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Mexico’s dazzling Yucatan peninsula has it all

by Ace Damon
White sands: the Yucatan coast with its tropical white sandy beach and turquoise sea

Through the jungle towards the sea, on a day of intense sunshine and tropical rain. A mosaic of fallen leaves decorates our path, and somewhere a peacock is quacking. Everything is covered by a nice humidity. Britain is a 12-hour flight away – and live for it.

We come to a clear lawn clearing, beyond which a thatched hut offers drinks. We pause to examine the menu at this simple stop. Yes, they are actually serving Kobe beef cheeseburgers for £ 34 for bread and a bottle of Domaine de la Romanee-Conti for £ 21,329.

A ragged young man with a backpack came by once. More than a quarter of a century ago, I spent a few months traveling through Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula through Belize and Guatemala.

White sands: the Yucatan coast with its tropical white sandy beach and turquoise sea

My budget was tight, and the rooms I stayed in were often squalid tents. I dined rice and beans in roadside shacks, swam in forest rivers, caught a glimpse of the Guatemalan Civil War, and watched volcanoes above Antigua bubble and spit.

All in all, an exciting adventure. So I had to go home and work.

I recently returned to Central America to redo the first part of this journey. This time I went with my wife and two teenage daughters, and the budget and itinerary were adjusted accordingly.

While my wife gets restless quickly on a tropical island beach vacation, our daughters love them. The Mexican Caribbean has made a commitment: beautiful seascapes with an interior that offers millennia of history and culture and sophisticated cuisine.

But would the former youth recognize his old ways? With difficulty sometimes. New temples, dedicated to all-inclusive hedonism rather than the ancient gods, sprang up along the coast, which even took on a new name: the Riviera Maya. Not without reason.

The Riviera revolves around Playa del Carmen, 70 km south of the concrete tourist city of Cancun, with its ever-expanding international airport. When I came here, Playa was a fishing port of 15,000 inhabitants; A stop for hippie travelers with a few bars – or at least my romantic memory stated.

Today it has about 200,000 inhabitants and the nightlife is varied and full of life. Spring break – when thousands of US students come down to the Riviera to drink, dance and mate – is something to behold.

Throughout the year, cruise ships stay at sea and the streets are full of Starbucks, souvenir shops and shopping malls. Go if this is your bag. Otherwise, look for the relatively undefeated tracks. They are still out there.

Our base was a secluded boutique resort within walking distance of Playa, but unaffected by its bustle.

Hotel Esencia comes with an interesting history. The central village, Casa Grande, was once home to an Italian duchess.

Gwyneth Paltrow vacationed at Hotel Esencia

Gwyneth Paltrow vacationed at Hotel Esencia

Esencia is divine. Its grace has since departed, and the 30-acre property is now owned and developed with impeccable taste by a New York TV tycoon.

While I was trying to manipulate the Yucatan for the first time, it was busy turning The Simpsons and Beverly Hills, 90210, into global phenomena. Today, he's turning Esencia into a hole for captains of industry and show business deities – Hollywood royalty Uma Thurman and Gwyneth Paltrow have stayed.

Minor mortals who save, save and forgive a new family car for a special vacation are also very welcome. The staff is lovely.

Our air-conditioned casita overlooked the forest canopy we shared with blue Yucatan jays, golden orioles, iguanas and other wildlife such as the lovely coatimundi.

From the white sand beach – where teams worked to remove the seasonal arrival of Sargasso algae – we practiced boogie boarding and snorkeling among schools of snapper, knave and angelfish.

On land, the girls fed the freshwater turtles that live in the hotel's cenote – one of the many holes found in Yucatan. They even got up at dawn – at dawn! – Attend yoga classes on a platform overlooking the ocean.

Fortunately, I could have spent my days drinking £ 5 Corona beers (there were affordable alternatives) at Crow's Nest bar, in the treetops, on the beach, watching the pelicans fly in perfect veins. But my wife had that uneasy look, and I had a historical omission to repair.

When I was last in Yucatan, I stopped at the upscale Tulum site. (Almost deserted, Tulum is now surrounded by the jet-set palaces of pleasure.) But I never made the two-hour trip inland to the site of the largest Mayan-era city, Chichen Itza.

The empire reached its peak between our dark ages and the middle ages. By the time the Spanish conquerors arrived, civilization had peaked and self-destructed.

Chichen Itza – a UNESCO World Heritage Site – was its heyday; Whitehall-cum-Parliament Square and the Mayan Wembley Stadium.

The vast complex of stone buildings was cheerfully painted and covered with intricate mosaics and reliefs of feathered serpents, jaguars and owls that populated the Mayan pantheon of gods.

What remains is still isolated, still amazing. The iconic structure is the temple of Castillo, a step pyramid about 100 feet high.

Across the square is the Great Ball Court, where a version of the Mesoamerican ball game was played.

Chichen Itza, above, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The iconic structure is the temple of Castillo, above, a pyramid of steps about 100 feet high.

Chichen Itza, above, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The iconic structure is the temple of Castillo, above, a pyramid of steps about 100 feet high.

The rules and purpose of the sport remain unclear, but some murals suggest that defeated players may be subject to human execution or sacrifice. His modern contemporaries are just divided on Twitter.

Numerous bus parties depart from Cancun and Playa to the venue every day.

We chose to take a private tour of Experiencias Maya. We left at dawn and thus avoided the crowds and the overwhelming heat of mid-afternoon. Raul, our guide, was attractive in both the ancient Maya world and modern Mexico.

On the way back to the hotel, we stopped in the colonial city of Valladolid, all the beauty of pastel stucco, tequila distilleries (girls posed in the obligatory ponchos and sombreros) and chocolate studios.

We had an excellent lunch at the Meson del Marques restaurant, set in a 17th-century mansion on the main square, opposite San Servasio's sugar cake cathedral.

It was when one of the liveried waiters prepared guacamole at the table that the girls declared their Yucatan experience "the best party ever" (though my wife was led to comment: "If I never see another avocado, don't be sorry. & # 39;)

I doubt the girls would be so excited about my backpack odyssey. I doubt I want it now. Yucatan has also changed. Expected not to change much.

TRAVEL FACTS

Turquoise Vacations (turquoiseholidays.co.uk, 01494 678 400) offers seven nights at the Hotel Esencia from £ 3,075 pp, based on a Jungle room, including breakfast, flights and transfers. Chichen Itza Tours by experienciasmayas.com.

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