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Day Two in Quintana Roo
First Recon of Our Surroundings
We met the morning rested and refreshed. We enjoyed a cup of coffee in the Grand Luxxe lobby with our concierge, who would mentor us on non-touristy places to investigate on the Yucatan. From there we headed off to breakfast at the Mayan Palace. There you'll find a huge buffet built around gringo tastes. You can get eggs made to order, pastries and my favorite, order a generous plate of bacon for the table. Mmm, bacon. It is for this reason I am convinced that Mexico is destined to surpass the United States as a world leader; a big plate of fattening, artery-hardening bacon! The fresh fruit is also plentiful and healthy smoothies might actually make a better start to the day.
We followed breakfast with a trek around the grounds. We couldn't cover the half of it. My best girl actually used the term "daunting". Giant swimming pools narrow near and around palatial, Mayan-themed structures. Bridges help you navigate around the grounds. There are quiet places everywhere, sunny or shady, where you and your lover (or groups) can relax and enjoy your mornings and maybe a mimosa. There are cabanas strew across the grounds equipped with king-sized matresses where my best girl would take at least one very luxurious nap before the week was out. The main pool features a swim-up bar and a beach bar nearby. (The author is please to report that both served up excellent tropical drinks in a timely, friendly fashion.)
By talking to the bartenders, I got the intel on when to visit these mammoth Yucatan resorts. Winter and Spring break are the craziest. We were at Grand Mayan/Grand Luxxe at the end of what is called the rainy season. The weather was fine 6 out of 7 days that week. We never waited for anything, even though there was a healthy population in the resort. Mid-winter and Spring, especially Easter can find up to 6000 people actually in the pool and a crush at the pool bar. At such times, it might be worth a stroll to one of the main resort buildings to acquire libation rather than a wait for the over-worked pool bartenders to fix you a drink. Or you may want to skip the water-logged cattle call and head to Playa del Carmen or Cozumel as often as possible.
There are elements here that you will strike you as too touristy or over-the-top - the giant serpent comes to mind - but these will not spoil your enjoyment of your surroundings. In a weird way, they add to it. Everything is geared toward spoiling the visitor.
Mouth of the Puma
There was more to discover at Grand Mayan, but we had places to go. We were invited by our new friend, Malonie to join her at the Boca del Puma jungle tour and ecological preserve. We spent the entire day on this little adventure. Unlike a number of similarly advertised zip-line jungle parks, this wasn't a giant theme park crowded with tourists. This place was the product of the blood, sweat, tears and self-confidence of one man, Jesus Sanchez.
A true visionary, Jesus started on this project 20 years ago, before there was even a highway running by his jungle haven. This was at a time when eco-tourism was still just a concept that most people thought couldn't work. The park is named for the underground pools or cenotes (pronounced seh-NO-tes) into which jungle puma and other animals would retreat for water and respite.
While born in rural Quintana Roo on the Yucatan peninsula, Jesus didn't seem destined to spend his life extolling the virtues of the virgin jungle to visitors. He has an MBA and was the first in his family to go to college. One look at him and it is clear that, should he choose to, he could don a business suit and return to the steel and glass of an office high above Mexico City. He would (and once did) fit right in. But home and the jungle never stopped calling. So one day he chucked it all, returned to a place near his home and built Boca del Puma.
3 Day pack or Carry-On
The park is a native ecological project on the “Registro Nacional Agrario” intended to protect the virgin jungle while at the same time keeping it accessible to visitors. While you can find it about 7 miles west of Rt 307 near where Leona Vicario meets Ruta de los Cenotes, I highly recommend you use the transportation provided. It is easy to miss as they don't have big neon signs on the rural roads. The drivers will pick you up at your resort and drop you right in Boca's parking lot.
When you are ready, they'll bring you back to your resort.
The tour starts with a short brief by one of the staff. She'll talk about the jungle, the park and what your day will consist of. There is plenty to do. There are trail bikes and ATVs. You will dangle from zip lines and swim in an underground cenote.
After riding bikes, Herself and I broke from the group and spent some time with Malonie and Jesus. He was testing a combination zip line and swing over an above ground cenote. This particular swimming hole is significant in that it was once just a wet spot near the present walking path. Jesus was convinced it was a hidden spring and decided to start digging. Though they thought him quite crazy, his brother and uncle helped. Sure enough, after much effort, the wet spot started looking more and more like a small pond. It is now an open, spring-fed pool, part of a network of cenotes that dot the park.
As for that swing; it is sort of a bosun's chair on a zip line. The rider is trolleyed quickly to a point in the middle of the swimming hole where the saddle block strikes a hard stop. The rider, momentum being what it is, continues forward dropping ungracefully into the water. As an attraction for the tour, it may need a bit of work. But it won't be for the faint-hearted anyway.
What would you do?
Name your favorite tropical vacation activity.
MJ of the Jungle
After a stroll on a shady path with a few lessons on conservation and the local flora from our hosts we arrived at the next adventure of the day. In a pavilion, a young guide is demonstrating the proper use of a zip line harness in Spanish and English. We are fitted with our harness and issued a helmet. Mine as it turned out, being a bit too small.
During this time, I learned the most interesting part of Jesus' connection to the land. I could tell the story here, but it wouldn't have the same meaning as hearing it straight from Jesus. Take my advise, when you are waiting for the zip lining tour, ask Jesus about the meaning of the scarred trees. It is fascinating and not a little sad. But it is history.
So off we went to the first zip station. A good five story climb to a concrete tower where the first steel cable awaited. If you have never zip lined before, you are in for a treat. If you have, say in del Norte, the treat will be flying over a jungle landscape vs pine and maple. We zipped from tower to tower, occasionally the guides would point out a significant vista or tell a story of past zip liners.
Then we got to the next to last zip line. We watched as our guide showed us how to zip line upside down. Most of our cadre of touristas said, "No, gracias!" But a few thought it would be fun. As I got my harness hooked up, they tethered me to the tower. "Now, just lean back (invert myself), an we'll cut you loose." I grabbed my harness clip and tried to bring my legs up. "Just lean back," the guide repeated. I kicked and flailed. In my stupid little helmet, I looked like a turtle trying to right itself on a highway. I finally got my knees hooked on the harness and they let go of the tether. For the next several seconds, I tried to look as cool and relaxed as a heron gliding over the green canopy. I doubt I pulled it off, for all the grimacing and partially stifled screaming.
I only told you that story to demonstrate a few points about the tour. One: If your helmet doesn't fit, grab another one. They're not afraid you'll steal it. Two: When the guide says lean back, don't wrestle with your harness, just lean. You'll invert effortlessly and maintain your bearings very nicely. I didn't figure that out until after the fact.
A Must-Have for the Outdoors!
Swimming in the Cenotes
After zip lining, we rejoined those lesser mortals who were too afraid to glide through the jungle canopy. No one made mention of the inverted, screaming turtle. We changed into swim suits and were given life vests. We then made our way the to entrance of a small cave (cenote), dropping steeply into the ground.
Swimming underground is a unique experience. The water is cool but not shockingly so. When there is a tour, as there is today, light must be provided for the safety of the swimmers. The advantage here is that you can take in your surroundings as a single vista. If you ever get a chance to swim a cenote with a small group, make sure there are experienced swimmers with you and bring a waterproof headlamp to keep the experience more mysterious and intimate.
Remain aware that you are surrounded by randomly contoured rock. If you sneak out of your life vest, you can dive into the deeper water. But don't fly back to the surface like a dolphin ready for a summersault. The clearance overhead varies from several feet to a few inches. It is that same randomness that makes swimming from one chamber to the next so fascinating. Swim a dozen yards from the right cenote entrance and turn right again. There is a surprise there that people often fail to consider. The author will leave that discovery to you.
We swam about for a short while, absorbing the sights, sounds and general feeling of our strange surroundings. Again, with a smaller group, what a place this would be to bring a lamp and a lunch and have an underground picnic. The mind drifts into the pages of Jules Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth and the Hansbache; only cooler. And you don't have to smash down a granite wall to enjoy it.
Also by Matt Jordan:
The day passed too quickly, as all the most pleasant ones do. But no matter, we had reservations at Gong, the Asian restaurant back at the Grand Mayan. Remember, for the specialty restaurants in the Grand Mayan complex, you will need reservations.
Back at our room (a Grand Master Room as it is called) we showered and dressed for dinner. We then boarded our chauffeured golf cart to the Mayan Palace and walked up to the lounge. After doing her show on the main floor, Malonie and Jesus joined us for dinner. We had fried rice, potstickers and dumplings. Everything had an Asian flair with a hint of local infusion. The food was excellent. I have read in reviews of slow service at the Gong. I can't disagree. But we had such a good time talking we didn't notice very much. If prompt service is important to you it may be worth mentioning that when you are seated. Sometimes it pays to be the squeaky wheel.
After tempura ice cream and coffee, we said good bye to our friends and returned to the room. It was a full day leaving us satiated but not exhausted. We slept very soundly that Sunday night.