La Riviera Mexicana |

La Riviera Mexicana

The white-sand beach and turquoise water at Cancun, Yucatan.
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Heading toward a country I had read much about, I wondered if it would live up to all the descriptions of mystery and beauty: A land of white sand beaches, an ocean of clear turquoise water where the ancient Mayan civilization once reigned, the Mexican Yucatan.The inexpensive five-hour charter flight from Oakland was pleasant and shorter than I had expected. After claiming our baggage, we made our way to the hotel shuttle. Our jovial bus driver greeted us with a smile and a cold Dos Equis.

Stress and worries melted away like butter as we drank our cerveza and bumped along Paseo Kukulkan, the main road that straddles the narrow strip of sand that is glamorous Cancun. On one side of the 14-mile strip is the tranquil Nichupte Lagoon; on the other is the breathtakingly blue Caribbean Sea, true to all travel brochure depictions.

After checking in, first on our agenda was a barefoot stroll along the powdery white-sand beach. Soft strains from a Mexican guitar played a sultry rumba as warm ocean breezes whipped through our hair and cooled our bodies.

Miles of gorgeous beaches are fringed with luxurious resorts; beach lovers dot the shoreline and worship the sun just as Mayans had centuries ago. Thatched-roofed cabanas are scattered along the beaches manned by friendly bartenders serving up margaritas, pina coladas and smiles.

That evening we met with Pedro, our hotel tour guide, who filled us in on places to eat, shop and find local entertainment. Included was a rundown of favorite nightspots where he and other Latin Lotharios pick up single turistas.

He was quite informative about the myriad day excursions available to Mayan ruins, such as Chichen Itza and Tulum; Xel-Ha Lagoon and Isla Mujeres. There is no end to water sports such as snorkeling, Jetskiing, diving, fishing and sailing.

Of course, you always have the option of doing nothing, laying poolside, sunning, rousing only to wade to a swim-up bar for a cold drink. But be warned: The tropical sun is particularly intense and skin damaging, so apply plenty of heavy-duty sunscreen.

Weather is warm, sunny and humid, but on occasion brief warm showers occur, so pack a hooded waterproof light jacket.

The best months to visit climate-wise are October through May. We were there in early April catching the tail end of spring break. If you visit during Easter Break when hundreds of college students are on vacation, don’t despair! Watching the parade of tanned, muscle-bound and bikini-clad bodies can be quite entertaining. Their preening and poolside antics can keep a people watcher like me amused for hours.

Virtually any type of cuisine you wish is available in the Mexican-Caribbean Riviera. Fresh seafood is everywhere, especially delicious when grilled, lime-basted and served at open-air restaurants along the piers.

El Mexicano, a restaurant in the Cost Blanca shopping center, offers mouth-watering meals ranging from continental to Mexican in a candlelit colonial Spanish courtyard setting.

Two floor shows are featured: a dazzling Caribbean show and a folklorico show accompanied by excellent mariachis. The service is superb, and the waiters are extremely gracious. Plaza de Toros is also highly recommended for dining and shopping.

Cancun nightlife starts around 11 p.m., so don’t show up at the discos at 9 ready to boogie – it’s much too early!

Although there are countless bars and discos, don’t pass up the chance to hear some live Latin music.

Electrifying music from 18-piece salsa bands can be heard at various jazz clubs such as Azucar. The patrons’ range in age is wide, attire is dressy, and dancing or watching the dancers is not to be missed.

There is no shortage of transportation around Cancun. Just step out to the curb and have your pick of taxis and buses.

Drivers are amiable, and there are no obstacles to non-Spanish speakers; just have the correct amount of pesos ready.

Old Cancun City is a shopper’s dream, if you don’t mind haggling. Native handiwork abounds in open-air marketplaces. I found good buys on soft leather shoes and silver earrings.

For the less adventurous, try the Caracol Mall’s upscale shops. The modern mall lacks the character of old town, but often has the same items for less money and no haggling required. Besides that, you can grab a burger and fries at McDonald’s and pretend you’re back home if you get homesick.

Our long-awaited pilgrimage to the ruins of Chichen Itza would be via a 31/2 hour bus drive. The trip starts early in the morning, so be sure to have a hearty breakfast and take a snack and bottled water.

In comfortable, modern and air-conditioned buses, we passed Mayan villages hacked out of rain forests. The simplistic lifestyle of the present-day Mayans belies their history, once masters of astronomy and calendrical studies.

The heat and humidity was stifling at Chichen Itza, but our guides kept up a brisk pace and inundated us with fascinating information. We cautiously climbed El Castillo, topped by the temple of Kulkulcan, and explored El Caracol, the observatory. We toured the ball court and the mysterious sacred cenote, where gold-laden victims were sacrificed to the murky green waters.

During the fall and spring equinoxes, the shadow of the serpent god Kulkulcan can be seen descending the steps of pyramid El Castillo. Make reservations one year in advance to witness this popular sight. These intriguing ruins leave the visitor awed and mystified, a must-see experience.

The day we left was overcast and gray, reflecting our mood about leaving. We packed up our souvenirs along with our lovely memories and waved adios to beautiful Cancun. We vowed to return again soon.

Cindy L. Todd lives in Nevada City.

For more information, contact the Mexico Tourism Board, 1-800-44Mexico, or

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