Mexico Unlimited

Amaranta Wright basks in the stunning combination of ancient civilisations and Caribbean luxury in a family trip to the Yucatán peninsular, combining road trip adventure and resort comforts.

Even the name, Riviera Maya, betrays a paradox; sunbathing and ancient history? As if the stunning white sand lining that hems Mexico’s eastern peninsular isn’t enough, the combination of Caribbean paradise and Mayan culture quietly blasts the senses, leaving you tingling from head to toe. 

I was aware of none of this when I booked our flights to Cancun. Like many, I dreamt of all-inclusive paradise, where cooking meals and washing dishes magically disappeared. It was only an after-thought that led me to combine a resort holiday with a road trip that would take the family down the Riviera Maya to Tulum, then across the peninsula to Merida, stopping at the ancient Mayan city of Chichen Itzá, then back along the northern coast via the island of Holbox. 

The resort experience, however, was more than welcome after a cross Atlantic journey, via Madrid, that lasted almost a day. On emerging from Cancun airport, salted moisture enveloped us and doting hotel staff offering cool face flannels was nothing short of bliss. For the boys, a game of football on white sand. Awaiting me, a perfect running beach, which I splashed along barefoot, washing away the lingering film of musky plane cabin and London grime. 

Amidst the endless roman pillars and waterfalls of the Now Sapphire, a seamless operation catered to our every whim. Everyone has their own idea of holiday luxury, whether it’s drinking unlimited cocktails in the pool to music with mates, or watching the waves in silence from a beach lounger. And, here, every idea has been pre-empted.  The space is so immense, servicing staff so abundant, that everyone’s holiday perfection co-exists perfectly; cappuccino cravings, midnight munchies, late drinking, early rising.  

Even if the Las Vegas-style opulence isn’t quite your thing, nobody does accessible luxury like the Americans; the idea that yes, you CAN have it all is very, very easy to enjoy. You could be forgiven for wanting to stay a week or two in such lush comfort, but my feet were itching and three days of it were enough to feel in perfect condition to start our family adventure.  

Mayan Splendour 

Driving down the very well maintained coastal highway from Cancun to Tulum, I relished the empowerment of owning our destiny. Tulum was to be our first encounter with Mayan history, with the 13th century trading port perched on top of beautiful beaches. There was something Planet of the Apes-like about walking through the ruins, peppered with palm trees, of an extinct civilization basking in a Caribbean sunset. We were in Mexico, land of great civilizations, who were trading, writing, inventing mathematical and astronomical systems at the same time as the Egyptians and Greeks.   

Before too much contemplating, the kids were darting down the cliff towards the best crashing waves they’d ever seen. They were in heaven, and I stood awe struck by the beauty of two boys hurling themselves in the sea under ancient fortresses: imagine Stonehenge, right there on your beach. 

Next we set off for Chichen Itzá, one of the main ancient cities in the region. We arrived at nightfall, just as the road was getting hairy, but found ourselves nested in a forest of 30-metre high palm trees and the beautiful 16th century Hacienda Chichen. This hotel comprised of a different kind of luxury, a Mexican colonial experience in a lush garden of tropical flora.  

At dawn we were the first into the site of the ancient city, through an Alice-in- Wonderland-like door at the bottom of the garden. The buildings from the back entrance were impressive enough: the temple of the table, with its intricately engraved altars, a Mayan steam bath complex, and the domed Caracol, thought to be one of the world’s first ever observatories. But the prize was the huge pyramid that stood in the centre, the Temple of Kulkukan, spellbinding in its size and perfect symmetry.  

By the time we were finished soaking in this great ancient city, the midday heat was blasting down, but a short stroll took us back through the gate into the magical garden that was our hotel, and we all jumped into the delicious fresh water of the pool.  

Day of the Dead in Merida 

Driving into the Yucatán capital at rush hour was a wake up call to the reality of modern urban Mexico. Noise and smoke crammed into narrow streets, buildings badly in need of a facelift, were a stark contrast to the bright turquoise of the coast and the lush jungle of Chichen Itzá.

Yet, once we started walking the streets, the city’s heritage began to shine through its dusty veneer, like a beacon of colour. Merida is Mexico’s most indigenous city, with 60% of its inhabitants of Mayan descent, and the city wore this badge with pride. Men and women boasted indigenous costumes and guayaberas, as they hustled and bustled.

The city’s proud and positive spirit went into full bloom the next evening on the Day of the Dead, one of Mexico’s biggest holidays. Not knowing what to expect, we wandered out at about 5 o’clock looking for signs of this famous celebration. In the Plaza San Juan the boys joined a line of children to get their faces painted with the famous Catrina - the satirical skeleton that has become synonymous with the Day of the Dead.  

Once painted, accompanied by live music, we followed the gradually increasing flow of people down an avenue, liberated from cars for the evening, lit up and decorated with paper flags. Lining the streets were table upon table of makeshift shrines, women in all their Mayan finery, standing proudly behind their displays - photos of loved-ones and carefully placed objects – and inviting assers by stop and admire them.

As for the crowd, it was a chance for people to have fun with their versions of Catrina - originally the colonially dressed Catrina mocked the Europe-gazing Mexican upper classes. There were Catrina brides, Catrina policemen, drag queen Catrinas, even marathon-running Catrinas; weirdly scheduled on the same day. The medal? A weighty Catrina of course! 

Hippie Holbox 

Two things seemed to be in great abundance in the Yucatán, Mayan ruins and cenotes. Though we had no idea what the latter were, we couldn’t help notice the countless signs to them on the road. Finally we ended up in one; a huge underground pool of cool, almost florescent, turquoise water. What in Europe would be major tourist attractions, involving much hype, in this porous limestone peninsular, sink holes appeared literally in people’s gardens and opened to the public.  

Every cave we swam and snorkled in revealed a stunning landscape of bottomless rock world below and stalactites above. These refreshing interludes and listening to 1940s Mexican boleros on local radio, as we headed back east to Cancun, made the journey an absolute joy.  

To get to Holbox we had to turn off the road about 70km before Cancun, head for the northern point of the peninsular and then jump on a boat in the port of Chiquilá. When we arrived on the island, the sun was setting spectacularly on the water, shooting a gigantic splash of red across the yellow sky. Back to paradise. 

Holbox is a throwback to the resort-free, rustic beach life of yester-year, with cabañas, and hippy-style beach bars and hotels. During the whale-shark season people flock here to swim with them. Out of season, it is all about soaking up the island’s natural, tranquil beauty.  

The next day we spent lying in the water about 200 metres from the shore, still ankle-high, watching the flamingos that gather there, as the children splashed. It was one of those rare dream-like moments; no sound other than ourselves and the natural environment.  

In the evening, travellers gathered to eat in the delightful little square, hemmed by colourful boutiques and restaurants. But my lasting memory will be after those dinners, lying on the beach outside our hotel, under a cloak of stars, as Rafa and Manu danced barefoot to the Latin rhythms drifting from the beach bar behind us. Pure happiness. 

Back to Unlimited 

Rustic can also come with discomforts, and after three days we were ready for the cool marble floors and unlimited resort luxury that had left such a lasting impression on us. Dreams Riviera Cancun was the cushion after a stimulating adventure where we were often outside our comfort zone.  

As the infectious entertainments team dragged the kids from activity to activity, mum and dad indulged in some much needed ‘us time.’ And indulge we did, eating unlimited and relaxing unlimited into our last Caribbean days.

Every diverse experience had been perfect in its own way. Merida’s immense cultural pride, the exquisite beauty of Holbox, monuments to astounding ancient civilizations, underground cave pools, stunning sunsets on white sand beaches and resort luxury - they all had their value and their place in this stunning adventure combining culture, history and nature.

The Holiday Place (holidayplace.co.uk, 0207 644 1760) specialises in creating memorable holiday experiences from the luxurious to the adventurous. A 9 night holiday staying in 4* - 5* accommodation in Cancun, Tulum, Merida, Chichen Itza and Holbox, costs from £2,299 per adult based on a family of 4 and includes international flights with Virgin Atlantic and car hire for the duration.