Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula

Will success spoil Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula? Some say it already has, citing Cancun’s mass of beach destinations, loud nightclubs, and traffic congestion. Others — especially the party crowd — swear that Cancun has given them the very best of vacations.

If you’re travelling with youngsters, then this could be the right destination for you. It has everything from ruins to riches, whether it be natural, archaeological, or modern. Cancun’s 22-kilometre-long resort zone, shaped like the number seven (and technically an island) boasts silky soft white sand beaches contrasting dramatically with the turquoise waters of the Caribbean.

The town itself (pop. 200,000) has some 200 restaurants featuring every kind of fast food chain and national cuisine imaginable, and more than a dozen shopping malls.

But if you want something quieter, with plenty of fine accommodations but emphasizing natural beauty, and with a wide choice of soft adventure, then travel about an hour south to the Maya Riviera. Here, buildings are limited to three storeys, giving the area a far different look from Cancun. As well as tours to the nearby Mayan ruins, daytrips from your resort might include expeditions to Punta Soliman, and Nohoch Nah Chich.

The former, a remote bay near Akumel, can be accessed by kayak from the beach. Its coral formations attract colourful fish, a delight for snorkellers. The big feature of Nohoch Nah Chich, in the tiny Mayan village of Rancho San Felipe, is a cenotem a natural sinkhole with stalactites and stalagmites. (Cenotes are a peculiarity of this coastline, and a popular attraction with snorkellers and swimmers.) If you join a tour, you’ll swim with a guide who will light your path with a high-powered underwater flashlight.

“The water was so clear that swimming felt more like flying,” says Gerry Rayner, who visited last year. “And it’s best to proceed in silence, to absorb the beauty of the place.” Gerry’s tour included lunch with a Mayan family. “It was amazing. They served up this great meal — chicken and rice, and tortillas and salsa — without any electricity. All the cooking was done over an open fire.” The small group was invited to lounge on handmade hammocks before making the return journey through the jungle.

Some people want to unplug from the “real world” on their vacations, and for some, Cancun is too much “real world.” For Gerry and his friends, the Maya Riviera was the answer.

“We had to visit Xcaret, though. I’d heard it’s one of the best ecological theme parks around, and it certainly has something for everyone,” he told me. Xcaret, south of Playa del Carmen, suggests that conservation and development are not mutually exclusive. Throw in education, which Xcaret does very well, and you have a winning formula.

The park sits over an ancient Mayan port and the one-time religious centre of Pole. The archaeological section encompasses eight buildings dating from 1400 to 1517, and tour guides teach Mayan ritual and science. A Maya Village with palm-thatched, circular homes, shows what daily life was like. Traditionally dressed crafts people work in the village, which is set around an ancient altar. An on-site museum displays contemporary and classic art from modern and ancient Mexico, and models of the Mayan world. Water is a focus of the jungle-foliaged park, with lagoons, inlets, and underground rivers offering a haven for sea turtles, fish, and wildlife.

Xcaret is a microcosm of the region it inhabits, but it’s great for families who want to give their children a theme park experience while learning about the local area. For kids, swimming with dolphins, a fabulous aquarium, and games of all sorts are preferable to trudging through remote ruin sites under the blazing sun. But if ruins are what you’re looking for, the Maya Riviera is the place to be.

This is the heart of the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, a 652,192-hectare area encompassing tropical forest, wetlands (marshes, flooded savannahs, and mangrove forests), lagoons, bays, and coral reefs. Within the reserve are offshore shipwrecks (including pirate vessels) providing wonderful dive sites, and inland, at least 22 Mayan archaeological sites, many of which are still untouched.

Some of the most famous examples are Tulum, overlooking one of the prettiest beaches along this coast, Chichen Itza, the famed astronomical centre, Coba, and Ek Balam. Each shows how highly evolved this civilization was, with monumental palaces decorated with paintings and stone carvings, and an elaborate road system through the jungle.

The Maya produced books and scrolls (they were the only ancient culture in Mesoamerica to have written language), and they were skilled engineers and mathematicians. The civilization broke down before the Spaniards arrived, and most cities had been abandoned before 1200 AD. However, a few places were still inhabited, including Tulum, and when the Conquistadors arrived, the remaining Maya put up a fierce fight. It took the Spaniards 173 years to conquer Yucatan.

It’s believed that Isla Mujeres (Island of the Women), off the coast of Cozumel (the largest island off the Caribbean coast of Mexico), was a sanctuary for Mayan virgins, and that, as part of their rite of passage into womanhood, Mayan women made a pilgrimage there. Ruins on the island’s southern tip are thought to be of a temple dedicated to the fertility goddess Ixchel.

Isla Mujeres was also a pirate stronghold, and visitors can see the hacienda once belonging to the pirate Mundaca. The graveyard (at the north end of the island) shows headstones engraved with skull and crossbones. This is also a great place to swim with dolphins, at Dolphin Discovery, who operate a ferry from Cancun Bay.

And so we return to the resorts. Let’s not forget to mention Playa del Carmen, just south of Cancun, but less frenzied, and a favourite with golfers who stay at neighbouring Playacar, designed around the 18-hole course.

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Photo © Alexandra Draghici