George Burden explores the Mayan Riviera, home to Chichen Itza, one of the Wonders of the Modern World. He also seeks out wondrous sites off the beaten path, such as the Secret River.
A lot of friends expressed surprise when I told them I was going to Mexico this year. Wasn’t this a dangerous destination with all the drug wars and killing? But the Mayan Riviera is as far from these problems as Toronto is from Winnipeg. Mind you, one hotel did blow up…not from terrorist bombs but from sewer gas from a dodgy septic field!
You’ll find the Mayans, the native inhabitants of the area, to be uniformly friendly, warm and lacking the entrepreneurial aggressiveness notable in other Caribbean destinations. Crime is rare.
My new home for a week was the Gran Bahia Principe Coba, part of a hotel complex of three all-inclusive hotels where guests can go to wine, dine and enjoy facilities interchangeably.
The rooms were commodious and clean, and though this is a large complex, the regular shuttle service keeps everything connected. Guests have the choice of enjoying four a la carte restaurant meals at a multitude of facilities in the three hotels. (I would recommend the Gold Club upgrade for expanded and more personalized service). I had a to-die-for filet mignon at Le Gourmet, top-notch Japanese dining at the Mikado, and traditional Mexican fare, complete with a roving mariachi band at the Tequila.
My own preference is to intersperse beach time with taking in some of the local sights — and the Riviera Maya is rich in history, culture and natural attractions. No one should miss seeing the ancient Mayan ruins which abound here. Chichen Itza is one of the new Seven Wonders of the Modern World. Its 10- foot Pyramid of Kukulcan twice yearly at the equinox gives an eerie representation of the Mayan serpent god, Kukulcan (Quetzlcoatl in the north) climbing the steps in shadow form. The walls of the structures here are decorated with representations of the rain god Chac with his long nose reminiscent of the Muppet characater Gonzo. Visit the two cenotes, waterfilled limestone sinkholes which on one end provided the town’s water supply and the other a sacred venue to commune with the gods…and throw in the occasional human sacrifice.
A visit to the Mayan underworld (known as xibabla) is also a unique experience. The whole Yucatan Peninsula is honeycombed with limestone, water-filled caverns populated in mythology with leprechaun-like creatures called Alux and reputed to be the resting place of the souls of the dead. I paid my respects at the Rio Secreto (Secret River), an extremely environmentally conscious establishment which takes visitors on an ethereal tour of stalactite and stalagmite dotted tunnels and rivers. Expect to see the rare blind albino fish and a large but harmless spider known as a crab spider. A high point of the excursion is swimming among stalactites in an underground stream, then stopping, turning out all lights and meditating on…nothingness.
The Yucatan Peninsula owes its abundance of caverns and its fresh water supply to the same event that extinguished the dinosaurs. About 60 million years ago an asteroid smashed into the Gulf of Mexico, shattering the limestone substructure and pushing the peninsula upward. The cracks allowed water to seep down, combine with the calcium carbonate to form corrosive carbonic acid and thus the slow process of etching a mysterious netherworld.
Aficionados of nature and water sports will enjoy snorkeling on Turtle Reef with its population of wild sea turtles. I had a mask-to-snout encounter with one and they seem to have little fear of humans. The beach along here is a protected breeding ground for the turtles. The bay is also noted for an abundance of rays including the beautiful and elusive eagle ray.
A week of pampering goes by quickly, especially interspersed with fabulous natural attractions. I departed for home very relaxed, with a few words of Spanish (cerveza means beer) a little more knowledge about the Mayan people and their history and an appreciation of the Mexican wonders found in the sea, on the land and under it.
If You Go….
All photos courtesy of George Burden. All Rights Reserved.