Here is a Mexico you need to know

By | Category: Travel destinations

You’ve probably heard of Cancun, Mexico’s number one tourism destination. But don’t miss out on a visit to the gloriously beautiful and fascinating Riviera Maya, stretching south of there along the Caribbean, says Irene Middleman Thomas

Total darkness, except for the infinite array of stars twinkling above, and the shimmer of the surf’s white crest breaking by our toes. Everyone had told us it would take 15 minutes to walk from the town to our hotel, and said it was easiest to walk on the beach, since the road was not direct. They lied. We had already walked for 20 minutes, and saw nothing familiar.

Mark, my husband, was stressing, but I told him to relax. After all, there was a heady aroma of rich honey from some mysterious tropical plant, a natural planetarium above us, and our feet were walking through talcum-soft sand. Why worry?  This was paradise. I do admit, when we DID find our property some 10 minutes later, we both sighed in relief. Maybe those supposed 15 minutes had to do with running, not walking.

Yal Kul lagoon, Image©Mark Rush

Akumal, on the idyllic Riviera Maya coast, an hour or so south of the tourist-jammed Cancun, is a world into itself – a world which we blissfully inahbited recently. The Riviera Maya is a Caribbean coastline with truly white sands (not PR hype,) and waters of many shades of turquoise, basically stretching 10 miles south of Cancun for some 75  miles, on the southeastern side of Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula. It is famed for its still vibrant Mayan culture, fantastical cenotes (limestone caves and grottoes) and myriad of still-under-excavation ruins. The area has been designed to NOT become overly developed, like Cancun, and has mostly lived up to that goal.

The lovely area of Akumal is made up of four bays and a charming town split into two. One side is composed of tourist-oriented hotels, bungalows, homes and condos, along with shops and foreigner-filled restaurants. The other, just a 10 minute walk away on foot, is where the local Mexicans live, with (NOTE!) less expensive cafes and grocery stores. We loved the tiny, brand new coffeeshop, Café Town, with its three treetrunk tables, homemade ‘brownies’ and cappuccinos. Next door, we were entranced by three adorable little Mayan girls trying to decide what flavor of ice cream to get at the rustic Gloria’s. We indulged, once again (just $1 for a creamy cup of coconut.)

Akumal Bay is famed for being home to an estimated 130 enormous (up to 700 pounds!) Loggerhead and Green sea turtles. Although I’ve snorkelled for much of my life, I’d never before experienced the thrill of being up close and personal to a sea turtle. Indeed, after sighting our first, nibbling on sea grass about 10 feet below us, Mark lifted his head out of the water, took his snorkel from his mouth, and exuberantly proclaimed: “This is the most fun I’ve ever had in the ocean!”  Seconds later, the turtle raised ITS head to take a breath! It was magical.

 

The community in Akumal, thankfully, takes its turtle protection seriously. Nesting season is May through October for these endangered animals. It is not unusual to see turtles nesting at night on the beaches, and it is cautioned to not disturb or shine a flashlight on the turtles as this may disrupt their reproductive cycle. Females dig their nests on the beach with their flippers, then lay their eggs and cover them with sand. They then crawl back to the surf zone and swim out to sea. After 50- 60 days, the baby turtles hatch and try to make their way through the surf zone and out to sea – a hazardous and difficult process. The nighttime ‘stroll’ we did, innocently, was not advisable, or certainly not during nesting season.

Akumal is just one of the lovely spots we visited on a recent nine day sweep of the Riviera Maya coast – beginning in Cancun (technically NOT in the Riviera Maya) but home to the airport.

Before heading south, we visited Exotic Rides Cancun, a year-old attraction that was built with a $4.5 million investment by a group of Mexican entrepreneurs. Exotic Rides, a 10 hectare complex, features a racetrack and a fleet of luxury sportscars, including brands like Lamborghini, Ferrari, Mercedes, Audi and Lotus. We were given the choice of being drivers or passengers and chose to be drivers – so we were led into the ‘classroom’ where we watched a well done bilingual safety video and then met our professional driver escorts. I took off with Jonathan, who smiled respectfully as I hammered questions at him, and didn’t mind when I said I was afraid to drive fast. I lived up to my promise.

Irene getting into her Batmobile-winged Mercedes at Exotic Rides, Image© Mark Rush

My Mercedes SLS AMG with Batmobile-like wing doors was a silver beauty, and I didn’t do it justice. I never got over 40 MPH and certainly didn’t need the helmet they had me wear. But then, Jonathan asked me if I’d like for HIM to drive, and I nervously agreed. We shot off to the tune of 120 MPH and after two spins around the track, I was exhausted – my nails had been digging in to my hands and my teeth were clenched. Yes, it was a thrill and obviously,  for scaredy-cats like me, probably better to leave the driving to the pros. Mark, on the other hand, enjoyed zooming around in his bright red Ferrari F430 (living the dream he’d had since a teenager.) We then slipped into the Exotic Rides restaurant and had surprisingly delicious tacos, loaded with both shrimp and avocado.

It is a short 30 minute or so drive down south from Cancun, beginning in the still-sleepy fishing town of Puerto Morelos, to the Riviera Maya. For those who do want plenty of nightlife and people watching, they can head to the  boom town of Playa del Carmen, which was once also a sleepy fishing town, but now is chock full of blocks and blocks of shops and bistros of the Quinta Avenida (Fifth Avenue teens and 20-somethings love this.) Playacar, as the beach zone is called, has spectacularly beautiful beaches and a range of all-inclusives (from top-end to budget) as well as independent non-all-inclusive properties and many condos and homes for rent.

While there are many enormous palatial hotels with rather ostentatious entrances, the builders have thankfully left jungle foliage in between properties. Riviera Maya sports many attractions, some more ecologically oriented than others. The big draws in the area, besides the spectacular beaches with their Jacques Cousteau-acclaimed snorkeling and diving (the second largest barrier coral reef in the world is here,) are the Mayan culture and the mysterious, beautiful limestone stalagmite and stalactite-filled cenotes, which dot the entire Yucatan peninsula.

To read part two of Irene’s article, don’t forget to log onto CD-Traveller this Sunday (5 May).

 

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