By Karen Rubin
Authentic. That pretty much sums up what distinguishes the Riviera Maya – this glorious 81-mile stretch of Mexico from the charming Playa del Carmen south to the archeological wonder of Tulum.
Yes, the region has stunning beaches, luxurious resorts with swim-up bars and opulent spas, and all the amenities and activities globe-trotting tourists expect – especially of any that conjures up the “Riviera”. But the Riviera Maya has managed to preserve its heritage, character and identity in such a way as to add tremendous dimension and interest even to the most casual vacation getaway. That’s the “Maya” part.
And for a family holiday, the Riviera Maya offers all the fun of a tropical paradise with the mind-expanding experience of a different culture and country.
In this respect, the Riviera Maya represents a triumph of ecotourism – using cultural heritage and natural environment to lure tourism that in turn sustains and preserves cultural heritage and natural environment – for the benefit of native peoples and visitors, alike.
We had come to the Riviera Maya to participate in what is becoming an annual re-creation of the ancient Sacred Mayan Journey -an extraordinary opportunity to take part in ancient rituals and traditions and interact with modern-day Mayan people.
We soon realize there are many different ways to appreciate on a daily basis the cultural treasures of the Mayan civilization – ancient and modern – as well as the natural splendors.
This becomes clear within moments of our arrival at the Occidental Grand Xcaret Resort.
You enter an open-air two-story reception building with a giant thatch roof, the Caribbean sea breezes wafting through, and immediately notice on the lower tier that a small river runs through it. And then you peer out toward the sea to see in the distance the ruins of a Mayan temple.
As you explore the sprawling property, you come upon other archeological sites – a Spanish Colonial church from the 1600s, for example – and realize this place is very, very special, and has been for centuries. You immediately feel the most powerful connection with people who lived centuries ago.
The Occidental Grand Xcaret has done an incredible job of retaining its natural landscape, as well. The resort is a sprawling place with three-story hacienda-like villas tucked into jungle. Small bridges cross over tiny rivers and waterways that flow through the property. A shuttle – an open-air carriage like at DisneyWorld – regularly circulates the property if you choose not to walk.
As you walk (or ride on the shuttle) to your own building, you get some sense of how special this place is – there are deer, flamingos, macaws, monkeys, and other animals living on the property. You can walk through the densest part of the woods on a fairly rustic nature trail and come upon these animals.
I was struck by the obvious effort to keep everything natural, true to the place and its heritage, and we subsequently learn this is by design – the property is actually owned by the same company that owns and built Xcaret, the phenomenal eco-archeological park just next door, and gave the developer strict criteria of how many trees could be cut down, and so forth.
The result is staggeringly beautiful and extremely pleasing – delightful “treasures” and surprises you discover.
Meanwhile, there is ever manner of activity and amenity to enhance a resort-style vacation – from gorgeous free-form swimming pools (the volley ball and water polo nets are popular, as is the in-pool bar) – to miniature golf, tennis courts, an indoor fitness center, a sand beach lagoon, and even a Mayan-style “sauna” (like a sweat lodge). There are also those stunning four-poster double beds dramatically perched on cliffs overlooking the sea, that are so wonderful for honeymooners and other romantics.
There is an open air theater where there is nightly entertainment, a teen center, a supervised children’s program (for ages 4-12) and “fun house”, a lovely dining room that looks like a piazza, plus several other restaurants sprinkled around the property.
The Occidental is an all-inclusive hotel – and I am amazed at all that entails – everything from fantastic dining in a choice of restaurants serving a marvelous array, beer or wine, to unlimited drinks at the pool, to activities including children’s club, fitness center, archery, plus scheduled activities, to nightly shows in an outside theater and at the Disco, even tax and gratuities.
What is more, the Occidental includes a ticket for admission to Xcaret, a world-class attraction comparable to Busch Gardens Tampa, that is literally next door to the resort, which you can pick up at the tour desk right in the lobby (where you can also arrange for just about every manner of adventure).
In fact, in late afternoon, you may be amazed to see a wooden canoe with Mayans in full feathers and regalia, float right into the resort lobby.
So, when we arrive from Cancun airport, about an hour’s drive, knowing I had a fairly tight schedule for our time in the Riviera Maya, I take advantage of the free ticket to spend the afternoon at Xcaret, but you can easily spend two or more full days there (in fact, you can purchase a second day at half-price and return any day within a week).
Wasting no time, I take the delightful 10-minute stroll along a small “river”, beside lovely hotel shops (really, really nice), and enter Xcaret. In the mornings (9 a.m. to noon), you can actually take a small boat ride into the park from the hotel lobby.
Enchanting. That is the word that best describes Xcaret. “Themepark” doesn’t begin to. “Themepark” implies a total fabrication – an idealized recreation – but Xcaret is much more authentic.
Opened about 16 years ago by private developers, Xcaret is typically described as an ecological-archeological themepark. It is so many different things, it is like a complete destination in itself, much as DisneyWorld is a complete destination. But Xcaret is like nothing I have ever experienced before. I am transfixed from the moment I walk in.
Spanning 800,000-square-metres of land that contains Mayan ruins dating to the 1400s, Xcaret is on the site of the Port of Pol�, where in ancient times, the Maya would gather to make pilgrimages to the oracle on the island of Cozumel.
You can come to Xcaret to swim with the dolphins or take a boat to explore a coral reef; snorkel along underground rivers; do “snuba” which combines the thrill of scuba diving with the ease of snorkeling; do a sea trek with a diving helmet, enjoy the tranquility of a 20-minute float down the tropical Paradise River through the jungle.
You can lounge on a powder sand beach, go birdwatching along a nature trail, visit a coral-reef aquarium, see hundreds of birds and regional wildlife (some endangered) in an open-air zoo; walk through a butterfly pavilion; see how orchids, mushrooms and even shrimp are cultivated (and served in Xcaret’s restaurants), visit a manatee lagoon and a bat cave, and the sea turtle conservation program.
But perhaps most significantly and distinctively, you can visit archeological sites, a re-created Mayan Village and see a court where pre-Hispanic ball games (that look amazingly like soccer and hockey) were played. There is even the most charming chapel, where mass is held Sundays and weddings are so popular, the church was recently expanded.
You can get a glimpse of the Mayan “netherworld,” walking an underground cave route to the Mayan village; visit the House of Whispers, where according to legend, the secrets of families and friends that were hard to say face-to-face were whispered to the back of a wall as the confidant could listen on the opposite side of the room. And you can visit a traditional Mexican cemetery (absolutely fascinating, where you will see the different tiers of burials, the upper ones for the most prosperous, the lower ones more whimsical).
Your exploration will be punctuated by various shows and live entertainment -a human element that adds immeasurably to your appreciation and understanding of Mexico’s rich heritage.
The most fascinating (and not to be missed) is the Dance of the Owl that takes place with appropriate mystique within a dark cave. I watch transfixed, and then, follow the Owl dancer where he seems to disappear through the underground path, glowing in the orange fire light, passed an area alight with burning candles, emerging to what appears as a flat-topped pyramid in a jungle setting, surrounded by a river, where a dozen or so Mayans, dressed in traditional dress perform pre-Hispanic dances.
You have the feeling that you have been part of an expedition that has just come upon a long-lost tribe, performing their rituals, and you are privileged to watch. There is no “playing to an audience” – the dancers are totally involved in what they are doing. There is a Man of Bones, a jaguar, a tortoise. They sing in Mayan and dance with incredible intensity. At one point, one of the dancers picks up fire in his hands; at another, a dancer steps on the fire. The performance is riveting – dramatizing the connection to the natural world of animals and elements – and ends with the Man of Bones floating by in a canoe.
I guarantee you will completely forget what century you are in.
I also happen upon folk dances reflecting Mexico’s heritage after the Spanish conquest at an amphitheater built beside a cavern. Other performances include Fiesta Charra, where horsemen display their skills against the backdrop of a hacienda and the Papatla flyers – “bird men” from the region of El Tajin, Veracruz.
But as incredible as these displays are, nothing can prepare you for the “Xcaret Mexico Espectacular” – a two-hour journey through Mexico’s history and culture presented nightly by more than 250 performers.
“Spectacular” is actually an understatement.
The show in a 6,000-seat theater that is more like a stadium – with special effects, lighting, costumes, horses and peregrines and a scale that would do Cecille B. Demille proud – does a magnificent job or portraying Mexico’s history and heritage.
The first half is devoted to the Mayan experience. In one fascinating sequence, you see the ball games that were played. One is a kind of soccer where the ball is hit off hips and body (you’re not allowed to use hands, head or feet), and finally kicked through a ring to score. The ball game was taken very seriously: tributes, based on what their villages harvested, produced or possessed, were offered or bet before the game, won by the winners at the end, and the game was often used to settle disputes between rival communities. Some believe that on occasion, the captain of the losing team as punished by execution.
The second game, Uarhukua, was practiced for more than 3,000 years in the state of Michoacan. It is reminiscent of hockey but instead of a puck, there is a burning ball. The game honors the god of fire, Kurthcaveri, and the burning wood ball represents the sun.
The first half closes with the dramatic encounter with the Spanish conquistadors, the arrival of Christianity, and finally, a “merging” of the cultures, symbolized by playing guitar and flute.
The second half of the performance is a showcase for the regional styles of folk music and dance that ends with a truly Grand Finale.
You can even have dinner as you watch the show, which adds to the total experience – an appetizer of shrimp (raised through aquaculture at Xcaret), steak, a sorbet served in a corn husk, and for dessert, Chocolate Tama, made with cornflower flavored with chocolate, a special Xcaret recipe, and wine.
You can easily spend two days in the park – one full day to take in the cultural attractions and shows, and another to enjoy the beach, snorkeling, the aquarium and animal attractions (take note that only biodegradable sunscreens are allowed). In fact, a “checklist” of what to do at Xcaret includes 44 different items (admission is $69, or $99 with a pass that entitles you to the use of beach lockers, snorkel equipment and a buffet meal and other amenities; discounts are available by ordering online, and you can get the second day admission at half price (www.xcaret.com).
Xcaret has done a brilliant job of resurrecting ancient Mayan traditions and preserving Mexico’s heritage but as I soon discover, the Mayan Civilization did not end with the Spanish conquest 500 years ago.
The Maya was a great culture of farmers, fisherman and warriors who ruled from Campeche to Guatamala for over 2000 years before the arrival of the Spanish Explorers in the 16th Century. People seem to assume that the Mayan civilization went “extinct,” but as our all-too-brief trip to the Riviera Maya reveals, the people, and culture, survive.
About two million people in Mexico are Mayan who still speak the Mayan language (the very definition of an ongoing civilization), and it is estimated that there are seven million Maya in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and Belize. One of the highest concentrations of Mayans live in the Yucatan and Quintara Roo, where there are more than 350,000 who speak Yukatek Maya.
They have been able to survive the pressures of modern society because of a focus on ecotourism throughout the region – a philosophy based on the sustainability of both the natural environment and the cultural heritage.
Alltournatives is a relatively new ecotourism company that advances this cause: promoting experiences for visitors that are full of adventure and excitement but also foster respect and appreciation and preservation, and provide a livelihood for Mayans who can no longer earn a living with ranches and raising rubber trees.
So on one morning, we take part in Alltournative’s Maya zip-line trip that takes us to a ranch that once raised sap used in chewing gum and is now an adventure playground offering visitors a chance to do zipline through the trees, and, then, snorkel in the cenote – the underground river and cavern.
This excursion helps me understand what the cenote is, and why it is so distinctive as a natural place and so important to the people in the Riviera Maya.
The cenote is sacred – it is the only source of fresh water that sustains the people. So before we begin our snorkeling, we must literally purify ourselves – we are not permitted to use insect repellant or sunscreen, and we have to wash off with water before we descend into the cavern.
And then, we walk into a deep cavern, where a Mayan shaman conducts a ritual purification. It is wonderfully mystical.
We walk along the cavern, to where we actually can swim, weaving among the stalagmites and stalactites.
We get a second opportunity, which begins by descending straight down a long ladder (that is the hardest, scariest part), into the deep sinkhole.
Our Alltournative adventure begins with a brief bike ride through the farmlands of Don Silvano where we get some sense about local Maya subsistence farming, and finishes with a delectable lunch of traditional cooking prepared by the women of this Mayan community.
Alltournative has many other different adventures, including snorkeling, cave diving, a trip that combines ziplining with a visit to the important archeological site, Tulum. Its newest program is “Rio Secreto” (Secret River), where equipped with helmets with flashlights, wetsuits and life jackets, the group descends to the underground river, to explore the hidden caverns, stalactites, stalagmites, corals and other natural treasures, hidden in the underground world. (Alltournative, 800-507-1092, www.alltournative.com).
A wide variety of adventure programs can be booked from the Occidental Grand’s Nature desk.
Playa del Carmen
Other experiences – also having to do with food – blend the ancient with the modern:
Our first evening in the Riviera Maya, we go to Playa del Carmen, once a small fishing village that has grown into a very charming town around the ferry to Cozumel Island, and offers a fabulous, festive pedestrian shopping street (Fifth Avenue) extending 30 blocks, filled with beautiful shops, eateries and street entertainment.
Here we discover a restaurant that specializes in Mayan cuisine (what is amazing is that it is the only one).
Yaxche (pronounced Jag-shey) Maya Cuisine Restaurant in Playa del Carmen offers a magical ambiance – an outdoor area is complete with walls of a pyramid and lush landscaping – and serves what it calls Mayan “fusion” – dishes inspired by the Maya and their cooking traditions, as well as traditional entrees from Yucat�n and European cuisine. Chef Ram�n Lizaola says he is making the flavors of the Maya more accessible.
After years of researching Mayan recipes, Chef Lizaola began creating the menu for his restaurant. His mother, a wonderful cook experienced with Maya ingredients and dishes, worked with a world class chef from Switzerland’s Cordon Blue to test the restaurant’s offerings.
Some dishes are unchanged and cooked in the traditional ways. Others are Maya but with a twist, like shrimp in relleno negro, a spicy black sauce traditionally served with turkey. Or Yaxche’s version of the chile relleno, a banana pepper stuffed with cochinita pibil, a tangy pork, instead of a poblano pepper filled with cheese.
Yaxche makes some other accommodations: the meat is less fatty than would used in authentic Maya cooking and some imported ingredients are used to accent the traditional Maya flavors. But authentic Maya condiments and spices and locally grown produce are the mainstay of the dishes. And since the main diet of the Maya is vegetarian, there are many vegetarian dishes on the menu.
We also sample Yaxche’s specialty drink, “Mayan Absolut Chaya,” made from a local plant that is like spinach, plus pineapple, orange juice and vodka that is absolutely fabulous with a completely unexpected flavor.
Yaxche Maya Cuisine Restaurant is located just off of Playa del Carmen’s famous 5th Avenue pedestrian thoroughfare (on 8th Street, between 5th and 10th Avenues, Playa del Carmen, mayacuisine.com).
Another place to go for a traditional Mayan treat is Ah Cacao Chocolate Caf�. Chocolate was a staple for the Maya going back 2,000 years and also figured into ceremonies and rituals. Ah Cacao serves an authentic Chocolate Maya with hot and sweet spices (cinnamon, honey, orange zest, chili Negro) that is out of this world ($2 or $3 depending on size). Besides traditional chocolate, Ah Cacao Chocolate Caf� offers coffees from Mexico, an all-natural menu of brownies, dark chocolate bars, chocolate mousse, dark chocolate cake and more (5th Ave. & Constituyentes, Playa del Carmen, www.ahcacao.com).
Occidental Grand Xcaret Resort
I couldn’t have been more delighted with our stay at the Occidental Grand Xcaret Resort. The more time I spend at the resort, the more delighted I am, and the more anxious I am to return.
The Occidental Grand offers the best of all worlds – it is luxurious, fun and unbelievably beautiful, ideally located, and so interesting – a word you don’t usually associate with a resort. It is the first and only resort neighboring the Mayan-themed, eco-archeological Xcaret Park and is surrounded by a jungle with monkeys, flamingos, deer, red macaws and other wild animals roaming freely. And oh yes, the all-inclusive resort offers superb value.
“All-inclusive” includes meals, and the dining is absolutely wonderful. The main restaurant, called the Buffet, offers a huge array of various and diverse selections buffet-style (similar to Club Med), including local favorites (the resort is extremely popular among Mexican travelers, as well as international travelers) and international favorites, like Italian night. You have a choice of restaurants, but the main one is beautiful: it looks like the courtyard of a hacienda, with a large fountain in the center and wrought iron, and arranged in tiers so it doesn’t look like one giant room.
There are about eight other restaurants, including a beautiful one at the beach lagoon, and poolside; restaurants that serve pizza, tacos, Oriental selections and grilled items, plus about 10 different bars.
Accommodations are in three-story villa/hacienda style buildings that blend in to the lush tropical landscape, a concierge in each lobby. Each room is equipped with all the amenities you would expect of a luxury property – even an umbrella and coffee maker – but what is unusual here is that the refrigerator is stocked with drinks (sodas and beer, no charge, this is included in the “all-inclusive”); bottled water is provided even though all the water in the hotel is purified. About the only “extra” is Internet use.
The Occidental Grand Xcaret is ideal for groups – family reunions, destination weddings, or corporate groups/incentives – there is even a ceremonial gazebo that overlooks the lagoon. For an all-out VIP treatment, choose the Royal Club, which is a kind of exclusive resort within the resort.
The Occidental Grand Xcaret would make a fabulous choice for a family reunion – the convenience and value of an all-inclusive, and at a cost comparable to a Florida resort, but with the added benefit of being immersed in a completely different culture.
Low season starts end of April into May, when you get the best of a low rate before the onset of the rainy season.
Check the website for special packages. Last summer, the resort offered “Xcaret Family Escape” which included a complimentary pass to Xcaret Park (valued at over $185 for a family of four), with nightly rates discounted by about 15 percent and starting at $114 for adults and $60 per child for children ages 3 to 12. For more information, visitwww.occidentalhotels.com or call 800-858-2258.
Tuesday, 13 February, 2009
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