Maya Sunshine

Once temperatures dropped and the winter rains began, I started dreaming about snorkelling in the tropics. That first plunge into the crystal blue ocean at Puerto Morelos, Mexico, in late January 2023 was exquisite.

December to April is a great time to visit Mexico’s sunny Riviera Maya where sunshine and beaches abound. An experienced local diver led our group of eight hailing from Canada, the Netherlands, France, and the United States on an underwater adventure in and around the coral reef. Schools of brilliantly coloured fish swam around the giant corals while grouper and angelfish hid from the barracuda lurking nearby.

The underwater marine environment was fascinating; the water and outdoors refreshing. But the troubling brownish tinge on the coral told its own story. The National Reef Park is struggling to stay healthy. I learned more about the reef’s precarious health in a report handed out by a concerned ecological group that conducts extensive research on the Mesoamerican reef. Measures are being put in place to improve the situation while development along the coast, global sea warming, and sargassum from the Sargasso Sea continue to cause concern.

It’s easy to get to Cancun by air; there, you can immerse yourself in nature and Mexican culture on the Riviera Maya. At the Sian Ka’an UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, I floated down ancient Maya canals in an inner tube accompanied by exotic local birds. In Rio Lagartos, a UNESCO Biosphere, a local guide took us to see a pink salt lake, crocodiles, cormorants, and flamingos.

The Maya have inhabited the southernmost part of Mexico since 500 BCE, possibly earlier. Numerous restored archaeological sites are a doorway to Maya culture. The grandeur of their ancient structures and the organization of communities built over two thousand years ago is awe-inspiring. The Maya had a deep understanding of many areas of knowledge including astronomy, the cycles of the seasons, and agriculture.

After a relaxing week in the sun at a resort, including a few day trips, my husband and I made our way by taxi and ADO (Autobuses de Oriente) bus to Valladolid, a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of Mexico’s pueblos mágicos. At the nearby Ek’ Balam ruins, an informative guide from Temozon, a Maya village, showed us around. In Valladolid, we lingered in the centre square to eat and appreciate the local vibe.

A few days later, from the bus window on our way to Mérida, we saw crews busy constructing the Maya train track. This train, from Playa del Carmen to Campeche on the Gulf of Mexico, is an enormous undertaking that will help with travel for tourists and Mexicans and reduce vehicular traffic.

For February we rented a spacious fourth-floor apartment, accessible only by stairs, in a small apartment complex by the ocean. Friends of ours have been going to Chicxulub, a small fishing village, for over twenty years. The apartment was reasonable, and a friendly community of Canadians and Americans occupied most of the other units. Daily at four o’clock, residents gathered for a happy hour around the pool to chat. What a great way to meet your neighbours!

A short walk into Chicxulub or a brief ride on a guajolote (rickety old school bus) or combi (mini-van) took us to the centre square just two blocks from the pier and a dinosaur statue. Market stalls offered local Mexican produce, the bakery provided fresh bread, and meals or snacks were available at a kiosk or restaurant. Two grocery stores, a pharmacy, and other shops provided for most needs. I also got an exceptional hair cut from the local stylist, Gabby. Personal safety concerns were minimal.

The ancient Maya cities of Chichen Itza, Uxmal, Dzibilchaltun, Xcambó, and others can be readily visited from Chicxulub in a day. One day we visited Maya ruins, did some bird watching, and toured salt flats where the local Maya community mines underwater salt using traditional methods. That day we met a couple from Lloydminster — a teacher and her husband on a spring break get-away. In Progreso, ten minutes away, we watched the carnival parade with friends and listened to music in a local club. The state’s capital, Mérida, a thriving cultural hub, is half an hour away by bus. There, the city’s beautiful colonial architecture, along with its cultural and musical events, make it a must-see.

In the Yucatán, when the tropical sun gets too warm, a refreshing dip in one of its many cenotes relieves fatigue and is a great way to cool down. Use of insect repellents and sunscreen is discouraged to protect the fragile ecosystem. It’s an enchanting jungle experience, and if you’re lucky, you won’t come away with a spider bite like I did. But that’s another story!

Delia McCrae went to the Universidad Javeriana in Bogotá, Colombia, in 1969, after finishing high school in Edson, Alberta. She enjoys travelling in the Spanish-speaking world and finds the Maya people to be gracious hosts.