Panic over. Now's the time to visit Mexico
As swine flu has gone global, anxiety about Mexican holidays has subsided. What remains are some ludicrously good deals, says Joanna Moorhead
Sunday 14 June 2009
'Were you OK?" friends asked, worriedly, when I arrived at Heathrow recently.
It's not the question you expect when you jet in from an idyllic, sun-drenched holiday paradise: but, then again, my flight was from Mexico. And while I'd been away, images of the creamy beaches and turquoise seas of the Mayan Riviera, Mexico's foremost holiday destination, had been replaced by pictures that wouldn't be out of place in a sci-fi movie. Instead of bikinis and sunglasses, the sunbathers on the beach in Playa del Carmen were sporting surgical masks below scared-looking eyes. H1N1 had wafted in on the breeze, and the tourists were packing up and heading home. It seemed as though it would be a long time before the words "Mexico" and "holiday" cropped up again in the same sentence.
But, two months on, the sands have shifted. Last week, swine flu was given pandemic status by the World Health Organisation, the first such declaration since Hong Kong flu 40 years ago. Global cases have risen to more than 27,000, more than 800 of them in Britain. So, it isn't, we all now realise, a uniquely Mexican phenomenon.
Just a few minutes ago my mother-in-law called from the west coast of Scotland to say her village has been laid low by a spate of cases. In Mexico, by contrast, the number of new cases is down sharply – and the Cancun coast looks inviting again. What's making it look especially inviting are the deals that the tour operators are pulling out of their hats to entice us all back – especially to the Mayan Riviera, as the strip of coast between the brash, all-American resort of Cancun to the north, and the traditional Mayan spiritual centre of Felipe Carrillo Puerto, is known. The area, after all, has undergone huge tourist expansion over the past decade: and with thousands of hotel rooms now empty, and flights not half full, tourism chiefs are determined to act as quickly as they can to re-boot an industry worth $13bn (£8bn) which employs around three million people.
Some of the deals are downright bonkers – one hotel chain, for example, has been making "flu guarantees", offering three free holidays to any traveller unlucky enough to go down with H1N1. But traditional price cuts are more of a pull: and the Mayan Riviera's all-inclusive hotels, which are the backbone of its tourist accommodation, look better value than ever. For UK holidaymakers, Thomson has some of the best deals available: seven nights at the Grand Riviera Princess Hotel in Playa del Carmen, departing from Gatwick on 19 July, is down to £984 from £1,225, a saving of £241, while seven nights at the Riu Yucatan in nearby Playacar, departing Gatwick on 27 June, was on the website earlier last week at £799, a saving of £206. For the best deals, check out the page for departures in under six weeks – and if you're planning to travel this summer, keep watching that space (last week there were some holidays discounted by up to £550 per person, and it's not impossible deals like this will be repeated).
These prices, as is common on Riviera Maya holidays, include all meals. And while all-inclusives might strike you as an unadventurous holiday choice, and while it's true that smaller, independent hotels in the area are offering good deals as well at the moment, the flight plus hotel plus meal deal does make it hard to beat. After all, you can always inject a bit of adventure into your holiday on your own – why not find an all-in deal, and vow to eschew the safety of the on-offer (and often very expensive) organised excursions, and hire a car to find your own way around the sights and culture of the Riviera Maya instead?
It'll be tempting to stay put at your hotel – my own, the newly-opened Banyan Tree at Playa del Carmen, is even more opulent than most, giving you no excuse whatsoever for having to venture off its lush, ecologically-sound, mangrove-fringed campus (and like most hotels in the area, it's currently offering post-flu deals including free meals and half-price room rates for bookings made before the end of June).
Cool, high-ceilinged, open-walled bars beckon, as do restaurants that update the traditionally rather heavy Mexican culinary fare into a lighter, more appealing cuisina nueva. A Venetian water taxi glides through the waterways to transport you to your bedroom or the beach; there is a sumptious spa, an impressive-looking gym, and a perfect beach complete with cocktail bar and restaurant.
The main pool has, unsurprisingly, a swim-up bar: more out-of-the-ordinary is the fact that the bedrooms at the Banyan Tree are swim-up too, since every room is almost encircled by a private expanse of water that laps up almost to your bedside table, and positively cries out to be skinny-dipped into. The bedrooms are vast, and when you wake up in the morning you can slide away two of the walls so you're almost outside while you sit up in bed drinking your tea. And possibly surpassing all other delights, for me anyway, was the enormous outdoor bathroom, where you can wallow gazing up at the blue cloudless sky by day, and at the twinkling stars and chalk-white moon by night.
It's paradise – but don't stay put. I'd hesitate to call the world you'll encounter away from your hotel the real Mexico, because the truth is that you're surrounded by an area entirely geared up for tourists. But the good news is that, Cancun aside (and with a bit of luck you won't be heading back there until your flight home), that doesn't make it relentlessly tacky.
What's even more enticing is that, thanks to the fallout from H1N1, you're likely to find most places remarkably crowd-free. That's a huge boon in Mexico, where the best attractions are usually crawling, insect-like, with not only American and European travellers, but also Mexicans on days out or weekends away. The Mayan ruins should certainly be at the top of your to-see list: the three best accessible sites are at Tulum, Coba, and Chichen Itza. Tulum, where the ruins are right on the shoreline, is breathtakingly beautiful.
But it's at the jungle-surrounded ruin at Coba, alone of all the ruins in the region, where you can climb to the very top of a pyramid – at Tulum and Chichen Itza, climbing has been banned – and the icing on the cake is that the still-climbable pyramid at Coba is the largest of the lot, the 42-metre-high "big mound" or, to give it its proper name, the Nohoch Mul. The Coba ruins, believed to be the remnants of a vast city that once housed upwards of 50,000 people, were only discovered in the 1920s, and another joy of a trip there is that much of the site hasn't yet been documented, so you can walk or (easier) bicycle (you hire one at the gate) around, making your own archaeological finds. "Every mound of earth here is a burial site," explained my English-speaking guide (you can hire one of these, too). "This was an enormous city, with hundreds if not thousands of pyramids of different sizes, and it will take decades to chart them all."
The Mayan ruins are draped in mysteries: my favourite conundrum was, how on earth did they play their favourite ball game? There are various clues in the pitch that remains: it features a high stone wall, suggesting it was a cross between volleyball and squash, and historians suggest the aim of the game was to keep the ball in play with a view to somehow getting it through extremely highly placed rings. In fact, it was thought to be so difficult to score that one goal usually nailed the game – an ending that was particularly bad news to the captain of the opposing team, who was usually put to death afterwards.
Away from the ruins, there's fun to be had in downtown Playa del Carmen. Just five or six years ago Playa, as it's known locally, was a quiet port whose only pull was the ferry to the island of Cozumel; but then came the big push on tourism in the region, and the result was that, for a time, Playa was said to be the fastest-growing town on earth. It currently boasts a population of 100,000-plus, and action is focused on Avenida Quintana, or Fifth Avenue, which is lined with upmarket tourist shops. With its whitewashed, low-rise buildings, there's more than a hint of the Mediterranean in Playa, echoed by the fact that many Italians have settled here. Their restaurants are a treat for those, like me, who can only take so much guacamole and refried beans. Di Vino or Casa Mediterranea are both good; alternatively you can push the boat out at John Gray's Place and sample the culinary skills of the Mayan Riviera's answer to Jamie Oliver.
If straying from your poolside lounger at your all-inclusive doesn't hugely appeal, you could get a quick fix of Mayan culture at Xcaret, just south of Playa del Carmen. It's a vast theme park of a place, with endless activities and shows and rides to try out – you can swim in an underground pool, watch an equestrian show, see a troupe of Mexico's famous flying men (they swing from their ankles at the top of tall poles), try ancient Mexican dishes. There's a rather good show devoted to Mexico's culture and costume through the ages.
For all its Disneyland overtones, Xcaret is pleasantly authentic. It might even teach you a bit about Mexican culture, and at the end of the day, the barman at your hotel beach bar will be waiting, margarita menu in hand.
How to get there
Joanna Moorhead travelled to Mexico with Mexicana (0808 101 7600; mexicana.com), which flies from Gatwick to Cancun via Mexico City from £503 return. In June at Banyan Tree Mayakoba (00800 300 20000; banyantree.com) book three nights or more at the resort and get resort credits equivalent to the villa rate before tax.
A garden pool villa starts at $832 per night including taxes. Carrier (0161 491 7620; carrier.co.uk) offers seven nights for the price of five at the hotel for £3,040 per person, based on two sharing, including return flights, transfers and accommodation in a garden-pool villa.
For transfers and local excursions contact Maritur (maritur.com); Xcaret (xcaret.com); Mexico Tourism Board (visitmexico.com).
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