Our language school offers free evening activities and morning yoga sessions. It also offers weekend trips. We assumed the weekend trips were similarly offered, particularly because our last language school offered trips as part of the package. So on Friday when we were asked if we wanted to go to Coba to see some ruins, we said yes please.
That evening I received a text telling me what we needed to take with us and when to meet the bus. It also included the note telling us that the cost was 1,800Mex each (approx £70). We gulped and immediately sent a note back saying that we hadn’t realised there was a cost and that we’d have to sit this one out – £70 each to see some ruins that are less than an hour away was a bit of a surprise. The head of our school responded immediately. She said that she completely understood that we would struggle to pay that much for four people and that she wanted us to enjoy ourselves (and that the tour was already booked). She was concerned no one had told us how much the trip would cost (they hadn’t) at school. She said that school would pay for us to go and that she hoped we’d have fun and if we wanted to offer to pay something afterwards, that would be fine.
What a response! I never imagined she’d say that. We were embarrassed and excited although still confused as to why a trip to the ruins would cost so much.
We showed up at school at 8am as requested. We were met by a cab and a driver. It turns out no one else had signed up for the trip so we had a private cab just for us. Whoops. And then the lovely driver gave us a long list of the things we’d be doing: ruins, two cenotes, lunch, monkey jungle walk, canoe trip, zip lining and a trip to Vallolidid to see a convent. Ah ha. Suddenly the cost made a little more sense.
Coba ruins: these lie on the edge of a crocodile infested laguna and are billed as some of the most exciting ruins in Mexico because they’re deep in the jungle and you’re actually allowed to climb on some bit of them. Apparently only 5% of this ancient Mayan city has been excavated, the rest remains overrun with jungle. Our driver tried to get us to take a guide but we persuaded him that really, a guide and kids is not a good combination. So off we went in to the site. We took a bike taxi (a man on a bike cycled the four of us around the site for two hours) around to save us carrying the kids for 6km, despite Col wanting to walk everywhere. The driver was actually really informative and told us loads (in English and Spanish) about the site, Mayan history and what animals we could see: armadillos, raccoons, anteaters and more. We didn’t. But we did see lots of frogs and the most incredible caterpillars we’ve ever encountered. Because we got there so early we had the first few sites completely to ourselves, before the bulk of tourists arrived. And what a difference it made. The silence was incredible, so incredible even SB noticed it. He ran around shouting about how he loves ruins and how brilliant it all was, which of course felt like a confirmation of all we’re doing.
We ran around various ruined sites, exclaiming at how beautiful the jungle was and then eventually we got to the pyramid: 124 huge, uneven steps up to an amazing pinnacle – a view above the jungle canopy. Col carried SG up and SB bounded up like the mountain goat I always wanted to be as a kid. We had snacks at the top before really stopping to take in the view. Wow. It was just magnificent but the heat quickly became too much and we descended again. Col bravely carried SG down while I kept my heart in my mouth seeing him struggle. SB and I went down on our bums.
Watching one’s kids use ancient ruins and the jungle as a playground is really quite a surreal experience but of course, this is their life right now. They have no comprehension of how lucky they are to be here because most of the other kids they actually interact with are similarly lucky. They do have brief play with kids in the playground but not in any meaningful way.
Cenotes: We were meant to visit two cenotes but opted to just see one. We weren’t convinced the kids would cope with a rope ladder down in to a cave filled with water, or that we would cope with managing them not coping!
Again, our timing was incredible and we had the cenote to ourselves until the last few minutes there when one small group joined us. As we were leaving though, the tour buses began to arrive. The region is famous for its cenotes – cave swimming areas. I don’t really know much about how or why but I do know they’re meant to be incredible.
We had to shower at ground level to remove suntan lotion and insect repellent as they’re very strict about keeping the water clean. The kids got life jackets and then we descended down about 120 steps to a sort of pier over water in a huge cave. The water was so clear we could see all the way to the bottom of the seven metre deep water. My heart was truly in my mouth at the thought of launching myself off in to this water (with fish) even though I’m a strong swimmer. For some reason, I’ve never loved really deep water. Col went straight in because he’s super brave. SG and I sat on the steps for a few minutes before she got in with Col. SB wasn’t convinced at all. I eventually swallowed my fears and got in. It was incredible. The water was fresh and clean and I could float on my back looking up at this enormous cave with stalagmites hanging down. Wow. Eventually we got SB in too. We were so proud of him, he even swam alone (well, we were in the water, just not holding him). For him to do something so brave was really quite an achievement.
PUNTA LAGUNA: Then it was lunch before heading to a monkey walk in the jungle. I kept hearing monkeys ever so close…until I realised it was the guide calling to the monkeys! It was a very impressive noise, indeed. We marched around for a while, Col told SB he’d buy him an ice-cream if he could spot a monkey before the guide. Funnily enough, we didn’t need to buy that ice-cream! SB lept through the jungle with such confidence it was a pleasure to see. When we put down SG, she followed his lead and the two of them zoomed off down jungle paths exploring and having fun.
The guide did find us spider monkeys. We watched them eating and climbing through the trees. We also saw a small brown snake. I’m surprised we saw anything given how much noise the kids were making! We did eventually persuade them to be quiet but trying to get SG to shush is like, dunno, herding cats or knitting with spaghetti or something. Once we were tired of monkeys we went down to the laguna where SG and I paddled our feet off the pier and we looked suitably horrified at the idea of doing a zip line over a laguna (that SB was convinced was crocodile infested) with the kids strapped to us. We said no thanks to that (possibly due to experiences in Vagas where we spent more time hanging on zip lines waiting to be rescued than we did actually zip lining) and instead took a canoe out on the laguna. It was just beautiful and they assured us that the crocodiles didn’t come that far south in the water.
VALLOLIDID: The driver wanted then to take us to see a convent but we said no as religion doesn’t really do it for us. So instead he said he’d just take us to the town square. We agreed without realising it was a good 90 mins out of the way just for a twenty minute stroll around a square. Whoops. In hindsight not our best move as the kids were getting really tired. And, that whole 90 minutes was my turn in the front of the car. Having inherited my mother’s inability to sit next to someone without engaging them in conversation meant I discovered that Mexican cabbies are pretty much the same as UK cabbies: they love to chat but they mainly want to tell you what they think of the political scene. So, yeah, 90 minutes of a guy with a tricky accent who barely moves his mouth telling me about the Mexican situation. I followed about 60%, I think. Luckily he didn’t require much from me except my ears! By the end of it I was exhausted. I made Col sit in the front for the next journey and he had no compunction about sitting and not talking!
Our driver spent eight years in the USA working on construction sites but he never learned a word of English as he said it just wasn’t necessary. He only shopped in Mexican shops and never spoke to Americans. I asked if most families have someone in the USA and he said yes, because here on a construction site they earn maybe £20 a day but in the USA obviously they earn so much more. Everyone has someone sending money home. This region is better off than most because of tourism but that has a negative side too as there’s lots of racism and although those working in restaurants and hotels earn better than elsewhere, they’re still earning in pesos when the owners are raking it in in US dollars.
Finally we got home. I had a lot to think about and we had to figure out how much we felt we could pay for the amazing day we’d had by accident. We gave the driver a 500peso tip (had to really after hearing about his four kids, his 3000 peso a month house, his 300peso a day rental for the cab and 300peso a day on gas, leaving him around 900pesos a day to cover rent, school and everything else). In the end we decided we could pay 3000 (rather than almost 8000) as we’d had no idea what the day would entail because no one had told us anything but it was truly a great day. We’d only wanted to go the ruins and probably would never have done the other bits but we’d all enjoyed all of it. School seem happy we’re willing to pay anything and we are so glad we chose an American backed school as the customer service is clearly amazing. Most of all we’re really proud of the kids. They really embraced everything we chucked at them and SB even told us he loves school here!