Mexico Vacation: Exploring Mayan Ruins and Tropical Beaches on the Yucatan Peninsula

Some 100 feet underground, waist deep in water and locked in a cavernous chamber whose stalactites make it look like a cathedral, I’m worried. Then the lights go out.

Where am I on Earth? The answer is the Rio Secreto, a network of caves and waterways that stretches beneath the surface of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. I can’t see my own hand. On instructions from our guide, my companions and I turned off our headlamps. The darkness is so complete it is frightening.

However, all these concerns vanish as soon as we reach the first cave. It’s dazzling. The limestone ceiling looks like melted wax. The stone is actually dissolving. It’s just that the process takes ages.

History: Foremost among attractions on the Yucatan Peninsula is “the mighty Mayan archaeological site of Tulum,” according to Thomas. Pictured is the region’s Wind God Temple

Thomas explores the Rio Secreto, a network of caves and waterways that extends beneath the surface of the Yucatan Peninsula

Thomas explores the Rio Secreto, a network of caves and waterways that extends beneath the surface of the Yucatan Peninsula

In some cases, when the droplets land on dry rock, they form stalagmites. These rise until one growth pointing up meets another pointing down, and together they create a kind of Doric column. Some chambers look like temples, built by an ancient underground race.

That’s one more reason I’m excited about my weird surroundings – I’m writing a novel about a man who’s been living underground for years. When we re-emerge into the light after 90 minutes, we smile stupidly at each other.

Admittedly, these shenanigans might not appeal to all visitors to this part of Mexico. But the Yucatan Peninsula has many more attractions, including the mighty Mayan archaeological site of Tulum, which is a short drive from where I’m staying at Tui Blue El Dorado Seaside Suites.

The coastal town of Tulum has become a paradise for sun-seeking celebrities, Instagram influencers and wealthy hipsters. Yet its archaeological site retains its appeal.

Before I even enter it, I spot a 100-foot pole on which perch four brightly dressed Mexicans known as Los Voladores de Papantla. They blow on their pipes and beat on their drums. Then they swing backwards off the post, causing them to spin. They hang from ropes like bungee jumps. It is an elaborate rain dance.

“Some rooms look like temples, built by an ancient underground race,” says Thomas of the Rio Secreto

Los Voladores de Papantla perform a dance on a pole while they are

Pictured are two locals dressed in the region's colorful traditional dress (stock photo)

On the left, Los Voladores de Papantla perform a dance on a pole “suspended from ropes like bungee jumps”. Pictured on the right are two locals dressed in the region’s colorful traditional dress (stock photos)

The site itself consists of stony ruins on a cliff overlooking the Atlantic. There is something noticeable on the exterior walls. There are large holes in the gray bricks.

This was done to encourage the stingless Melipona bees to build their nests there. Their honey is used as a treatment for conditions ranging from indigestion to acne.

One of the largest buildings in Tulum is the Temple of the Diver God. It is preceded by an extraordinary bas-relief sculpture of the deity, which is presented mid-dive. When I look over the edge of the cliffs and see the sandy beaches below, I am tempted to follow his example.

For my own diving, however, I have to wait until the next day, when I embark on a Tui Collection experience, organized by my hotel: a visit to the Sian Ka’an nature reserve further south, complete with a swim and a snorkel.

“The coastal town of Tulum has become a haven for sun-seeking celebrities, Instagram influencers and wealthy hipsters,” Thomas writes. Pictured is the town’s main street

We bump for an hour along a painfully bumpy road, then take speedboats and zoom through the lagoon along corridors of mangroves. In the Atlantic, we spot dolphins and a sea turtle. The turtle starts off as a ghost underwater, until its little head pops out. He looks at us briefly then disappears.

The greatest thrill awaits you. In the stagnant water beneath a low wooden pier sits a crocodile lazily minding its own business. Disturbingly, it’s about as big as our speedboat. Was it my imagination, or did he seem thrilled to learn that Mexico is open to visitors again?

Business is booming judging by the number of guests at the El Dorado Seaside Suites. When I stumble onto the beach at 7 a.m. to see the sunrise, the sand is dotted with luxurious four-poster beds. Most were wrapped with a rolled up towel. A pelican on a pole looks at me sardonically.

Thomas manages to go

Thomas arranges to go “swimming and snorkeling” at the Sian Ka’an Nature Reserve, pictured above

TRAVEL INFORMATION

Seven nights at the Tui Blue El Dorado Seaside Suites in Riviera Maya from £1,209 pp all-inclusive in a junior suite with Gatwick flights on May 20 and transfers (tui.co.uk). Fully vaccinated visitors do not need to take a test before travelling. Check entry requirements on gov.uk. For more details, see visitmexico.com.

The water is warm and calm, although a bit shallow, along this picture-perfect beach. An artificial spit protects swimmers against breakers arriving from the Atlantic.

The El Dorado, among a host of grand hotels along this coast, is a friendly place. ‘Welcome to the house!’ the staff state when we arrive after our 11am flight. Wherever you go, a staff member in a golf cart will call “Hola” as you pass. There are many restaurants and bars, as well as a wonderful spa.

They don’t take any risks with Covid. Upon arrival at the breakfast buffet, I am asked to put a single plastic glove on the hand with which I plan to handle the utensils.

The Yucatan Peninsula is an unforgettable destination. That said, he’s had some issues recently. A few months ago, two tourists were killed in Tulum in a shooting involving members of a drug cartel. There have been other shootings since.

Still, that didn’t stop visitors from coming. On my trip to the caves, I met Derek Fedo, an impeccably well-mannered fitness influencer from Atlanta, USA with 38,000 Instagram followers. This is the first time he and his girlfriend, Jacki Frye (21,000 subscribers), have visited the area and they love it. It offers fantastic photo opportunities for their Insta feeds.

It’s the same story when I talk to others at El Dorado. ‘Amazing food!’ one says. ‘Amazing beaches!’ chimes another. Everyone is having a blast. Are they planning to come back? In a moment, crocodile.

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