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Exploring Playa del Carmen, beach vibes and Mexican culture

When was the last time you visited Playa del Carmen, the Riviera Maya’s vibrant waterfront capital? If it has been a while since you browsed the craft stores on Fifth Avenue or watched the world go by at a local café, or you have never visited this chic town before then why not plan a day or an afternoon there on your next Mexican Caribbean vacation?

Head for the beach

Most visitors to Playa del Carmen make a beeline for the beach and vistas of soft white sand, gentle surf and palm trees swaying in the breeze. You can set your towel down for the day on your own piece of paradise or be pampered with a comfy sun bed, cocktails and live music at one of the chic beach clubs that line the shore.

Relax and soak up the view or join in a game of beach volleyball and soccer. For the activity-minded, there’s snorkeling, paddle boarding, windsurfing or even kite surfing along the shoreline.

Parque Los Fundadores

After a day at the beach you’ll be ready to stretch your legs and go for an afternoon or evening stroll through Playa. Parque Los Fundadores, the original town square behind the ferry terminal is a good place to start. The views of the Caribbean and the island of Cozumel on the horizon are spectacular. The water changes color from turquoise to a band of darkest indigo that marks the course of the Cozumel Channel, an ocean trench thousands of feet deep.

There’s always something going on in this small square. You may see a wedding party emerge from the white chapel to a mariachi fanfare and the applause of the crowd that gathers to see the bride and groom.

Next to the chapel, the Papantla Flyers from northern Veracruz draw a crowd every hour as they climb a thirty-meter-pole. They tie ropes to their feet and launch themselves into space, arms outstretched like wings, circling the pole and descending until they make their landing. All the while, one man remains on top of the pole dancing and playing a reed flute. This is the representation of an ancient Totonac ritual to worship the sun god.

Elsewhere in the park, children play on slides and swings, families buy Mexican snacks from stalls and visitors pose for photos in front of the impressive Portal Maya. This is an arch erected in 2012 to commemorate the end of an era in the ancient Mayan calendar and the dawn of a new cycle.

Fifth Avenue

All roads in Playa del Carmen lead to Quinta Avenida or Fifth Avenue, the main street that runs north for miles from Parque Los Fundadores. For shopping, dining and people watching, this is the place to be. Visitors from all over the world mingle with local families out enjoying the evening air. Start your walk and you’ll soon hear Spanish, Maya, English, French, Italian, Portuguese, German and Dutch.

Even the most demanding of shoppers will find Playa’s brand of style and color and quirkiness hard to resist. Craft shops, boutiques and art galleries share space with international brand stores and sprawling open-air shopping centers such as Paseo del Carmen, Quinta Alegria and Plaza Corazon.

If it is clothing you are looking for, you’ll find international brands, Brazilian beachwear and designer clothing from Mexico, Italy, Indonesia and beyond. Imported perfumes, leather bags and luxury goods and the shimmer of Mexican silver, gold, and gems are everywhere.

Stores selling Mexican folk art or artesanía from all over the country line “la Quinta.” Look out for hand-painted blue and white Talavera pottery from Puebla, colorful vases and plates from Hidalgo and Guanajuato, glass hearts from Guadalajara and San Miguel de Allende and arboles de la vida or trees of life. There are strange wooden figurines from Oaxaca called alebrijes, angels and day of the dead skulls. Shop for Huichol yarn paintings and beadwork and brightly colored textiles and embroidered cushions, dresses and blouses from Chiapas, Yucatan and Oaxaca.

For a unique memento of your Mexican Caribbean vacation, pick up a Yucatecan hammock, a wooden jaguar, embroidered cotton napkins, and mobiles and lamps made with strings of shells, seeds and carved gourds. They are produced by artisans from the villages of the Zona Maya in central Quintana Roo using sustainable forest resources and are available in several of the stores lining the street. In one of the small plazas on the left-hand-side of Fifth Ave you can also find naive-style art by Mayan painters from the Guatemalan highlands.

By now you are probably ready to embark on a culinary adventure – the restaurants along la Quinta and neighboring streets serve everything from traditional Mexican dishes to Thai cuisine, Italian pasta and Caribbean seafood. Order a plate of tacos, sample home-cooked Mayan recipes or indulge your craving for Argentinean grilled beef or French fare.

Café culture is alive and kicking in Playa del Carmen and la Quinta is thronged with open-air eateries serving freshly ground Mexican coffee, baguettes and homemade gelato.

As soon as dusk falls, the rhythm picks up along la Quinta. Thousands of lights glimmer in the trees, candles are lit and the musicians gather for their nightly parade.

Mingle with the crowds and listen to the beat of world music as you walk along. You’ll hear trumpet serenades and song from strolling mariachi bands and the rippling melodies of “La Bamba” and other jarocho favorites from the state of Veracruz. Guitar-strumming trios from the Yucatan play romantic ballads and there are even accordion players from Northern Mexico. Another block down the street, you can listen to reggae, jazz and rock, Cuban salseros and lilting flutes and pipes from the Andes.

Street artists always draw a crowd on Fifth Avenue, as do mimes dressed as Mayan warriors and famous Caribbean pirate captains. If you like to people watch, sip a margarita or martini in one of the open-air cafes or chic terrace bars.

For night owls, there are candlelit beach bars, dance clubs and stylish hideaways that draw a crowd and have found their way into the leading travel magazines as the places to see and be seen in Playa.

Playa’s ancient heritage

The Maya were the first to settle in Playa del Carmen and you’ll see the crumbling temples of ancient Xaman-Há in several parts of town and in Playacar, the resort and residential community to the south of the ferry dock. Pottery and other archaeological finds indicate that there was a settlement here as far back as 300 B.C. Initially a fishing village, it grew in importance during the Post-Classic period of Mayan civilization (A.D. 900 – 1521), reaching its peak around 1450 as a trading port and the embarkation point for the sacred island of Cozumel, site of the shrine of Ixchel, the Mayan goddess of fertility and childbirth.

Museum hopping in Playa

There’s more to do in Playa than beach time and shopping, it now has three very different museums to visit.

The exhibits at the 3D Museum of Wonders on 10th Avenue are 3D drawings and famous paintings decorating the floors, walls and ceiling that create optical illusions. Come face to face with a lion or a dragon, drag a zebra out of the jungle, surf the waves, fly like the birds and even pose in a shell like Botticelli’s Venus.

The state of the art L’Aquarium has 45 spectacular aquariums on three floors of the Plaza Corazon Mall on 5th Ave and Calle 14 (the entrance is on Calle 14). Exhibits showcase the coral reef and other marine ecosystems and there are more than 200 species of multicolored fish and marine creatures.

On 5th Avenue, the Frida Kahlo Museum celebrates the life and work of this iconic Mexican artist. It features paintings and sketches by Frida, multimedia displays and work by local artists inspired by her.

Visiting Playa del Carmen

Playa del Carmen is 68 kilometers to the south of Cancún along Highway 307 and the journey takes about 40 minutes by car. You can arrange a tour or a private van with Thomas More Travel. There are also regular buses and vans during the day from the bus terminal in Downtown Cancun.

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Discover Merida’s history by night

Are you planning a visit to Merida, the historic state capital of the Yucatan? If you are, don’t miss the colorful video mapping projections in the main square in the evenings. First up is Casa de Montejo, the 16th-century residence of the Montejo family, Merida’s founding fathers, where A Meeting of Two Worlds: Dialogue of a Conquistador is screened on Wednesday evening at 8:30 p.m. This tells the story of the Conquest of the Yucatan by Francisco de Montejo “El Adelantado” and the fate of the Maya. The projection is narrated by a guide and is followed by a jarana folk dance performance.

The imposing San Ildefonso Cathedral is the backdrop for the next video mapping on Friday at 8:30 p.m. Sacred Stones tells the story of the founding of Merida in 1542 amidst the ruins of a much earlier Maya city called T’ho and the construction of even more churches, convents and mansions during the Colonial period.

There is another video mapping projection at the Monumento a la Patria on the tree-lined Paseo Montejo boulevard. All three video mapping events are free of charge.

At 6 p.m. during August, the City Tourism Information Office offers a free guided walking tour through the historic heart of Merida. The tour takes in major landmarks such as City Hall, Casa de Montejo, the Cathedral and Government House to see the famous murals depicting the history of the Yucatan by local painter Fernando Castro Pacheco. The tour is also offered Monday to Saturday at 9:30 a.m. year-round and takes about an hour and a half. Visitors should arrive at the Tourism Information Office 15 minutes before the tour departs in order to register and the guide speaks English and Spanish.

On Friday and Saturday evenings there’s another walking tour but with a difference, street theater. During a stroll through the main square and surrounding streets, visitors see scenes of the city’s history played out. Noche de Leyendas is a street theater performance that makes the past come alive. The tour starts outside Peon Contreras Theater at 9 p.m. Tickets must be purchased two hours before the show begins.

Visiting Merida
Thomas More Travel offers trips to Merida and can help you with transport, accommodation and a sightseeing itinerary if you would like to plan a longer stay in this beautiful city.

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Guide to great snorkeling in the Riviera Maya

Summer means it’s time for snorkeling in the Riviera Maya. Lazy days spent swimming through crystal-clear waters and an ever-changing parade of colorful marine creatures of all shapes and sizes. Dive right in on your next vacation; snorkeling is easy, fun for all the family and you’ll soon be hooked. Try it once and you’ll never want to stop! There are plenty of shallow water reefs, sheltered bays and inlets along the Riviera Maya coast where you can indulge your passion. Here’s a guide to some of the best spots for snorkeling in the Riviera Maya:

Cancun-Isla Mujeres Area
Protected by a marine reserve, the chain of shallow water reefs in the bay between Isla Mujeres and Cancun and off Punta Nizuc, the southern tip of Cancun island, is an excellent place to start exploring the Mesoamerican Reef, the second longest in the world. Trips are available to the reefs off Punta Cancun and Punta Nizuc in Cancun and El Farito and Manchones Reef in the bay between Cancun and Isla Mujeres. Snorkeling is also a popular activity in El Garrafon Park on the southern tip of Isla Mujeres.

Marine life ranges from elk horn coral reefs and brain coral formations to gardens of sea fans gently waving in the currents. They are a habitat for a variety of fish from sergeant majors, grunts and porkfish to damsel and angelfish, jacks, rays and moray eels.

 

Cancun Museum of Underwater Art
The Cancun-Isla Mujeres National Marine Park has another attraction to offer snorkelers, the world’s largest underwater museum of art (MUSA), inaugurated in 2009. Around 500 statues by British sculptor Jason deCaires-Taylor and other sculptors have already been submerged in different locations in the Cancun-Isla Mujeres Reef Park, including Punta Nizuc and Manchones Reef and more are planned.

Apart from their artistic appeal, the figures are a habitat for marine life. Corals, sponges and sea fans, small fish and even lobsters are colonizing them. New reef communities are being created and this will give popular coral reefs in the area a chance to recover.

 

Puerto Morelos
Our guide to great places for snorkeling in the Riviera Maya starts in Puerto Morelos, 20 minutes to the south of Cancun Airport. Protected by a national marine park, the reefs are home to species such as angelfish, trunkfish, snappers and octopus and are some of the most beautiful and pristine along the Mesoamerican Reef.

The biodiversity of reefs in the Puerto Morelos area has attracted marine biologists for many years and the fishing village is the site of two marine research centers: the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) field station and a Mexican Fisheries Institute facility.

 

Xel-Ha Park
Always a good place for a family outing, Xel-Ha is hailed by locals as the world’s largest natural aquarium. It is an enormous caleta or inlet of crystalline waters fed by cenotes in the surrounding mangroves and jungle.

Rainbow-colored fish from nearby reefs feed and breed in the inlet and swimmers will see shoals of sergeant majors, blue chromis and one of the park’s emblems, the parrotfish, as soon as they venture into the water. Snorkel over to the rocks where fish shelter and further into the lagoons and you’ll see even more marine life. There is a floating bridge over the mouth of the lagoon and it is here that larger fish such as snappers and jacks congregate.

 

Yalku
Located just to the north of Akumal Bay, Yalku is a smaller caleta than Xel-Ha and is also a great snorkeling spot. Look out for parrot, surgeon and butterfly fish, blue tangs and sergeant majors. Take the coast road north from Akumal Bay past Half Moon Bay and follow the signs, it is a five to 10-minute drive.

 

Akumal
This picturesque bay has a palm-lined beach and an offshore reef for diving and snorkeling. You can also walk or drive north along the coast road to Half Moon Bay or Bahia de la Media Luna where the corals are much closer to the shore. You’ll need reef shoes here because the seabed is rocky.

Marine life is varied and abundant in Akumal, even in the shallows. Royal grammas, spotted drums and damselfish dart through the corals and parrotfish and eagle rays are often sighted. The greatest thrill of all, however, is to spot a green or loggerhead turtle grazing on the sea grass. Watch from a distance, do not approach her or make a noise and she may swim past you, giving you the chance to see her beautiful markings. A vacation memory to treasure, no wonder Akumal means “place of the turtles” in Maya.

 

Cozumel
The reefs girdling Cozumel’s west coast and southern tip are world-famous in scuba circles but the island offers plenty of spectacular snorkeling spots too and is just a short boat ride from the Riviera Maya. Start with snorkeling in Chankanaab Park and book trips to other shallow water reefs. Another attraction is El Cielo, a stretch of seabed off the north coast of the island that is inhabited by thousands of starfish.

Reef Tips
If you decide to go snorkeling in the Riviera Maya, please follow these guidelines and help preserve the reefs for future generations.
* Do not apply sun lotion or any kind of lotion or perfume if you are going snorkeling, wear a t-shirt to protect your skin instead. Sun products and the oils and chemicals in creams and cosmetics damage the coral and pollute the water.
* Do not touch the coral or stir the sand up in the vicinity of the reef. The slightest touch can cause damage that will take the coral centuries to recover from.
* Do not remove shells or other marine creatures from the reef.
* Watch your step; spiny sea urchins can cause nasty wounds.
* Don’t forget your underwater camera!

Booking your Riviera Maya snorkeling trip
Want to go snorkeling in the Riviera Maya or the Cancun-Isla Mujeres area this summer? Thomas More Travel offers a variety of trips to great snorkeling spots. You can even charter a boat with your own crew and escape fellow swimmers on your own adventure.

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Great Riviera Maya family trips to try this summer

Treat the family to a fun day out on your next Cancun vacation. Here’s a guide to some great Riviera Maya family trips and ideas for exploring further afield.

Watery fun, snorkeling is top of the list
After days on the beach, in the pool or at the Royal Resorts kids club it’s time to do some exploring and there’s one thing in the Mexican Caribbean that fast becomes a family favorite, a snorkeling trip. If your children can swim they can learn to snorkel and they’ll soon be ready to take the plunge and join you to explore the wonders of the Mesoamerican Reef, the second longest coral reef system in the world.

Shallow water reefs in the Cancun-Isla Mujeres area, Chankanaab Park on the island of Cozumel and Puerto Morelos and Akumal in the Riviera Maya are ideal spots for snorkeling, offering sightings of angel fish, parrot fish, sergeant majors and even sea turtles.

An alternative is to spend the day at Xel-Ha Park. This chain of turquoise inlets, lagoons and cenotes is a snorkeling paradise offering face to face encounters with a variety of colorful reef fish. And although you’ll want to dive into the clear water over and over again in search of new species, there are other fun activities on offer.

Follow the paths through the forest to the park’s cenotes, smaller inlets and caves. Leap off the cliff of courage into the water and then drift across the lagoon on a giant inner tube. You can also try your hand at zip lining, swim in a cenote and walk across the floating bridge at the mouth of the inlet where larger fish such as snappers and jacks swim placidly by. You’ll see dolphins, manatees and stingrays in different parts of the park and for an additional fee you and your children can swim with them.

During your day at Xel-Ha, you’ll learn about the mangrove forest that plays such an important role in the lives of reef fish as a breeding and feeding area and a refuge for juvenile fish. As you walk along nature trails around the lagoon and in the forest keep a look out for iguanas, coatimundis and raccoons and discover the ancient Mayan traditions associated with bee keeping.

For a panoramic view of the park’s inlets and cenotes and the Riviera Maya coast, climb Xel-Ha’s latest attraction, a lookout tower that is also a huge water slide that your children will love.

On the outskirts of Cancun Hotel Zone, Ventura Park has more fun pools, water slides and rides that will keep your children happy all day.

Park life
Spending the day at the Riviera Maya’s nature parks is a top family vacation activity and one that everyone will enjoy.

Heading the list is world-famous Xcaret Park just south of Playa del Carmen. Spending the day here is as much about fun in the water as it is about you and your children discovering the country’s rich traditions and wildlife.

Relax on the beach, swim in one of the park’s underground rivers and go snorkeling. You can see more treasures of the deep on a visit to the aquarium. Visit the sea turtles; there are tiny hatchlings, juveniles and huge turtles approaching maturity. Manatees swim in the lagoons and there are dolphins too (additional charge for dolphin swims and encounters).

Walk through the huge aviary, home to 90 species of birds from southeast Mexico, from hummingbirds to parrots, macaws and toucans. Sit for a few minutes in the peaceful sanctuary of the butterfly pavilion and don’t miss the regional wildlife enclosures where you can watch the antics of spider monkeys and coatimundis, deer grazing with their fawns and see the majestic jaguar.

Opened in 2017, the Children’s World area in Xcaret offers pools, water slides and cenotes for children under the age of 12 to swim in. As the little ones splash about in the water and run across rope bridges, parents can cool off and recharge in a shaded rest area.

As you wander through Xcaret you’ll see crumbling stone temples in forest clearings that are all that remains of an ancient Mayan port called Pole. There’s also a replica of a Mayan village where craftsmen work and the representation of the ancient Mayan ball game in the evening is a highlight.

During the day, you’ll see the Papantla Flyers from Veracruz climb a 30-meter pole and tie ropes to their feet. They then cast themselves off, circling the pole and gradually descending, emulating the flight of birds in an ancient ritual to honor the sun god. In the afternoon, you can watch the charros or Mexican cowboys display their equestrian skills as you enjoy a late lunch of mouthwatering traditional cuisine.

Be sure to stay on for the unforgettable Xcaret evening gala performance that showcases Mexican history, music, dance and song. It takes you from the days of ancient Mayan rulers to the sights and sounds of a Mexican fiesta, complete with a mariachi band. Your children will soon forget that they are tired and be so enthralled that they will be shouting “Viva Mexico” with the rest of the audience.

A shorter trip that younger children might enjoy is Crococun located just to the north of Puerto Morelos. They’ll see crocodiles, spider monkeys, parrots and toucans and can stroke white-tailed deer and other tame creatures.

For a fun morning in the Riviera Maya with older children, Xenses Park is a world full of illusions where what you see is what you don’t. There are two circuits with 17 different attractions that take park goers into a fantastic realm where nothing is what it seems. With names like the Pinwheel, Way of Dwarfs and Giants, Xensatorium, Xitrico Garden, Flutterfly and Sludgerie, the experiences take place on the ground, underground, in the air on zip lines and in the water and bring visitors into contact with nature.

After a visit to Xenses, head to Playa del Carmen for lunch and more optical illusions at the 3D Museum of Wonders where you can literally walk into 3D drawings on the walls, floors and ceiling. Not tired yet? Take the children to L’Aquarium, Playa del Carmen’s huge new aquarium.

Jungle Adventures
How about a day of jungle adventures? These are fun Riviera Maya family trips for older children who will soon find their adventurous spirit. They can fly through the jungle canopy on thrilling zip line circuits and swim in cenotes or sinkholes at Xplor Park, Selvatica or Aktun Chen. Other adventure tours include zip lining, abseiling down a cliff, kayaking, biking and nature walks and ATV drives.

Taking the family to Xenotes Oasis Maya gives you the chance to explore the jungle and spend the day at four different cenotes on the Ruta de los Cenotes inland from Puerto Morelos. Swim, snorkel and rappel down a cliff wall. Go kayaking, float in an inner tube and splashdown in a cenote on a fun zip line. Venture into ancient caves and enjoy a guided walk along nature trails in the jungle.

If all the members of the family like horseback riding, there are several ranches offering rides through the jungle to a cenote where you can cool off with a swim.

If you want your children to learn about nature, how about a trip to Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve? A trip from Muyil to the south of Tulum combines a visit to the Muyil archaeological site in the jungle with a fun boat ride across the lagoon into the mangroves where you’ll float-swim through a canal. There’s even time for the beach and of course you’ll see plenty of wildlife along the way. Other Sian Ka’an options include visits to Mayan communities where you’ll have the chance to meet local people and learn about their lives and traditions.

Discovering Mayan culture
A day trip to the area’s famous archaeological sites is an option if you have older children, especially if you combine it with time on the beach or cenote visits. Tulum and Coba in the Riviera Maya are good sites to start with before heading to Chichen Itza, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Always plan early trips to the archaeological sites so that you can beat the midday heat. If you do decide to go to Chichen Itza, the colonial town of Valladolid is a good place for a break and lunch and there are cenotes en route to Chichen where you can cool off.

 

Book your Riviera Maya family trips with Thomas More
From tickets to nature parks to snorkeling, dolphin swims, zip lining adventures, boat trips and much more, book your Riviera Maya family trips with Thomas More Travel. Visit the website now to get started and if you are staying at Royal Resorts visit the travel desk for more options.

 

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Return of the gentle giants, whale shark season in the Mexican Caribbean

If you are traveling to Cancun or the Riviera Maya this summer and love the underwater world, how about an incredible once-in-a-lifetime encounter with nature, a swim with a whale shark? You’ll have seen these gentle giants on TV in BBC and National Geographic programs but have you ever imagined coming face to face with one? The whale sharks start arriving in the Mexican Caribbean around the middle of May and from June to mid-September you have the opportunity to swim with the world’s largest fish.

Face to face with one of the great ocean wanderers
Whale sharks are great ocean wanderers, traveling thousands of miles through the tropics in search of the microscopic plankton that is their staple diet. In the summer they gather in the Mexican Caribbean where higher temperatures mean an abundance of plankton. Hundreds of whale sharks feast on plankton in the waters off the islands of Holbox, Contoy and Isla Mujeres. Biologists believe that this is the largest whale shark aggregation in the world and have discovered that it isn’t only plankton that attracts them but also fish roe. It is the spawning season of the little tunny fish and the whale sharks are partial to the eggs.

There are actually two whale shark feeding grounds in the Mexican Caribbean: the area between Holbox and Cabo Catoche and a stretch of deeper water to the east of Contoy and Isla Mujeres. Due to the importance of this area for whale sharks and other marine species such as sailfish, marlin, manta rays, dolphins and sea turtles, the Mexican government declared part of the zone a marine biosphere reserve.

Imagine snorkeling alongside a whale shark and watching as a creature the size of a bus approaches you and swims placidly by, its gaping jaws open to scoop up the plankton. With a final flick of the tail it disappears into the depths. It is an awe-inspiring sight and an emotional experience, one that wildlife watchers shouldn’t miss.

Spots and stripes, the domino fish
Whale sharks are also known as “domino fish” due to their distinctive stripes and dappled markings. Each fish has its own unique pattern and whale shark scientists around the world are compiling a photo catalog of them. Through the use of this international database for identification purposes and by tagging sharks they can now begin to map the movements of these enigmatic creatures and learn where they go as they visit different feeding grounds during the year.

Guided small group eco trips to see the whale sharks are available from Cancun and Isla Mujeres. During the boat trip out to the whale shark feeding grounds your guide will explain the whale shark rules, which include keeping your distance (five meters), not attempting to touch the creature and swimming alongside it instead of in front. Only two people per boat are allowed in the water at one time and are accompanied by the guide. The use of sun products and flash photography are not permitted.

On the journey out to the whale shark area, you may spot wild dolphins and sea turtles. Huge manta rays also gather to eat the plankton and sometimes breach the water surface in spectacular flight.

Another whale shark watching option is to plan an overnight trip to Holbox, the island on the north coast of Quintana Roo where even the wooden signs lining the sandy streets of the village show the famous pez domino as the whale shark is affectionately called by local fishermen. You can go in search of whale sharks in the morning, explore the Yalahau Lagoon and Isla de los Pajaros (Bird Island) in the afternoon and still have time for the beach and to discover the rustic laidback ambiance of the community.

Book your summer whale shark trip
Whale shark watching trips are available through Thomas More Travel. Book online at www.thomasmoretravel.com or at the tour desk during your stay.

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Travesia Sagrada Maya, Sacred Mayan Journey to Cozumel

The first rays of the sun touch the shores of the bay in Xcaret Park in the Riviera Maya and the sound of drums, flutes and conch horns reaches a crescendo. Mayan priests chant their salute to the dawn and clouds of aromatic copal incense waft through the air. Witnesses to a scene from ancient times, the audience watches Mayan oarsmen receive the blessing of the gods. They will be embarking on a perilous canoe journey to the sacred island of Cozumel to worship at the shrine of Ixchel, the goddess of fertility. It is the Travesia Sagrada Maya, the Sacred Mayan Journey, which takes place on May 25 and 26 at Xcaret and Cozumel.

The temples of the ancient Mayan port of Polé lie within the boundaries of Xcaret Park. Once a trade center on the Caribbean maritime route, Polé was also one of the departure points for pilgrimages to Cozumel. On May 25, the canoes will depart for Cozumel once more, as they did over a thousand years ago. As the pilgrims’ families bid farewell, a flock of scarlet macaws flies overhead in a salute to the rising sun. A fitting tribute as macaws and parrots were sacred birds in the Maya and other Mesoamerican cultures and were associated with the sun god.

Depending on the weather and sea conditions, the Travesia Sagrada Maya crossing will take between six and eight hours. The pilgrims make landfall on Cozumel at Chankanaab Park at around 1 p.m. and walk to the shrine of Ixchel where they pray and leave offerings for the goddess.

The morning of May 26, they set sail again heading for the mainland with Polé in their sights. A cheer goes up from the shores of the bay when the first canoe of returning pilgrims is spotted and they are greeted with great joy and celebrations for their safe homecoming.

A journey of faith
After six months of arduous dawn training sessions, 377 oarsmen and women are ready to board their canoes for the Travesia Sagrada Maya. They will be following the sea route taken by ancient Mayan pilgrims who traveled from all over the Yucatan Peninsula to the sacred island of Cozumel (Kuzamil) to worship at the shrine of Ixchel, the goddess of fertility, childbirth and the moon and tides. Depicted as an old woman or a beautiful young maiden and also known as Ixchebelyax, Ix Hunic or Ix Hunieta, Ixchel was also the patron of fishing, painting and weaving.

This is the twelfth year of the Sacred Mayan Journey, which is the representation of a pilgrimage dating from the Late Post-Classic period of Mayan history (A.D. 1250-1519). From the backdrop of a Kii’wik or bustling Mayan market where trade goods were bartered and rituals in honor of Ixchel to the clothing, headdresses and face paint worn by the priests and priestesses, the nobility, dancers and oarsmen, everything has been carefully researched to make it as authentic as possible.

The Travesia Sagrada Maya originated as an initiative from the Experiencias Xcaret group to restore an ancient tradition and has been enthusiastically embraced by the people of the Mexican Caribbean as has the Festival of Life and Death at Xcaret, which showcases Mexico’s Day of the Dead traditions, October 30 to November 1 and 2.

The oarsmen come from the Riviera Maya, Cozumel, Cancun, Yucatan and other parts of Mexico and they are joined by expats that have chosen to make their home here. This year, 35 crew members are from Argentina, Canada, United States, Colombia, Venezuela, United Kingdom, France, Slovakia, Spain and Italy.

Some 218 dancers and musicians from Cozumel, Playa del Carmen, the Zona Maya in southern Quintana Roo and Xcaret reenact ancient rituals in Polé and Cozumel, portraying the goddess Ixchel, priests and priestesses, the ruler and his court, merchants and villagers.

If you would like to witness the Travesia Sagrada Maya or Sacred Mayan Journey ask at the Thomas More Travel desk about trips to Xcaret.

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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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