Mexico – playing in the peninsula

by Shauni

So much to do so little time. A holiday in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula can be anything you want it to be, but where to start? Here is a glimpse of some of the main excursions on offer

"So what sort of things are you into?" our friendly rep asked. "Ah, everything," we replied tentatively, feeling slightly overwhelmed by the array of excursions listed neatly in front of us.

And that is the Yucatan Peninsula, everything you could ask for from a holiday. Approximately an hour and a half drive from Cancun we stayed near Playa del Carmen at the Clubhotel RUI Tequila all inclusive in the Playacar complex, 15 minutes walk from the main town. A calmer less hectic resort without the concrete jungle which dictates Cancun’s coastline, Playa del Carmen is still equipped with a lively night life. Between the friendly staff, spacious beach and optics in your room, de-stressing comes quickly. However too much sand soon gives me itchy feet and with limited time and funds it’s difficult to know what not to do, so here is my personal top 10 which, with so many places fighting for the number one spot, was equally difficult to compile.

1. Sea Life Plus - $199US

If you want to swim with amphibious creatures the choices are abundant. We booked the Sea Life Plus package at Puerto Aventuras. Warm hugs and kisses from a sea lion, then it was time to swim with the manatees. As you snorkel you at first think there is a huge rock beneath you until it begins to move, then you think your foot has brushed against another one of your group but when you turn to apologise you realise it is a second gentle giant behind you. In all there are three adults and a baby called Robbie. Swimming freely with and feeding these animals is a real honour and it was hard to leave with little Robbie trying to follow us, holding our legs to keep us in the pool. Finally, the dolphin foot push was the highlight of the day for me. The sheer exhilaration of being propelled through the water and to feel these intelligent animals balancing you is very special; just make sure you are wearing secure bikini bottoms/shorts. One warning is the DVDs and photos are overpriced so if you can get a spectator to take pictures it could save a lot of money and probably get you better keep sakes of your experience.

2. Chichen Itza - $55US

Many excursions vary hugely in price and with the threat of hidden time shares it can be tempting to pay over the odds and book with your tour operator. We took a chance however and booked this at Playacar Plaza, a two minute walk from our hotel. I found I didn’t notice the three hour minibus trip to the site. Our tour guide, Sergio kept us entertained and informed leaving no time for boredom. One of the seven wonders of the world, there is a sense of mystery and majesty about Chichen Itza, its serene beauty containing secrets of a dark past. Before you even reach the famous main pyramid you are met with an observatory, a huge ball court with phenomenal acoustics and countless detailed stone carvings all of which paint a vivid picture of the sights and sounds of a tremendously advanced culture though steeped in human sacrifice. The tour lasted the morning in which we were given free time to re-explore the site or haggle for souvenirs with the many merchants.

3. F1 Explorer $135

Just pure fun. Spend the morning on a 29ft inflatable rib boat (Zodiac) with twin 250hp engines. You pay to get thrown about in your seat and completely soaked. It was quite choppy so the boat was truly flying over the waves. One tip is to look to the side, staring ahead only means you spend the journey with your eyes closed because of the constant spray. A couple with us chose to use their snorkelling masks as protection which did the trick. The snorkelling was excellent and we saw two sea turtles. In places the current was quite strong so getting through narrow channels in the coral without getting scratched took some effort.

4. Xcaret - $99US (Xcaret Plus admission fee)

A celebration of Mayan culture and wildlife this park has countless attractions. The plus admission includes snorkel equipment, lockers, drinks and a buffet meal, advisable as these extras soon add up. A highlight is swimming the underground river (cenote) which runs the length of the park. Snorkels are provided but the novelty of this swim is you are in a deep crevice and go through dark tunnels.

My favourite part of the day was the optional Temascal steam bath ($45US). Our hosts in this ritual seemed genuinely excited and flattered we wanted to take part and their enthusiasm made you feel you had attained a rite of passage. After conch shells, incense and ceremonial wine you head into the Temascal where you will spend approximately 25 minutes. It is dark and the heat is intense and at one point you are required to sing as a group but this should not put you off. A very revitalising experience.

The first half of the evening show is a must. The re-creation of the traditional ball games and the story of Mayan history are powerful and spectacular, however after a long day of sightseeing the unremarkable second half can leave you longing, sleepily for the finale.

5. Cancun Nightlife - $70US

For me Cancun is Ibiza on steroids. The clubs loom over you, dazzling with their Vegas style lights and there is electricity in the air. We were taken to three contrasting clubs before finishing at the famous Coco Bongos. A myriad of look-a-likes grace the stage and the entertainment comes hard and fast, trapeze artists fly over your head and perform to adrenaline fuelled music, and confetti regularly rains down on you. In this tour all drinks are included making it good value. We booked through Thomson.

6. Coba - $89US

The crumbling mountainous ruin of Coba nestles in thick jungle and if you are up for the climb affords magnificent views. This as yet un-restored site of ball courts and temples has a raw quality which inspires the imagination. Our guide, Sergio was highly knowledgeable and drew our attention to many details the untrained eye would miss. Booked at Playacar Plaza saving us quite a few dollars, this excursion included a visit to a Mayan village where you could zip wire and canoe across a lake.

7. Rio Secreto - $89US (incl Riviera Maya transport) $49US ticket only

As we advanced into this labyrinthine underground river my imagination spiralled with images of ancient dwarf dwellings and troglodyte creatures hiding in murky shadows behind us. There are few lights here, you rely on the head gear lamps, adding to the eerie beauty of this place and you will swim under low ceilings of twisted rock reminiscent of a petrified Christmas grotto. A magical and informative tour. In this instance we used Rio Secreto’s own transport but have since discovered a taxi to the site would have been just $15US return.

8. Horseback Riding – Punta Venado - $70US

Being an experienced rider this ride was very docile for me but it is always such a pleasure to sit back as the horses patiently take you along glistening white sand, the only sound their hooves kicking up the surf and the creak of their saddles. When signing the comment book we noticed some rides did include galloping though we were told when we booked this wasn’t the case. Depending on the experience of your group it may be worth asking your guide if a faster ride is possible.

9. Tulum - $51MXN entrance

Take the bus from Playa Del Carmen which is $104MXN return. You have to stipulate when you intend to return on booking. When you arrive at Tulum it’s a two minute walk to the ruins. This site is impressive but more so because of its location. After looking round the site the best way to appreciate its beauty is from the cooling waters of the Caribbean. Swimming in the sea and looking back at this ancient ruin balancing on the dramatic cliff face is unforgettable.

10. Jungle Tour (drive your own speedboat)- $73US (inc transport)

Even though it is a case of follow the leader there is a sense of freedom to piloting your own boat along the Cancun coastline. Negotiating the open water was quite interesting but a lot of fun in these tiny boats but it’s a smooth ride through the mangroves. Tips to girls - don’t let the men do all the driving, that is the fun part, yet I saw no girls taking the wheel.

Although tourist traps, none of these excursions were over crowded and all have good reason to be popular.