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Pyramids, cenotes and ancient history, oh my! Staying safe and exploring a foreign country may seem impossible during Covid, but with the help of The Custom Tour, we able to get a little taste of adventure while staying safe! When we go on vacation, I'm not really a stay at the resort, drink pina coladas on the beach day all day, never leave, kinda girl. But when our passports got their first taste of ink in 2020, believe me, I was so happy to be getting on a plane and actually going somewhere, a week at a tropical resort sounded like heaven!
And with a little big of research, I was able to find a safe choice for our family to get some adventure in too! Ya'll, one of my favorite groups for unlimited information on family travel just about anywhere in the world is the Facebook Group, Families Who Love to Travel. I wanted to book a private tour where I could decide where I wanted to go, on my time, not rushed. Families Who Love to Travel recommended Rod Ratner's The Custom Tour. You can check his reviews on Trip Advisor, go to his website www.thecustomtour.com
for more information, or find him on Facebook or the Gram.
You can create your own tour, or pick one of the popular ones they offer, and it's all private, just you and your family, a driver and a tour guide. We decided on the Chichen Itza Deluxe tour. We would explore the ancient Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza, swim in a sacred cenote and explore the colonial town of Valladolid. We left our hotel at 7am and returned around 4pm, just time in for a quick swim before dinner!
Diego and Claire arrived right on time at our hotel in a spacious air conditioned van. With a family of five, there was enough room for each kid to have their own row with no kicking or screaming. Masks were required in the van and at all the stops along the way. In Mexico, masks are very much enforced. The great part of a custom tour, is you decide where you want to go and for us, the first stop was breakfast. With visions of a Chick Fil A biscuit dancing in their heads, the kids got quite the surprise when we rolled up to a gas station. Yep, breakfast is served. Now never in my life did I think I would eat breakfast from a Mexican gas station, but I was pleasantly surprised. The inside was spotless and had a great selection of items. Everyone found something they liked and we all survived!
When you hear about most of the Yucatan Penninsula being a jungle, you have no appreciation for just how big the jungle is until you drive through it! On our way to Chichen Itza, we drove 2 1/2 hours through solid jungle. The last time Brian and I were at Chichen Itza, it was 2004. We climbed to the top of El Castillo, heard the echo in the ballground, squeezed our way through the insides of the pyramid until we starred the jaded jaguar face to face in his big green eyes. Well, when we pulled up, we learned all of the fun is over! Chichen Itza is now a Unesco World Heritage Site, a new Wonder of the Modern World, and apparently too many people have taken a fatal tumble down El Castillo. The steps are quite small and were in fact made for Mayan feet. Since we couldn't climb anything or touch anything, even at 13, 11, and 9, the kids were bored out of their minds in no time and asking to leave. Claire is an expert in Maya culture and had a number of interesting facts to tell us about the temple of Kuklacan and the Mayan's infatuation with the stars. I completely get it, but since you can't climb the temple anymore, it's a very different experience!
The great thing about a custom tour, you can move on when you are done. If we took a big tour bus and were stuck there for hours, our kids would have lost their minds. Seen it, done, snapped the shot, time to move on!
On our way to Cenote Ik Kil, we passed a few Mayan villages and a Mexican prison that no one wanted to see the inside of! So what exactly is a cenote? Cenotes are formed when limestone collapses exposing fresh water underneath.
The Mayans believed cenotes were sacred and used them for sacrifices. Fast forward several hundred years later, let's all go jump in a hole with collapsed rock where people used to sacrifice things, sounds perfectly safe to me!
With it's aqua blue water and stalagmites, Cenote Saamal at Hacienda Selva Maya was quite the sight to behold. There are dressing rooms with lockers, everyone must wear a life jacket and shower before getting in the cenote. As we crawled down the steep stairway making our way down to the bottom of this sinkhole, my older kids spied some really big fish. Our tour guide Claire told us they were catfish and basically harmless. This scared our older two to the point they did not want to get in the water and almost fell over laughing as their little brother jumped right in, oblivious to the catfish swarming around him like sharks! After multiple jumps in the 50 degree water, he was done, a cenote survivor!
After our refreshing swim, lunch was included at the cenote. I'm a little leary of buffets in general and buffets during Covid in Mexico make me very nervous. I will say we were the first people there, the buffet was served by staff and there was plexi-glass in front of the food. Everything did look good and I did try a couple of bites. If I would have known the town we were about to explore had many dining options, I would preferred lunch in a local restaurant, even though we would have to pay for it ourselves.
The last stop of the day was the Unesco World Heritage town of Valladodid, a perfectly preserved colonial village from the 1500s. We walked around the town square and admired the Cathredral San Gervasio, we could not go inside per Covid. This little Mexican town is off the beaten track and completely authentic Mexico. Even in this out of the way place, everyone was wearing masks and there was armed policia with machine guns on every corner. Safety first, mask and gun. One of the highlights of the day was the Hotel El Meson Del Marques. With it's colorful walls and open air restaurant complete with trees, it just beckons, come inside and have a Margarita. Set in a building dating back to the 17th century, this elegant hotel has the vibe of old world Mexico, away from the beaches and tourist attractions, I finally felt like we were having an off the beaten track adventure.
Two margaritas, three glass bottle Cokes, some chips and salsa set us back less $14 USD. Wow, if we just ate in little off the beaten path kinda towns like this one, our Mexican holiday would really be El Cheapo!
Now late afternoon, Diego pulled up in the ice cold air conditioned van and whisked us out of the authentic Mexican life and hot sun and back to the hotel lined beaches of Riviera Maya. The ride back was just 90 minutes with one bano stop. It was an amazing day to get out and about and expose the kids to the sights and history of Mexico and do it as safely as we can. Since we had a private tour, we barely encountered crowds anywhere, in fact, we barely within 20 feet of another person! Claire was amazing at keeping our group away from others and timing things out so we missed the big tour groups at the cenote and in Valladodid.
The Custom Tour for our family of five was @$800 USD. You must pay in Mexican pesos so make sure you order some from home or bring your ATM and call ahead so your bank will let you take out money in Mexico. It was worth it! We felt 100% safe and loved going at our own pace. Diego is a man of few words but a rock star driver. Claire is a charming ex-pat from France who has made her home in Playa de Carmen. She is an expert in Mayan history and culture, her insight on things really added a fun element to our trip.
We are heading back to Mexico in April and I can't wait to book a new experience with The Custom Tour! If you book, tell them Blondie on Board sent you and say hola to Diego and Claire!