Festivals, Fun, Maya Culture, and Much More on the Mexican Riviera

You don’t need to go to France to enjoy the Riviera! The beauty and excitement of the Mexican Riviera, the ancient art and music of Maya culture, along with golden beaches and wide variety of hotels and resorts, fine food, and superb snorkeling and diving with whale sharks and dolphins make it understandable that this area has been named one of the Best Destinations of the Year.

The beautiful Riviera Maya region of Mexico named a Top Destination in Mexico for four consecutive years by Travel Weekly (2004, 2005, 2006 and 2007), one of the hottest beach destinations by Orbitz in 2008, was also featured in the January 2006 issue of Travel + Leisure as “The Next Riviera” and received the 2008 Crystal Apple Award as “The Best Destination of the Year.” Stretching from just south of Cancun to Tulum, the Riviera Maya encompasses luxurious all inclusive resorts to thatched roof candlelit lodgings.

On our first evening on the Mexican Riviera, John Montgomery, my photographer husband and I, along with some friends, strolled along the Paseo in Playa del Carmen, past the many lively shops and restaurants, and enjoyed the excitement of a local Day of the Dead Festival in the town plaza.
Later accompanied by pumpkin soup and Maya tamales at Yaxche Restaurant, we watched the traditional Fire Dance performed to beating drums by exuberant dancers, bodies and faces painted and wearing enormous feathered headdresses. Since normally this dance is only performed every 52 years, we were fortunate to witness it.

When I last visited this area thirty years ago, Playa del Carmen and the surrounding villages were sleepy, little enclaves offering a beautiful coast, friendly people, and palapas with hammocks to rent. I am glad to see that the area is being developed carefully with concern for the natural environment and the local Maya people.

We planned our two week visit to coincide with the elaborate festivals of the Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, which originated thousands of years ago in Olmec and Aztec festivals and later intertwined with the Catholic All Saints Day.

Xcaret, which translates as “small inlet,” is an eco-archaeological park, founded in 1984, celebrates the history of Mexico and Maya traditions. In addition attracting visitors and income to the area, the park offers employment to local people while encouraging them to continue their cultural traditions.

Open all year, the park’s many activities include floating down underground rivers, visiting a manatee lagoon, enjoying many performances such as the history of Mexico pageant complete with ancient ball games, musical instruments, and dancing, and charros on horseback. We munched on local foods while watching the four Birdmen soar high above us in a sun god worship ritual.

We were there for the third annual Xcaret Life and Death Traditions Festival, named as a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO. During Halan Pixan, or banquet of souls, families gather from more than thirty-nine Mayan communities to celebrate the dearly departed. Who would have thought that a visit to a cemetery at night would be fun and enlightening but so it was as we made our way past 365 illuminated tombs lining the hillside on seven levels. This is a joyful day when souls return to visit their loved ones. To encourage their visit, favorite foods and items are offered in the shrines, including books, beds, a glass of milk, bottles of beer, and even a beloved pair of shoes.

One day we hiked through the Biosphere of Sian Ka’an, or “Gift from the Sky,” which at 1.3 million acres, is the largest protected area on the Mexican Caribbean. It is the home to 23 known archaeological sites and at least 103 mammal and 336 bird species. Their overnight accommodations meet the highest environmental standards. While hiking, our guide pointed out the happy symbiosis of nature as he warned us not to touch the chichen tree which is deadly poisonous. But, not to worry, he said as he introduced us to a neighboring tree, the chaka, which provides an antidote to the poison of its neighbor.

The Yucatan has been a center of Maya culture for thousands of years. On-going excavations uncover new cities and sites on a regular basis. Although I’ve visited many Maya sites over the years, this was my first time at Coba, which is so enormous even though only five percent is currently excavated, that it’s recommended you rent a bicycle to get around. I was happy to rent a bicycle cab with my own driver so I traveled in ease along the tree shaded paths. Among the treasures of this site, which means “turbulent water” due its large lake, is Nohoch Mul, the highest pyramid on the northern Yucatan peninsula, and the opportunity to view original red, blue, and yellow paint on some of the interior walls.

On our visits to Maya villages, we learned that formerly their economy was based on harvesting chicle, the chewy sap from their indigenous trees, which were promoted as Chiclets. When synthetic materials for chewing gum replaced the natural sap, the local people lost their income source. An enterprising man from Mexico City organized a Maya village to host tourists and created Alltournative, an organization that employs local Mayans and empowers them to develop their own industries while nurturing their heritage and introducing their culture to visitors. For example, while there we ate delicious foods prepared by local Maya women, including tamarind and hibiscus seasoned, pit roasted pork that a shaman blessed with a ritual replete with chanting and smoke.

An elaborate network of underground rivers lace this entire area of the Yucatan. Many sink holes, or cenotes, lead down into these rivers, where divers can explore underground caverns. One explanation for the phenomenon is that it resulted from the impact of an asteroid more than 65 million years ago. Although we didn’t descend into a cenote ourselves, we watched a group of divers do so. Fossilized camels and mammoths as well as human skeletons and jewelry have been discovered down under.

For several days, we enjoyed the beauty and comfort of the Hotel Mandarin Oriental, which is Mexican owned and set in 18 acres of gardens. Its 128 beautiful designed rooms and suites are built on pillars so as not to have minimum impact of the flora and fauna. I enjoyed breakfast each morning in one of the restaurants overlooking the sea, as well as a delicious fresh grouper lunch. We visited the peaceful spa with its ice fountain and Mexican massage that is based on the Maya calendar and local herbs.

Another gorgeous boutique hotel that was on the verge of opening where we enjoyed a fabulous dinner is Tres Rios, built amidst a mangrove swamp where three rivers converge.

Wanting an off the beaten track experience, for several nights we rented a condominium at the Place of the Turtles, las Villas Akumal, where we enjoyed swinging in our hammocks overlooking the sea. Manager David Nelson went out of his way to make our visit perfect. While there, we learned about the turtle conservation project from environmentalists who visited the beach each evening at dusk to check on the turtle nesting and hatching. Seeing Cozumel just off shore, we recalled our excellent dives on the Great Maya Reef, the second largest coral reef in the world.

Archaeology, diving, culture, jazz festivals, beachcombing, ecotourism, excellent accommodations and restaurants, and knowing that we are nurturing Maya culture and economy-all good reasons John and I decided for planning a return visit to Riviera Maya. Of course, there’s also the magic, such as walking around the ancient city of Tulum at night, the only known Maya site set upon a cliff overlooking the sea, the full moon lighting our way.
If You Go:
Flights to Cancun from most major U.S. airports.
Information at www.rivieramaya.com
Alltournative. www.alltournative.com. (800) 507-1092
Mandarin Oriental. www.mandarinoriental.com.
Las Villas Akumal. www.lasvillasakumal.com
A couple of my favorite restaurants:
Yaxche Maya Cuisine. www.mayacuisine.com.
El Oasis Mariscos, Playa del Carmen.

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