My Oh Maya on the Yucatan Peninsula

April 7, 2011  
Filed under Travel

By John Blanchette

The Maya ruins at Tulum are an essential stop during a visit to Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. (Photo courtesy of John Blanchette)

Mexico, shaped like a whale, flips up its tail toward Cuba, a mere 90 miles to the east, revealing the belly of the Yucatan Peninsula, these days referred to as the Riviera Maya. It was here that the Maya civilization once thrived. In fact, 38 percent of the Yucatan population still speaks Mayan as its preferred language. It has a distinct Polynesian sound, which many believe is the source of Maya immigration and culture.

The Cancun weather is hot and humid between May and October, and hurricanes and rain are also a concern. But while these are the wet months, that’s also when the best deals are available. There is also a lot of singles activity, and clubs and bars are always hopping.

The beaches are the major draw to the area. The turquoise waters are spectacularly clear as light is reflected off the pure white sandy sea bottom of the Caribbean. The sand is soft and cool, even on the hottest days, from a combination of ground-up seashells mixed into the sand.

Cancun is reminiscent of Miami Beach, both physically and as a party town. The hotel zone (Zona Hotelera) is built on a 14-mile strip of land with a large lagoon separating it from the main city and the Caribbean Sea on the other side. The side facing the sea can get a bit dangerous when there are riptides. Warning signs are posted when this is a problem.

A trip to the Maya ruin sights in the area, especially Tulum, is essential. The only existing Maya city located on the water, Tulum is the most popular of Maya ruins with 2 million visitors a year. It was a wealthy trading mecca and neutral safe harbor for the militant Mayas until the Spanish forbade boat traffic into the city and it was abandoned in the late 1500s. Guides are available to talk about the Mayas’ contributions to world civilization — including the calendar, mathematics (they started the concept of zero), hieroglyphics and astronomical knowledge, which heavily influenced their buildings and city layouts.

In 1967, the Mexican government settled on this area to develop as an international tourism destination. Before that time, these towns along the Yucatan coast were primarily fishing villages and coconut plantations. The name Riviera Maya was coined in 2000 and refers to the 60-mile coastline south of Cancun.

The staff at my hotels were from all over the world, especially Europeans who had come for the sun and warm waters. Large numbers of Dutch, Swiss, Italians, Irish and Germans work in the hospitality section and cater to their countrymen who vacation here in droves. In many ways it’s the new Spain for much of Europe.

Playa del Carmen’s main entertainment and restaurant row are located on a mile-long pedestrian walkway, La Quinta Avenida (Fifth Avenue). Coco Bongo here or in Cancun is a wild musical crossing of Hollywood films with a Las Vegas review, live band and light show, Cirque du Soleil aerialists and everything from bar-top dancing to Frank Sinatra and Pirates of the Caribbean imitators. The $50 admission covers all drinks. Shows start at 11 p.m. and finish around 3:30 a.m. It’s packed every night, and it’s a kick.

A large facility called City of Joy promotes “Volun-Tourism” — the opportunity for visitors to contribute to the community during their vacations. This community project run by the Catholic Church treats terminally ill patients and the aging and has a daycare center for hundreds of children from poor families. The facility is supported by the owner of the Royal Hotel in Cancun, who supplies free transportation to the impressive facility.

WHEN YOU GO

For information on hotels, restaurants, concerts, shopping, special events, guidebooks, brochures and maps, contact www.cancun.info and www.rivieramaya.com.

In Playa del Carmen and Cancun I stayed at The Royal hotels (www.realresorts.com). Even in May they had an occupancy rate of more than 90 percent. Reservations are a must. They are aligned with Best Day Travel (www.bestday.com), which has agents and drivers at the airport to whisk guests to the resorts. Once there, visitors can lie on beautifully manicured beaches adjacent to expansive swimming pools and be attended to by “beach butlers,” who provide a book to read or a cold drink.

The cost is all-inclusive and covers phone calls to the United States, along with three meals a day. The various hotel restaurants offer breakfast, Mexican, Asian, Italian and French menus, and free drinks — both alcoholic and non. Use of the business office and computer as well as live entertainment in the evenings, ranging from concerts to dramatic performances, are also included.

The spa comes with a shaman who has designed healing treatments and ointments. All water is filtered, so illness is not a worry. Rooms are suites, and facilities include balconies and patios with hammocks and Jacuzzi baths. In the summer rates begin at around $161 per couple per day.

 

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