Up and down the Riviera Maya

We planned from the very start to dedicate more than one month of our trip to explore Mexico. We entered the country from the Belize border, and we were welcomed by the famous Riviera Maya: fantastic beaches, cenotes, and Mayan ruins! Here is a summary of our explorations.

The white lagoon of Bacalar

Bacalar is a small village by a beautiful lagoon, at the very south of the Riviera Maya. The limestone on its bottom and the clarity of the water give it a beautiful turquoise color. As soon as you arrive you just want to dive in! There are several options as to where to do it.

The so-called balneario ecologico is extremely cheap: just a couple pesos in 2019. There is not much shade, just a bit by the mangroves, and it is really basic in terms of services. Otherwise you could also eat some tacos in a restaurant along the coast and relax on their beach just after. In this case you also might find some pontoons and swings at water level to have some fun with!

It doesn’t really matter where swings are, they always bring out the kid in us.

Another way to explore the lagoon is to board a sailboat for an organized tour. You will then be able to see a 60 m deep cenote, result of the collapse of the lagoon bottom in an underwater cave. Not far from there, you can swim close to some of the oldest living organism of the planet: stromatolites. Stromatolites might look like rocks, but they are actually living fossils that grow really slowly. Even though they were already present billions of year ago on Earth, they are very fragile and because of that it is now forbidden to get too close to them.

The tour ends in the shallow waters of the pirate channel. Apparently the mineral rich water here is also good for your skin. It is the perfect time for a swim. This channel was used for trades which, as the name suggests, sometimes were not exactly peacefully accepted by both sides.

To defend from the pirates and rebels of the area, the Spanish built a fort, now a museum. The visit is quite short, but you’ll have a fantastic view over the whole lagoon and village: the perfect way to end your staying in Bacalar!

Tulum: the symbol of the Riviera

The Mayan ruins of Tulum are one of the most recognizable postcards of the riviera. The site might not be as big as others we visited, but it’s the only one along the coast. The buildings are built on top of a cliff over the clear water, which gives an undeniable charm to the whole area. We arrived there early to avoid the crowd and, since it started raining, we were pretty much alone for the entire visit.
They were not the first Mayan ruins that we visited, but we were nonetheless pleasantly surprised. Differently from others site, like the one in Copan, the buildings are not hiding in the jungle, but out in the open. We also felt that the architecture was quite different: less pyramids, more lower buildings, more columns as well.

Tulum ruins
Part of the ruins, the sea, and the big rainy clouds that surrounded us during the visit.

Right after the visit you can still enjoy the view of the ruins by sunbathing and swimming on the open beaches close-by. Not the ones in the archaeological site though: those are reserved for the turtles to lay their eggs.

The Maya needed to have access to fresh water as well. Without rivers in the area, the only solutions were the cenotes. And today you can dive in these same cenotes to freshen up. The water is indeed quite cold in all of them! These ecosystem are fragile, so it is discouraged, if not forbidden, to put sunscreen or mosquito repellent before diving into them. Sometimes you even have to take a shower at the entrance. These natural swimming pools are really worth the visit. We visited four of them, each different from the other.

Three different holes, opening over the same underwater lake, compose the cenote Calavera, Spanish for skull. After paying for the entrance, as you get close, the meaning of the name becomes quite clear. Two of the holes are smaller, which, with the third hole on the side, reminds you of the two eyes and the open mouth of a skull. A ladder and some ropes make the experience a lot of fun, and the perfect set-up for some photos.

cenote Calavera
People freshing up in the cenote Calavera: the water is about three meters below the surface.

As the name says, the cenote Grande (big) is much larger, and more expensive, than the Calavera. There is the possibility to rent some life jackets if you are not comfortable with swimming. The main pool of the area hosts some cute turtles, which might even decide to swim with you. A tunnel connects this area to another opening. Swimming in an underground cave is a fantastic experience!
You should try to stay as much as possible in the water, especially in the rainy season. First, it’s perfect to cool down from the heat but most of all, many mosquitoes infest the area. And, since you cannot use insect repellent, they will gladly feed on you!

The cenotes Escondido and Cristal lie a bit outside of the normal touristic routes, and share the entrance fees. The first hides at the end of a path in the jungle. While it might seems like a normal lake, once in the water you can see the roof of a collapsed cave at the bottom. The cenote Cristal also looks almost like a circular lake. If you feel like it, you can dive from a tall structure, but be sure to jump well or you might finish among the grass!

cenote escondido
The cenote Escondido, in the middle of the jungle. We were completely alone, except for a diver testing his dry suit in the cold water.

The nicest way to move around Tulum is renting a bike. The beaches, ruins, city center, and cenotes are relatively close to each other. You can also do a big part of the road on dedicated bicycle’s lanes. If you happen to pass in the area during the rainy season, like us, don’t be afraid: riding a bike in a tropical rain is a fun experience and your clothes will dry fast in the heat afterwards!

And what about the night life on the Riviera?

You might have heard before about the crazy nights of Cancun, or the parties on the Riviera Maya. We are not really the type of persons that would go bar hopping or dancing the whole night, so we cannot really suggest any specific place. However, if you love these kind of activities you will surely find some nice place in Tulum. You should also definitely visit Playa del Carmen and Cancun, which we skipped during our trip.

When we arrived in Playa del Carmen, instead of enjoying the night life, we decided to hop on a boat to go to the island of Cozumel.

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