In the aviary, the reviews warned us to watch out for the iguanas (“watch out” as in “be careful” or “be sure to see” was not clear). We did see a couple of iguanas, but back at the hotel at lunchtime it appeared that the Avigilon convention had gone home leaving space for an iguana convention – we saw them everywhere!!! Again, without having seen a single specimen at the hotel until then.
And, before I leave the subject of birds, I must mention the falconer employed by the hotel. You read that right, a falconer! The job of the falconer and her bird was to control the crows. Cool, right? You have a problem with crows but, instead of killing them with poison, which might kill other things, including small guests, you bring in a falcon. His mere presence is enough to convince the crows, highly intelligent birds, that other venues might be more welcoming.
Back to animals for a minute, I cannot help but show you this image of a graceful serpent, easily 3 feet or longer, that we saw in the ruins of Cobá. No crocs this trip – but I kept my eyes peeled for them.
When we left the aviary, we went through a small portion of the Xaman-Ha ruins that are also on the Playacar property. Isn’t it interesting to think that there are Mayan ruins on private land? We didn’t see much, but here are some pictures. The guard in the ruins stopped me and told me I could not take pictures with my DSLR. (Okay…) But I could take pictures with my phone. (Really?) When you figure out that logic, please let me know.
I realized upon returning home that this was a real vacation for me, not a trip. I enjoyed the long walks on the beach, swimming in the pool, lounging around all day reading or listening to my audiobooks. We enjoyed good food and the evening entertainments, though they were not as professional as those in Punta Cana the month before. If not awesome, they were good for a smile or a laugh, and the enjoyment of the children present was palpable.
The hotel, as a gift, gave us dinner with wine pairing, in the Passion restaurant of Chef Martin Berasategui. We used it as an anniversary celebration the night before we returned to Puerto Rico.