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Three Perfect Days: Riviera Maya

Once the land of the ancient Maya, the Yucatán Peninsula is home to pristine beaches, rugged ruins and very few tourists

Author Mike Guy Photography Ehren Jospeh

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DAY THREE | At daybreak, you arise to the sound of surf roaring beyond your porch. A light breeze buffets the mosquito net. You practice a couple of sun salutations and then hop in the car and drive to the inland pueblo of Tulum, to Don Cafeto 1, a locally favored breakfast joint. Opt for the Mayan breakfast, a hearty (though not so heart-healthy) portion of fried eggs and tomatoes, chaya, and bacon.

Happily stuffed with this “ancient” recipe, you drive the 30 miles inland to Coba 2. At the high point of Mayan civilization, about 1,500 years ago, there were 50,000 inhabitants living around Coba’s two lakes. Today, the actual village is a dusty handful of shops.

Tourists amble through the heat down a milelong path to see Nohoch Mul 3, which, at 140 feet, is the tallest pyramid on the Yucatán. For better or worse, it’s the only one left in Mexico that you can still climb. So, despite the heat and the vertiginous incline, that’s exactly what you do. At the top, you rest and inspect the altar—likely the site of human sacrifice—and the ancient image of the Descending God carved above it. The view from Nohoch Mul is well worth the effort: verdant jungle as far as the eye can see, patrolled from above by swooping hawks and quetzals.

Hire one of the pedicabs to deliver you back to the parking lot, and stop in the village at Nicte Ha 4, a clean and friendly café that serves piping hot homemade chips with spicy salsa, chicken quesadillas and the local specialty (not for the tender of tummy): lizard soup. Fired with chopped chilies and bolstered by clumps of chaya, it tastes sort of like…chicken.

There’s no better way to work off such a repast than a swim in bracingly refreshing water. The entire Yucatán is a honeycomb of underground rivers and caverns called cenotes. None is as profound as the legendary Dos Ojos Cenote 5. You hire one of the local Mayan guides, Miguel, who equips you with snorkel, mask and flippers, and leads you into the chilly, crystal-clear water. As the occasional diver passes below, you navigate the stalactites of the cavern ceiling. If not for Miguel’s expert guidance, you’d easily get lost in the miles of “halls.” For an hour, you’re on another planet.

Back in Tulum, you walk from your palapa to the Maya Spa 6, where you partake in an ancient ablution known as a temazcal with a Mayan shaman named Rafael. He burns aromatic copal resin in a chalice, asks for the protection of the gods and then leads you into a darkened stone sauna, where you chant unintelligible Mayan phrases and swat yourself with bundles of herbs. Couldn’t hurt, right?

For dinner, you opt for the open-air café El Mariachi 7 in the pueblo. Choose a table that allows you to watch the lively town stroll past. The local mutt, Juanito, will brush up against your leg, but the pile of grilled fresh surf and turf—shrimp, squid, locally raised beef and añejo-marinated pork—and the assortment of chili salsas are too good to offer a stray. As the server brings you the check for this princely meal (about $25), you secretly hope the crowds don’t come rushing back for a little while longer. Like the meal, it is almost too good to share.



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