AllTOURnative Coba Maya Experience Ecotour: Zip-lining, Rappeling, and Climbing.
From the AllTOURnative press kit:
“2014 will be an historic year. We turn fifteen years of eco-archeological tours operation. About one million and a half tourists have already enjoyed unforgettable experiences. Nowadays, Alltournative has almost 200 direct collaborators and over 250 families in Maya communities take advantage of the jobs and incomes generated by ecotourism. 7,150 hectares of jungle are preserved which means that 93% of the territory where we operate expeditions is saved as a reserve area.”
Short version: AllTOURnative’s Coba Maya Encounter ecotour is an incredible experience, both in what occurs on the tour and in their ecological and cultural preservation work in the Riviera Maya. The zip-lines are fun, the rappelling is over-the-top (pun intended) and our guide Israel was the best I’ve ever had. I would have liked more time at the Mayan ruins of Coba, but it’s hard to ever satisfy me with enough time to explore. For the long version of our experience keep reading.
Each year the region where TBEX is held has a unique opportunity for global exposure if they can get the attention of the hundreds of travel bloggers who descend on the area. Tours are offered for attendees both before and after the conference, and I’m not one to say no to a complimentary day trip. Jason and I signed up for the Coba Maya Encounter offered by Alltournative based on the brief description given with the TBEX tour options and I expected the ruins of Coba to be the main attraction. Whatever contact we had with the local Mayans would be a bonus.
I find the idea of cultural village tours a little invasive: here, come into my house and gawk at my family and way of life. Some cultures have made a living off of it and benefit greatly, as I saw in the floating Uros islands in Peru. Others communities seem more like monkeys in a zoo, like the glaring kids we encountered on a “favela safari” tour in Brazil. I want to encourage locals to take pride in their community and to make preserving their environment and culture more profitable than selling it to the highest bidder, so I try these things in an effort to help. I was curious how successful the Mayan Encounter part of this tour would be.
Jason and I were staying in an apartment in downtown Cancun so we had to find our own way to the AllTOURnative shuttle meeting point and ended up paying about 40 pesos for a taxi. It wasn’t hard or expensive, but being there in time for our 6:30am pickup meant a very early start. At 7:15 a full-sized van finally showed up already half full and with a sign of relief we squeezed all the way in the back.
Despite this shaky start Jason and I were glad to be on our way. Our guide, Israel, picked up the last two people and then gave us a quick overview of what we would be doing. I caught that we would be driving to an authentic Mayan village where we would hike through the jungle, zip-line through the trees, and rappel 65 feet down into a cenote. I have zip-lined before and know how fun it is, but I’m a little afraid of heights and the thought of rappelling made my stomach clench and my heart speed up. Israel went on to tell us that after lunch we would tour the ruins at Coba, but I was concerned about what our morning was going to be like. I was apparently also the only one who didn’t get the message that there was no breakfast and we hadn’t eaten, thinking that with such an early start time surely it would be included. Lucky that I was now nervous enough I didn’t want to eat.
Our group was made up of a few other bloggers from the TBEX conference, but we were surprised to have half a dozen partying honeymooners along for the ride. They were loud and obnoxious, but they amused us by being afraid of the fast driving and complaining about the lack of spicy Mexican food.
We arrived at a large building with lockers, bathrooms and a charming palapa roof. This jungle locker room was where we told to leave pretty much everything; bags, cameras, extra clothes, all we would need was our swimsuits and shoes, t-shirt optional. I chose to bring my own camera, a shock proof waterproof Panasonic Lumix despite Israel’s warnings, but I left my larger camera safe in the locker. A company photographer, Paco, would be coming along and taking pictures for us that would be for sale afterward.
Feeling a little exposed without our pants we started hiking. The jungle trail had some white gravel on it but was very rough and uneven, roots sticking up and rocky steps up and down. It was not easy going and we were moving pretty fast. This was not a hike for flip flops. We met up with men who fitted us with harnesses for zip-lining. One girl was heavier and her harness wouldn’t come up high enough on her thighs. She had been nervous and now she lost her nerve and backed out, saying that the ill-fitting harness made her feel unsafe. They offered her one that they said was larger, as they had done for one of the burlier men, but I think her pride was hurt and she said she would just skip the zip-lining. I felt bad for her. She would end up hiking around through the jungle with Paco the photographer, missing all of the fun.
I beat my helmet as instructed to make sure nothing was hiding inside before putting it on and marching up to the first zip-line. I could see that it wasn’t huge or frighteningly high, not very scary even for me. My husband Jason, who loves this stuff, was first in line. He took off over the water and flew, the whir of the line and whoops of the others following him across the pond. I stepped up next to Israel, nervously followed his instructions to sit down in my harness and felt him give me a little push. Then I was zipping down the line (they call it that for a reason you know,) laughing down at the photographer in the boat below me. As I came to the end of the line I pulled up my knees like Israel had told me and brakes on the line brought me to a quick stop perfectly on the platform. Another blogger, Jo, was right behind me and I think she spoke for all of us when she said “Can I do it again?”
More hiking through the jungle and we were at the second zip-line (yes there’s two!) and now we felt like pros, no fear from anyone in the group. I was impressed with the guys laying so far back they flipped upside down! At the landing platform I watched an older man leaning into a pulley system that was the brakes and marveled at how well things work (it was a much better, safer system than the one we’d had zip-lining in Jamaica.)
Back around the pond and further into the jungle we came to a Mayan shaman waiting for us. Israel explained that the cenotes are sacred places, that it took many years to convince these people to share these places with tourists. We would be cleansed in a ceremony by this shaman, purified with smoke and prayers before we were allowed to enter their cenote. Everyone was solemn and respectful as the shaman passed around the circle, waving the smoke over each of us and touching us with a leafy branch. I could not understand the words he spoke in Mayan but I recognized the words “Estados Unidos” and “Nuevo Zealand” and I knew that this was just for us, for this group of people. It was beautiful, a reverent moment that took us beyond simple sightseeing into a cultural experience.
Purified, we were led to the cenote. I have been to cenotes before but they were open and on the surface like swimming pools. This was a 6-foot wide black hole into the ground, and I suddenly wasn’t sure I could do this. We showered to make sure we didn’t contaminate the water and put on lifejackets. I watched Israel demonstrate how to hook the rope into the harness, then how to hold it behind your back and lower yourself down. No special equipment, just me holding a rope to keep me from plummeting uncontrolled into the water. Nervous, I watched the other couples go in, stopping for pictures and posed kisses as they descended. No one screamed, and they all made it safely into the water at the bottom.
I took a deep breath, put my camera away so it wouldn’t tangle in the ropes and stepped up for my turn. I wasn’t going to miss out, even if it scared the crap out of me. Holding the ropes wasn’t hard, but it did tax my arm muscles to lower myself slowly and carefully. There were photographers on a ledge inside, calling to me to look at them for pictures and I smiled tightly, focused on the task at hand. It was a long way down. I thought the water would be cold, but it was perfect and refreshing.
There was a man at the bottom to guide us into inner-tubes so we could float around. Looking up at the beautiful blue circle of sky above us I wished that I had brought my camera (next time I will!) A bat flew back and forth across the opening and circled in the cavern. Our group laughed and lounged, most of us quickly flipping out of the tubes and into the perfectly clear water. It was like being inside an earthen vase that someone has taken the flowers out of, hidden away. It is so easy to see why these are sacred spaces.
We all cheered as Israel came sliding down the rappelling line upside-down (he really has the best job in the world that he gets to do this every day!) He showed us that there was a rope ladder if we wanted to climb out, or that we would be hoisted out the way we came in. Jason tried the ladder but quickly splashed back down from the slippery, wiggling lines. Too soon we had to leave. Being pulled up was not a terribly dignified process, my body bouncing with each pull on the rope from above, but I knew I couldn’t climb out. At the top I watched with amusement as 8 men worked together to pull up the heavier men from our group, including Jason.
Finished with our harnesses we left them hanging to dry, and I think all our nether regions were more comfortable on the hike back. It seemed we had gone so far but in just a few minutes we stopped at the lake close to where we’d come in and were told we had to paddle our way to lunch. I wished we had more time, like “Hey paddle for 20 minutes and end up over there for lunch,” but everyone was making a beeline for the opposite dock and I didn’t want to keep the group waiting. Watching me take selfies Jason told me, “You just take pictures, I’ll do the paddling.” Who could pass up that offer? I did help a little, but mostly I let him do all the work.
Lunch was a buffet style spread made by women from the village. Chicken, stewed vegetables, pickled cabbage, empanadas, lentil soup, a variety of sauces for dipping, and of course rice and beans. It was delicious.
As we finished it started to rain and we dashed around the building and found that we were back at the locker room where we’d started. The gift shop was next door where we could view the pictures that were taken and choose which to buy. A single picture was $20, but a CD of all of them was $55, making it a bargain. For $65 you could get a USB with all that and the video taken of the Mayan shaman’s cleansing ceremony. We took home a CD and I really enjoy having pictures not only of us but of the other people we were with-yes, even the obnoxious honeymooners! They were fun.
We loaded back into the van and drove on to the ruins of Coba. We would have two hours to explore, which sounds like a lot but when we parked Israel gave us a lecture on being back on time that I will never forget:
“I am leaving at 3:30. If you look and see, oh, it’s 3:40, don’t even run, take your time. When you are done in the ruins the ADO bus station is over there.”
Having waited on late people on every tour I’d taken I appreciated this up-front-I-WILL-leave-your-ass approach.
We had a guide to tell us about Coba, which I did not appreciate with our limited time. He showed us the map and talked about how huge it was, but then told us we wouldn’t have time to see anything but Nohuch Mul, the main pyramid that everyone comes to climb, so just go straight there when he finished talking. And then he kept talking. And talking. I didn’t want to be rude, but these guys don’t even allow time for picture taking, so I wandered off a bit.
Coba was a large city with approximately 6000 structures, most of them still buried in the surrounding jungle because it’s just too much to dig it all up. We saw 5 structures, counting those we passed on our hike to Nohuch Mul. I would rather come and spend all day seeing everything than running through like we did. You can rent bicycles for 40 pesos or be driven to the pyramid in a “Mayan Limousine” for $12 US. We walked to the pyramid and climbed carefully up in a light rain, always conscious of the time. It is crowded, but getting to the top is worth it.
Back in the parking lot we stopped at what Israel had joked was the “Temple del Sol” meaning the beer, not the sun. A quick beer and we were back in the van, our adventure over. It was an amazing day, much more than I had expected.
The Mayan experience wasn’t about gawking at how the local indigenous people lived as much as helping them to preserve their way of life. Welcoming tourists into their environment can be just as lucrative as selling the forests to lumber companies, and AllTOURnative has worked hard to convince these people of that since they started 15 years ago. The tour provides jobs and protects the local environment, plus it’s a great time. I couldn’t ask for a better example of ecotourism and hope to explore more of the tours offered the next time we are in Cancun-you should too!