THE MAYAN RIVIERA
“This Caribbean holiday combines ancient culture, unspoilt, sunny beaches and clear turquoise sea. The all inclusive system at the luxurious 5* hotels feature all meals and national drinks, in a choice restaurants and several bars with completely different atmospheres. You’re sole concern will be to relax and have fun.”
Here’s my description of just part of a memorable holiday…
The Mayan Riviera stretches along Mexico’s Caribbean coastline. An unbelievably emerald green sea gently laps endless stretches of fine white sands. This was to be my first trip outside Europe and it really was a dream holiday, very difficult to equal. From the initial enquiries at my local travel agents who secured an exceptional offer, the short connecting flight to Madrid where our cases were automatically transferred to our transatlantic aircraft, everything was smooth running.
Arriving at Cancun airport officialdom put in an appearance, the passengers were scrutinized at the customs desk and had their passports ceremoniously stamped. Once outside in the warm evening air a young man, hilariously dressed in safari gear, escorted fellow guests and ourselves onto the coach, giving out general information during the drive to our resort.
This was the great Yucatan Peninsula and Cancun, at the northern tip, is a mega, modern tourist destination. A long thin sandy strip of land, 15 miles long, running parallel to the coast boasts dozens of upmarket five star hotels, shopping malls, fabulous restaurants and night clubs, all the entertainment one could desire.
Taking the coastal highway further south, the Mayan Riviera was more secluded and restful. Arriving at our sumptuous new “resort”, as the hotels and their vast private parkland grounds are known as, I just couldn’t believe how beautiful everything appeared to be. Reception was in the vast lobby, palm trees, fountains, wicker sofas and tables were under a magnificent palm roof, a gigantic sunshade, “palapas” as they are called. The main social buildings, restaurants, lounges, bars and theatre all had the same tribal but extremely luxurious open plan design, letting in the slightest of breezes. After eating supper at a beachside cafe guests were shown to their suites in pink villas scattered among the exotic vegetation.
Next morning it was a delight to discover lake shaped swimming pools, crossed by wooden bridges leading to pool bars where scrumptious iced cocktails were sipped with enthusiasm. A useful Mexican colloquium quickly learnt was “bicicleta” (bicycle) a curious term for ordering a shandy.
Apart from the glorious beaches, one of the attractions in wanting to visit this part of the world (I also admit that my parents had journeyed here a few years previously making me green with envy) was to see the lost Mayan civilization, the famous pyramids of Chichén Itzá. A new, smart little air-conditioned mini bus took us on a three hour trip along the pot-holed road which crossed the impenetrable jungle.
Halfway there the vehicle stopped at a remarkable, rustic indoor market where mainly handmade souvenirs were on display. Wooden statuettes, stone sculptures, blue glass ware, silver jewellery and brightly woven wall hangings seemed to be the main crafts on sale. Another pit-stop made was in the colonial town of Valladolid. It was Sunday morning and the townsfolk, dressed in their best attire all seemed to be walking to church.
The ruins of Chichén Itzá lie about midway between Cancun and Merida, the state capital city. Chichén Itzá has been widely excavated and studied more than any other of the Mayan cities. Yet its history is still clouded in mystery with many contradicting theories and legends. A large Mayan community thrived here between 700 AD and 900 AD, building the main constructions in the central area including the Kukulkan Pyramid while the Warriors Temple and the Ball Court are Toltec (natives from Central Mexico) in design. I was quite surprised but glad to see that most of the four square miles comprising the site are shady and tree lined.
Towering above the other structures at 79 feet, the *Kukulkan Pyramid has been restored on two sides, allowing intrepid visitors to climb the many steps to the top. In total the pyramid has 365 steps, one for every day of the year. The temple at the top has carvings of Chac, the rain god and Quetzalcóatil, the serpent god. The view from the summit was spectacular affording a stunning vista across the rest of the ruins and the virgin jungle which stretched away, unbroken by civilisation, endlessly in all directions. Looking down from the dizzying heights the descent was quite worrying but I unceremoniously made it down, sideways on, in a crab like stance. At the base of the northern stairway a narrow tunnel leads to the old temple underneath, in the gloomy interior a sculpture of a red painted jaguar glares out with jade eyes, exactly as it was originally discovered.
Nearby the “Group of the Thousand Columns” is a maze of stone columns, some engraved with Toltec soldiers guarding the Warrior Temple.
Our guide for the day rejoined us at the Great Ball Court. Longer than a football pitch, the goals are 20 feet high, ancient tales of the warrior’s sports field and their favourite team ball game made our blood run cold. The atmosphere here made it easy to imagine the cheering crowds of bygone centuries when only the best were selected to play and the captain of the winning side had the ultimate honour of being sacrificed to the gods. The carvings on the lower walls depict the ballgame with gruesome clarity. The Jaguar Temple is adorned by friezes of the jaguar emblem and the Tzcompantil or Platform of the Skulls is believed to have been used for the human sacrifices.
From the Venus Platform a pathway leads to the sacred Cenote. A Cenote is a deep circular hole in the limestone ground, a cool pool leading to an underground river. Very important to the Mayans as a source of water they had a deep religious significance too. You can just imagine where the unfortunate martyrs were thrown along with offerings of priceless treasures.
The Nunnery and the Church, erroneously named by the Spanish, are situated in the southern part of the site and are in relatively poor condition. The “Caracol” is so called as the curved inner stairway is reminiscent of a snail. Also known as the observatory, the tower was used for astronomy; its windows were aligned with the four cardinal directions and the position of the setting sun with the equinox.
Our trip included a late lunch in a family run restaurant in a nearby indigenous village. The food was nothing to write home about but I must admit I noticed that everything was spotlessly clean, as were all the places I visited in this part of Mexico, however poor the people appeared. Typical dances were performed by various generations of the family run restaurant, everyone dressed in folkloric costumes down to the tiniest tot. At the doorway small village children were selling wooden and stone carvings at a pittance. Not being able to resist the temptation or the sun-tanned little mites I acquired a set of small statues- The Money God holding a coffer, the Fertility God holding a corn on the cob and The Rain God- made from local wood.
Xel-Há was just a short ride from our resort and is definitely worth visiting. Millions of years ago the Gods created the most beautiful corner of Maya land and called it Xel-Há. They were pleased with their efforts and decided to share it with man, but to keep the park from being destroyed or polluted they named the Iguana and the Parrotfish guardians of the land and sea. Legend has it that Ischel, the goddess of fertility is so pleased with Xel-Há and the work of the guardians that she is often in residence and many an afternoon her perfume lingers in the air.
The Mayan term Xel-Há translates “where the waters are born” or “where the waters converge” and is especially appropriate. The pure waters are a combination of saltwater from the Caribbean and freshwater from the region’s underground rivers (a feature of the Yucatan peninsula). Xel-Há is a unique natural phenomenon and a protected habitat for regional marine life. The flora and fauna exist in their pristine state and create an exotic, natural setting for the park. You can experience this wonderland walking the paths that wend through the park where you’ll encounter fossils, caves and two enormous “cenotes”, the regional term for freshwater sinkholes. Swimming in the lagoon amongst the multi-coloured tropical fish and playing with the dolphins is an unforgettable experience.
On another day, we caught a bus into Playa del Carmen, once a small, sleepy fishing village located in a picturesque enclave. Over the past decade or so it has grown to become the lively centre of the Riviera Maya beach scene with numerous authentic Mexican restaurants and shops but without losing too much of its charm. There is a boat trip from the quay over to Cozumel Island, a favourite stop for cruise liners and marvellous for scuba diving or snorkelling.
And you must visit Tulum a little further to the south, the only walled city that the Mayan ever built on the Caribbean coast. The ruins of this ancient culture, temples perched on top of limestone cliffs, are fascinating and the backdrop against the turquoise sea is a fabulous setting that appears in all the holiday brochures. A laze on the unspoilt sands below and a browse around a typical outdoor souvenir market make for an interesting and unforgettable day.
The rest of the holiday we spent lazing on the white sandy beaches, swimming and snorkelling in the calm, warm sea. I really haven’t swum anywhere in the world as amazing as the Caribbean.
Reading this article tonight, one of my first travel reviews which was originally published a few years ago now, brings back the most incredible memories of a beautiful country and the warm-hearted Mexicans I had the fortune to meet.
*You are no longer allowed to ascend the Kukulkan Pyramid