by Sharon Spence-Lieb
Images: Warren Lieb
We are 60 feet under the Earth’s surface inside a damp dark cave. Stalactites drip water onto my helmet. In the eerie quiet, I hear bats squeaking softly. “Welcome to the Rio Secreto,” whispers our guide, Fernando Escorza.
“The ancient Maya believed these caves were the portal to a supernatural world. Who knows what gods and spirits we may encounter in this sacred cenote?”
Walking gingerly on the slippery rocks, we wade into the cool subterranean river up to our hips. Full body wetsuits, rubber boots, and life vests keep us warm and buoyant. Fernando shines his helmet light onto a tiny silver fish darting through the water. One very lost butterfly flits among the stalagmites.
Before our Riviera Maya trip, I’d read that the Maya lived in Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras from 2000 BC to 1500 AD. Excavations of their vine shrouded cities, villages, and temples reveal histories about kings and queens, artists and astronomers, merchants, farmers and craftspeople. During their 3,500 years of existence, the Maya created one of the ancient world’s most advanced societies. Scientists are still deciphering how Mayan engineers designed and built towering stone pyramids without iron tools or wheels, and how Mayan astronomers calculated such accurate solar and lunar cycles.
Stumbling through the watery cave, I’m having a hard time breathing. Is an ancient Mayan goddess available to heal my heart pounding claustrophobia? Although the beauty is surreal, I’m more interested in the cave’s exit sign. “That’s an hours walk down the cenote,” says Fernando. I’ve no choice but to keep scrambling and swimming.
Fernando suggests we turn off our headlamps to “feel the darkness completely. Perhaps you’ll hear messages from our ancestors,” he says. “Listen to the deep stillness in this sacred place.”
Panic rises from my toes to my heart. If I could breathe, I’d scream, “Get me outta here.” Yet my “adventure girl” ego resists being the wuss among this uber cool group. Everyone stands calmly in a circle holding hands, so I grit my teeth and grab hold. One of the women, a yoga teacher, begins chanting the familiar “Ommmmmm” that we sing together at the beginning and ending of class. “You can do this,” Warren whispers.
As I’m anxiously waiting to turn my headlamp back on, this message slides into my addled little brain: “Dearest one, you are safe inside your planet. Be mindful of the power and beauty. Your bones are the very same rocks upon which you stand. Mother Earth’s child, no harm will come to you here.”
The cynic in me laughs this off. Surely my frightened mind is just spinning out silly reassurances? Or is this a mystical message from a compassionate ancient Mayan deity? I have no answers. Whatever the source, I relax. Panic subsides. Tears of relief drop into the Rio Secreto. Headlamps blink on. Fernando shepherd’s us to our final challenge: swimming neck high in the river through a long tunnel the roof six inches above our heads. I break all Olympic records in this final swim. Bolting up and out of the cave, we emerge into Mexico’s brilliant sunlight.
FOOD OF THE GODS
Overcoming phobias will work up your appetite. In the lively beach town of Playa del Carmen, we feast at Yaxche Maya Cuisine. This charming restaurant won a 2008 Dining award from The Distinguished Restaurants of North America. “I always dreamed of introducing people to the Maya through their cuisine,” says owner Ramon Alberto Lizaola. “I was inspired by my grandfather, Don Andres, who travelled the Yucatan Peninsula from 1930-80, learning Maya language, history and culture. My family and I spent ten years creating our restaurant menu.”
Today, the popular eatery serves a fusion of Maya, Yucatan and European cuisine. Sipping refreshing sangria from blue-rimmed glasses, guests dine among fountains and frescoes reminiscent of Tulum’s ruins.
We begin with a delicate fish soup, the broth flavoured with oregano, garlic, lime, salt and pepper. Then we taste shrimp in relleno negro, a spicy black sauce and chile rellenos- banana peppers stuffed with cochinita pibil, a tangy pork. Ramon serves countless exquisite dishes, hours pass, and our wine glasses overflow. We leave Yaxche Maya Cuisine with a heightened appreciation of spicy, savoury, and sublime.
HOSPITALITY and STYLE
Riviera Maya is only an hour south of Cancun, yet the ambiance is worlds away. Tangled jungles and serene gardens alongside uncrowded ivory beaches, surround sumptuous resorts. Cobalt infinity pools overlook that famous cerulean Caribbean. Sun lovers snooze on giant beach beds; couples unwind in oceanfront jacuzzis. Inviting outdoor couches are gold and magenta; walls are tinted salmon pink, day-glo orange, parrotfish blue. You’ll dream in technicolour.
Up and down the coast, dozens of luxury resorts offer opulent delights. At Paraiso de la Bonita, we’re caressed by ocean breezes while breakfasting on spinach scrambled eggs and a health tea called chaya. The open-air dining room is a colourful jungle mural where jaguars peek from secret forests. Red and blue macaws on the patio screech “Hello you, Hello!”
Paraiso offers guests relaxation and rejuvenation in their 22,000 square foot Thalasso Centre & Spa, the first in North America, blending ancient traditions and modern science into slimming, anti-aging, and detoxifying treatments. Guests may also sign-up for wine tasting and cooking classes, as well as Temazcal ceremonies and lessons in Mayan and Spanish.
We loved staying at Royal Hideaway Playacar, winner of AAA’s Five-Diamond Award for the past three years. The bellman delivers luggage to our room while we enjoy hot towels, champagne, and a description of the hotel’s amenities by a handsome gent sitting before a grand painting of Archangel Gabriel. “Our resort features an elegant dinner theatre, spa, and is all inclusive,” he says, “so the nightly rate includes dining at all our bars and restaurants.” We were happy sampling the wide variety of excellent cuisine, from Japanese to Italian to Mexican, plus salads and sandwiches served at the beachside Grill. Each of the two storey colonial Mexican-style villas has a private Concierge, happy to iron your clothes, shine your shoes, run errands, whatever your heart desires. When I called for an early morning wake up call, I was asked, “May we deliver complimentary coffee and orange juice to your room as well?” Sipping fresh brewed coffee on our balcony with the birds at sunrise is a perfect start to your day.
The magic of Mexico’s Riviera Maya is the combination of adventure, cuisine, luxury, and genuine hospitality. If you arrive here feeling blue, you’ll leave in the pink. Absolutamente.
When You Go: Riviera Maya offers visitors a wide variety of activities: swimming in caves and subterranean rivers; diving/snorkeLling, golf, elegant spas, zip lining, hiking, dining, shopping, and tours of historic archaeological sites.
The area consists of these towns and villages:
Puerto Morelos has an underwater natural snorkel park;
Playa del Carmen offers luxury hotels, bars, and restaurants.
At Xcaret, you’ll photograph jaguars, swim with dolphins, and enjoy wine tasting.
Akumal is legendary for silky white sand beaches and crystal-clear water.
Xel-Ha, a snorkel lover’s paradise, also boasts jungles, caves, and archeological sites.
Tulum is the only known archaeological site located on the sea, with sixty well preserved structures and charming eco-hotels.
Coba invites you to explore ancient temples and pyramids;
and UNESCO has designated Sian Ka’an a must see Biosphere Reserve.
Discover Riviera Maya’s magic at: www.rivieramaya.com