There are lots of things to do here on the Riviera Maya--from ziplines and cave diving to calmer activities like walking around archeological zones and visiting theme parks. The destinations are spread out for about 75 miles along the north-south highway just inland from the ocean.
For every destination there is a tour; or rather many tours. On every block here in Playa del Carmen there are "tour offices" staffed by hawkers selling package tours to these exotic destinations. We're naturally wary of the hard sell, knowing there are often cheaper ways to access these spots. But since there were a couple of places we really wanted to visit, both within ten miles of each other we looked into taking one of these tours.
Our destinations were Tuluum, the only Mayan site on the coast with the bonus of a wonderful swimming beach, and Xel-Ha, a lagoon where we snorkeled and saw the most amazing fish when we were here in 1984.
We shopped around and found that there was a combined tour to these places. The tours all offered the same things: pickup at your hotel, a van ride to Tuluum and the entrance fee and a professional guide to the site, then two hours later a van ride to Xel-Ha and the entrance fee, then a ride back to your pickup spot at closing time. It sounded pretty good.
But the tour we were on was very disorganized and was in fact a complete waste of time. We were picked up at 7:20 in the morning but we didn't arrive at Tuluum (about 60 km away) until after 10:00. We picked up other people who weren't ready, and then we were shuttled around and dropped at a shopping center where we waited for another bus. There was great confusion about who was going to which destination and it took quite a while for things to be sorted out. Once at Tuluum our bus parked a long way from the entrance gate and we had to hike in about a kilometer down a hot back road.
It turns out that we didn't need a guide as Tuluum is now very well signed with information about the site in English. But since were were on the tour we had to endure the "guide" with his jokes and silliness. He had a tourist spiel but didn't really know much about the place. By the time he'd finished there was only half an hour left before we had to rendezvous at the van. This left about 15 minutes for the beach.
The transportation for this tour cost us about $30 each. Later, we found out that you could take a bus to Tuluum for less than $5.00 each so the whole thing was a big waste of time and money.
The day after our tour we discovered the collectivos a few blocks away from the tourist area. These are little vans that the regular residents of Playa use for their transportation. They're even cheaper than the bus and run continuously up and down the highway to all these locations. The people who live here and work at Tuluum use these to get back and forth, and so do the tourists who are in the know.
This is is the way to do a tour in Mexico. Choose your destination, walk to the Collectivo area and find one that's going to where you want to go. They'll drop you a bit away from the front gate where the taxis wait, but there's usually another little shuttle that takes you right to the main gate. When you're ready to return you just take the shuttle to the Collectivo stand and get the next one home.
We tried it the next day. We got an air conditioned collectivo to Xcaret for less than $2 per person.
The price is less than a quarter what you'd pay for the transportation part of the "tours" and you can do it all on your own schedule. Now we know!
By the way, Xel-Ha was very different from what we remembered. It's now an
all-inclusive theme park organized around the lagoon. In addition to
snorkeling you can jump off cliffs, zip line, ride down the river on an
inner tube, watch dolphins, etc. etc. With all this development, there are very few fish left in
the lagoon so we packed in the snorkeling
after less than an hour, but it's still a lovely spot and we enjoyed
looking around and sampling all the free food and drink that was
included with the entry fee. Don't get me wrong; the day wasn't a complete bust. Plus it offered some learning for the next time we're in Mexico.
Tomorrow we are flying back into the cold and rain of BC. We'll be sad to leave the warmth but happy to return to our friends and our life and our dogs.