Exploring the Mayan culture – above and below the earth

It had only just gone 7:30am and the sun was already beating down with its relentless heat in Playa del Carmen.

Dave and I rushed to the pickup point for our minivan, powerwalking because we were late and arriving with beads of sweat forming on our foreheads.

Thankfully, our minibus tour with Alltournative was a little late too, and we managed not to miss our ride to see Tulum – one of the most popular Mayan ruins on the Yucatan Peninsula.

The majestic ruins of Tulum. On the top left of the building we could see painted hand prints where the builders were thought to have left their mark

The majestic ruins of Tulum. On the top left of the building we could see painted hand prints where the builders were thought to have left their mark

The majestic ruins of Tulum

We arrived just as it was beginning to get busy at Tulum, but even the crowds couldn’t deter me from seeing our first Mayan ruins.

The carvings in the stone, the way the paint is still on some of the walls eight hundred years later, and the imposing buildings contrasting against the bright blue of the sky made us feel as though we were in a very special place.

Alltournative Tulum Carmen and Dave Double-Barrelled TravelTulum is the only ruin located on the coast and was a major port for the Mayan people, where they used the sea to trade with countries in the Caribbean.

Captain Snake from Alltournative was leading us around. Yes, Captain Snake. We were told this was his name, and he even has a Facebook page to prove it.

Iguana Alltournative Maya Jungle Double-Barrelled Travel

A grumpy iguana poses for his photograph in Tulum

Anyway, Captain Snake explained to us that Tulum was one of the last inhabited Mayan towns, between the 13th and 15th century. The Mayan people eventually stopped living in Tulum about 70 years after the Spanish arrived.

It’s thought that Old World diseases brought by colonisation contributed to the demise of the population of Tulum.

We had an hour to explore the site on our own, and then it was back in the van for our adventure-filled afternoon.

Alltournative Tulum ruin Double-Barrelled TravelAlltournative adventure

I was hoping the afternoon would give us a chance to escape the crowds a little and relax, but unfortunately Alltournative seemed to have crammed as many tours into their adventure site for the day.

Although the site is large there seemed to be quite a lot of groups sharing the space, meaning we had to wait a little to complete each activity, or rush through each adventure to let the next group through.

To quick start our adventure off, we swam through a cenote, cooling ourselves off from the heat of the day.

Even though it was around the third time we’d been swimming in a cenote, nothing can take away the magic of swimming in a cave.

Next, we were harnessed up and then Dave and I rappelled into a cenote.

Rapelling Alltournative Maya Jungle Double-Barrelled Travel

Photo by Alltournative.

Rapelling cenote Alltournative Maya Jungle Double-Barrelled Travel

Photo by Alltournative.

Feeling a bit like Indiana Jones but without the grace or ability to manoeuvre as freely, we plopped into the water at the bottom and posed for this cheesy photo.

cenote Alltournative Maya Jungle Double-Barrelled Travel

Photo by Alltournative.

Then up a rickety boardwalk we went, high above the jungle canopy and ready to fly on a zipline throughout the park.

Ziplining Alltournative Maya Jungle Double-Barrelled Travel

Getting zip line ready. Photo by Alltournative.

The final zipline landed us in another cenote, splashing down into the water and pushing my bikini bottoms to around my ankles.

As the guide came closer to unharness me, I did a little underwater dance to try and jerk the bottom half of my bikini back up so he wouldn’t see I was standing half naked in the water.

I made it just in time.

Bats flew overhead as Dave and I swam out of the cenote, giggling at my wardrobe mishap.

Ziplining jungle Alltournative Maya Jungle Double-Barrelled Travel

Flying high before my bikini bottoms fell off. Photo by Alltournative.

Snorkelling in a cenote

After another photoshoot we were wading into a cenote once more, this time to snorkel.

This ended up being my favourite part of the day; being guided through a cenote, looking through our snorkel mask at the crystal clear water that surrounded us. The stalagmites and stalactites beamed and reflected the light coming through the roof of the cave, looking like a cross between an ocean on Mars and a fairytale cave.

We paused halfway through and saw a group of bats sleeping above us, as Captain Snake explained that Mayans didn’t use the cenotes to swim in, but as a place for rituals, worship as a chance to get closer to their Gods.

Cheeeeeeese(y). Photo by Alltournative.

Cheeeeeeese(y). Photo by Alltournative.

The majestic Mayans

After the snorkel tour it was nearly 2pm and Dave and I were feeling famished, having not eaten since the early hours of the morning.

We were served a buffet of Mayan food, cooked by the local people of the village who live on the land surrounding the Alltournative site.

Unlike most other tour companies in the area, Alltournative hasn’t bought the land from the Mayan people. Instead, the company rents it.

This means Alltournative continues to give a monthly income to the people who live there and also doesn’t take away the land on which they’ve lived for centuries.

After our tasty lunch of chicken, soup, rice and salad, which we ate on a long wooden bench table in a hut, it was on to our last activity for the day – our purification ceremony.

Maya Shaman Alltournative Maya Jungle Double-Barrelled Travel

Photo by Alltournative.

We were taken into a dark cenote, down a candlelit path leading over the water and deep into the back of the cave. Here we met a Mayan Shaman who blessed us and rid us of the spirits that might’ve been lurking in the cenotes, Gods that were unhappy that we’d gone swimming in their sacred water.

It is a bit of a catch-22 because by swimming in the cenotes we’re giving the local people an income, but at the same time I feel as though it’s a special place of worship for them and on some level it feels like we’re disrespecting it.

It kind of feels like playing death metal full ball inside a cathedral.

Maya lives on

What is so fascinating to me about the Mayan culture is that, unlike many other ancient civilisations, the language is still going strong today. Mayan people learn Maya as their first language and often it’s not until they go to school that they begin to learn Spanish.

I hope that the language doesn’t die out over time, through the growth of globalisation as more and more of our world becomes homogenous. It’s a precious culture and it would be sad to lose it.

cenote swim Alltournative Maya Jungle Double-Barrelled Travel

One of the beautiful cenotes we went swimming in. Photo by Alltournative.

Alltournative compared to other tours in the area

Aside from renting the land from the local Maya people, Alltournative is also very careful to remain eco-friendly.

Unlike other tour companies in the area, where the priority seems to be about profit and the parks feel almost Disney-like in their construction, Alltournative has built its site using natural materials and with minimal clearing of the jungle.

In fact, the conservation efforts Alltournative has made are impressive. When they first began working with the Mayan people in the area back in 1998, loggers were about to buy the land to deforest the jungle.

Alltournative persuaded the Mayans to allow the company to rent the land instead, going on to preserve nearly 5,000 acres of jungle. There are also now hunting and logging bans in these areas, protecting the flora and fauna of this special place in the Yucatan Peninsula.

Furthermore, Alltournative has given scholarships to local children so that they can go on to higher education, and the company itself supports more than 30 Mayan families through employment.

Quite a list of impressive achievements, and even if you didn’t know all this when you visited, you’d be able to see for yourself that the Maya Jungle tour is eco-friendly.

We used recyclable paper cups when we drank water, bio-degradable mosquito repellent to avoid being bitten, and had to take a shower before entering each cenote to wash off our sunscreen, which can be damaging to the fragile eco-system that lives in the cenotes.

These eco tourism elements gave the tour the extra (Mayan) touch for me.

What you need to know:

When to go: We did the Tulum and Jungle Maya Expedition from Alltournative which is a day tour that runs from Cancun and the Riviera Maya from Monday to Saturday each week. Please note: The tour mentions visiting a ranch but we didn’t do this. I don’t think this is part of the tour any more.

How to get there: You will be picked up between 7am and 8am from your hotel. On the website it says you return between 6pm and 7pm but we got back at about 4pm.

Cost: US$139 per adult. This includes entrance to Tulum, food, drink and transport, but not tips.

Thank you to Alltournative for hosting us. As always, our opinions are our own.

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About the author

Carmen has been nomadic since May 2013 and the co-founder of Double-Barrelled Travel. She loves experiencing new cultures and learning new languages. She is having the most fun when skiing down a mountain, scuba diving in the Caribbean or curled up with a good book.

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