My Maya, I got it wrong on the Mexican coast

Anthea Gerrie fesses up: she allowed prejudice to prevent her appreciating the Mexican Caribbean


Paradise in white: One of the pristine Caribbean beaches that dot the Mayan coast of Mexico

Paradise in white: One of the pristine Caribbean beaches that dot the Mayan coast of Mexico

Even the most seasoned traveller can be prejudiced by misconceptions, and in the case of Mexico's Caribbean coast, I put my hands up. I resolutely avoided the newish holiday playground known as the Riviera Maya for years; certain it would be overbuilt and overrun by package tourists, rather than remaining the pristine paradise much of it still is.

That's the problem with being a Mexicophile - you fall in love with the colour, the chaos and the ancient culture which underpins this most fascinating of countries.

And I winced at the idea of a manmade, purpose-built resort at the end of a highway which was not even completed when I first visited the north-eastern state of Yucatan decades ago. In those days cars and buses had to complete their journey by rafts.

Soon after the road was completed, the government realised the potential for tourism on a coast rich in both beautiful white sandy beaches and ancient culture.

And not a dead culture, either - unlike the Aztecs, who died out centuries ago, more than a million Mayans remain here, speaking their own language, many in traditional dress. It gives an extra frisson to the amazing archeological sites whose structures were built by their ancestors.

For most visitors, however, the beach is the draw - a benefit which led to the over-development of Cancun.

Mercifully, however, lessons have been learnt, and the more upmarket Riviera Maya, which stretches down the east coast of Mexico for nearly 80 miles, is a high-rise-free zone, though it does contain some large, all-inclusive resorts as well as a few exclusive idylls for hedonists. Of the latter, it would be impossible to imagine a resort more perfect - at least for the adults for whom it is intended - than The Tides.

Instead of rooms, there are around 30 thatch-roofed villas buried in the jungle, with as much thought given to the outdoor living space as to the rooms themselves.

These are spacious, with canopied beds and a large dressing and bathing area. But as in Bali, the real delight of this kind of native-style accommodation is a private outdoor shower, so inviting I never used its indoor equivalent once.

Large verandahs are equipped with loungers, hammocks, private plunge pools and tables and chairs for enjoying early morning tea or coffee. This is also where you meet with your "soap concierge", who comes bearing slabs of locally-made soap deeply infused with rosemary, mint or the chocolate which was discovered in these lands to lather up with.

Three of the villas also have private sun decks, but only celebs intent on total anonymity would want to miss out on the fabulous beach, where both canopied beds and sun-loungers
are laid out at very unsardine-like intervals.

There is also a large swimming pool and an excellent restaurant serving fine, authentic Mexican food and margaritas, though European tastes are also catered for.

Guests can ring the changes with excellent beach barbecues and a "Mayan market" night when local women serve the area's traditional snacks, especially good with Mexican beer.

On the path to the villas, temptation awaits in separate outdoor rooms, for readers, writers and painters (easels loaded with canvas, brushes, oils and verdant jungle plants for inspiration are a real temptation for budding
artists).

But the resort's jewel is its spa, presided over by a resident shaman who performs a welcome ceremony. The spa has two fabulous outdoor treatment rooms for those wanting to be surrounded by jungle sights and sounds, as well as indoor ones with air-con.

No resort, however alluring, is worth missing the Mayan sites for, and The Tides hotel arranges first-class tours in comfortable four-wheel vehicles, with accompanying archeologists.

We went first to Coba, literally a lost city of the Mayans, with many temples and dwellings still covered over by jungle. Once home to 50,000, its treasures are best reached by bike. And for those who never learned to master a two-wheeler, there are tricycles with passenger seats to ferry visitors to the major temples, ball-courts and pyramids.

From Coba we went to Tulum, which - perched right on the Caribbean - must have the loveliest location of any relic of any civilisation. It is possible to descend to the beach below after a visit, and the gardens surrounding the site are a highlight .

The world-famous sites of Chichen Itza and Uxmal can also be visited, but expect to put in a much longer day because of the distance.

An even more magical excursion came courtesy of Fairmont, the hotel chain which has established a more family-friendly, distinctly more corporate resort up the road in the equally beautiful coastal enclave of Mayakoba. They support expeditions run by the local Mayan community, notably to the pristine biosphere of Sian Ka'an.

We started with a wander round smaller, more intimate temples dotting woods leading to a ravishing lagoon. Here we were refreshed with tropical fruit before being whisked in a speedboat across this and another beautiful body of water to a shallow and ancient, limestone-lined canal built by the Mayans 1,000 years ago.

This was the "float" part of our "forest and float" expedition, with the chance to float in warm, clear, turquoise water for up to 45 minutes while our boat meandered through the long grass.

But the best part was yet to come - a fabulous lunch of ceviche (lime-marinated fish) and white wine served on snowy linen by a young chef in immaculate whites on the shore of the primeval lake.

With beaches, ruins, pristine wilderness and fabulous hotels, the Riviera Maya wouldn't suffer if it didn't have a lively central resort - but it has that too. Playa del Carmen, a favourite with Italians and Argentinians, has a surprisingly Italian vibe, and we were served Camparis, excellent pasta, risotto and good Italian wine by a restaurateur from Milan - one of many.

Less special by day, this is a great little town to rock into for an evening shopping in lovely little boutiques, followed by a Mediterranean dinner.

This particular trip ended with a slightly unexpected dose of spiritual renewal which The Tides offers more adventurous guests.

In a small stone igloo facing the beach (where morning yoga can be enjoyed on request), four of us gathered with a shamanic therapist for an authentic sweat-lodge experience.

We spent an hour celebrating the four elements, alternately rubbing aloe vera plants over our skin, shaking rain sticks and other native instruments, inhaling fragrant bunches of herbs and chanting our inhibitions away.

Every 15 minutes we got a breath of fresh air before more hot coals were shovelled in; an experience only one of our party found too claustrophobic to complete. The best part was being "received like a baby" by the therapist as we exited the igloo, each gently laid to relax on a canopied massage bed within sight and sound of the sea, before slowly re-entering the living world.

Even now, the whole experience of Maya-land feels other-worldly, as it did all those years ago when I journeyed by road and raft to Chichen Itza. Flights full of package tourists bring you back to earth at Cancun, but you have to bless Thomsonfly for running the only direct flights from the UK to this Caribbean paradise. Mexico, forgive me for having directed other travellers only to your great cities, inland ruins and more mature Pacific coast resorts; the best of your Caribbean coast is simply marvellous.

Getting there

Tides Riviera Maya (0052 984 877 3000, www.tidesriviera.com) from about £260 per night during summer promotion. Fairmont Mayakoba (0845 071 0153, www.fairmont.com) from about £219. Thomsonfly (0871 231 4787, www.thomson.co.uk) serves Cancun direct from London, Manchester, Birmingham and Bristol from £499. Kuoni (www.kuoni.co.uk)and other up-scale UK travel operators will be offering packages to The Tides from later this year, which will bring down prices

Jewish Mexico

● Jews arrived in Mexico 500 years ago with Cortez, and more followed during the Spanish Inquisition, though many nominally converted to Catholicism, and practised in secret.

● A new wave came from Europe in the 1860s at the invitation of Maxmimilian I, followed last century by successive groups of refugees fleeing the pogroms and Nazis.
l Today's community of 40,000 is growing and includes a small group in Cancun, which has both Chabad and Conservative synagogues, but no kosher restaurants so far

    Last updated: 2:37pm, November 23 2010