The Mayans left us with a multitude of archaeological wonders, not least along Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula. Oliver Bennett sails the conquistador route to explore its lush lands and clear waters
Jacques Costeau was right. The water at Palancar Reef off the coast of the Mexican island of Cozumel – one of the French oceanologist’s favourite places – is a great natural gift. Deep blue, teeming with sea-life and colourful coral, it’s a treat to snorkel here awhile, witnessing turtles, stingrays and angelfish going about their daily grind before emerging to see the green tangled mangroves on the shore.
Mexico is a maritime nation: after all, the country spans two oceans (Pacific and Atlantic) as well as the Caribbean Sea. Indeed, as you glide through the latter aboard the Dream with the sun in your eyes, you’re tracing the journey that the conquistadores took, on their way to make incursions into the older civilisations of Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula.
It was not a happy episode, but today’s Mexico offers a heady mix of hedonism and archaeological glory – and Cozumel itself is an incredibly important site in the deposed Mayan civilisation – indeed, it’s home to Ixchel, the early goddess of love.
Temples are still being excavated – these extraordinary patterned buildings fending off the fertile jungle
Step ashore here (and no other UK ships offer such a treat) and you’ll find glimpses of Cozumel’s past, in the San Miguel Museum’s reconstruction of a Mayan village, and deeper yet, the temples of San Gervasio and Chankanaab National Park.
Sailing towards the Yucatan’s mainland on a different route, and you’ll hit the beaches of Playa del Carmen. Here, you’ll find a slightly different kind of Mexican civilisation – the Caribbean resort par excellence.
Tourism is booming
It’s testament to the Mexico’s growth in tourism that this town was until fairly recently a fishing village and here you’ll find everything the modern visitor needs: shops, bars, hotels, golf, multifarious activities: and most of all, endless, amazing beaches.
Mexico has long played host to American rather than British visitors and Cancún, further up on the Caribbean coast, is the great playground: somewhat like the Costa del Sol is for Brits. Sun, sea and spring break fever – with its Tequila drinking competitions and coming of age frenzy – has spread down the coast.
But Playa del Carmen, while popular, is not the same kind of territory: lower rise, more peaceful and with ample sun-lounger space. Oh, and there’s proper Mexican food here too: a lot better than it is in the Sombrero-clad theme bars we’re accustomed to at home. Try the moreish Quesadillas and pescadillas – cheese and fish in tortillas respectively, and the perfect fresh snack.
Away from Carmen you’ll find quieter places yet: nature reserves where parrots shriek, mossy Mayan temples surrounded by jungle and again, fantastic snorkelling. The ancient capital of Chichen Itza is a two and a half hour drive away, and features breathtaking ruins and, remarkably, a primitive racquetball court.
Head south and investigate Xel Ha, once a key Mayan port, now a kind of natural water park, with caves and currents galore. Tulum, just further down, is another feast of Mayan vestiges, stretching right down to the sea.
At Costa Maya, tourism is still developing and Mahahual, which has a growing cruise port, you’ll find beaches, thatched homes, a coral reef offshore and a Mexican mall with shopping staples; hammocks, silver jewellery and rugs.
At the fishing village of Xcalak you’ll find more eco-tourism, and as the coast cleaves southwards towards the border with tropical Belize, the spring breakers are almost absent.
Here, there’s a lot of pre-Hispanic history with no fewer than 16 archaeological sites, and if you delve into the interior, you’ll reach the well-preserved Mayan ruins of Chacchoben. But of course, this is Costa Maya, the most antiquity-rich area in the Yucatan.
These temples are still being excavated and you’ll see the characteristic Rio Bec and Chennes building styles, extraordinary patterned buildings fending off the fertile jungle, which make it almost impossible for visitors not to namecheck Indiana Jones.
Offshore, the Banco Chinchorro archaeological marine park heralds the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System: along with Cozumel, a snorkelling haven. So, after you’ve sated yourself with deeply historical monuments, twisted jungle – as well as swim-up bars, long beaches and longer cocktails – you’ll return to Costeau’s big blue, with the imagination racing.