Exploring Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula

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Don’t worry, be hatty – Beatrix and Jess don some new headgear

Watch out – Top-eh!’ cries Oli, just in time for my husband Mike to slow down before hitting the extra-large, barely visible speedbump ahead of us. Mike and I, and our children, 17-year-old Jess and 14-year-old Oli, are driving from Cancun airport to Tulum on Mexico’s Mayan Riviera; we’re visiting the area for the second year running and I’d forgotten that close encounters with topes (pronounced top-es) are a regular occurrence.

For the first week, our base is Luna Caribe penthouse apartment in Zama village, a condo development in the jungle five minutes’ drive from Tulum town and Tulum beach. I’m delighted with the comfy interior, handy location and two large terraces – also the warm welcome from caretaker David, who instantly pops off to buy a kettle when we point out there isn’t one; the kids, meanwhile, are happy they have a room each and good wifi.

Our first few days are spent chilling out on Tulum beach on the Caribbean coast, a gorgeous 8km stretch of palm-fringed white sand backed by an attractive strip of thatched bars, restaurants, fancy hotels and eco-friendly cabanas, edged by jungle.

The vibe is mellow and distinctly hippy-chic; we love the chill-out sounds and ’70s disco emanating from our two favourite beach bars, Adelita and Papaya Playa Project, and Oli enjoys playing pool at Ziggy’s beach club, though the table has seen better days.

There’s yoga galore, and Jess is keen to take part; after analysing the possibilities, we opt for Yoga Shala, where a vinyasa flow class is strenuous but also rejuvenating. Tulum also has an abundance of restaurants serving tasty local dishes – Jess favours the ceviche and Oli the nachos and chipotle sauce. We’re equally impressed with the pizzas at La Siesta, the steaks at La Parrillada, and the food, service and ambiance at Hartwood. The hype surrounding this establishment, where people queue from 5pm to nab a table, is major, and I’m wondering if it will be a let-down; it turns out to be anything but, and well worth the extra pesos.

Having visited Chichén Itzá last year, we’re keen to learn more about the Mayans and, on the first overcast morning, we head for the Mayan ruins at Coba, an hour’s drive from Tulum, which, though less famous, are equally fascinating.

Jess and Oli snorkelling at Casa Cenote

The beach and ancient monuments at Tulum

It’s a large site,and hiring bikes for the kids, and a bike taxi for us, is a great way to get around. Our English-speaking Mayan guide Isabel (a man!) tells us about the Mayan calendar, customs, roads and ball games, in which the captain of the winning team was beheaded as a human sacrifice. At Chichén Itzá, you’re no longer permitted to climb the pyramid, so it’s thrilling to still be able to scale the one at Coba – Nohoch Mul, the tallest pyramid in the Yucatan Peninsula – though rumour has it this may not be possible for much longer. In theory, Nohoch Mul has 120 steps, but many have worn away and, to Jess and Oli’s amusement, I descend largely on my bottom, clinging for dear life to a central rope, the only nod to health and safety. At the exit, we spot a zipline over Coba lake, an exhilarating way to round off the experience.

After Coba, there’s more action at Tankach-Ha, one of the area’s many cenotes. You could spend an entire holiday exploring the Yucatan Peninsula’s subterranean maze of amazing natural caverns and channels, formed by the erosion of limestone and fed by freshwater springs.

Exploring the caves at Aktun Chen

This one, an enclosed circular grotto, has the added attraction of two high diving boards; at 10m, the top one is seriously daunting, and my usually fearless son takes an hour to muster up the courage to jump off it.

Oli is now on a mission to see as many cenotes as possible, and each is different from the last. Not to be missed are the illuminated caves at Aktun Chen where, alone apart from a colony of bats and our guide Victor, we walk through chambers dripping with stalactites formed over thousands of years.

Pleased to be wearing hard hats, we crouch in a low tunnel before stepping into a cavern where the subtle lighting on a shallow pool of water reflects the rock formations like a mirror. It’s stunning, and emerging into the light, we marvel at this remarkable natural feat of architecture. Another favourite is the open-air Casa Cenote, where Jess and Oli kayak through the mangroves while Mike and I swim and snorkel in the calm, clear water.

Our main aim in our second week is to swim with turtles and, with this in mind, we decamp 25km up the coast to the delightful beach resort of Akumal, which in the Mayan language means ‘place of the turtle’. We’re staying in The Penthouse at The Reef, another spacious condo with a terrace running its entire length, perfect for stargazing and
watching the sunrise over Half Moon Bay – the quieter of Akumal’s two beaches. Around the headland is Akumal Bay, where the turtles reside, and it doesn’t take us long to spot a couple.

Swimming with these majestic creatures in their natural habitat, just off the beach, is a rare treat. Tempting though it is to get close, we take care to adhere to signs asking swimmers to maintain a distance of at least 3m – one of several ways in which the locals strive to protect their wildlife. Another good spot for snorkelling is Yal-ku Lagoon, where we spend a memorable morning swimming en famille amid coral, watery plantlife and shoals of colourful fish.

Jess and Oli at the Xplor adventure park

Also striking is the scenery at nearby Xcacel, a protected turtle-nesting site voted one of Mexico’s most beautiful beaches by the Discovery Channel.

It’s a windy day, and too choppy to swim, so we watch the surfers and share a picnic on the sand; this, however, ends abruptly when five hungry iguanas come disconcertingly close. At the end of the beach, we notice an abandoned raft, which we learn from the lifeguard landed here three nights ago bearing five Cuban refugees.

Just how desperate they must have been to undertake such a perilous journey is a sobering thought.

Like most teens, ours love a good theme park, and Xplor, 30km north of Akumal, close to Playa Del Carmen, is unlike any we’ve ever been to. While Disney builds imaginary worlds, this is the real thing, a Jurassic Parktype experience hewn through rock and jungle. We don helmets and spend the morning rafting through caves, swimming in an underground river and – feeling like extras in an Indiana Jones movie – negotiating rough terrain and hanging bridges in an amphibious
vehicle. After a buffet lunch, very good by theme-park standards, comes the highlight – two-and-a-half miles of ziplines, over treetops and through waterfalls, reaching heights of 147ft and speeds of 34kph.

Half Moon Bay at Akumel

As the kids pronounce it ‘sick’ (a good thing), I feel my heart pounding, but the vast canopy of foliage beneath me is breathtaking, and I soon relax and enjoy the ride. Xplor is not for the faint-hearted, nor is it cheap, but it’s tremendous fun and a quality experience.

Back in Akumal, we hit happy hour at La Buena Vida, where there’s a permanent party vibe and, according to Jess, great fajitas. Other good restaurants – all a stroll from our condo – include La Cueva del Pescador for seafood, La Lunita for a romantic dinner, the Turtle Bay Café & Bakery and, for informal street food, El Comal, where a large sign saying ‘Sorry No Wifi So Talk To Each Other And Eat A Quesadilla’ strikes me as apt.

Eating out in Mexico is very affordable, and dinner for the four of us, including a few cocktails, rarely costs more than £50.

One of the most appealing aspects of the Riviera Maya for a family holiday is its diversity; even after two holidays here, there are still cenotes, ecoparks and snorkelling sites left to experience, restaurants, bars and beach clubs we didn’t have time to visit, and Mayan culture to delve into more deeply. This is a place you can go back to nature, indulge in luxury and find a wealth of possibilities in between. Just stick to purified water (even for brushing teeth) to avoid Montezuma’s revenge. Oh, and watch out for those topes!

The lowdown: Mexico's Riviera Maya

British Airways and Thomas Cook Airlines fly direct from London Gatwick to Cancun (journey time 10 hours, time
difference 6 hours) from £471pp (low season). Concord Car Rental;

Luna Caribe, Zama Village costs from £110-230 per night, 5-night minimum stay/7-night for Christmas and New Year period.
The Reef Penthouse, Akumal, costs from £105-150 per night. Minimum days apply in high season.
Aktun Chen Cave and Cenote.

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