There I was, crammed in the back of a stuffy van. Sweat pooled and dripped down my back through my swimsuit strings. My guide and the other journalist spoke English, and the other eight people only spoke Spanish. One of the men took our his ipod touch and blasted Spanish music through the tiny speaker. Each block or so, we’d drive over a massive, mounded speed bump and the van would toss my body up two or three inches before settling in the fabric-covered bench seat. My stomach swooped and swirled as we sped and braked along the dusty back-roads of Mexico. The huts and flat roofed houses on the side of the road crumbled, doused with graffiti and supported by the muddy ground. Shade was sparse so only a few people were outside…an occasional child playing in the grime, or a man hauling fresh water along the side of the road. Once in a while, through a crack in a hanging tarp or a broken-wood garage door, we’d glimpse a beat-up car–the only sign that this area wasn’t the poorest of the poor in Mexico. Soldiers with machine guns stopped our van, asked the driver a few questions, and then let us pass into the sacred Mayan territory where our day’s adventures would start…
Part of my Cancun trip this past weekend included a day adventure through the back-roads of Mexico kayaking the lagoons, hiking the jungle, meeting people from a Mayan village, and swimming in a cenote, underwater cave. We ended the day in the Mexican Coba, a large ruined city of the Pre-Columbian Maya civilization, located in the state of Quintana Roo. Cancun and the surrounding area is a popular tourist destination with plenty of things to do for all ages and types of travelers. Don’t miss out on this amazingly colorful Caribbean destination.
Normally I’m not a fan of group guided tours, especially when it comes to adventure. I’d rather be on my own or with a few friends than shuffled along like a tourist. But through Alltournative, a travel company specializing in outdoor culture and adventure tours in Mexico and the Caribbean, I did get a sample of Mexico I couldn’t have seen otherwise. The company partners with a very small, private Mayan village and after a hike through the jungle to get there, we met the Mayan people, (and after a purification ceremony) swam in their sacred cenote. Alltournative runs small guided tours near the Coba, and fuses soft-adventure with the Mexican culture to bring you a unique experience. Plus, each tour doesn’t run bigger than ten people so you never feel like you’re being herded around the jungle. And our guide, Israel, made a special effort to connect with everyone.
You don’t have to participate if you don’t want to. Your tour group will form a semi-circle around a Mayan elder man wearing white. He stands in front of a wooden altar decorated with flowers and rocks. He takes burning incense that releases white smoke, says a prayer in the Mayan words, and crosses you in front of your body with the white smoke and he whispers prayers to cleanse your soul. Then he walks behind you and taps you twice on each shoulder and once on the head to protect you from harm. Then he says a final blessing and your cleansed soul is free to swim in their cenote.
The language barrier is tough when they mix different speakers in each tour. The guides are working twice as hard to explain everything first in English, then in Spanish, then in French. They did a fabulous job of including everyone, but it’d be much better if they separated the groups by language rather than mixing us all together.
Because the Mayans live deep in the jungle, they’ve always lived off of the jungle. In other words, they hunt wildcats, other big animals, and they interact with other animals (tarantulas, snakes, insects) on a daily basis. Alltournative shares part of their profits with the Mayan village to bring them food and water so they don’t have to use the land as much, and they certainly don’t have to hunt endangered species for food to survive. This cuts down on the destruction of the jungle and provides the villagers with jobs and therefore a source of income so they can purchase food and necessities.
Children under six are not allowed on tours because there is a repelling section where you essentially climb backward down a cliff into the jungle, and a zipline section after you climb out of a ravine that takes you across the tops of the trees.The rest of the activities, hiking, swiming, kayaking and climbing are perfectly safe for beginners, and anyone with a basic level of fitness will be fine. I’d highly recommend these tours for families.
The guides knew a lot about the flowers and creatures in the jungle as well as the Mayan ruins, and via a van, we were able to do all of this in one day so it’s not a huge time commitment.