In need of an escape? Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula - with its beautiful sandy beaches to relax on, fascinating Mayan ruins to explore, and cool cenotes to swim in - may be just what you're after
Having visited the Yucatan Peninsula twice in 2008, I thought I would share my trips with everyone else and hopefully help you to decide if this is the place for you.
I had two very different experiences, the first time staying in the plush all-inclusive Riviera Maya resort at the Hotel Catalonia and the second time travelling independently and staying in Playa Del Carmen at the Luna Blue Hotel.
On my first trip, I travelled with a female friend who had been to the Hotel Catalonia before with her husband and recommended it. We upgraded to a suite and took full advantage of the all-inclusive facilities. It's a fairly large hotel, which links through to the one next door, and you can use the facilities in each, so there are two large pools. The Mexicans arrive at the weekends for their breaks and, as always, are amiable and their children well-behaved!
There are various all-inclusive restaurants here and you get vouchers to book three of them. Our favourite was the Japanese, where the food is cooked in front of you. There's an Italian, Mexican and Grill along with two buffet restaurants. Being English, and buffets being a novelty for us Brits, we thought the food was amazing and there was plenty of choice.
A short walk along the road brings you to the marina, where you can try swimming with dolphins or manatees at Dolphin Discovery or take a sea fishing trip. It's always good to walk back late in the afternoon when the boats are coming back in and you can see their catch.
Riviera Maya is a security-gated resort but taxis and staff come and go quite freely so it's not a problem to get out. Playa Del Carmen is a 20-minute cab ride away; the hotel also lays on a free coach there a couple of time a day.
Day trips to think about include Xel-Ha (pronounced shell-ha), where we had a great day. You can hire an immense rubber ring and float down the 'lazy river'. There is also fantastic snorkelling to be had, especially under the wobbly bridge where the fish like to hide, and you can work your way across rope bridges and jump from cliffs, where it seems reasonably safe and deep enough to do so. There are caves for snorkelling in, cycle paths, wild birds to see and a host of other things - check it out at www.xel-ha.com. Highlights for us were seeing a stingray and the peaceful hammocks for when we'd had enough!
There are a couple of things you need to bear in mind here. One: you can't wear normal sun protection due to the environmental impact it has - but you can buy natural sunscreens from the kiosks. Two: you need to get to the all-inclusive buffets early if you don't want to queue.
Tulum is another great trip within easy reach of Riviera Maya. Our guide was brilliant and very informative, as all the guides seem to be in Mexico. The Mayan ruins are fairly well preserved and there is a fantastic temple high up on a cliff with a dramatic drop down to the sea, which crashes dramatically against the rocks - an ideal photo opportunity. Swimming in the sea here is prohibited but it didn't seem to deter anyone, although you would have to be a very strong swimmer to contemplate it. There is a bus that takes you from the entrance where the shops and pole climbers are. Sorry, boys - they're not pole dancers, but demonstrating the manly Mexican custom of climbing up a pole and then swinging out and around until you get to the bottom!
We bought a lot of our knick-knacks at Tulum, as they are a lot cheaper here than from the sellers who come to the hotels. Blankets were larger, better made and half the price. I also bought some children's clothes. Haggling is ok and you generally find they will offer you a good deal if you buy more than one item.
Coba is again within a couple of hours by coach and, although different, is as good as Tulum for Mayan culture. Here, there are a couple of large pyramids, one of which you can climb to the top, where you can see to the horizon across the tree tops. Definitely worth the climb if you can make it! If you like wildlife, there were a couple of orioles' nests here, hanging down from the trees. There is also an interesting Mayan ball court, where the losers of the game were probably beheaded and sacrificed - something gory for the kids to enjoy!
If you can't face the walk back to the entrance, there are great rickshaws pedalled furiously by young Mexican lads with West Ham and Barcelona football shirts on. Their English was not only good but charming, too. I gave my driver a £5 tip and he pedalled off home, as he said that covered him for the rest of the day... much to the disgust of the rickshaw controller!
The Coba trip also included a visit to a Mayan village, where the inhabitants still live to some extent in the Mayan culture. You're taken to a typical Mayan hut, where they still cook on the fire in the middle and there are monkeys wandering in and out. The family were very welcoming and patient, especially as tourists were walking through their living space every day.
We were also taken to a local cenote, which is an underground cave filled with natural spring water. There are changing facilities and showers, and it was a welcome relief from the hot afternoon sun. You climb down the wooden ladder-type stairs onto a platform in the cenote, where you can swim in the chilled clear water. There was also a diving platform for the bravest of the adventurers.
Just down the coast from Riviera Maya, Akumal Beach is another must, and was quietish when I visited in September. Again, it's a great place for snorkelling - this time we saw turtles. There's also a large, reasonably priced beach cafe.
On my second trip, which I did independently and alone, I stayed in Playa Del Carmen (PDC) at the Luna Blue Hotel. It's situated at the quieter end of PDC, which is still thriving with bars, restaurants and lovely tourist shops, but away from the clubs, McDonald's and the bus station. However, it's only a short walk along a pedestrianised street to get to the other end.
The Luna Blue has rooms at very reasonable prices and was recently ranked fifth in the top hotels of PDC. It's owned by an American couple, who were very helpful when I emailed in advance to check some details, and run by locals who want to make your stay the best in town. I was in one of the garden rooms; there are also rooftop rooms (you need to be able to navigate a spiral staircase) with hammocks and private balconies. All have a water cooler, which is essential at the height of summer. They also issue you with a beach pass for a lovely beach club five minutes' walk away. The gardens are cool and welcoming for a book-reading session and instead of seats, the bar has swings that make you just drift away...
I took a bus from Cancun Airport to PDC, which is cheaper than a taxi. There were a couple of stops and as an independent female traveller I didn’t have any problems. The locals on the bus were very interested in where I was going and what my life was like in England.
If you have never been to Mexico before, you will find the Mexicans to be lovely, fun-loving people, hard-working and with a great sense of humour! I can honestly say there was nothing bad about either of my two trips except for some slack waiter service here and there, a few spots of rain and one brief moment of rudeness - but this is the way of the world and if it hadn't happened, my trip would have been perfect. And that would have stopped me from continuing my search for the most perfect place in the world...