Head to Mexico and discover the sun, sand and natural attractions of Cancun and the Yucatan Peninsula.
Just a dot on the map before 1970, Cancún is now the biggest resort on the Caribbean. Its Hotel Zone occupies a huge, narrow sand split shaped like a giant “7”. On the mainland is the fast-growing city of Ciudad Cancun – also known as Downtown. All along Boulevard Kukulcan are hotels, shopping malls, restaurants and visitor attractions.
The island of Cozumel was the first part of the Yucatan to be “discovered” for modern visitors when, in the 1950’s, the famous ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau came here. Second only to the Great Barrier Reef in the scale of its coral reef system, Cozumel was declared by Cousteau to be one of the finest diving areas in the world. The island’s offshore reef is full of life and a dazzling array of colours. Onshore, Cozumel has an easygoing atmosphere, ideal for families.
3. Playa del Carmen
If you prefer a beach-town atmosphere to the long hotel strip of Cancun, this is the ideal choice on the Mayan Riviera. Only a tiny fishing village with sand streets in the 1980s, and a backpackers’ hangout in the early ’90s, Playa has blossomed into a fun town with an energetic beach-and nightlife.
4. Isla Mujeres
Site of the first Spanish landing in Mexico in 1517, “Island of Women” takes its name from the idols of the goddess lxchel found here. Though close to Cancun, the island has a laid-back atmosphere and has long been a backpackers’ favourite. It also has excellent diving and fishing opportunities.
One of Yucatan’s most beautiful places, Tulum offers a special combination of spectacular Mayan ruins and miles of superb, palm-lined beaches. Nearby, too, is the finest cave diving area in the world. This is the most popular destination in the Yucatan for finding cabanas – rooms in palm-roofed cabins right by the beach and the waves.
6. Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve
The empty jungle and vast wetlands of Sian Ka’an (Mayan for “where the sky is born”) contrast strikingly with the resorts of the Mayan Riviera. Extending south from Tulum around Ascension Bay, the area encompasses lagoons, reefs, lakes, mangroves and forests. It is virtually uninhabited and contains a dazzling variety of animal and plant life.
7. Chichen Itza
Built to a scale that seems from another world, Chichen, one of the new seven wonders of the world, has some of the largest buildings of the ancient Mayan cities. It had a port near Rio Lagartos and grew rich from trading. With a large population, it became the most powerful city in the whole of the Yucatan in the last centuries of the Classic Mayan era (AD 750-950), defeating Coba, Izamal, and others in war. A visit to these great ruins is not to be missed.
The most languidly tropical of Mexico’s colonial cities, Merida is a town of whitewashed facades, Moorish-style Spanish houses with deliciously shady, palm-filled patios, tall and plain 17th-century churches, and an unhurried street life. It is also at the center of the Yucatan’s distinctive culture, making it the best place to see and shop for traditional crafts and souvenirs.
The most majestic of the ruined Mayan cities, Uxmal (which means “three-times-built”) was a powerful city-state from AD 700 to 920. Its spectacular buildings are strikingly like gigantic stage sets and have been compared to the famous monuments of Greece and Rome.
The old city of Campeche is a remarkable museum piece of the colonial era. Cobbled streets of aged houses painted in delicate blues, green and ochers still sit within the city walls, built to fend off pirate attacks when this was one of the great trading strongholds of the Spanish Empire. Campeche’s real museum, housed in an old fortress, displays spectacular Mayan relics from the excavated forest city of Calakmul.