Dis­cover the Mex­i­can magic of Riviera Maya

It’s fa­mous for its su­perb beaches but, as LISA HAYNES dis­cov­ers, there’s so much more to Tu­lum’s trendy next-door neigh­bour, Riviera Maya

Ruislip & Eastcote & Northwood Gazette - - Getaway - LISA HAYNES

IT’S 8pm and we’re watch­ing a vin­tage Meet Joe Black movie on the beach.

The blow-up cinema screen is propped up by palm trees, while the sun­loungers we were ap­ply­ing SPF on ear­lier in the mid­day heat are now makeshift cinema seats.

It doesn’t get much more per­fect. Well, un­til a sand­storm sud­denly whips up and we’re forced to watch the end­ing in­doors. No­body wants sand in their pop­corn!

Freak storms aside, the white sand beaches in Riviera Maya are idyl­lic day or night, and it’s not the only time I’m blown away by nat­u­ral won­ders dur­ing my trip, ei­ther.

It’s my first time vis­it­ing Mex­ico’s Caribbean coast and the land­scape is vastly dif­fer­ent to the more rugged back­drops on the Pa­cific side.

On a glo­ri­ous sun­rise flight to Can­cun from Mex­ico City, the view from above is like a never-end­ing blan­ket of dense jun­gle – the kind that’s un­in­ter­rupted and makes you won­der when civil­i­sa­tion will start to un­fold.

There are more trees than I’ve ever seen in my life and a good preview of what to ex­pect when we ar­rive at the Grand Ve­las Riviera Maya.

The front of our ho­tel – In­sta­gram-per­fect palm trees, white sand and serene ocean – is a stark con­trast to the back, which is dense Mayan jun­gle that looks like a thick cur­tain of trop­i­cal trees. Beach or jun­gle, which­ever camp you’re in, is in abun­dance on Grand Ve­las’ epic sprawl­ing site, which boasts three ho­tels within the re­sort: Zen Grand, Grand Class and Am­bas­sador.

Why the trio of op­tions? Well, some peo­ple pre­fer the sound of the ocean from their bal­cony, while oth­ers love the feel­ing of wak­ing up in the lush jun­gle, is the re­sort’s ex­pla­na­tion. And for the in­de­ci­sive like me? You can eas­ily move around the palmtree pop­u­lated re­sort via shut­tles to fully ab­sorb both set­tings.

Not long af­ter ar­riv­ing, I ob­serve gi­ant pel­i­cans catch­ing their fish sup­pers in the sea, and spot fam­i­lies of tur­tles in the jun­gle river that look so an­cient they have a layer of al­gae moss dec­o­rat­ing their shells. To put the mag­ni­tude of this jun­gle re­sort into per­spec­tive, it takes a full five-minute drive to reach our ho­tel lobby from the tow­er­ing grand en­trance on the high­way.

We ven­ture to the top floor to take in the vast views of the jun­gle. We’re told if we look closely, we might even spot the odd swing­ing spi­der mon­key (‘mono arana’ in Span­ish).

“About 70% of the ho­tel grounds remain as na­ture in­tended,” Emma Gomez, our Grand Ve­las guide, tells us. “The man­groves are our pro­tec­tion against hur­ri­canes, so they can never be re­moved.”

While the epic Mayan jun­gle is beau­ti­ful, it does mean that ven­tur­ing out­side the ho­tel for day trips re­quires some for­ward plan­ning. Chichen Itza is one of the most pop­u­lar ar­chae­o­log­i­cal vis­i­tor sites in Mex­ico and re­quires a full day’s sight­see­ing, as it’s a two-and-a-halfhour drive from Riviera Maya.

For a closer ex­plo­ration of mystical Mayan civil­i­sa­tion, we visit neigh­bour­ing Tu­lum’s 13th cen­tury city ru­ins to take in the an­cient Mayan cul­ture (about an hour’s drive away). You can skip the tourist queue and get an of­fi­cial guided group tour (around £54), which is well worth the ex­tra ad­mis­sion price.

It’s a hu­mid 28°C in the jun­gle, so I’m sur­prised when our won­der­ful guide Jorge puts a sturdy denim shirt over his long-sleeve top be­fore start­ing our tour. We soon dis­cover why when we ven­ture into the jun­gle to see the ru­ins, and are greeted by a flurry of wild crea­tures at ev­ery turn – opos­sums, skunks and rac­coons – clam­ber­ing on him for a cud­dle.

As Tu­lum is a pop­u­lar tourist hang­out, there are selfie sticks and smart­phone clicks ga­lore, but it’s a fas­ci­nat­ing in­sight into Mayan civil­i­sa­tion. Jorge points out sub­tle carv­ings in blue and red that we might have missed with­out some in­sider knowl­edge. He tells us the mu­rals and paint­ings on walls in hiero­glyph­ics are “like Face­book for fam­i­lies” that acted as an iden­ti­fier.

When we re­turn to the ho­tel, it seems fit­ting to dine at the all-in­clu­sive Mex­i­can gourmet restau­rant, Frida. We’re given a must-try tip by the ex­ec­u­tive chef, Mario Lopez, to try the ce­viche and tostadas dishes that com­bine seafood and pork. He goes on to tell us that one of the sig­na­ture foods from the re­gion is co­chinita pi­bil, a slow-roasted pork

dish from the Yu­catan Penin­sula, that fuses Mayan cook­ing tech­niques with Mex­i­can food. Our aper­i­tif chilli mar­gar­i­tas are sud­denly in­ter­rupted by a gua­camole mas­ter. He wheels over a trol­ley of 12 mini dishes con­tain­ing po­ten­tial ad­di­tions to cus­tomise your vat of gua­camole, as it’s smashed right in front of you.

Be­spoke gua­camole? If this is what hol­i­days in the Mex­i­can Caribbean are like, count me in.

The Riviera Maya runs for 75 miles down the Yu­catan Penin­sula from Punta Tan­chacté to Punta Allen, and is home to the largest co­ral reef in the North­ern Hemi­sphere

The Zen Grand jun­gle pool The beach­front at Grand Ve­las Riviera Maya

The ho­tel’s beach­front spa

The stun­ning en­trance to Grand Ve­las Riviera Maya

The Grand Class view

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