Beauty on the beach: Sun, sand and the Caribbean sea on the Riviera Maya & Tulum
The American in the lobby is bemused. Why, she asks – as we tumble through the doors – would anyone volunteer for an 11-hour flight to Mexico with an 11-month-old child?
A fair question, made all the more pertinent by the mountain of baggage and baby paraphernalia that we have lugged across the Atlantic.
But the answer lies in the view outside the hotel, where a long strip of beach flows into the distance, all of it bathed in balmy afternoon temperatures of 27C; the hazy sea swelling majestically. Jetlag evaporates.
This is not like one of those soft, sandy Caribbean isles – Jamaica, Barbados, St Lucia – that have long been popular with tourists keen to escape the British winter. This is Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula – a considerably more intriguing prospect.
This sunny corner of the planet is not unknown. For years, package firms have been luring young couples with the prospect of inexpensive breaks in the pack-’em-in hotels of Cancun – the gaudy resort that, connected to Britain by a direct BA flight (with a Virgin Atlantic service to come next year).
This is the obvious point of arrival, but beyond, the Riviera Maya – a cleverly branded stretch of immaculate sand (the name is a marketing creation) – sweeps south for 80 splendid miles. Here is a more refined style of accommodation, luxury retreats tucked into lush mangrove swamps.
One of these, the Rosewood Mayakoba, soon feels like home – although it hardly looks like it. The journey to our room (and ‘journey’ is the correct word) involves a short boat ride through this verdant, water-filled world. After a minute or two, we are dropped at a small jetty. The spacious room that awaits gazes directly onto the beach and the ocean.
Baby Rufus seems pleased with the arrangement. My wife Claire and I certainly are.
After that epic flight, our first instinct is to refuel. And over the next few days, we throw ourselves into a feast of local cuisine. Though undoubtedly familiar to British taste buds, Mexican food is a different experience when enjoyed in context.
We try everything: the stodgy comfort of fajitas, cheese-topped nachos and salsa-dipped tortilla chips; the rather healthier choice of ceviche – sharp-tasting bowls of fresh seafood ‘cooked’ in lime juice. I even brave the habanero chilli sauce – the smallest dab of which has my eyes streaming.
Then there are the breakfasts – huge, heaped affairs. Mexicans clearly start the day dining like Mayan gods. Millions of eggs are sacrificed daily, and prepared in more ways than you could imagine – served with mushrooms, asparagus, even steak. We happily join in.
It would be easy to spend an entire week cocooned in the resort, swimming in the turquoise shallows. But equally, it would be a terrible shame not to explore this fascinating area. So we hire an open-top Jeep (at a reasonable £70 a day) and forge out seeking adventure.
We quickly find it. Mid-way down the Riviera Maya, Playa Del Carmen is a welcoming town – once a fishing village, but now a pocket of 100,000 people, thanks to the tourism boom. However, it has not yet grown to the point where it has lost all charm. Its main street, Fifth Avenue, is carpeted in cobbles and lined with everything from small bars and restaurants to a variety of souvenir outlets (you will never go short of a sombrero here).
A few yards away lies another beach, thronged with sun-seekers. This is a popular place to come, and with good reason. Diving trips can be organised here – sub-aqua expeditions that make use of the Riviera Maya’s location on the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef, the second largest expanse of coral on the globe (stretching 700 miles, all the way to Honduras).
Sadly, Rufus is a little young for scuba jaunts, so we move on – into a realm of history. Echoes of the Maya civilisation that once thrived in this jungleshrouded landscape are everywhere.
This advanced people – who made giant leaps in art, maths and astronomy – were lords of all they surveyed until the Spanish arrived in 1517. Five centuries on, there is still undeniable majesty to the vast ruins of Chichen Itza – a Mayan citadel at the heart of the Yucatan Peninsula that was voted one of the ‘new seven wonders of the world’ in 2007 – and the less-seen wonderland of Coba, 25 miles to the west of the Riviera coast.
But our encounter is with Tulum – surely the prettiest of the Mayan archaeological sites. Pinned to a rocky bluff directly above the sea, this is a piece of the past that looks like it has stepped out of a movie. It was at its height in the 14th century, its name translating as ‘Walled City’ – an apposite title that finds physical expression in El Castillo, a pyramidal temple that stands sentry.
But my eye is drawn down to one of the most picturesque beaches I have ever seen. Unfortunately, this beautiful cove is closed to the public, as turtles lay their eggs here every year.
Other elements of Mayan life are put to modern use. The porous limestone that underpins this region is riddled with cenotes – freshwater sinkholes that the Maya considered sacred, thanks to their sheer depths and crystal waters. Nowadays, they make alluring attractions for tourists, not only refreshing to swim in, but dazzling to look at – the water’s ancient passage carving out stalactite-filled caverns fantastic for diving and snorkelling.
Then there are the theme parks – family-friendly options, such as Xel-Ha, where you can swim with dolphins, and Xplor, where active holidaymakers can find thrills on zipslides. Xcaret, meanwhile, is carefully built into another set of Mayan remnants – and host to a swathe of exotic creatures, from jaguars to manatees.
At £50 per adult, it can scarcely be described as cheap – and with Rufus not yet old enough to appreciate the wild residents, we opt to give it a miss and dash back to the comforts of our hotel. But we’ll definitely pay a visit on our next trip to the Riviera Maya. Like the turtles, we’ll be back.
ITC Classics (01244 355 527, www.itcclassics.co.uk) has seven nights B&B from £2,649pp sharing a Lagoon Suite including return flights with BA from London Gatwick and private transfers.