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Head to Holbox, the Mexican Caribbean’s secret island treasure

A swathe of dazzling white sand lined with palm trees and thatched casitas before you, you might think that you are on the Caribbean coast in the Riviera Maya, yet Holbox, Quintana Roo’s fourth island is actually located off the north coast of the Yucatán in the Gulf of Mexico. It is a magical spot, a haven for nature lovers, fishermen and visitors who simply want to discover a different side of Mexico. Thomas More Travel has a day trip that will enable you to do just that.

The adventure starts in the Gulf coast port of Chiquila where you board the ferry or a water taxi to cross Yalahau Lagoon separating Holbox from the mainland. Keep a look out for dolphins swimming alongside the boat, cormorants and osprey diving for fish.

Holbox (which means “black hole” in Maya) is part of the Yum Balam Biosphere Reserve, an area of mangroves, marshes and tropical forest rich in wildlife. Flamingos, herons and egrets feed in the lagoon, crocodiles and manatees are sometimes sighted and jaguars, pumas and ocelots, peccary and deer still roam the jungle further inland.

Cenotes and Bird Island
First stop on the Thomas More Travel Holbox day trip is Cenote Yalahau or Ojo de Agua, an open cenote or pool in the mangroves that is also a natural spring with fresh water bubbling up from an underground river. There’s a wooden observation tower next to the cenote with spectacular views of Holbox, Yalahau Lagoon and the Yum Balam wetlands.

Once you have had your fill of swimming in the cool, crystal-clear waters of the cenote it’s on to Isla de los Pajaros or Bird Island. This sand bar is a feeding ground for flamingos, different species of herons, reddish egrets, white and brown pelicans and cormorants.

Holbox Village
The boats tie up on the Holbox waterfront where lunch is served at a restaurant overlooking the beach. With its sandy streets, wooden houses, colorful street art and hand-painted signs depicting whale sharks, sea turtles, manta rays and flamingos, the rustic fishing village on Holbox has its own brand of Caribbean charm. Life has a slower pace and a stroll along the shell-strewn white beach to watch the fishermen unloading their catch, with pelicans and gulls waiting expectantly for scraps is not to be missed.

After lunch it’s time to board a golf cart to explore the 25-mile-long island. The first 30 minutes are guided and then you have 90 minutes to yourself. Start in the picturesque fishing village itself then drive along the island for breathtaking views of white-sand beaches, the Gulf of Mexico and the wetlands in the distance. When you have returned the golf cart, walk along the beach where boats rock gently at their moorings to enjoy a drink at one of the thatched bars. This is the perfect spot to watch the sun set over the Gulf of Mexico in a glorious blaze of pink, gold, orange and red.

A Holbox Getaway
It’s easy for visitors staying longer just to soak up the beauty of Holbox and do nothing but sunbathe and swim. A morning stroll along the beach, escaping to a hammock in the shade of a palm tree for an afternoon siesta and enjoying island hospitality and fresh seafood, including lobster pizza, tikinxic and grilled octopus for dinner are the order of the day. Yet, for those who want to explore further there are plenty of options.

Hand-painted wooden signs and murals celebrate Holbox’s most famous summer visitor, the whale shark, tiburón ballena or pez domino, the ocean’s largest fish. From mid-May to mid-September, these gentle giants gather in large numbers to feed on plankton in the waters off Holbox and Cabo Catoche, the headland where the waters of the Gulf of Mexico meet those of the Caribbean. Local fishermen from Holbox and Chiquila offer eco trips out to the whale shark feeding grounds where visitors will see these huge ocean travelers skimming the water surface for plankton. Graceful manta rays, dolphins and sea turtles can also be spotted.

Sea turtles nest on the beaches of Holbox during the summer and on moonless nights the breaking waves sometimes glow with bioluminescence emitted by microscopic plankton.

Fishermen from Holbox and Chiquila also offer bird watching trips in the area, crocodile spotting and fishing. Some arrange trips to Cenote Yalahau, the Isla de los Pajaros and Isla de la Pasion where birds also feed and nest and then around the tip of Holbox and along the north coast. They will anchor offshore and you can literally sit in the clear, calm shallows and bask in the sun.

Longer excursions are available to Rio Lagartos Biosphere Reserve in the neighboring state of Yucatan, home to thousands of flamingos and east along the coast to Cabo Catoche. From Cabo Catoche it is possible to navigate the lagoons and mangrove forests to reach Boca Iglesia. In this remote spot are the ruins of the first chapel built by Spanish conquistadores in Quintana Roo, one of the earliest churches in the Americas.

If you decide to rent a car and explore at your own pace or arrange a private trip with Thomas More Travel in order to spend longer on the island, Holbox is a two-hour drive from Cancún (via the toll highway at El Tintal and Kantunilkin) and a 30-minute ferry ride from Chiquila. There are parking lots in Chiquila where you can leave your car, they are not permitted on the island.

En route to Chiquila and Holbox, take time to call in at the villages en route: San Angel and Solferino, both members of a regional community ecotourism network.
In San Angel you can visit traditional medicine and embroidery workshops, go mountain biking in the jungle, kayaking and bird watching in a nearby lagoon. Solferino has an orchid nursery in the shade of a towering ceiba tree that is reputed to be over 700 years old. The owner raises fragrant orchids native to the Yucatan Peninsula and tells visitors the local legend about the ceiba. It is said to be the home of the dreaded Xtabay, the serpent woman that appears to men in the jungle and seduces them with her beauty so that they lose their way and their minds. A group of Solferino villagers also offer eco tours to a jungle camp with a rustic zip line circuit and an observation tower for panoramic views of the jungle. Guides take visitors on a kayak trip to El Corchal, a strange flooded forest in the middle of a lagoon in the savanna.

Booking your Holbox trip
For information about the Holbox day trip and private tours visit the Thomas More Travel tour desk during your stay or email tourdesk@royalresorts.com

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Fishing season starts in the Mexican Caribbean

March heralds the start of the sport fishing season in the Mexican Caribbean.

Marlin and sailfish are migrating through area waters in pursuit of the schools of mackerel, sardines and anchovies that they prey on. Snapper, dorado, bonito, wahoo and barracuda are plentiful year round and local fishermen will take you right to where the fish are running.

Puerto Morelos is one of the most popular spots in the Mexican Caribbean for sport fishing, just a short boat ride away from the rich fishing grounds along the deep ocean trench between the Riviera Maya coast and the island of Cozumel known as the Cozumel Channel.

Other good fishing grounds in the area lie to the east of Isla Mujeres, along the Arrowsmith Bank, around Contoy and Holbox islands and further south along the Costa Maya and accessible from the fishing villages of Mahahual and Xcalak.

The lagoons along the Quintana Roo coast offer a different challenge – they are rich in bonefish such as tarpon, permit and snook and attract fly fishermen from all over the world. There are fishing lodges in the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve and Holbox and the Isla Blanca wetlands north of Cancun are also good spots.

Local marinas adhere to the catch and release policy to help conserve fish stocks and we urge you to join their campaign. The thrill of being out on the waves in pursuit of sleek marlin and sailfish should be enough and we hope that you will liberate any game fish you catch.

If you enjoy fishing and are planning a day out on the high seas or want to go bone fishing, Thomas More Travel will help you organize fishing trips and boat charters.

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Ancient wonders, Equinox at Chichen Itza, March 20, 2018

The ancient Mayan capital of Chichen Itza casts its spell whenever you visit it but on the day of the spring Equinox, the Pyramid of Kukulcan in the Great Plaza becomes a stairway to heaven and an ancient god returns to earth.

Also known as El Castillo, the 25-meter-high pyramid is a solar clock, aligned to catch the rays of the setting sun on the spring and fall equinoxes, March 20 and September 22 in 2018. Triangles of light and shadow form along the side of the north staircase and the figure of a snake appears, merging with the head of a stone serpent at the foot of the building, creating the illusion of a gigantic serpent slithering down from the heavens and across the ground towards the Sacred Cenote, the huge sinkhole in the forest a short walk from the central plaza.

The snake symbolizes Kukulcan (also known as Quetzalcoatl in central Mexico), the feathered serpent god, returning to earth to give hope to his followers and heralding the spring planting and fall harvest seasons for the Maya.

The Pyramid of Kukulcan was built some time between A.D. 550 and 800, with later modifications between 800 and A.D. 1000. The majestic pyramid we see today was erected over the earlier buildings during the Itzae period when the city reached its peak, between A.D. 1050 and 1300. The Itzae tribe had links with cultures in Central Mexico and this is reflected in their art depicting serpents like the ones at the foot of the pyramid staircases, eagles, warriors and skulls.

When archaeologists first explored the pyramid, they dug through tons of stone and earth to find a second temple containing a chac mool statue, the enigmatic reclining stone figure with hands cupped to receive the heart of a sacrificial victim, guarding the entrance. There was also a magnificent throne in the form of a red jaguar with jade spots and eyes in the inner sanctum. The sacred feline figure was discovered with an offering of coral, sacrificial flint knives and a turquoise mosaic disc.

Studies in the last two years have revealed more secrets hidden deep inside the pyramid. Using the latest tri-dimensional electric resistivity tomography technology, archaeologists have discovered that a cave containing a cenote lies beneath the structure and have identified the original temple dating from AD 550 to 800. Built before the Mayan inhabitants came into contact with other Mesoamerican civilizations, it is in pure Maya architectural style. This find means that there are actually three temples on the site built around each other at different times during the city’s history.

The only source of fresh water in the Yucatan, cenotes were the gateway to the Underworld, the home of the gods and were holy places. The earliest pyramid may have been located beside the cenote for religious ceremonies and later rulers added their own monuments on top as a way of channeling sacred power.

The pyramid also represents the ancient Mayan calendar as the number of terraces and wall panels coincides with the number of months in the year (18) and years in a calendar round (52), respectively, and the number of steps in the staircases, including the top platform, equals 365, the days in the year.

A short distance from the Great Plaza is the round tower known as El Caracol or the Observatory. It has a viewing platform and wells, which were used by ancient astronomers to mirror starlight, and it was aligned to catch sunsets and moonsets on both equinoxes and to mark the course of Venus.

If you would like to explore one of the greatest ancient cities in the Americas and see why UNESCO declared it a World Heritage Site and a global poll in 2007 rated it as one of the Seven New Wonders of the World, book your Chichen Itza trip now from Thomas More Travel. The snake of light and shadow is also visible the day before and after the equinox, cloud cover permitting.

Equinox sunrise at Dzibilchaltun

Chichen Itza is not the only Mayan ceremonial center tin the Yucatan to have temples with solar, lunar or planetary alignments. The doorway of the Temple of the Seven Dolls at Dzibilchaltun (13 miles north of Mérida) makes a perfect frame for the rising sun on the day of the Equinox.

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Set sail on a romantic sunset dinner cruise in Cancun

Set sail on a romantic sunset dinner cruise in Cancun this February. Board the famous Spanish galleon Columbus for a voyage across the Nichupte Lagoon in the Cancun Hotel Zone. Dine on charcoal-grilled lobster and sip a Caribbean cocktail as you listen to the soft melodies of a saxophone player.

Enjoy the gentle breeze and watch the moon come up and the Cancun lights twinkle under a star-filled sky. Delicious food and romantic moments, this will be an unforgettable evening to celebrate love.

Two sailings at 5 and 8 p.m. Visit www.thomasmoretravel.com or ask at the Thomas More Travel desk in your resort for more information on this dinner cruise in Cancun.

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Maya Mystery, the Jungle City of Coba

Follow in the footsteps of 19th-century explorers on your own jungle adventure and discover Coba, ancient city of the Maya. Just 44 kilometers inland from Tulum in the Riviera Maya, Coba lies deep in the forest and many of its temples are still buried under a tangle of tropical vines, palms and tree roots.

German explorer Teobert Maler was the first European to visit Coba in 1891 after hearing tales of strange carved stones and temples hidden deep in the forest. Since then, a number of excavations have revealed that the long lost city is actually one of the Maya World’s largest archaeological sites, with an extension of around 70 square kilometers.

Coba is clustered around five shallow lakes, which would have provided inhabitants with fresh water in ancient times, and its name in Maya actually means “waters ruffled by the wind.”

The city reached its peak during the Maya Classic period, A.D. 250-900, when it was a regional capital and an important trade center, distributing goods to and from the Caribbean coast, Central America and cities in the Yucatán. Merchants would have bartered commodities such as honey, beeswax, cotton, henequen, cacao and copal incense that were produced in the region for sting ray spines, spiny oyster shells and salted fish from the coast and jade, obsidian, quetzal feathers and gold from Belize, Guatemala, Honduras and other parts of Central America.

At the height of its power, Coba is thought to have had a population of around 70,000 people. Unlike other Mayan cities in the area, it was still inhabited at the time of the Spanish Conquest.

Although the majority of its temples and buildings still lie under a mantle of vegetation, Coba is gradually revealing its secrets. The most recent breakthrough by Mexican archaeologists is the identification of a dynasty of 14 lords from the hieroglyphic inscriptions on stelae or standing stones at the site. This powerful house ruled the city from around A.D. 500 to A.D. 780 and had links to Ek Balam, Calakmul and cities in the Peten region of northern Guatemala.

Exploring Coba
A line of impressive ceibas, the sacred tree of the Maya, marks the entrance to the archaeological site and from there a network of trails leads off through the forest to the different clusters of temples. You can explore this huge site on foot or rent a bike or a tricycle, the traditional mode of transport in Maya villages throughout the Yucatan Peninsula.

From a distance you’ll see the crest of Coba’s most famous building soaring above the treetops. Standing 42 meters high, Nohoch Mul is the tallest pyramid in the northern Yucatán and the views from the top are spectacular. The narrow pyramid staircase leads to two temples where offerings of animals, conch shells, jade and a fragment of a stela were found.

About 70 meters southeast of the pyramid is Stela 20, the best preserved of 30 stelae, altars and carved panels found at the site. It depicts a lord standing on the back of a bound captive, surrounded by three other courtiers who appear to be paying homage to their ruler. Stelae were erected by rulers to commemorate events during their reign such as military victories, marriages and accessions.

Other building groups are the Cobá group, the oldest at the site, La Iglesia, another 24-meter-high pyramid crowned by a temple, the Ball Court, Las Pinturas, Xaibé or the Crossroads Pyramid and the Macanxoc group which has nine circular altars and eight stelae.

Coba is also famous for the sacbes or Maya causeways that radiate from the heart of the city. To date, 45 of these roads have been unearthed at the site, including the longest sacbe in the Maya World. This sacbe links the city with Yaxuna, near Chichen Itza, a distance of 101 kilometers. Sacbes were used for ceremonial processions, trade and military missions and to mark the boundaries of a city’s territory and influence.

Watch out for Wildlife
Maya mysteries aside, one of the thrills of exploring Coba is being in the jungle and catching a glimpse of some of the creatures that make their home among the trees. Towering chicozapote trees, tropical figs, cedars, chacas and ceibas compete for space, their branches festooned with lianas, orchids and bromeliads. Look up through the leaves and you may spot flocks of parrots and Yucatan jays, the yellow breast of the shy trogon and a flash of turquoise and russet as a motmot bird takes flight.

Families of spider monkeys move through the canopy in search of zapote fruit and agoutis, brocket deer and coatimundis forage in the undergrowth. Iguanas sun themselves on the rocks and huge morph butterflies in shades of iridescent blue flutter along jungle trails.

Choosing a trip to Coba
Thomas More Travel offers several different trips to Coba. You can spend the whole morning at the archaeological site or combine your visit with a side trip to the famous cliff top city of Tulum on the Caribbean coast and a refreshing dip in a jungle cenote or sinkhole.

Another trip takes you to Coba in the afternoon. After a guided tour of the ancient city and a visit to a potter’s workshop you’ll watch the sunset on the shores of the lake between Coba village and the archaeological site. Then you’ll venture into the jungle after dark to watch the representation of the ancient Maya ball game and part of the Maya creation story, the Popol Vuh.

For even more jungle thrills, the Mayan Encounter trip includes a guided tour of Coba, zip lining, rappel, snorkeling in a cenote, a visit to a Maya village for a nature walk, a Maya ritual and a lunch of traditional Yucatecan dishes.
Visit www.thomasmoretravel.com or call in at the tour desk in your resort during your stay.

Visiting Coba at your own pace
If you would like to rent a car and explore on your own, take Highway 307 south to Tulum and the turnoff to Coba. The journey to Coba takes about 90 minutes from Cancun and one hour from Playa del Carmen.

Twenty minutes north of Coba along the same highway is the tiny village and community reserve of Punta Laguna on the shores of a beautiful jungle-rimmed lagoon. For a small charge villagers will take you along jungle trails in search of the spider monkeys that make their home in the reserve.

On the return journey, call in at Tulum or Akumal for a late lunch on the beach and visit one of the many cenote parks in the Riviera Maya.

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Go somewhere new in the Riviera Maya and Yucatan

Looking forward to your next visit to Cancun, this year why not plan to go somewhere new in the Riviera Maya and Yucatan? From beautiful beaches and coral reefs to jungle sinkholes and nature reserves, ancient Mayan temples to gracious old colonial cities, the area is full of incredible travel spots awaiting discovery. Here are some Riviera Maya and Yucatan trip ideas to get you started.

Akumal, place of the turtles
Ask longtime residents of the Mexican Caribbean to name their favorite beach and the odds are that many of them will say Akumal. This sheltered palm-lined bay in the Riviera Maya is a family favorite. Protected by a coral reef, the shallow waters are calm and crystal-clear, making it ideal for swimming and snorkeling.

Don your snorkeling mask and flippers in Akumal Bay and swim a few strokes away from the shoreline. You’ll soon start to see colorful reef fish and you may spot green turtles grazing on the beds of sea grass. Stay still and watch these beauties from a distance as they placidly glide by. In the Maya language Akumal means “place of the turtles” and they are everywhere you look here, in the water, on carved signs, as sweet wooden and pottery figurines and occupying pride of place in t-shirts and paintings by local artists. There’s even news that Akumal may soon have its own Sea Turtle Museum.

Head north along the coast road from Akumal Bay to Half Moon Bay, a rocky cove where the reef comes even closer to the shore. The snorkeling is good here too and the views are just as incredible. In fact, the water is so clear that you can sometimes see turtles coming up for air, rays breaching the surface and green and blue parrotfish swimming in the shallows.

Continue along the coast road to Caleta Yalku, a turquoise-colored inlet of crystal-clear waters constantly replenished by cenotes and underground rivers, hence the refreshingly cool temperature.The lagoon is a feeding and breeding ground for reef fish and one of the best snorkeling spots in the Riviera Maya. As soon as you climb down the wooden ladders into the water you’ll be surrounded by inquisitive sergeant majors, butterfly fish and blue tangs.

A local cooperative manages Yalku and charges a fee for admission. Life jackets are available and there are restrooms and a little open-air cafe. Try to get to Yalku early as it does tend to get quite crowded at midday.

Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve
Whether you drift along a channel in the mangroves where the only sound is the sigh of the breeze or follow a trail through the jungle in search of Mayan temples and rare wildlife, visiting Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve is an unforgettable adventure and one you shouldn’t miss if you are a nature lover.

Straddling northern and central Quintana Roo, Sian Ka’an is a huge reserve and UNESCO World Heritage Site protecting 1.3 million acres of tropical forest, mangroves, Caribbean beaches and a stretch of the Mesoamerican Reef.

Created by government decree in 1986, Sian Ka’an is home to 103 different mammals including the jaguar, peccary, tapir, howler and spider monkeys, and the West Indian manatee. It has one of Mexico’s largest crocodile populations and is an important nesting area for sea turtles. And yet its most visible treasures are birds, over 330 resident and migratory species have been registered here in the jungle and wetlands.

When you explore the wetlands you’ll spot up to 16 varieties of heron, roseate spoonbills, flocks of wood storks and ibis. Flamingos are occasional winter visitors and pelicans, frigate birds, cormorants and kingfishers nest in the mangroves. The jungle is home to species ranging from hummingbirds to parrots, keel-billed toucans and collared aracaris, trogons, turquoise-browed motmots and chachalacas.

Sian Ka’an means “where the sky is born in Maya” and the ancient Maya hunted, fished and traveled the wetlands. Muyil is the largest of the 23 archaeological sites found to date in the reserve and many boat trips through the wetlands depart from the neighboring lagoon of the same name. Boats make their way along a canal through the mangroves that was dredged by the ancient Maya so that their trading canoes could sail from the Caribbean coast inland to Muyil.

Other Muyil trips include a look at the production of chicle, the original natural ingredient for chewing gum, which has been harvested by the Maya in the forests of southeast Mexico for thousands of years. Chicleros or harvesters cut the bark of the chicozapote tree with machetes and collect the white sap as it trickles down the trunk from the v-shaped gashes. The sap is then boiled and shaped into balls or blocks and processed for use in natural chewing gum.

Another option is to make your way to Punta Allen, a fishing village on the shores of Bahia de la Asuncion for fishing, diving, birding, bike trips and nature walks offered by Maya Ka’an community tour operators.

Valladolid
An easy one-and-a-half hour drive from Cancun, the colonial town of Valladolid is the perfect spot to spend the day learning about the history and traditions of the Yucatan and sampling local cuisine.

Stroll through the tree-lined main square, which is dominated by the 17th-century San Servacio Church and the Town Hall. Located behind the Town Hall, the San Roque Museum has exhibits on the history of Valladolid from the days of the ancient Maya to the Spanish Conquest, Colonial period, 19th-century Caste War and the Mexican Revolution.

Just a half block from the main square is Casa de Los Venados, a restored colonial mansion that is a private home and museum with an incredible collection of more than 3,000 pieces of Mexican folk art. The collection includes handwoven textiles from Oaxaca, Chiapas, Puebla and Hidalgo, huge ceramic trees of life, saints and jaguars, Day of the Dead art, Talavera pottery, sculptures, wood carvings, prize winning masks and piñatas and much more. There are guided tours at 10 a.m. (Valladolid time) and visitors are asked to make a donation in support of local charitable causes.

Next stop is Calzada de Los Frailes, a street lined with restored colonial houses that takes you as far as the sprawling San Bernardino Church and Sisal Convent. En route be sure to call in at La Casona to see the shrine honoring the Virgen de la Candelaria, the patron saint of Valladolid; the statue with its fountains is a mosaic made from fragments of Talavera pottery by craftsmen working at Xcaret Park.

Having already seen impressive Mexican textiles, ceramics, alebrije figurines and more in Casa de Los Venados you’ll be ready to start shopping for your own Mexican collection. There are several craft stores in the main square (one with its own chocolate workshop where you can watch cacao being ground) and a community craft center where you can pick up embroidered cotton dresses, blouses and shirts, leather and more. More stores await you on Calzada de Los Frailes, including the Coqui Coqui perfumery.

There are more colonial churches in the town’s barrios or neighborhoods and you should also visit the Zaci Cenote, a huge sinkhole with cliffs covered with ferns, vines and tree roots. Bats, swifts and motmots make their nests in the limestone and the clear turquoise water is a magnet for local children. There are many more of these mysterious natural wells to visit in the Valladolid area, the most famous of which are Dzitnup and Samula.

Before you leave Valladolid, call in at the Mayapan Distillery where the blue agave plant is harvested, cooked, crushed and the sugary sap distilled using traditional artisanal techniques to make a tequila-like spirit.

Valladolid is one of the Yucatan’s Pueblos Magicos (Izamal is the other), part of a Mexico Tourism Board program to promote smaller and lesser known villages and towns throughout the country that owe their magic to traditions, pre-Hispanic or colonial architecture or outstanding natural beauty.

Uxmal, a Mayan masterpiece
You may have been to Chichen Itza, the Yucatan’s famous World Heritage Site, but have you visited Uxmal, its rival in majesty? An hour’s drive south of Merida, Uxmal is one of the loveliest ancient cities in the Maya World and is a masterpiece of art and architecture. During the Late Classic period of Mayan history (A.D. 600-900), it was a regional capital, controlling southwest Yucatán and a chain of smaller cities known as the Puuc Route: Kabah, Sayil, Xlapak and Labná.

Apart from location, these sites share a unique architectural and artistic style called Puuc. In recognition of their outstanding cultural worth, UNESCO declared them a World Heritage area in 1996.

Towering above the forest, the Magician’s Pyramid dominates the skyline at Uxmal. A maze of small temples behinds it leads you to the Nuns’ Quadrangle, a gracious courtyard surrounded by four palaces with magnificent friezes featuring masks of the rain god Chaac, snakes, birds and warriors.

Equally impressive is the Palace of the Governor crowning a temple mound with a panoramic view of the site. The House of the Turtles, the Great Pyramid, and El Palomar lie nearby.

You can combine a visit to Uxmal with a trip to the Yucatan capital Merida or head south from Uxmal to visit the other archaeological sites on the Puuc Route, the Loltun Caves and colonial towns such as Ticul and Mani and Oxkutzcab on the Convent Route.

Go off the beaten track with a private tour
Book your own driver and guide for the day and let Thomas More Travel take care of everything. Private tours are a great way to go off the beaten track in the Riviera Maya and Yucatan and visit archaeological sites, colonial towns and rural communities or your own beach hopping getaway. If you already know where you want to go you’ll be able to drive straight there, if not, travel desk staff will be happy to help you create an unforgettable sightseeing itinerary.

Thomas More Travel, your vacation guide
Visit www.thomasmoretravel.com to book tours in the Riviera Maya and Yucatan for this year’s Cancun vacation and be sure to visit the travel desks during your stay at Royal Resorts for more ideas.

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Ocean adventures, snorkeling with sailfish

Come face to face with the fastest fish in the sea this season. If you love the sea, a once-in-a lifetime ocean adventure awaits you in January and February, the chance to go snorkeling with sailfish as they move through the Mexican Caribbean.

Sailfish (Istiophorus platypterus) migrate through area waters in large numbers from January to June tracking schools of sardines, anchovies, mackerel and jacks. Their pursuit of prey is incredible to watch and they can reach speeds of over 68 miles an hour (110 kilometers per hour) when hunting.

When sailfish detect a school of smaller fish, they circle and gradually close in, unfurling their impressive dorsal fins or sails and using them to trap their prey. The frightened fish stay together forming a swirling silvery bait ball designed to confuse enemies. Undeterred, the sailfish dart in from every side, tearing the bait ball apart and picking the fish off one by one using their rapier-like bill to spear and slash in a graceful underwater “ballet.”

Sailfish change color when they are hunting; their gray or blue skin pulses with iridescent stripes as they move through the water, Scientists believe that the color change is designed to disorientate their prey and warn other sailfish to keep their distance, thus avoiding collisions.

Set sail with Thomas More Travel for a voyage to the east of Contoy and Isla Mujeres to go snorkeling with sailfish. Be on the look out for the flocks of frigate birds that follow the migrating fish, a sign that the sailfish are near. You will be accompanied by a knowledgeable guide and will watch from a safe distance as the sailfish hunt their prey. During the boat ride, you may also spot sea turtles, manta rays, dolphins, schools of bonitos and wahoos. There has even been the occasional sighting of false killer whales.

The snorkeling with sailfish trip is only available in January, February and early March, before the start of the fishing season. You must be fit and a good swimmer to take the tour. Pregnant women, minors under the age of 15 and non-swimmers are not permitted. Contact tourdesk@royalresorts.com to book this tour or ask at the Thomas More Travel desk in your resort for more details.

A Year of Unforgettable Oceanic Encounters
The Mexican Caribbean offers underwater wonders year-round and incredible dive sites along the second longest reef in the world, the Mesoamerican Reef.

Schools of spotted eagle rays migrate to the reefs of Cozumel between December and February. Marlin and sailfish hunt in area waters from December in the spring and early summer.

From mid-May to mid-September, it is whale shark season and time for a memorable encounter with the world’s largest fish. Whale sharks gather during the summer to feast on plankton blooms and the eggs of spawning little tunny fish. During a boat trip out to the whale shark feeding grounds off Holbox and to the east of Contoy and Isla Mujeres you can also catch a glimpse of the graceful manta rays that are also partial to plankton. And while you can spot sea turtles swimming near area reefs year-round, the females come ashore at night to lay their eggs from May to September. In the late summer and fall, you may be lucky enough to spot the tiny turtle hatchlings on their madcap dash into the waves to begin life at sea.

In late fall, schools of golden or cownose rays, sometimes in their thousands, migrate south from Florida across the Gulf of Mexico to the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula and are often seen near the island of Holbox.

For information on eco trips to see these natural wonders, other marine creatures, scuba and snorkeling tours and more, contact Thomas More Travel, email: tourdesk@royalresorts.com

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Rio Lagartos, Yucatan’s Flamingo Wonderland

Renew your ties with nature this winter by visiting one of the Yucatan’s great wild places, Rio Lagartos, gateway to the Ría Lagartos Biosphere Reserve. Witness one of its natural wonders, thousands of flamingos feeding in the salt flats or taking wing. There are so many of them that they literally turn the horizon pink. However, it is not all about flamingos, winter visitors to the reserve will also spot flocks of white pelicans, ducks, waders, songbirds and even hawks that migrate south to the Yucatan to escape the freezing temperatures of northern climes. If you are a nature lover, this trip is a must during your trip to Cancun or the Riviera Maya.

A natural treasure
Stretching along the coast of northern Yucatán, Ria Lagartos is a 60,348-hectare biosphere reserve of mangroves, salt marshes, dunes and tropical forest that is a magnet for bird watchers and nature lovers. It was the first area of marshland in Mexico to receive global attention and to be included on the UNESCO Ramsar list of internationally important wetlands and the federal government declared it a reserve in 1979.

The reserve’s biological diversity is incredible. Scientists have identified 365 bird species, 58 mammals, including the jaguar and spider monkey, the prehistoric horseshoe crab, 95 reptiles and amphibians, including four species of sea turtles and the crocodiles or lagartos that gave the reserve its name.

A flash of pink
Ria Lagartos is a refuge for the North America’s largest nesting colony of Caribbean flamingo (Phoenicopterus ruber). You’ll see them everywhere you look, high stepping through the shallows in their search for food, preening their bright plumage or taking wing. Flocks of these striking birds fan out from the reserve to feed in lagoons stretching along the coast from El Cuyo to Dzilam Bravo, Telchac, Uaymitun and Chabihau and a second colony inhabits the Celestun Biosphere Reserve on the west coast of the Yucatan Peninsula.

Flamingos feed with their heads upside down, underwater, moving their beaks from side to side in a sweeping motion as they walk forward. They stir up the mud, sieving it with their spine-covered tongues and extracting minute crustaceans. Sometimes they stamp their feet in a circle to stir the silt up.

Biologists have discovered that flamingos spend up to 70 per cent of their day feeding. The vivid salmon pink plumage of the Yucatan flamingos is the result of a diet based on tiny brine shrimps and other crustaceans found only in this area.

Heron

Exploring the wetlands
Fishermen from the waterfront village of Rio Lagartos offer boat trips along the ria or estuary and through the mangroves to the lagoons and salt flats where the flamingos feed. Many have been trained as nature guides and carry bird checklists to help you identify the species you see during your voyage.
Look out for reddish egrets, great white egrets, green and blue herons, and flights of wood storks. You’ll spot ibis, roseate spoonbills, kingfishers, peregrine falcon, black hawks and even hummingbirds. More difficult to see are the elusive kukas or boat-billed herons, so named for their broad canoe-like bills.

A strange otherworldly landscape
After chugging along the ría or estuary and through the mangrove forest where crocodiles sun themselves near the bridge, your boat enters the shallow lagoons where the flamingos feed. In addition to large flocks of the bright pink birds, there are cormorants, herons, white pelicans that fly south from the Arctic Circle and skimmers, black and white seabirds with a distinctive oversize orange bill. Lone ospreys patrol the skies and the air is full of squawks, honks and hisses.

On the horizon you can see mounds of the salt that has been extracted from the salt marshes since the days of the ancient Maya. To your left is Las Coloradas, a chain of brackish salt ponds in vivid shades of pink where the water is so salty it resembles the Red Sea, and the white mineral-rich clay is said to have therapeutic properties.

The intense blue of a cloudless tropical sky, the dazzling white salt hills in the distance and the bright pink salt ponds make this a strange, otherworldly landscape.

On your return to Rio Lagartos village, spend some time on the waterfront watching pelicans, terns and osprey diving for their prey and the fishing boats rocking gently at their moorings. Try the local seafood; it is incredibly fresh and delicious. And don’t leave Ría Lagartos Reserve without visiting the nearby fishing village of San Felipe. Its sandy streets are lined with brightly colored houses; there are more seafood restaurants and the beach is the perfect spot to watch the sun go down over the Gulf of Mexico.

Las Coloradas near Rio Lagartos

Getting to Rio Lagartos
Visit the Thomas More Travel tour desk at Royal Resorts in Cancun and the Riviera Maya where staff will help you arrange a visit to Rio Lagartos. Choose a tour that combines Rio Lagartos and the Mayaarchaeological site of Ek Balam, plan a private trip that takes in the colonial town of Valladolid too or spend as long as you can exploring the reserve with your own eco guide.

If you prefer to visit Rio Lagartos at your own pace, the reserve is a three-and-a-half-hour drive from Cancun via the toll road or Highway 180 to Valladolid and then Highway 295 to the coast, via Tizimin. If you would like to spend longer than a day in the reserve, there is a boutique hotel on the waterfront at Rio Lagartos; another option is to stay in Valladolid and drive to the reserve before day breaks, having already booked your boat trip and guide for a dawn departure.

You’ll see birds at any time of the day in the Río Lagartos Biosphere Reserve but they are more plentiful at sunrise and at sunset when they fly back to their roosts.

Visit www.thomasmoretravel.com to plan more amazing vacation adventures in the Mexican Caribbean and Yucatan.

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Go somewhere new in the Riviera Maya and Yucatan, 5 great trip ideas

If you are planning a Cancun family vacation this fall, make sure you get out and discover some of the wonders of the Riviera Maya and Yucatan. You’ll want to spend many of your days on the beach or snorkeling the Mesoamerican Reef, but when the spirit of wanderlust takes you and you are ready to go exploring here are five trip ideas to get you started. Thomas More Travel tour desk staff will have many more unforgettable travel adventures in store for you.

Chichen Itza by night
The ancient Mayan capital of Chichen Itza is a must-see for anyone on vacation in Riviera Maya and Yucatan but have you ever experienced the mystery of this UNESCO World Heritage Site after dark? The sounds of the jungle, a clear sky filled with stars and the sight of ancient temples and stone masks illuminated by moonlight are unforgettable and on top of that, the Kukulcan Nights Light Show is amazing.

Take an afternoon trip to Chichen Itza and explore at your leisure, then enjoy an early dinner and return to the ancient city in the evening to see the Kukulcan Nights 3D video mapping show. The temples in the Great Plaza are illuminated in different colors and the Pyramid of Kukulcan is the backdrop for the tale of the Maya creation story.

If you want to explore Chichen Itza at your own pace, renting a car is the perfect option giving you plenty of time to visit the colonial town of Valladolid en route. You could also visit some of the cenotes or sinkholes that pepper the landscape of the eastern Yucatan. Zaci, Dzitnup, Samula and Hubiku in the Valladolid area are all popular, as is Ik-Kil, which is a short distance from Chichen Itza. Another side trip idea is to tour the smaller archaeological site of Ek Balam in the morning. It’s only 20 minutes to the north of Valladolid so you can return there for lunch before setting off for Chichen Itza in the afternoon.

Go where the birds are, Sian Ka’an, Rio Lagartos, Contoy and more
Are you interested in wildlife? If you are then you should know that the Riviera Maya and Yucatan are wonderlands for nature lovers, with plenty of incredible sightings, particularly for birders. And the fall and winter offer even more thrills. More than 150 million birds migrate south from the United States and Canada to escape the bitter cold.

Birds on the move spend the season in the Yucatan’s coastal wetlands and jungles or pause to rest and feed before continuing south. The list of 226 winter migratory species includes wood storks and waders, ducks, hawks, white pelicans that migrate from as far north as the Arctic Circle and the tiny ruby-throated hummingbird that makes an incredible 30-hour journey across the Gulf of Mexico non-stop!

An eco trip to one of the area’s biosphere reserves will be one of the highlights of your Riviera Maya and Yucatan vacation.

Plan a visit to Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, one of Mexico’s largest protected areas and home to more that 350 species of birds. You’ll see jungle dwelling species including trogons, woodpeckers and hummingbirds at the Mayan site of Muyil and aquatic birds such as little blue herons, osprey and wood storks during a thrilling boat ride through the wetlands and mangrove forest.

Stretching along the Gulf coast of the Yucatan, the Rio Lagartos Biosphere Reserve is famous for the thousands of flamingos that feed in the salt marshes and lagoons but it is home to 365 bird species, including herons, roseate spoonbills, black hawk and skimmers.

Set sail on an eco cruise to Contoy, the Mexican Caribbean’s desert island that is a refuge for 150 species of resident and migrant waterfowl and sea birds. The island reserve is two hours to the north of Cancun and can only be visited on an eco trip.

Catch the dawn chorus as you have never heard it before, in a jungle reserve on the Ruta de los Cenotes near Puerto Morelos. You’ll hear the rattle-like calls of chachalacas, parrots chattering overhead and the soft whooping call of the turquoise-browed motmot, the Yucatan’s very own bird of paradise. Look out for flocks of bright blue Yucatan jays, solitary keel-billed toucans and scarlet tanagers and cardinals.

Watery family fun in Puerto Morelos
A Puerto Morelos snorkeling trip is a family favorite for a Cancun family vacation and with good reason. The coral reef you can see offshore is part of the Mesoamerican Reef, the world’s second longest, and it is famous for its spectacular elk horn coral gardens and rich marine life.

When snorkeling you will spot schools of fish such as jacks, grunts, blue tangs, porkfish and Atlantic spadefish near the crest of the reef. Solitary species such as parrot fish and trunkfish seem unperturbed by the strange intruders to their world. Pairs of angelfish sail regally by and tiny rainbow-colored fairy basslets, squirrel, damsel and butterfly fish shelter among the corals. You may even be lucky enough to see rays, eels and turtles.

Back to School: take a Mexican Cooking Class
Here’s a fun activity that is perfect for a Cancun family vacation, why not sign up for a Mexican cooking class? Discover the secrets of the Mexican kitchen with a local chef. As you learn about the fascinating history of Mexican cuisine, you’ll soon see why UNESCO declared it World Heritage in the category reserved for culture and traditions in November 2010. After the session, you’ll all sit down at lunchtime to eat the tasty dishes you helped prepare.

Spend the morning at Yum Cooking School in Downtown Cancun and learn about fruit and vegetables that Mexico gave the world and dishes and cooking techniques that date back to the pre-Hispanic period. Following the Spanish Conquest in the 16th century, waves of settlers introduced new ingredients such as herbs, spices, sugar and fruit from Europe and the Middle East. The Cordon Bleu-trained chef will show you how to make dishes from the pre-Hispanic and Colonial periods and contemporary Mexican recipes.

Chef Claudia Garcia and her husband are the hosts at Mi Cocina es Tu Cocina in the leafy Alamos neighborhood on the outskirts of Cancun. Claudia begins the class with an introduction to Mexican staple foods such as corn, beans, avocado and chili and continues with a demonstration of salsa and tortilla preparation.

A menu of starters, soup, a main course with side dishes and a dessert is prepared during the session. Claudia divides the country into five gastronomic regions and chooses a different one for each class.

Another option is the famous Little Mexican Cooking School at Casa Caribe on Av. Rojo Gomez No. 768 in Puerto Morelos. A fun-filled hands-on cooking class in the kitchen will have you preparing between seven and eight delicious dishes to be served up for lunch later with traditional Mexican drinks.

In order to explain the sheer diversity of Mexican cuisine, the chef divides the country into seven gastronomic regions and showcases one in each session. You’ll watch and help prepare a selection of dishes from a particular region, and learn a great deal about traditions in the area.

After your meal on the terrace, the Little Mexican Cooking School shop is a great spot to pick up Mexican folk art, organic coffee, honey, vanilla, spicy salsas, preserves and other gourmet products.

Also in the Puerto Morelos area, Mexico Lindo Traditional Kitchen, Workshop and School is located at km 6.2 on the Ruta de los Cenotes. Learn how to make traditional dishes from the Yucatan, Central Mexico or Veracruz and a selection of Mexican classics in a bright yellow casita in a jungle clearing.

Visit the haciendas of the Yucatán
Travel back in time to the late 19th century and learn about henequen, the native agave that fuelled an economic boom in Yucatan so extraordinary that the miracle plant became known as “green gold.” It yielded a tough fiber used to make rope and sacking and for which international demand soared with agricultural mechanization. Fortunes were made overnight as Yucatan’s hacienda owners scrambled to turn more acreage over to the cultivation of the lucrative crop.

One way of learning more about the area’s henequen heritage is to take a trip that combines a hacienda visit with a tour of the city of Merida, the Yucatan capital. During the henequen boom, the city is said to have been home to more millionaires than any other city in the world. You can still see the opulent mansions of the henequen barons on Paseo Montejo, the boulevard inspired by the Champs Elysées in Paris and the impressive civic landmarks, such as the Peon Contreras Theater, that they commissioned.

The second leg of this journey takes you to Hacienda Sotuta de Peón, a working henequen estate 28 miles (35 kilometers) south of the city in the Tecoh district (take the turn off after the village of Itzincab) along the Convent Route.

The Sotuta visit includes a ride out to the fields in a traditional horse-drawn wagon or “truck” to see how henequen is planted and harvested. Workers in the machine house show visitors how the leaves were shredded to extract the fiber, dried and combed before being woven into rope and twine and used to make bags and mats. The fiber was packed into bales to be transported by rail to the Gulf coast port of Sisal where it was shipped overseas.

Visitors can also walk through the restored rooms of the estate house still decorated with the original furniture, French porcelain, crystal and art; see a traditional Mayan home and swim in the crystalline waters of the Dzul-Há Cenote.

Another hacienda that you can visit on your own without taking a tour is Hacienda Teyá, eight miles (12.5 km) from the city of Merida on Highway 180. Founded in 1683, Teya was a cattle and corn estate. Unusually for the era, the owner was a woman, Ildefonsa Antonia Marcos Bermejo Calderón y de la Helguera, the wife of the Conde de Miraflores.

Teyá was turned over to henequen in the nineteenth century and its prosperous owners enhanced the colonial estate house with neo-Classical-style features, which were even incorporated in the outhouses, especially the machine house.

By the 1970s, Teyá was deserted, derelict and on the market. A Merida businessman, Jorge Carlos Cárdenas Gutiérrez went to see the property in 1974 and fell in love with it. He sank his savings into the estate and painstakingly began to restore the orchards and gardens with his family, finally starting on the house and other buildings in 1985.

Famous for its restaurant serving Yucatecan cuisine, Teyá is also a popular setting for weddings, conventions and other special events. It has two chapels, rooms for cocktails and banquets and beautiful gardens. A swimming pool by day, the 1905 machine house is transformed into a magnificent ballroom for evening events.

Explore the Riviera Maya and Yucatan with Thomas More Travel
For assistance in arranging all your trips in the Riviera Maya and Yucatan call in at the Thomas More Travel desk in the lobby of your resort or visit www.thomasmoretravel.com.

 

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Summer sailing in the Mexican Caribbean

Mirror-calm seas and cloudless skies are perfect conditions for a summer day of sailing in the Mexican Caribbean and there are plenty of exciting options to choose from if you fancy a day at sea.

For starters, cast off for a morning of sailing and snorkeling in the bay between Cancun and Isla Mujeres, to Punta Nizuc or in Puerto Morelos National Marine Park. A few minutes of speeding through sparkling crystal-clear waters will have you out at the reef where wonders await you when you take the plunge. Part of the Mesoamerican Reef, the world’s second longest coral reef system, all three sites are perfect for snorkeling and rich in marine life. You’ll soon spot fish of all shapes and sizes in a dazzling kaleidoscope of colors. Yellow striped grunts, jacks and pork fish hover near the reef crest, queen angelfish, blue tangs and the occasional sea turtle sail by and rainbow parrotfish nibble at the corals. Look closer and you’ll see sergeant majors, neon wrasses, squirrel and butterfly fish among the corals.

Wherever you go, sailing in the Mexican Caribbean invariably includes a stop for snorkeling and swimming.

Isla Mujeres bound
Next stop Isla Mujeres, hop on board a luxury yacht or catamaran and set sail from Cancun to its sister island across the bay affectionately known as “Isla,” one of Quintana Roo’s Pueblos Magicos. As you make the crossing, relax and admire the view of shimmering turquoise waters. You can stop for a spot of snorkeling on the way and sail along the coast of Isla before docking.

Explore the tiny island on a golf cart or bike, shop for crafts, jewelry and art in the village and then head for famous Playa Norte, one of the world’s most beautiful beaches. Sit down for a late lunch of delicious seafood at one of the restaurants along the waterfront and watch yachts and fishing boats sail by. You’ll want to stay on for the sunset; the views are incredible.

Cruise to Contoy, the island of birds
Go in search of nature and plan a trip to Contoy, the palm-fringed desert island of Caribbean legend and lore that is an important bird sanctuary and an incredibly beautiful spot to spend the day.

Over 150 species of birds make their home on the island year round or are migratory visitors in the winter. They include colonies of frigate birds and cormorants, terns, ibis, roseate spoonbills, herons and egrets that nest in the mangroves. Graceful terns put on a display of aerial acrobatics, living up to their name of sea swallows or golondrinas del mar; pelicans dive for fish and ospreys patrol the shoreline.

Contoy is a two-and-a-half-hour boat trip north of Cancun and the shades of turquoise and blue water that you’ll pass through en route are breathtaking. Once you reach the island, spend the time watching the birds, relaxing on the beach or snorkeling and swimming with rays and other fish in the sheltered bay. Only 200 people a day are permitted to visit Contoy.

Whale shark trips
If you enjoyed your trip to Contoy and are ready for more incredible wildlife encounters, board a boat for a whale shark trip during the summer. From mid-May to mid-September, these gentle giants gather to feed on plankton and fish eggs in the waters to the east of Contoy and Isla Mujeres and also off Holbox Island and Cabo Catoche.

Eco trips will take you out to the whale shark feeding grounds where you will see the world’s largest fish wherever you turn. You may even be lucky enough to spot giant manta rays, sea turtles and dolphins too.

Sailing along the Riviera Maya coast
If you are staying in the Riviera Maya, board a catamaran for a cruise along the coast. You’ll be following maritime routes once used by ancient Mayan traders and as you sail along the shoreline you’ll catch a glimpse of lone temples and watch towers guarding hidden inlets and palm-lined beaches.

If hopping on a boat means going in search of the big fish of your dreams, then there are plenty of fishing charters to available in the Riviera Maya, Puerto Morelos, Cancun and Isla Mujeres. The seasoned captain and his crew will take you right to where the fish are running.

When the sun goes down
Summer sailing in the Mexican Caribbean doesn’t stop when the sun goes down. Board a catamaran for a romantic cruise under the stars. Watch the sunset as you sail through Cancun’s Nichupte Lagoon on board the famous lobster dinner cruise or join a fun-packed expedition through the bay on a pirate ship.

Book your boat trip today
For information on cruises and yacht charters, eco trips and fishing excursions contact Thomas More Travel www.thomasmoretravel.com.

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