Playa del Carmen, Tulum and Chichen Itza
Playa del Carmen is one Riviera Maya’s trendiest spots. It’s known for the palm-lined beaches and bustling life, with shops, restaurants and bars. We chose to plant ourselves just north of the city in one of the Riveria’s resorts to get some relaxation time before heading home. As it turned out, we ended up taking advantage of the location and exploring the Yucantan Peninsula instead. In three days, we managed to fit in some very cool diving and a lot of history, with visits to both Tulum and Chichen Itza, and still made time to relax at the resort.
Tulum was built in the late 13th century, during the Mayan post-classic period. What makes Tulum special is not just in the well-preserved state of the ruins, but also because it sits right on the coast. Tulum was a seaport, trading mainly jade and turquoise. It’s strategic coastal location and the wall surrounding it helped make it one of the most powerful city-states.
We entered the city through one of the five doorways in the limestone wall and were greeted by a field of rolling grass. There are a number of remaining structures, the most prominent being El Castillo, sitting on the edge of a limestone cliff, overlooking the coast. My favourite was Templo Dios del Viento, the temple of the Wind God, which sits on the cliff guarding the sea entrance.
The Maya believed that when a part of the limestone cave hiding in the groundwaters collapsed, the gates to the underworld appeared. The water-filled holes, known as cenotes, connect to the rivers, formed by rainwater filtering slowly through the ground and into the underlying cave systems. As there have been skeletons found in some of the cenotes, there is a belief that the Mayans made sacrifices in them. Today, these mystical sinkholes are a treasure for divers. There are over 6,000 cenotes in the Yucatan peninsula, but one of the most famous in the region is the Dos Ojos Cave System, 319 meters long and the third largest in the world.
Dos Ojos, meaning “two eyes” in Spanish, is actually two neighbouring cenotes that measure 70 meters in diameter and are connected by a passageway. The Barbie line, named because there is a naked barbie doll being eaten my an alligator tied at the halfway point, is a great first dive. We entered through a natural pool, swam around and then continued into a tunnel, and followed the line. As we pointed our flashlight along all sides, we could see the stalagmites and stalactites shine like giant crystal candles. When I turned back to look at the entrance, the sun rays were shining through.
For our second dive, we went over to El Pit. El Pit is an amazing sinkhole inside the jungle and an upstream branch of Dos Ojos. It is known for the beautiful light beams that penetrate to about 30 meters.
The initial descend took us to about 30 meters, where the hydrogen sulfate layer sits. We slowly spiraled up along the cavern walls to take in the view. Around 10-12 meters, there is a layer of fresh and salt water mixing together, making it to be a bit blurry. Along the way, we also saw the tunnel from Dos Ojos joining the pit into the cave system.
Chichen Itza thrived from 600 AD to the 1200s. It’s well known for El Castillo, the massive step pyramid and also for the immense size of the ball court and the condition of the graphic stone carvings that surround the Temple of the Warriors and the Wall of Skulls.
We decided to do an afternoon guided tour and also visit for the evening light show. They are two separate tickets and you can purchase the evening one online, in advance but only within the month of your visit. Also, the evening tour has an audio guide in English and Spanish to tour the site at night, but the actual light show is in Spanish only. You need to leave the site between 5pm (when the day ticket ends) and 7pm, when the night ticket starts. We went to grab a bite at Mestizo in between.
Diving with the Bull Sharks
During the winter, bull sharks come to the coasts around Playa del Carmen to breed. They are drawn to the region because of the freshwater cenotes that pump out into the sea along the coast. While the cenote tunnels are too small for the sharks to pass through, the constant flow of freshwater leaving the exit draws the bull sharks in. They also appreciate the abundant supply of fish and turtles in the area, both serving as a food source for them.
While they have a reputation for being heavily aggressive and cause the majority of shark attacks, the region offers bull shark diving. The belief is that the sharks are breeding so they tend to be less aggressive, and the sharks that now swim in the shallower (think 30 meters) tend to be familiar with the divers. I have no idea if this is true, but we went for it and had a great dive with a number of bull sharks, and even saw some rays too.
Resort Life at Ocean Maya
Given that we were staying at a beautiful resort, we did spend a day chilling out at the property. Ocean Maya has a lovely spa, five restaurants, two swimming pools and a private beach. It was the perfect place to be on the last day of our holiday.