Published: Wednesday, March 01, 2017    

By Irwin B Fletcher

From the treasures of ancient civilisations along the Riviera Maya, to the raucous fun of Cancun, going South of the border will give you a new zest for life

“South of the border, down Mexico way / That's where I fell in love, when the stars above came out to play / And now as I wander, my thoughts ever stray / South of the border, down Mexico way.”

Down Mexico Way – what a great song!

Recently, I’ve been thinking about my next holiday quite a bit, almost to the point that I barely get anything accomplished. Crystal blue water, amazing archaeology, and pulsing nightlife – all of it exists in Mexico. And every time someone asks about my experiences through Central America I always have the same response: “I’ve never had a bad time in Mexico.” And it’s true.

Food, music, history, colourful celebrations, friendly people – who wouldn’t love this country? Okay, sure you can go to Tijuana for the weekend if you live in Southern California, or even down to Rosarito on the Baja of California, both are great for a weekend. And if you are only looking for a little bit of beach time while an iced beverage with a lime wedge or salt encrusted on the rim of the glass slowly disappears, your weekend will be spectacular and you will still make it home for work at the beginning of the week.

But when you venture a little further South, and if you happen to go at a time of year when Cancún is not flooded with spring-breaking university students, the Riviera Maya offers some of the oldest civilisations that side of the Atlantic and a world of adventure both on and off land.


Stretching lazily from Puerto Morelos in the North to Punta Allen in the South, this tourism and resort district is the heart and soul of the Caribbean side of the Yucatán Peninsula.

Flat terrain running along the coast is covered by low tropical jungle, which only adds to the feeling of being a Central American explorer searching for the mythical golden city of El Dorado. Now, you won’t fnd any golden city along the coast, but what you will fnd is a list of aquatic activities and attractions dependent on the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System.

This barrier reef system, also knows as the Belize Barrier Reef, is the second longest in the world and begins near Cancún and continues to span along the entire coast southward to Guatemala.

But the water activities can also be found underground as well as the coast. The effcient infltration of the soil allows the annual rainfall, which is in excess of 1.5 metres, to be completely absorbed by the topsoil. Thus, there is a complete absence of any surface rivers - they are all below ground due to dissolution.

It has been thought that there is somewhere in the neighbourhood of 700 kilometres of flooded cave passages within the Riviera Maya, including two of the longest underwater cave systems in the world; the Sac Actun and Ox Bel Ha.

This great groundwater resource was once thought to provide the necessary support for the Maya civilisations. Today they are somewhat of a novelty and necessity. It provides tourism adventures of ‘cenote’ (cenote is a natural pit resulting from the collapse of limestone bedrock to expose the water underneath) swimming or diving, but also remains the only natural source of drinking water in the area.


Located about 122 kilometres South of Cancún, you will come to Xel-Há (shellhah) Park; a kind of natural aquarium where you have the opportunity to snorkel, swim, or hike with hundreds of local species ranging from the fnned to the flowered.

My wife took the opportunity to snorkel at Xel-Há along the reef while I hiked the surrounding area. In the naturally occurring lagoon rather than out in the open Sea, she maintained peace of mind knowing that a shark fence was extending safely across the lagoon’s entrance, allowing her to float along serenely stress-free while she observed the tropical fsh that bobbed in and out of the rocks in her presence.

Xel-Há is one of those very special places on Earth. In 2014 it obtained the EarthCheck Gold certifcation, the frst in the world for the fact that the park invests in sustainability, buys local, and trains staff on environmental care and preservation. It also maintains nearly three-quarters of its habitat through the Rescue, Reproduction, and Reforestation of Native Plants Program.


Exploring a little further South and situated along the high cliffs of the Yucatán Peninsulan Coast, you’ll come to the ancient city of Tulum (too-loom); one of the last cities to be built and occupied by the Maya.

This archaeological site is signifcantly more tightly woven in terms of geographical area than most other Mayan sites nearby. Perhaps for this reason it is also one of the best-preserved Maya sites along the coast.

Tulum is unique because it had access to both land and sea trading routes, which made this location important for the acquisition of jade and obsidian, which would have come from some 700 kilometres to the South in Guatemala.

Now the ruins are the major draw, especially with daily, guided tours from Cancún. There are three primary structures of interest; El Castillo, the Temple of the Frescoes, and the Temple of the Descending God, the latter of which tourists are no longer permitted to enter.

The Castillo seems to be a version of an early lighthouse with a shrine being used as a beacon for returning fshing canoes. The shrine designates a break in the barrier reef directly opposite the site; which would have provided a sheltered landing area and a break in the sea cliffs for traders.

The Temple of the Frescoes is perhaps the most notable of the entire site. After careful study it has been concluded that the Temple, decorated with images of the Maya Diving God – Venus to you and I - was used as an observatory for tracking the movements of the sun.


For this explorer, the most notable of all Yucatán sites is not located along the Riviera, but rather West of Cancún.

Chichén Itzá (chee-chin eetz-ah) is one of the largest Maya cities, covering nearly fve square kilometres, and was likely to have been considered one of the mythical great cities mentioned in later Mesoamerican literature.

It entered the modern imagination only in 1843 when John Lloyd Stephens mentioned the city in his book Incidents of Travel in Yucatán; which recounted his adventures through the region.

Chichén Itzá is dominated by the Temple of Kukulkan, a massive step pyramid that stands 30 metres high and consists of a series of square terraces and a 6 metre high temple upon the summit.

Relating again to the Sun, on the spring and summer equinoxes, the Northwest corner of the pyramid casts a serpentine shadow on the Western banister on the North side that has the recognisable appearance of a slithering serpent down the staircase. In 2007 the Temple was named one of the new 7 Wonders of the World – after a worldwide vote.

Located in the Northwest corner of the site, the Great Ball Court shows us that the Maya liked their play as much as they did their work. Slightly longer than a modern day football pitch, it measures 168 metres long by 70 metres wide.

Along each side of the court are walls that stand an alarming 8-metres high and set high in the center of each wall are rings carved with intertwined feathered serpents. Although it’s not exactly known just what the rules were, in one panel of the interior walls it is depicted one player that has been decapitated, the wound spewing streams of blood in the form of wriggling snakes.

Thirdly, the Caracol (the ‘snail’) observatory temple is also striking. Taking its name from the spiral staircase inside, the round building sits on a square platform. The round shape has made scholars believe for years that it was a proto-observatory with doors and windows positioned alongside astronomical events.


If staying close to home is something you desire for a day, Cancún itself can be extremely invigorating.

From our resort, they offered BOB Underwater Adventure. BOB stands for Breathing Observation Bubble, so if you’re not a skilled diver or snorkeller, then BOB is for you. Your self-driven underwater scooter buzzes you along beneath the waves allowing you to relax and enjoy the sites of the reef all the while breathing normally as you would on land.

One particular place for food and drink that is famous with tourists and a mustgo simply because of the Lore behind it is Señor Frog’s. You go to Señor Frog’s when you’re on vacation. It has been around since the early sixties and offers an infamous party scene.

On our last night in Cancún, we decided to splash out and spend a night at The Coco Bongo. The name certainly captured my attention from what I remember from flm, but there is nothing that stands out more along the coast of the Caribbean Sea than the spectacular colossus indicating that travellers will have the most shocking night of their lives once inside.

Packed from wall to wall, discogoers will be amazed by flying acrobats reminiscent of Cirque du Soleil, impressive musical tributes from look-alikes spanning decades of hits, and a perpetual party atmosphere that has helped to make this landmark along the beach a destination and bucket-list item even for the conservative traveller.

We had exceptional service with the staff accommodating everything from currency exchanges for us, special meet-and-greets from the musical performers, to VIP table reservation when we mentioned that we wanted to take a spin around the main floor. Our waiter politely scurried four “squatters” away from our table when we returned, to their dislike and grumblings – but we didn’t mind, the night was just as epic as advertised.

Advance tickets are required, so book them early to make sure you get in the door and don’t miss out by standing on the curb waiting for somebody to come out so you can take your place.

When it is fnally time to return home, I know that you will feel the same way I do and tell people that ‘you’ve never had a bad time in Mexico’ – and it will be true. Mexico sounds so simple, you just have to go.
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