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27 Jan, Friday
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Montreal Families

Riviera Maya courts adventure-seeking families

I’m standing on a platform about 15 metres above ground and staring at the zip-line stretching over a section of the Mexican jungle. Hurtling down this line is supposed to be fun, I remind myself. Certainly those waiting impatiently behind me seem eager to travel across the leafy canopy attached by a hook to a metal wire. But they probably don’t suffer from acrophobia — the technical term for fear of heights. I do; just climbing up to the platform has sent my blood pressure skyrocketing. But I’ve promised my thrill-seeking 11-year-old daughter that our time in Riviera Maya will include a taste of the area’s fast-growing adventure travel spots.

Located south of Cancun, Riviera Maya has a reputation for white-sand beaches and luxury resorts. But increasingly, businesses are attracting families who want to spice up their stay by swimming in a cenote (a water-filled sinkhole), zip-lining or taking a swim with a dolphin. We’ve hooked up with an organization called Hidden Worlds, where I’m confronting my fear of heights.

With a deep breath — and a few gentle words of encouragement from my daughter — I push off from the platform and am zooming through the jungle. I manage to open my eyes at about the halfway point, admiring the green and dark brown foliage, before bumping into a large sandbag that signals the end of the 600-foot long ride.

Then it’s off for more excitement. Hidden Worlds offers several different activities, which if done in sequence, take about a half day to complete. You can rappel into a cave or try zip-lining into a cenote, so your actual landing takes place in the cool water. Once in the cenote, (there is staircase access for those who don’t want to zip-line), visitors can have a guided swimming tour of these extraordinary underground caves. You strap on a life vest, and then paddle through a narrow opening into a magnificent cave, lit enough to see the stalactites or limestone formations hanging from the ceiling. But it’s not dark enough to scare the many bats who gracefully swoop high above us (the guide flashes his light quickly on huge bat colonies hanging, asleep, from the cave’s ceilings). It’s mysterious, beautiful and awe-inspiring.

This thrill-seeking company also lay claim to the first zip-line roller coaster in the world. It’s called the Avatar and it’s exactly like a roller coaster only without a small car to sit in. Instead, you are wired up to the zip-line. The ride starts slowly with a gentle descent through the jungle. After about 10 seconds, wham — you drop, pick up speed and make some quick turns. The final leg is a hair-raising journey into the cenote. Experiencing the Avatar once was more than enough for me, but my daughter Maya declared it “the best” and went back for a second run before we headed off for lunch.

There is a small restaurant on-site, where you can watch the cooks make simple but tasty tacos, quesadillas or hamburgers. The guides all speak English and take their role seriously — outfitting people carefully and offering plenty of encouragement. Just remember to wear sandals with straps or water shoes (flip flops won’t cut it on the zip-lines and the rather rough trails that lead from one activity to another).

Admission is $80 for adults and $40 for children, with free transportation offered daily from Tulum, Akumal and Puerto Aventuras as well as from Cancun and Playa del Carmen on certain days. For more information, visit www.hiddenworlds.com.

After our adrenalin-filled day, I was happy to retreat to the calm of the Barcelo Maya Beach resort. This all-inclusive resort is made up of five different hotels, each varying in styles and amenities. The Palace Deluxe, where we had a room, lived up to its name, with spacious rooms and an excellent buffet featuring many different kinds of foods, from Mexican dishes to pasta, fish and salads. While my daughter enjoyed swimming in the resort’s warm pool and strolling with me along the beach, she was eager for another adventure.

This time, we headed for something more tranquil: a swim with dolphins. Several centres offer such programs — we ended up at the Dolphin Discovery Puerto Aventuras (www.dolphindiscovery.com) not far from the resort. The centre offers five programs, from a simple “Dolphin Encounter” where you can hug, kiss and watch the dolphins at play ($80 regardless of age) to the Trainer for Life, which includes training and swimming with the dolphins as well as getting close to some manatees ($179 per participant). The centre offers free transportation to and from most of the major resorts in the area.

The park is clean and very well-maintained, but be warned — you must bring your own towels for drying off after the swim (there are outdoor showers for rinsing off). Also, leave your camera at home – it is forbidden to take pictures. Instead, you must purchase photos from the centre — at steep prices. (I paid $25 for one photo on a CD!).

The programs have a bit of a military feel about them — participants are expected to move briskly through the different activities in the water. But there is something magical that happens when a dolphin comes up next to you, nestles its nose in your hand and allows you to hold its dorsal fins and be pulled through the water. Their smooth grey skin and gentle eyes are simply captivating, and I found my irritations draining away. My daughter and the other children in our group were similarly smitten, reaching out to stroke the dolphins and speaking quiet words to them.

After this less-strenuous activity, we’re ready for another adrenaline rush — or so I think. We head off to Xplor (www.xplor.travel), one of the newest adventure parks. The centre offers four activities: zip-lining, rafting or swimming in a cenote, and a race course for all-terrain vehicles. For $109 ($54.50 for children under 5 foot, 5 inches tall), participants can spend the day at the park, doing each activity once (most take at least an hour or more to complete) and enjoying an all-you-can-eat buffet. The park’s facilities are immaculate and the food at the buffet is topnotch.

The real thrills at Xplor are the two zip-line circuits. The first leaves from a tower about 25 metres off the ground. Buoyed by my success at Hidden Worlds, I confidently start climbing the stairs to the launch platform. But by the time I reach the top, I have hit my limit. Looking down, I realize that I just can’t do it. But my intrepid daughter, once I’ve reassured her that I’ll be fine at lower ground, hooks onto the line and is off. A couple of hours later, she returns, breathless and laughing. “Mom, it’s probably best you didn’t do that,” she says. “The zip-lines only got higher and higher.” (Turns out the highest platform is 40 metres). She also tells me that to reach a couple of the zip-lines, you have to walk over swinging wooden bridges (à la Indiana Jones).

After lunch, we make our way to the outdoor race course. Drivers, who must be 18, get behind the wheel of an amphibious jeep. The course begins on land, but you soon drive down into rivers running through caves. The terrain is rough and rocky, but that doesn’t deter many of the drivers from racing along as their passengers shake, rattle and roll! It’s disconcerting to drive down into a river, but the vehicles float gracefully through the water. The only downside is the heat and sun. There isn’t much shade, so bring sunscreen or a hat.

Xplor offers two different ways to explore a cenote: by swimming and rafting. Both take you through beautifully-lit underground caves, filled with mysterious limestone formations. The 600-metre long rafting course is suitable for older children and adults with excellent upper body strength. You use small paddles strapped onto your hands to manoeuvre the plastic rafts. It’s hard work, and my arms ached afterwards, but the beauty of the caves makes up for it. The swim takes you along a similar course, but it’s shorter (about 430 metres).

As we headed back from Xplor, my daughter and I agreed that these activities provided a wonderful contrast to the laid-back life at the resort, offering not only a hit of adrenaline but also the chance to explore the diverse natural wonders of the area.

Travel to Riviera Maya

There are currently no travel advisories (warnings about danger, violence etc.) for Cancun and the Riviera Maya regions; it is considered safe to travel to this part of Mexico.

Start your vacation planning by visiting the Riviera Maya Tourism Board’s website, www.rivieramaya.com, where you’ll find extensive listings of resorts, hotels, restaurants and activities.

To reach the Riviera Maya region, you’ll need to fly into the Cancun airport; the following airlines fly direct: Air Canada, Westjet, Air Transat and Sunwing. Most of the American airlines (such as Delta, US Air, American and Continental) use connecting flights.

You won’t need many Mexican pesos — most places accept American (not Canadian!) dollars instead. The only exception are some of the restaurants and shops at the Cancun airport, which accept only pesos. Keep a few handy for grabbing a cup of coffee.

Adventure trips can be booked in advance through a travel agent, arranged through some of the resorts or purchased online. However, Margo Pedersen, of Lara Travel, says travellers should ask if a ticket is good for a specific period of time or just one day, in case bad weather or ill health makes participating in the activity impossible on a specific day.

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