I recently read a book about what the Americas were like before Columbus, Cortes and a load of other Europeans made their way across the Atlantic in the 15th and 16th centuries. In short, the author – Charles Mann, an American journalist – argues that it was considerably more populated and advanced than most of us assume.
He also argues that rather than succumbing to allegedly superior European technology (the Europeans had guns, but apparently they were really rubbish, less deadly than an native American’s arrow) the conquering of those lands was primarily due to millions of unfortunate indigenous folk being accidentally obliterated by diseases that were alien to their immune systems.
These days, European visitors are more welcome in the western hemisphere, and certainly in the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico. The area around Cancun may be known for cheap booze and American students on “spring break”, but there has also been a considerable effort to attract a more discerning and sophisticated type of traveller.
Tourists climbing a Mayan pyramid in Coba
Driving along the coast between Cancun airport and Tulum, the four-lane highway is a conveyor belt of hotel complexes that rival each other for how huge, elaborate and floodlit they can make their high-security entrances.
Our garrulous driver cheerfully informs us that our destination, the Grand Velas Riviera Maya, is the plushest of all. Maybe that’s what he says to all the pale-skinned ignoramuses who end up in his car, but on arriving at Grand Velas it was clear that he knew what he was talking about.
Traditional Mexican tourist souvenirs
The entrance itself is massive – the obligatory floodlights illuminate giant flame-shaped holes in the walls (“velas” meaning candles) – and once through security you find yourself driving along a narrow lane surrounded by short, thick jungle that we are later informed is home to crocodiles.
The main part of the hotel is situated on the beach, although a separate wing (also huge) makes up an island amid the jungle. Getting from one part to the other must be done with the help of transit vans that shuttle constantly between the two; guests are not allowed to walk, lest they encounter a hungry example of one of the aforementioned beasts.
Speaking of food, Grand Velas has eight restaurants most of which have made a discernable effort to be classified as distinctly high-end. In doing so there is no trendy informality of the type common back home; rather, each restaurant insists on a dress code that means men must be clad in long-sleeved shirts and trousers for dinner. Women must also be dressed according to the code of “casual resort elegance.” Irrespective of your marital status, you will be referred to throughout as “Mr and Mrs <Insert the man’s surname>”. It’s all very 1950s America.
The serene coast of Xel Ha Nat
The cost of dinner, and indeed of all meals, is included in the price of staying at Grand Velas. This provides the incentive, at least for skinflints such as myself, to attend one of the fine dining restaurants every evening – but maybe it’s worth giving yourself the odd night off. It may sound obscenely spoiled to complain about the endless courses of tasting menus and detailed descriptions of the food that the waiters meticulously recite, but – along with the dressed up formality – this whole rigmarole can get a bit tiresome. Room service, on the contrary, delivers surprisingly good food that can be scoffed down as you watch TV in your pants. After all, you’re supposed to be on holiday.
Fussing aside, Grand Velas is an exceptionally lavish hotel, complete with in-room jacuzzis big enough for rock stars’ aftershow antics; large swimming pools with accompanying bars; and four-poster beds on the white-sanded beach. All the picture-postcard stuff is pretty much bang on.
This part of Mexico, a middle-income country that still suffers from noticeable patches of poverty, is extremely reliant on tourism. The formula for prosperity seems to lie in attracting relatively well-off people not solely through plush all-inclusive hotels, but also with Mayan remains that are still being uncovered.
The swimming pool and spa at the Grand Vela Riviera Maya Hotel
Our trip included visits to Tulum and Coba, while the even-more-famous site at Chichen Itza is within range for those willing to make an excursion. Helpfully, the experiences of Tulum and Coba were polar-opposites of each other and presented us with neat examples of how to – and how not to – do historical tourism.
The journey to Tulum consisted of a mini-bus followed by a full-size coach; both came complete with compere-style tour guides straight out of the Hi-de-Hi textbook – all verbal diarrhea and constant mother-in-law jokes that are, of course, about as funny as seeing children caught up in war zones. For once in my life it made me glad to be an ignorant monoglot; my Spanish-speaking girlfriend had to endure this non-stop performance being repeated in, not one, but two languages.
When we got off, we were met by another couple of clowns – this time dressed up and painted in stereotypical “Mayan” warrior costumes. The pair jumped out at us, faux-snarling, as if we would be instantly charmed by this sudden demonstration of primitive indigenous life from an unspecified time in the distant past. They competed for our attention alongside a load of other opportunists flogging cigars and tacky mementos of a Mayan history that we had yet to be told anything about.
An ocean-side bar at the Grand Vela Riviera Maya Hotel
Once on the ruins, a spot of education was allowed to seep in. The guide spent half an hour giving a maths lesson in Mayan counting systems; I found this quite interesting, but most of the group drifted off and made do with the scattered information boards that contained minimal points of interest.
Having covered the bad and the ugly, I’ll get on to the good. A couple of days later we took a private tour to Coba, a strangely under-appreciated ruin that has been dug out of jungle surrounding a large lake. The exceptionally well-informed tour guide took us cycling around the former city, providing a vivid picture of how Mayan communities may have lived at various times. She also explained what is still uncertain and what is not known, due to the relatively young investigation of Mayan ruins (not to mention the destruction of evidence over the centuries).
Speaking passionately about the crucial importance of tourism to the economic development of the Yucatan peninsula, our guide reported that the Mexican authorities are finally putting more effort into the discovery and conservation of sites of historical importance. The region is rich with places such as Coba that can stimulate visitors’ minds, while the coast offers a carefree, pampered beach break. Combining the two revealed the potential of this part of the world to extend well beyond a stereotypical spring break destination for young Americans.
Nathan Barley, the new-media buffoon from the self-titled cult TV series, coined the phrase “Totally Mexico!” to denote something he thought was hip
NEED TO KNOW
Seven nights in Mexico with Virgin Holidays, including flights from London Gatwick direct to Cancun, including an all inclusive package at the 5V Grand Velas Riviera Maya and transfers starts from £2,459pp
Price is based two people sharing a Zen Grand Suite and a departure on September 15, 2015