Riviera Maya, Mexico
I am told there are crocodiles in the mangroves of the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve on Mexico’s Riviera Maya, but assured there are none in the stretch I have been swimming in for the past hour, long enough to turn my back a shade of English lobster, despite the factor 30. In fact I have seen little evidence of wildlife at all: no birds, only a handful of fish, and not a whiff of the tapirs, pumas, monkeys and whitetail deer that are undoubtedly out there. Today, they are proving as elusive as the ancient Mayan ruins and treasures that are also undoubtedly out there, camouflaged by billions of lanky reeds that spring from the knot of gnarly roots in the brackish waters.
Sian Ka’an is a 1.3 million acre national park that spans 70 miles of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula on the Caribbean coast. Just to the east, and tantalisingly close to the shore, lies one of the world’s most spectacular coral reefs, second, in size only, to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. Two hours to the north lays Cancun, a different kind of jungle, made from concrete, on a spit of land shaped like the number seven.
Cancun developed at lightning speed in the 1970s, to the delight of Spring Break American students, and the horror of environmentalists. The contrast is stark. Cancun attracts package tourists in their millions, enticed by the year-round, superb weather, strip malls of boutique shops and generic Senor Frog restaurants, where losing your inhibitions is almost compulsory. In Sian Ka’an, on the other hand, bumping into another tourist is as likely as stumbling across an undiscovered Mayan ruin, and losing your inhibitions is more often achieved with the help of a shaman than a bottle of tequila.
To the Mayans, Sian Ka’an is “The Place Where the Sky is Born” and it is for the spiritual enlightenment promised by their culture and traditions that most visitors head south from Cancun. Their quest for peace and tranquillity can be complex and sometimes frustrating, taking them first to Playa del Carmen, where tourism is developing at a swift pace. A few years ago it held the debatable honour of being the world’s fastest growing destination and in a few short decades has developed from a sleepy fishing village to the Riviera’s largest town, complete with a somewhat schizophrenic mix of bump ‘n’ grind bars and designer hotels. But there appears to be more of a will to get things right this time, and not to repeat the mistakes of Cancun. Indeed, just outside Playa del Carmen, in Mayakoba, there is a surprise or two.
At first glance the expansive Fairmont Mayakoba Resort might be expected to attend to the more typical modern day needs of its guests, such as providing free WiFi and HD TVs. However, the Canadian company, who also own and are overseeing the reopening of London’s Savoy, have shown an admirable commitment to local traditions and the environment, to the extent that National Geographic Magazine declared it “the most comprehensive environmental programme in the North American hotel industry”.
In Mayakoba, instead of blasting their way through acres of mangrove forest to access the beach, Fairmont built a series of canals around the trees that has created a whole new ecosystem, attracting turtles, crabs and migratory birds not seen before. The beach is reached by complimentary bicycles and electric golf buggies, while thatched lancha boats depart from the hotel lobby every 30 minutes and ply the canals to the ocean. You can take a complimentary guided boat tour each morning as an introduction to Mayakoba’s wildlife and a combined early morning lancha and walking tour promises lots of animal sightings – I even spotted a couple of crocodile.
It’s a curious but successful juxtaposition. The 401 rooms have been built almost seamlessly around the canals and include balconies that overlook hidden lagoons, where a symphony of bats and jungle bird song greets you at dusk, and every day Mayan artisans come to sell their crafts on the lawns. International tastes are catered for at the El Puerto restaurant, which also serves up seasonal seafood from the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico, while under the huge thatched canopy of the oceanside Las Brisas, a traditional conical-shaped palapa, a global menu is accompanied by Mexican beers and wine and the murmur of the emerald sea.
Truthfully, however, I prefer my hotels on the small side and in Mayakoba I found one of the most perfect. Like the Fairmont, The Tides is located on the sea, but again its 30 thatch-roof casitas resolutely turn their eyes to the jungle. Each room is concealed by thick foliage where you can bask on an extensive terrace, swing in a hammock, or jump in your private plunge pool unfettered by prying eyes.
Located at the end of a dirt track, initial impressions are of a high-class campsite rather than a luxury resort, and my suspicions are that the Tides is popular with former backpackers who have made good, still have an inkling for the wild, but aren’t quite prepared to go back to roughing it. Instead they happily succumb to The Tides quirky, pampering details – a concierge who cuts off slivers of soap by hand from a huge slab when you arrive (choose from rosemary, mint, chocolate or lemongrass – or ask for a piece of each); secluded areas throughout the jungle maze, individually marked for Readers, Writers and Painters and filled with easels, paints, pens and notepaper to help feed creativity; a spa overseen by a shaman where treatments often start with a ritualistic ceremony involving burning incense-like copal and dancing on herbs; and a tasting menu at the Mexican Market where each course can be paired with local beers, instead of wine.
The Tides places great emphasis on Mayan traditions and, one afternoon, against the judgement of my usual English reserve, I attend their traditional temazcal, sweat lodge, ceremony. The ceremony, which involves squatting in a stone igloo, heated to a ferocious temperature by lava stone, starts with an incantation to the gods and a celebration of the four elements.
One hour later I emerge sweaty, having chanted, vigorously shaken native instruments, flagellated myself with aloe vera leaves, and shared my innermost thoughts with virtual strangers. I am then “received like a baby” and laid down to rest within sight and sound of the ocean as the gods permit me to re-enter the world. The cynic in me wants to declare it so much New Age nonsense, but somewhere deep in the dustiest recess of my mind I feel calmer, enervated, perhaps even a little re-born, and suspect that the true nonsense is the cynicism I have, at least for the moment, managed to set free.
From The Tides, exploring the Mayan culture further south is easy. The Riviera coast is littered with archaeological sites, including the dramatically placed Tulum, perched overlooking the Caribbean; the lost city of Coba, drenched in dense jungle where you can rent a rickety bike, whisk from ruin to ruin and clamber up ancient pyramids; and Chichen Itza, perhaps the most famous, offering a vast network of immaculately restored temples, pyramids and ball parks.
One of the most extraordinary experiences, however, is to descend an underground cavern, or sinkhole, known as cenotes. According to the Mayans, these are the gateways to the afterlife presided over by the gods of Xibalba, though geologically-speaking they were formed by the collapse of the limestone surface to form a network of underground rivers. There are thousands in the Yucatan and some offer scuba diving. The smaller ones, however, are often tourist-free and populated by nothing more than bats and Mexican children who treat them as their own secret swimming pools.
The Spa Director at The Tides, Cinthya Alva, who is a wealth of knowledge about Mayan folklore, has warned me about the power of the Xibabla, which roughly translates as the “Place of Fear”, so I descend with trepidation. As I lie in the icy water and gaze at the huge stalactite formations dripping from the roof I am gripped by an alarming shortness of breath. I tell Cinthya later and she teases me that this was the gods giving me a squeeze; but I must have been good, as they decided to let me go.
They are a little less kind in sleepy Puerto Morelos where I end my Mexican Riviera journey. Half way between Playa del Carmen and Cancun, Puerto Morelos is the kind of laid-back village where hippies come and never leave, and after I check in to the Sak Ol Bed & Breakfast, I instantly see why. Time simply stands still here and the beach bum ambience feels a million miles from frenzied Cancun.
The Sak Ol is at the other end of the budget spectrum to The Tides, and its suspended beds have given me sea legs; a torrential downpour imprisons me in my room for a day, serving as a poignant reminder that the Yucatan coastline can sometimes fall victim to fierce hurricanes, the last big one occurring in 2005; and when I do break free, on one of the Sak Ol’s complimentary bicycles, I am chased by a pack of mad dogs. But whether it is Mother Nature, the indigenous wildlife or the gods who are trying to frighten me, it is too late; I am already hooked and know I will be back.
Thomson Airways fly direct to Cancun from Gatwick four times a week and prices start from £499 for a seven or 14 night stay, including taxes, fuel supplements and charges. For further information visit thomson.co.uk/flights or call 0871 2314787. Rooms at The Tides Riviera Maya start from £405 per room, per night (tidesrivieramaya.com). Rooms at the Fairmont Mayakoba start from £152 per room per night (fairmont.com/mayakoba or call 0845 071 0153), and rooms at the Sak Ol start from £45 per night (ranchosakol.com).
Words: Andrew Copestake