Take me to the river

Ancient temples, mystic caves, weird critters (in the water and on the menu): Mexico’s Riviera Maya serves up surreal unforgettable adventures – mere footsteps from the Caribbean’s most dreamily relaxing beaches, says Ed Grenby

And this is where they were beheaded, their lifeblood cascading down the steps of the pyramid in front of you.’ I’ve been to the Caribbean a few times – hell, I’m the kind of loser who even goes off on those half-day historic tours of dockyards and distilleries and other such thrillers – but I’ve never heard those words from a tour guide before.

That, I suppose, is because I’ve never been to Mexico’s Riviera Maya before, contenting myself instead with circuits of Barbados, Antigua and Jamaica (‘… and this is where the barrels would be stored before bottling and labelling …’).

This year, though, looking for something a little more exciting – a little less ‘barrel warehouse’, you might say – I strayed one swipe further down the ‘Caribbean’ page of the tour operator’s website, and ended up here, on the eastern edge of Mexico, where the sacrificial altars of the ancients and the otherworldly natural wonders of the Yucatan are bordered with beaches that are every bit as good as Barbados’s and are washed by the self-same calm Caribbean Sea.

And, truth be told, I didn’t leave those beaches for the first four days of my fortnight. Well, why would I? Cloud-soft sand shelved at a perfect 10-degree angle into waters as warm as a mother’s welcome; and, even with my shades on, the sea’s blue and the sand’s white and the fringing forest’s green were literally, squintingly dazzling.

Frigate birds soared and searing-yellow kiskadees chirped, their high, ringing song as exuberant as the frigates’ flight. Sea turtles, too, showed their appreciation of the place, their nests bulging in the sand; and behind the beach, around my hotel’s two elegantly understated aquamarine swimming pools, iguanas lazed on the paths, lordly and unmoving, as if to say, ‘My kind has been around since the dinosaurs, hombre. You can make way for me.’

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Toltec temple ruins in Tula

I wanted my adventure to have a big dollop of ‘easy’, and Hotel Esencia delivered on both. It’s a sprinkling of cool, white, slightly hacienda-style houses and lawns carved from the jungle, but the luxury and quiet good taste have a raffish edge. So there is discreet abstract art and posh coffee-table books, but also driftwood bannisters and hammocks slung beneath the thatched, open-walled palapa huts, while elegant lamps hang seductively from trees beside wild coconuts.

The location is Xpu-Ha (amazingly, just an hour’s drive down the coast from noisy Cancún); the ‘X’, I eventually work out, is pronounced ‘sh’, like the shhhushing of the wavelets. It’s so hypnotically perfect that even the daily deposit of algae on the sand seems appealing once I learn that it’s actually sargasso (sounds so much more romantic than ‘seaweed’, no?). But when, accidentally up early one morning, I see the sargasso being carefully, cossetingly hand-cleared from the beach by hotel staff, I know I’m going to have to look a little further afield if I want any of the ‘edge’ I’d abandoned Barbados for.

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Ik Kil sinkhole

A quick coach trip to Cobá, however, and I’ve got edge by the bucketful (it’s here the lifeblood did its cascading thing). An important Mayan city from the 1st century AD to the 15th, it’s now a cluster of stone ruins looming enigmatically from the middle of a million miles of jungle. The biggest is the pyramid of devotion to honey (Why did he get such kudos? Because the stuff was an important ingredient in Mayan cement, apparently. Though once you’ve tasted the local honey, rich and intense, no explanation for its status is needed. In fact, it’s a wonder they ever built anything above one storey without licking it into ruin.) Incredibly, you’re allowed to climb the pyramid, and the experience is unforgettable – not so much for the views (an infinite ocean of green treetops) as for the hairs-on-the-back-of-your-neck tingle of knowing that others once looked down exultantly from the same spot, but for them it wasn’t the pride of summiting the 120 steps, but the eye-bulging, ecstatic madness of the decapitator or willing decapitee.

Even weirder than the weirdness, though, is the fact that (given the weirdness) it’s so pleasant here. The site is too big to navigate on foot, so people hire bikes or get chauffeured around on passenger trikes by their guides, and the atmosphere is more weekend cycle in the park than lingering echo of ritual murder. A five-minute pedal down a shady path is Cobá’s poc-ta-poc court, where matches of the Mayans’ get-the-ball-through-the-hoop-using-only-your-hips game could go on for days before reaching their climax with, obviously, the sacrifice of the winning coach. And instead of horror, all I can think of is whether England’s coach Gareth Southgate would be prepared to go all the way and get his trademark waistcoat bloody.

So the adventure comes pretty easy round these parts, but the easy can be adventurous, too. Even international luxury hotel brands have a dash of local fizz in their DNA here, and the Rosewood, where I’m staying next, is essentially a vast mangrove lagoon that just happens to have a few (also fairly vast) rooms scattered around it.

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Beach Suite at Hotel Esencia

In mine, the cheapest category, as well as the (count ’em!) indoor bathroom, outdoor bathroom, walled garden, roof terrace, sun deck and plunge pool, there’s a lovely little wooden boat dock on stilts above the lagoon, where you can see nothing but jungle and convince yourself you’re an intrepid explorer. Indeed, if you sit still there for 30 seconds, you’ve got a pretty decent chance of spotting cormorants, iguanas, raccoons, turtles and, if you’re really lucky, baby crocodiles (they’re ‘taken somewhere safe’ when they grow bigger than a metre, says a hotel-staffer mysteriously, and I can’t help suspect that’s ‘safe’ as in ‘safe from not being made into a handbag’).

‘Caves lead off it in all directions, with sweet little bats roosting on the roofs, and even sweeter little turtles pottering in their waters’

I don’t even have to leave this heaven for my next adventure. Pretty much every mouthful I’ve consumed on this trip has been exciting (zinging ceviche… flavour-burst fish tacos… I could go on. And did), but nothing prepared me for the Rosewood’s breakfast huevos rancheros with its side of toasted grasshoppers.

‘They’re just like corn,’ the waiter reassures me. Which might be true if corn had little faces and legs and antennae. But I fear that not eating them would make me a species traitor in the unceasing war that wages here between mosquito and man. Even after finishing off the bowlful (they’re crispy-crunchy and kind of moreish), I’ve probably nibbled a lot less insect than the insects have nibbled of me over the past few days.

The only thing more ubiquitous than mozzies is cenotes, the water-filled caverns and sinkholes that pockmark this part of Mexico. They range from bath-size to 2km-wide; some sitting at the side of the road for anyone to dive into, others built up into sprawling theme parks. But what they all have in common is alluringly cool, enticingly clear, bewitchingly blue and irresistibly swimmable water.

My favourites are Ik Kil (big, busy, but outrageously Insta-genic, with vines that hang down into the water from the jungle above); the complex clustered together as Río Secreto (don wetsuits, hard hats and miners’ lanterns, for a guided walk/wade/swim/scramble through an underground river system); and Gran Cenote. Here, beautiful kids from the nearby towns laze and flirt on the hammocks and greenswards, and steps descend into a sinkhole. Caves lead off it in all directions, with sweet little bats roosting (upside down, of course) on the roofs, and even sweeter little turtles pottering in their waters.

‘Frigate birds soared and searing-yellow kiskadees chirped, their high, ringing song as exuberant as the frigates’ flight’

It’s a lovely and intriguing swim, but hire a snorkel for a few pesos and you can have your mind thoroughly blown. Like an iceberg, it transpires that what you can see of the caverns above water is a mere fraction. Beneath the surface is an uncanny underworld, an otherworld, a netherworld, where the stalactites you saw drooping from the roof are now stalagmites rising from the floor, or columns holding up the roof (or is it the floor?). Through some trick of the eerily suffusing blue light, or the crystalline-clear water, or the refractions of sound and sightlines, you feel you’ve travelled upside-down through the looking glass to the sort of inverted augmented alternate reality that Hollywood spends billions of FX dollars to create – but for just $5.

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Indo-Pacific Sailfishes hunt sardines in Yucatan

In this corner of the Caribbean, life-changing experiences can be got cheap as well as easy, it seems. Moving on to my next hotel, the more mid-market Tui Sensatori, I alternate my days between watching from my beach lounger as pelicans patrol the airspace in perfect three-bird formations, like pimped-up fighter planes; and taking the kind of coach tours that could give coach tours a good name. On one to Tulum, I find there are, in fact, three overlapping Tulums: the ruined Mayan city (less dramatic than Cobá, but sited on the most delectable little beach – sightseeing really couldn’t be any more effortless); the tourist strip (a boho hamlet of boutique hotels, beach clubs, juice bars and yoga joints; and, just offshore, the turtles’ Tulum. It’s an ancient underwater place of congregation for these beautiful beasts, and for the equally elegant manta rays that accompany them, but easily discoverable thanks to the unearthly noises that arise from it. (Could they form some strange sub-aquatic ‘song’? Nope, it’s the sound of a dozen excited turtle fans trying to say ‘So agelessly graceful!’ to each other, but it comes out through their snorkels as ‘Urrrggghhh!’)

Meanwhile, just a few kilometres up the coast lurks the adventure for which I’ve been steeling myself all fortnight, the ultimate won’t-find-this-in-the-Windies escapade. Whale sharks are among the world’s largest predators, as big as buses but still distinctly, unnervingly shark-shaped (because they are, in fact, sharks). I’ve always desperately wanted to/not wanted to swim with them, and here, in the open ocean out beyond Isla Mujeres (that’s ‘Isle of the Dead’) you can.

‘In this corner of the Caribbean, life-changing experiences can be got cheap as well as easy’

So in the Margarita-hued light of dawn, as the returning fishermen are enjoying a 6am brew on the docks, we take their places in the boats and head out. And an hour later we’ve found our leviathan; the snorkels and flippers go on, and we go in.

Whoever started calling them ‘gentle giants’ had obviously never floated in the water in front of one (and certainly wasn’t a zooplankton, several million of which they devour every day). With that Jaws dorsal fin, that machete-sharp tail, that constant swaying, swaggering, menacing movement through the water, they’re unmistakably sharks. And it doesn’t matter how many times your guide tells you they can’t swallow anything bigger than their golf-ball-sized throats: when these 10-metre monsters swim towards you, their great mouths wide open, a word bubbles unbidden to the surface of your mind, and the word is Jonah.

Then they swim, unfussed, right past you, and suddenly they’re the peaceful, placid, curious creatures you’ve heard about. Fear dissolves and all that’s left is wide-eyed, humbled wonder – and an afternoon on the beach with a brew and a burrito, gazing out across a couple of thousand kilometres of warm water towards Barbados, feeling rather pleased with yourself.

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Credit: The Sunday Times Travel Magazine/News Syndication