While all-inclusive resorts dominate, Nicky Solloway finds Mexico has much to offer the independent traveller.
It’s 35C in the crackly dry forest of the Yucatan peninsula on the Southeast coast of Mexico. Carrying snorkeling gear, we make our way through the forest, down a rickety wooden ladder and into the cool darkness of a Mexican sinkhole.
The flooded caves are linked by a system of underground rivers extending to the Caribbean Sea, which ancient Mayans believed were portals to the underworld. We pull on our masks and plunge into the cool, fresh water. Small fish dart about in the glare of the diver’s light. Our guide, Chimy, leads us through narrow chambers and we duck to avoid sharp limestone stalactites and tree roots incongruously hanging from the ceiling. Eventually we arrive at a large dark cavern and Chimy turns off the light for a ‘Mayan moment’. It’s pitch black and silent and certainly sends a shiver down your spine.
We’d booked the snorkeling trip through a tour agency in the resort of Playa del Carmen, where we were staying for three nights on our two-week holiday to Mexico. Most visitors to the Yucatan stay in the large all-inclusive resorts, which line the coast, but for the independent traveller, Mexico is a hugely interesting and easy destination. We stayed at Condohotel Fabiola, an Italian-owned spacious two-bedroom apartment with shared pool, which cost £217 for three nights.
Next on our day trip was the beach at Akumal, which means sea turtle in Mayan.
It’s famous for the Meso American coral reef, which stretches for nearly 700 miles, and is second only in size to the Great Barrier Reef. When Chimy gives the signal, I dip my mask under the waves and come face to face with a large green sea turtle coming up for air. Its tiny green head bobs about in the current for a few minutes before dipping below the sea once more. The reef is home to 60 types of coral and 500 species of fish. As well as a number of turtles, we spot manta rays, and shoals of colourful fish including Blue Tang and Doctorfish.
The big hotels along the coast all arrange day trips to the cenotes and to Akumal, but you can save money by buying a tour directly from one of the stalls on Playa del Carmen’s main drag. Our day trip cost £36 each, which included lunch at a beachfront restaurant.
While much smaller than Cancun, Playa del Carmen is quickly catching up. Most of the development is around Avenida 5, which is lined with bars, huge steak houses, restaurants and souvenir shops.
A 50-minute bus journey from Playa del Carmen (£1.75) takes you to the historic coastal town of Tulum. National Geographic recently voted its beach as the fourth best in the world – quite an accolade. We were keen to see if it would live up to expectations.
We stayed at Villas Geminis in downtown Tulum, which had two bedrooms, a kitchen and a shared pool and cost £354 for three nights. There were free bikes to cycle to the beach or supermarket along smooth, flat cycle lanes.
Tulum ruins are on a palm-fringed bluff overlooking the turquoise sea. The Mayan city dates to around 1200 and forms a collection of stone buildings, including the Temple of Paintings and El Castillo, a pyramid on the cliff, which is said to have served as a lighthouse.
Wooden steps lead down to the fabled beach, which is swarming on a hot summer’s day. Despite, or perhaps, because of the crowds, it’s easy to see how it earned its reputation. Not only is the sand as soft as sifted flour, the jade sea as warm as bathwater, you can swim while admiring the breathtakingly beautiful ruins on the cliffs above.
One of the most visited Mayan ruins in the Yucatan peninsula is Chichen Itza, named as one of the Seven Wonders of the World. Our hotel recommended we visit it with the very knowledgeable Jorge, who worked as an accountant and diver before becoming a taxi driver.
For less than the cost of most tours, we had our own personal chauffeur, who picked us up from the hotel and delivered us to Chichen Itza as the stallholders were still laying out their souvenirs.
Historians believe the site was first built around 300 AD. A wide boulevard leads down to the Pyramid of Kukulcán, which sits in a vast grassy plaza. The building represents the Mayan calendar, and has 365 steps. At the eastern edge of the plaza is a crowd of impressive stone pillars, the Group of the Thousand Columns, alongside sculptures of jaguars and eagles.
Further along is Chichen Itza’s ball-court, which has unfeasibly high target rings halfway along each side of the court and large panels with carvings of human sacrifice. It’s a fascinating, if at times, gruesome insight into the lives of the ancient Mayans.
Our next stop was to a Tequila factory located on the outskirts of Valladolid. There are free tours around the factory, which take you through the whole process from harvesting the huge pineapple-shaped Agave, to the clay oven, a mule-powered mill and to the final stages of its distillery, plus of course the all important Tequila tasting bar.
After lunch in the colonial city of Valladolid, famous for its pastel adobe houses and colonnades, we were lucky to be given a glimpse into the lives of the modern Mayans, as our taxi driver, Jorge knew a Mayan village elder. Guzman seemed happy to show us his botanical garden and to introduce us to his family of 16 who lived in a cluster of straw huts. It was quite an eye-opener. While still very poor, Jorge told us the village had been connected to electricity and drinking water, though only in the last year. Women and children wore the traditional Mayan huipil – white cotton blouses embroidered with flowers. They supplemented their income through the sale of jewellery and musical instruments and we bought a selection before leaving.
Past and present, the Mayans are a hugely colourful culture and one of the many reasons why Mexico is such a fascinating place to visit.
• Nicky Solloway flew directly to Cancun from Manchester with Thomas Cook Airlines. The tour to Chichen Itza cost 2,500 Mexican pesos (£115). Jorgefirstname.lastname@example.org. For information on itineraries and help with planning a trip to Mexico go to www.visitmexico.com