Thursday, September 21News For London

Riviera Maya uncovered: The guide to authentic adventure travel

Mexico, better known for its thousands of pyramids, Maya, Aztec, cenotes, postcard-perfect beaches, mezcal, and fiesta-like entertainment, is considered one of the most culturally rich and diverse countries in the world. Hera Kruja is in Riviera Maya to help visitors experience real Mexico while guided by locals. 

Cave at XPlor park, Riviera Maya. Photo credits: Hera Kruja

      Of all the things that could have gone wrong, this was the only unexpected one. It is April and I am in Playa del Carmen, located along the Caribbean coastline of Mexico. I have my camera on, searching for the most fantastic spot for that click. As I walk, I sense a gentle breeze on my face while the sparkling white sand feels like fine, soft powder. The coconut palm trees, the hibiscus, and an iguana make the scenery ideal. I am finally close enough to the beach, and I cannot believe what I see: Sargassum in the water, close to the beach, everywhere. 

      The brown algae make pleasant swimming impossible. I was promised to dive into shimmering emerald color beaches, some of the most impressive in the world! “The whole Riviera Maya has the same problem. Seaweed may remain here for many weeks,” said Charlotte, a local resident. The severity of the sargassum blooms has increased. Factors that contribute to this are environmental issues, including climate change. Despite the unfortunate situation, I am determined to explore, visit one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, try tacos, find adrenaline-pumping activities, and search for a beach without algae.

Riviera Maya location in Mexico. Photo: Google Maps.

      I took the flight to Cancun, aiming to explore Cancun and Playa del Carmen, which, together with Tulum, are the most popular areas of Riviera Maya. With the expansion of the Maya Train by late 2023, Cancun will be better connected to Merida and Valladolid, allowing tourists to explore the pristine Yucatan Peninsula. I chose to stay in Playa del Carmen, a one-hour car ride from Cancun. Cancun is the biggest city in Riviera Maya and a good option for those seeking a lively atmosphere, whereas Playa del Carmen is the cheapest one and offers a more relaxed vibe. Riviera Maya is the most visited place in Mexico, with Cancun attracting over 400,000 daily visitors in July and August 2022. 

      Mexico, positioned in North America, is famous for its historical legacy, spanning several thousands of years. Mexico is a country of contradictions, from the ancient ruins of the Aztecs and Mayans to the architecture of Spanish conquerors and modern urban centers. With a population of 129.1 million and 68 native languages, it is a mosaic of diverse people. The official language is Spanish, while some indigenous languages are Maya, Zapotec. Mexico has 187 archaeological zones. It is estimated that thousands of pyramids or pyramid-like structures have not been excavated, while UNESCO has declared 35 locations as World Heritage Sites. 

The popular canals of Xochimilco, the last remnants of a vast water transport system built by the Aztecs, in southern Mexico City. Xochimilco is a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Mexico. Photo credits: Hera Kruja

      However, like other countries, Mexico is no stranger to challenges, including inequality, high poverty, and organized crime rates, with a 43.9% national poverty line in 2020, which translates to more than 52 million people. Being ethical and responsible tourists could help. The travel industry is vital for societies and in 2019, it accounted for 10.4% of the global GDP. However, tourism can negatively impact both environmental and social aspects, such as cultural erosion and increased waste amounts. 

      Charlotte is a 75 years old French teacher, with her typical blue eyes and red lipstick, originally from Denmark, one of the wealthiest countries in the world. She visited Mexico 40 years ago: “I got trapped in its history, the climate, the cheerful people and I decided to live here.” Since then, she has travelled all over Mexico. She advises the best time to visit the country is from late November to April.  

      We are staying in the same place in Playa del Carmen, in Hacienda Real del Caribe, a highly-rated mid-budget hotel. It features traditional Mexican décor while being close to the beach and city center and having a swimming pool. Being owned by locals is a plus because such actions support financially the residents of the area and local economy.

Mexican dish with 4 different types of mole sauce and meat. Mole is created from nuts, chiles, seeds, chocolate and more ingredients, which sometimes may even have 100 elemts. Photo credits: Hera Kruja.

      At 9:00pm that night, I meet Charlotte and our local friends for dinner at La Casa del Agua. They promise the best traditional Mexican dishes. Under dim lighting and live music, we spend hours laughing. I become an expert in recognizing the differences between all the must-try, mouth-watering dishes: tacos, chilaquiles, tamales, enchiladas, panuchos, guacamole, chicharron, carnitas, nopales (cactus). An outstanding choice is mole, a chocolate and chilly sauce. Another day, Charlotte suggested grasshoppers, escamoles (ant eggs) and gusanos de maguey (worms), which Mexicans love, but I was not tempted to try!

Chichen Itza, one of the Seven Wonders of the World. Photo credits: Hera Kruja.

      On a day trip, I visited Chichen Itza, the most famous Mayan structure, a UNESCO World Heritage site, considered one of the Seven Wonders of the World. The site includes a variety of buildings, with the Kukulkan Pyramid being the most iconic structure, having a height of 98 feet. It was inhabited from around 750 AD to the 13th century. Though well-preserved, tourists are not allowed to walk on it. The guide allows us to stay two hours, which is not enough time to explore the area and all the structures. However, the temperature feels like 40°C and the mobile phones fail to stay turned on because of the heat, so leaving earlier has a positive side.

      For the next stop, the guide encourages us to shower and remove the suncream, to avoid water contamination. We are about to enter a cenote, a natural swimming hole, or a sinkhole. Going at the cenote, we passed through isolated villages, with houses built by tree branches, which left gaps in between. The guide informed us: “For the aborigines that do not speak Spanish, it is tough to find a job and improve the level of life.” 

Entering a cenote by rope. Copyright of photo: Hera Kruja.

      The cenote that we are at is operated by the locals of the villages, which provides them with jobs, so they depend on tourism. The cenote looks like a cave that has an entrance from the ceiling. I look down, hanging from a simple rope, with my heart rate increasing. Because of the height, I cannot notice the details. I chose the “brave way”, to enter by rope rather than the available stairs! As I pass the ceiling, I see closer the roots of trees, meters long, reaching the water, while vines and ferns created a jungle-like atmosphere. I swim in the refreshing water, pause for a moment, and admire. After, I use the zip-lines for diving from above. The day ends with a Maya ceremony performed by aborigines, allowing a respectful glimpse into the past.

Caves at XPlor park. Photo credits: Hera Kruja.

      After sunrise, at 9:00am, I am at Xplor park, an ecological adventure park with various activities, including zip-lining over the jungle at more than 40 meters and exploring underground rivers and caves. Inside the caves, the unique formations of thousands of stalactites and stalagmites, the clear water and the hidden artificial light, make the location memorable. The service is well organised, with many staff members present at all locations. While the area offers remarkable experiences and requires a full day to discover, the entrance is £100 approximately (including food) and the professional photos are charged extra.

Zip-lining over the jungle at XPlor. Photo: XPlor.

      One morning, I finally discovered that the seaweed had disappeared from Playa Gaviota in Cancun. Holding a Michelada and a guayaba (fruit), while the rest of the group has the stronger cactus-made mezcal, and looking at the luminous, vivid blue sea with a coatis next to me playing on the white sand, it looked like a photoshopped, flawless scenery. 

Playa Gaviota in Cancun. Photo credits: Hera Kruja.

      Talking about experiences, the annual Sacred Mayan Journey is scheduled on 12 – 13 May, on the Yucatán Peninsula. It is a modern and fun way to keep local traditions alive, while tourists learn about the local culture and interact with the community. They have the power to transmit their love for the country, one with so much controversy, but still unique.