An adventure appetizer with a Mayan culture main course jumped out at me from the day-tour menu while researching options during an all-inclusive resort holiday in Playa Del Carmen, Mexico and this moveable feast of a fun-filled day was the highlight of the trip!

Friends recommended I bypass the crush of the crowds at the Chichen Itza Mayan ruins and head instead to Ek’ Balam, a Mayan city that hits its zenith long before its more famous neighbor and the advice was on the money with the bonus being a second stop for a swim in the cool, crystal clear waters of the largest cenotes in the Yucatan.

The USD$120 advertised tour price on Cancun Vacations Experts is more than I expected to pay but as it includes resort pick-up and drop-off and a buffet lunch along with park entrance fees I confirmed a reservation for a friend and I but had two surprises come the tour date and time. Despite booking with Cancun Vacation Experts an Alltournative tour bus  came to collect us at the appointed hour and the tour leader Irvin also advised that his company was the tour provider regardless of who the tour was booked through. He also said that the itinerary as shown online with the Ek’ Balam visit in the morning followed by the Cenote Maya Native Park stop in the early afternoon was being reversed for tour company logistical reasons. A few passengers myself included wondered aloud about the change of plans which meant a morning swim and walk through the ruins in the heat of the afternoon but thanks to a partly cloudy day the concerns proved unfounded.

Cenote Maya Native Park is a two-hour, 170 kilometer journey due east of Playa Del Carmen near the town of Valladolid and a warm welcome from a Mayan shaman awaited us when we entered the jungle. As cenotes are considered scared places in popular Mayan culture, the shaman’s blessing ceremony gives permission for guests to enter and wishes them Malo Kin, or ‘good day’ in the Mayan language.

 photo by author

The park star attraction is the Ik Kil Cenote which is the largest in the Yucatan and arguably one of the most beautiful cenote in Mexico measuring 60 meters in diameter with a water depth of  40 meters.  The stories of human sacrifice to the rain god who filled the sacred cenote ran through my head as I geared up to rappel the 26 meters from the rim to the cool waters below.

video by author

The rappel was an adrenaline-pumping way to reach water level and I was happy to overcome my fear of heights however for those unwilling or unable to make this kind of entrance there’s a wooden staircase available.

The cenote is almost completely shaded from the Mayan sun and so the waters are cool and clear having been filtered through layers of limestone. The green tint makes for a magical feel of this cathedral sized cave.

video by author

There are a number of diving platforms within the cenote as well as  a short zip-line.

video by author

After playing in the water, a traditional Mayan lunch complete with handmade tortillas awaits visitors.

photo by author

photo by author

The sturdy lunch after a morning of activities was enjoyed, especially the chicken and orange coloured honey potatoes.

photo by author

The meal excludes beer which is available for USD$5 and despite the premium price I felt a small reward was in order so enjoyed a cold bottle of the local Cerveza Montejo.

Park photographers snap your picture a number of times during your visit which are available for sale but at USD$16 for one souvenir action shot and $50 for a DVD with up to a dozen photos was too pricey for my liking and passed. I wore a GoPro HERO5 Session camera mounted on a head strap as only actions cams with either head or chest mounts are permitted in the cenote.

An hour drive away are the Mayan ruins of Ek’ Balam, a Mayan city dating as far back as 100 BC but  whose zenith was reached between 700-1,200 BC. Ek ‘ Balam, Mayan for ‘black jaguar’, is comprised of 45 structures which were lost to the jungle until the late 1800’s when rediscovered by French explorer and archaeologist Désiré Charnay but not fully excavated until a century later.

photo by author

The Alltournative guides explained that the dominant structures in all Mayan cities are mistakenly called pyramids but as they lack a triangular shape that converges into a single peak should instead be referred to as temples.

Structure 1 or the Acropolis stands 32 meters high and its top level may be reached by climbing 106 steep stone steps making it unique as most other prominent Mayan sites in the Yucatan including Chichen Itza may no longer be climbed.

photo by author

The climb to the summit of the temple affords a memorable view over the tree tops of the Mayan jungle and an excellent view of the site below.

video by author

On a clear day the tops of the temples of Coba and Chichen Itza can be seen in the distance but I failed to spot them as the clouds covered the horizon.

The temple, which was an earthen mound until excavations began in 1998, is believed to  contain the tomb of Ukit Kan Leʼk Tokʼ, an important Mayan ruler, and about halfway up the structure – a welcome spot to catch your breath during the climb – the intricate carving that adorns the tomb facade can be seen. The main tomb entrance is carved to resemble the mouth of a jaguar reminding all of the ruler’s power.

 photo by author

There’s a good view of the temple from the Oval Palace near the Entrance Arch to the site.

photo by author

The 2-hour visit to Ek’ Balam includes a guided visit and free time and was enough to take it all in and not feel rushed. While an estimated 2.1 million people visited Chichen Itza in 2017 by comparison a tiny fraction of that number experience Ek’ Balam annually and during my visit an inexact head count found no more than 40 visitors and guides. For those history and culture buffs wanting to walk and climb ancient Mayan ruins while avoiding the crowds at other sites I’d highly recommend visiting Ek’ Balam.

Alltournative tour leader Irvin talks a little about what makes this day tour unlike others.

video by author

Irvin provided an excellent introduction into the Mayan culture and  I appreciated his approachable and personable tour leader style as it made it seem that our small group of eight  was travelling with him rather than his simply being our driver/guide. His choice of classic 80’s and 90’s tunes during the longer drives between Playa Del Carmen and the Yucatan sites was music to my old ears and is another reason why I enjoyed the day tour so much. The combination of the active adventure at the cenote and history lesson at Ek’ Balam was a perfect balance so would highly recommend Alltournative for this an other Yucatan tours.