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July 2, 2008

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Where's Mike?                                          Riviera Maya


Exploring Mexico's Riviera Maya
The land of this ancient civilization is full of history and mystery.
By Mike Manna

Along Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula lies a picturesque stretch of coastline known as the Riviera Maya. For years, tourists have been coming here seeking sun-drenched days, crystal-clear waters and the white sandy beaches that line its coast. But long before the arrival of extravagant resorts and fervent tourists stood the complex civilization of the Maya, one of the most mysterious and ancient societies to ever exist in the Western hemisphere.

The Riviera Maya is an incredible location for a tropical Caribbean getaway but it also serves as an entranceway into the ancient wonders of the Maya civilization. The breathtaking views intertwined with ancient ruins and sites of the Maya civilization make the Riviera Maya a fascinating destination, attracting both history enthusiasts and hedonists alike. Having a profound interest in ancient civilizations and a deep yearning for sunny days, Mexico's Riviera Maya was my next destination.

My wife Henrietta and I were delighted that we were heading to the Riviera Maya. Since our trip would only be a few days, time was of the essence and we didn't want to squander it in an airport lounge waiting for a connecting flight. Because of this, traveling nonstop from New York to Cancun International Airport was the logical (but most expensive) choice. There were limited selections available for scheduled nonstops so we opted for a familiar name we've come to trust: American Airlines. The bold steel and glass design of American Airlines' terminal in JFK was eye-catching, but less flattering was their professed top-quality service as it appeared to have wandered astray on that particular day. And for the next few day to follow, as it turned out. American Airlines had announced the cancellation of hundreds of flights nationwide due to concerns of aircraft safety, sending many passengers into a state of trepidation. But on the other hand, it was also comforting to many, knowing that safety was not being compromised. For travel reservations visit American Airlines.

Our travel experience began at the check-in line as we patiently waited for the next available ticket agent. "Next!" shouted one annoyed agent, leaving us wondering if an angry army drill sergeant, whose daily pleasure in giving out orders to unruly soldiers, had somehow been subbed in. Guardedly approaching the counter, I proceeded to say, "Good morning" to the unpleasant agent when without warning, a rather rude and bold command of, "Destination" followed by an equally impolite directive for "Passports" interrupted my rather simple attempt at civility. After the somewhat unpleasant start to our journey, we headed for our assigned gate and hoped things would take a turn for the better. After boarding the 757 and taking our seats, we discovered a semi-clean aircraft, with its upholstery in a deteriorating state, clearly reflecting the older age of the aircraft. Well, at least we were one of the fortunate ones who hadn't had our flight cancelled. As visions of the picturesque Riviera Maya danced in our heads, we remained enthusiastic and determined not to be disenchanted.

Following a four-hour flight, without a complimentary meal, mind you, the 757 touched down with a smooth landing and headed for the terminal when suddenly, the aircraft came to an unexpected halt on the tarmac. Anxious passengers soon became annoyed, then disappointed as their dreams of lying on the beach were postponed after the captain announced a 20-minute wait for the next available gate to open.

Shortly after the delay, we disembarked the aircraft and headed towards the custom lines. Visitors entering Mexico with "Nothing to declare" on their custom forms are required to test their luck by pushing a button, then patiently waiting a few seconds to see if the light illuminates green or red, determining whether or not they are the next random passenger requiring an arbitrary search. Being the next candidates at Press Your Luck, it was our turn. Green means go. And so, we were off, as the smiling customs agent wished us a pleasant stay.

Travel tip: Passengers traveling by air outside of the United States are required to present a passport or other valid travel document to enter or re-enter the United States. You will need to keep your passport and tourist visa with you at all times while in Mexico. Remember to completely fill out your customs card when arriving in Mexico. For further information visit

Within a few minutes, we'd exited the customs area after managing our way through the hordes of taxi drivers offering their services. Soon after, we were outside Cancun International Airport taking pleasure in the sun. It was April and the rainy season wasn't schedule to arrive until the following month so the threat of any precipitation from the billowing white clouds was not a major concern. The Caribbean coast of the Yucatan does experience a large number of tropical storms and hurricanes, which generally strike outside the Riviera Maya. NOTE: The hurricane season begins in June and cheerfully concludes in the month of November.

Through the crowd of travelers we finally reached a welcoming sight of a man holding an El Cid Resort sign. Soon, we were heading for The Hotel Marina El Cid Spa & Beach Resort. The 12-mile trip from the airport to the resort on highway 307 was unexpectedly brief and in less than 20 minutes, we were in the seaside town of Porto Morales. As we exited off the highway, we continued a short distance on a two-lane highway until reaching a bumpy and dusty access road heading towards our resort. Slowly traveling on the unpaved surface, Heni and I gazed in astonishment at the dismal site of dilapidated mangroves that border the road. We began to speculate on what had happened to the region. Looking to our driver Raul for an answer, he quickly acknowledged our question and reminded us, quite despondently, about the catastrophic event that had occurred here two years ago. "Her name was Wilma," he said and continued to describe the storm of destructive force, which had brutally ravished the area. The category five hurricane had sustained winds of 160 mph and had made landfall in this region in October, 2006 decimating and charring the once verdant area into a dreary domain of grey.

After a year and a half, tender memories of the powerful storm still continue to conjure images of horror as locals remember how they bravely endured the largest hurricane to ever hit the Mexican shore. These days, the mangrove swamp is a comatose setting of decaying trees and shrubs, outlined with small pockets of thriving green foliage in a forest of gray. The scene had visibly illustrated the cycle of life while foreshadowing the mangroves' return to their former splendor. As we continued around the dusty bend, a sanctuary of vivid green with endless shades of azure came into view. The large, paved driveway sloping up a small hill gave way to a massive rustic yellow stucco building with two opposing buttressing arches. The exterior walls had water cascading down its side. We were at the Hotel Marina El Cid Spa & Beach Resort.

The Hotel Marina El Cid Spa & Beach Resort is an all-inclusive beach resort situated on the Riviera Maya. Leaving our luggage with the bellhop, we headed through the glass lobby doors and into El Cid's Platinum club lounge where we enjoyed a seamless check-in with the friendly receptionist. The welcoming staff had equipped Heni and me with an unfashionable plastic "platinum" wristlet, then kindly offered us a choice of beverage and a refreshing towel as we waited for our room assignment. The bracelet was our pass and identifier as Platinum guests. For $45USD more a day per person, the hotel's Platinum club services offer a variety of services that are exclusive to Platinum Club guests, such as dedicated check-in and check-out areas, reservation of palapa huts on the beach, wireless Internet access, butler services to unpack and pack, arrange restaurant reservations, tours and excursions and more. For some, these services may seem marginal and not worth the added expenditure so definitely take the time to review the list of services before making a decision.

Positioned purposefully throughout the property are 11 rustic, yellow, low-rise buildings styled in a Mexican colonial and contemporary architectural design, accommodating 342 rooms, the most desirable of them offering brilliant views of the Caribbean Sea. While touring the property, you can't help but notice the manicured gardens of tropical plants and flowers that decorate the grounds, intersected by a network of paths that make any point within the resort accessible in minutes. The friendly and busy staff of the El Cid resort was always welcoming offering a warm Hola and a smile.

Aside from the beach, the property's focal point is a 22,000-square-foot free-form pool with in-water lounge chairs and swim-up bar, all which give way to a dramatic waterfall. Earlier this year, the hotel introduced their new convention center and oceanfront El Cocay Spa. True to its name, the resort is adjacent to a marina containing 120 ships that boasts a state-of-the-art sport fishing fleet for tournaments and private trips.

We entered our room and were delighted with the panoramic view from the large balcony doors. As Platinum Club guests, we were guaranteed an ocean view room and were delighted to find out it was in the resort's quiet zone, a section of the property exclusively for adults. The fruit and wine basket welcoming us to the resort was a warm and personalized touch. The air-conditioned junior suite, furnished in a contemporary design, had a comfortable king-sized bed and a small living area with a couch and table. Fitted neatly into the wall was a queen-sized Murphy bed for guests who required extra sleeping accommodations. The kitchenette with stove, microwave oven and mini-bar (stocked with complimentary snacks and cold beverages) was a nice added bonus, especially for guests with families, planning an extended stay. The bath, featuring marble floors and walls, had a spacious shower equipped with a comfort bench. The rooms also had complimentary wireless Internet access and satellite TV. For easy meals and late-night treats, room service is available 24 hours daily. Daily rates for a Platinum room start at $171USD per person and Platinum suites begin at $153USD per person. For reservations visit

The Marina Hotel El Cid offers its guests a variety of all-inclusive dining options to choose from and after a long day of traveling, we were looking forward to sitting down to a quiet dinner to enjoy some of the local cuisine at Hacienda Arrecife. The resort restaurant, with traditional local decor and a colossal fish tank situated in the middle of the restaurant, offers dinner guests a selection of gourmet Mexican cuisine. Tasty soups like the Sopa de Lima, a traditional Mexican soup served with fried tortilla, chicken and sweet lime was a great way to start. Other options included Tacos de Carnitas de Pato (marinated duck tacos, served with salsa borracha, prepared with chili and dried prunes) and Filete de Res La Ceiba (a juicy beef filet, with grated Chihuahua cheese and a delicious sauce of pasilla, cascabel and chilis). The dishes were short of awe-inspiring but satisfied our appetites. Be sure to try the Italian coffee, a sweet and delicious drink. Expecting an espresso of sorts, I was surprised when our waiter wheeled over a cart containing various liqueurs such as Amaretto, Kahlua and Tequila with a pot of fresh-brewed coffee. To our amazement, he proceeded with pageantry and flair as he meticulously created a cup of coffee that was literally on fire. Surrounding guests looked on in admiration as our waiter performed his fiery demonstration. At the end of the spectacle, all were applauding our fine waiter who had created a burning and dazzling cup of coffee.

After the hot coffee it was time to cool off with some of the evening's entertainment. Daily, the resort presents various shows for guests such as local Mexican singers, dancers performing traditional favorites or a scorching Caribbean Salsa of eight professional dancers to entertain the crowds. Catch nightly entertainment in the hotel lobby; a variety of music and entertainment occurs throughout the night.

El Cid's all-inclusive package can entice the most disciplined of eaters. La Alhambra, the resort's fourth restaurant, serves breakfast, lunch and dinner with both indoor and al fresco casual dining. After indulging, it was definitely time to pay a visit to the oceanfront fitness center. The air-conditioned facility offers guests who've had a bit too much to indulge in access to a state-of-the-art facility, equipped with the latest treadmills, rowing and step machines. Running on the treadmill with a panoramic view of the blue sea provided me with enough stimulation to burn those extra, unwanted calories. The fitness center also has free weights, a spinning area, and yoga and tai chi classes.

After an energizing workout, it was time for some relaxation and rejuvenation at the El Cocay Spa. The spacious spa features dry and steam saunas and a Jacuzzi. Bring your bathing suit or go au naturel within the spa facilities. Afterwards, it was time to experience the 80-minute, four-hand Kukulkan body massage ($198USD per person). Inspired by the ancient Maya legends, the therapy is a tribute to the Great Quetzalcoatl, the leader who transformed himself into the Maya god, Kukulkan. The treatment begins with a ritual of chants and burning incense, followed by a massage that relaxes as the masseuses impersonate the steps of a jaguar, the movement of a snake and the flight of el cocay, all while ancient Maya instrumental sounds play in the background. The spa also offers a Temazcal Sacred Bath to purify the body and spirit, an ancient Maya steam treatment, a hair and nail salon.

Exploring the resort grounds, guests can find a variety of activities and events for both kids and adults. Entertainment directors Victor and Denise have created many supervised activities geared towards children and teens alike that change on a bi-weekly schedule. The family-friendly resort offers babysitting services and caters to children's activities such as lessons in snorkeling, windsurfing and even cooking. Each event is co-ordinated through the resort's Kids' Club.

If it's fun in the sun you desire, guests have easy access to the warm sun and relaxation on the beach, or to enjoy water sports by using one of their two hobbie cats and paddleboats. Virtually every point of the property is accessible within a few minutes walk. After a few days we became quite familiar with the friendly staff and with some of the hotel guests. The sociable atmosphere of the resort makes for a truly pleasurable experience.

The El Cid offers its guest a 45-minute bike tour through the streets of Porto Morales, a sleepy and quiet fishing town located on the Riviera Maya that captures the essence of a small Mexican town. Equipped with our safety helmets and reflective vests, our relaxing and non-strenuous tour leisurely navigated us through the streets while our animated tour guide provided a colorful narrative of the quaint surroundings. Most will come to Porto Morales seeking to charter a boat, so they can explore and discover the illustrious Mesoamerican Barrier Reef located off its coast for a fraction of the cost the surrounding resorts would charge or to simply catch a ride on the ferry to Cozumel. As we biked past the town beach, our guide quickly pointed out the legendary tilted lighthouse, a symbolic and poignant reminder of the destructive and brutal damage caused by Hurricane Wilma. NOTE: Reservations for the bike tour are required in advanced.

The Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System is one of the most captivating chains of coral found in the world. Designated as a World Heritage Site, the reef begins near Cancun and continues along the whole length of the Riviera Maya, attracting scuba and snorkeling enthusiasts from around the world. Sitting just a few meters from the hotel's beach, this much-admired natural wonder left us eager to see the underwater spectacle.

The day filled with bright sunshine and a slight Caribbean breeze, just waiting to thrust the catamaran into the vast open sea. The on-site Pronotours, El Cid Resort's official travel and tour company, takes guests on diving and snorkeling trips that depart from the neighboring marina. The earnest crew was expecting a total of nine passengers but seven didn't show, leaving Henrietta and me as the sole passengers on this three-hour cruise. After we motored out of the harbor, we leisurely headed north to the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System, the world's second longest barrier reef surpassed only by the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. Raul, Raphael and Luis were the friendly and accommodating crewmembers aboard boat, who diligently ensured that we were comfortable and at ease throughout the journey.

Reaching our destination, the catamaran was anchored while a small motorboat pulled up to the boat's stern. Carefully, we climbed aboard the motorboat with our snorkeling gear and headed towards the reef. The water was a balmy 80 degrees with clear turquoise waters affording brilliant views of endless miles of diverse and colorful coral. For about an hour we snorkeled through the warm waters, which encompassed the endless miles of corals and passed the brightly exotic sea life: colored fish, sea turtles and stingrays. After the dramatic underwater display, we returned to the catamaran and sailed back to the El Cid Marina. For an additional charge, Pronotours offers trips to the barrier reef and other expeditions and excursions throughout the region.

After the cruise, we had dinner at La Marina Restaurant, dining al fresco with a view overlooking the Porto Morales Bay. Situated at the resort's marina, the restaurant's specialties include fresh seafood dishes. Start your dinner with Ceviches 7 Mares, a seafood combination marinated with lime and vegetables. Or, try the La Marina Salad, fresh lettuce, spinach, tomato and goat cheese, sprinkled with croutons and nuts. Main courses included: a Fish Filet Del Capo, seasoned with olive oil, fresh tomatoes, garlic, white wine and basil; Shrimp with Mango Sauce; and the chef's special chicken breast, stuffed with cheese and shrimp and a special tarragon sauce. Reservations are required.

L.A. Sightseeing, Tours, Attractions & more

Seeking adventure outside the resort, the on-site Pronotours takes guests on a half-hour road trip to the ancient city of Tulum, located on the scenic cliffs of the Yucatan overlooking the Caribbean Sea. After dropping us off at the entrance parking lot we walked for 10 minutes under the hot afternoon sun until reaching the ancient city entrance through the stone wall. The ruins at Tulum were brimming with tourists from around the world, curiously roaming under the hot scorching sun and exploring one of the best-preserved coastal walled cities of the ancient and sophisticated Maya. The site is a popular destination for tourists due to its location on the Riviera Maya and close proximity to Cancun. The complex Maya society had contributed in the development of a long count calendar, astronomy, a hieroglyphic language and a complex religion characterized by the worship of nature gods, which included the ritual of human sacrifice to appease them. Their impressive engineering and architectural accomplishments of massive limestone pyramids and temples clearly illustrate the technological knowledge of the Maya. For two hours we wandered through the city with the backdrop of the Caribbean Sea walls providing us with a tremendous appreciation of this mysterious civilization. The mystery still remains as historians continue to wonder how this once flourishing society fell into decline with the Maya abandoning their once thriving cities.

Travel tip: Be sure to wear protective gear from the sun. Remember to bring your bathing suit and beach towel if you want to take a dip in the sea and bring a backpack filled with bottled water. You'll need it!

The once small fishing village of Playa Del Carmen or simply Playa is located in the centre of the Riviera Maya and is a perfect place to stop on the way back from Tulum. Playa is located just 22 miles from the resort and has rapidly transformed into an area full of activity and nightlife. In fact, it's one of the fastest growing towns in Latin America. One-way taxi fares from Puerto Morales average about 255 Mexican pesos ($25USD). The town's main thoroughfare is La Quinta or Fifth Avenue, a pedestrian-only street that bears no resemblance to New York's famous avenue. The various stores lined with aggressive and pushy shop owners will attempt to entice the casual observer with discounts on an array of products ranging from silver jewelry to Cuban cigars. Don't be afraid to practice your bartering skills as most prices on merchandise are negotiable. As you walk down the avenue, marvel at the street performers parading in ancient Maya costumes or witness the spectacle of exotic wildlife such as iguanas and monkeys as their owners proudly place them on display while offering onlookers a photo op for a small fee. The street is also lined with many restaurants and bars catering to tourists seeking an array of cuisines and vibrant nightlife.

The day's excursions left us famished so upon returning to the El Cid, we freshened up and headed to my favorite resort restaurant: The El Alcázar. Menu choices stemming from Mediterranean and Asian cuisine include dishes like: Pechuga de Pato Pekin, a succulent duck breast with a crust of black pepper and a sauce of Asiatic pears on a bed of black spaghetti; Ravioles Magnos, giant raviolis stuffed with salmon and a white sauce, with a touch of smoked oysters; Camarones Creta, a dish featuring jumbo shrimp showered with a citric sauce of tangerine, mango and orange with a hint of red pepper. Ricardo, the restaurant's friendly director, made an appearance and recommended the Pollo Estilo Kung Pao and the Magret de Pato en Salsa de Fresas with a fine bottle of Chianti to round out our dinner. Completing the delectable meal was a tasty tiramisu and crème brulee. The wine cellar maintains a minimum of 50 varieties from different countries worldwide. The minimalist decor of the restaurant created a relaxing and calming ambience. The experience from beginning to end at the El Alcázar was enjoyable.

Our memorable four-day stay at the EL Cid Resort and trip to the Riviera Maya was a relaxing and insightful experience, which provided breathtaking vistas accompanied with an opportunity to explore one of ancient civilization's most mysterious and sophisticated societies. Due to our limited stay on the Riviera Maya, it was impossible to see all of the amazing sites and attractions located within the area. We missed the opportunity to visit Chitzen Itza and its impressive stone temple pyramid, recently named one of the seven ancient wonders of the world. But perhaps that will leave me motivated for a future trip and allow me to further explore the area's remaining treasures.

It's been said that ancient civilizations are the basis of the world as we know it today and that every society must provide meaning and motivation to its members. As G.K. Chesterton eloquently stated, "We all have a little weakness, which is very natural but rather misleading, for supposing that this epoch must be the end of the world because it will be the end of us. How future generations will get on without us is indeed, when we come to think of it, quite a puzzle. But I suppose they will get on somehow, and may possibly venture to revise our judgments as we have revised earlier judgments".

*Please tell us what you think of this week's newsletter!

All information presented here is accurate at the time of publication but prices, dates and other details are all subject to change. Please confirm all information before making any travel arrangements.

Note: This trip was sponsored in part by The El Cid Resort

Pictures From

The Trip


Picturesque Riviera Maya


Tropical Caribbean


Bandera Mexicana


American Airlines


Tropical Caribbean Flower


Turquoise Waters


Welcoming Sign of El Cid Resort


The Hotel Marina El Cid Spa & Beach Resort


Poolside at the El Cid Spa & Beach Resort


El Cid’s Platinum Club Lounge


Platinum Club Wristlet


Mexican Colonial Building and Inviting Pool


Fruit & Wine Basket


Ocean View Room


Burning Coffee


El Cocay Spa


Relaxation and Rejuvenation


Fitness Center with a View


Jacuzzi to Ease Your Tension


Oceanside Massage


Hobbie Cat


Porto Morales, A Sleepy and Quiet Fishing Town


Legendary Tilted Lighthouse


Catamaran Cruise


Sailing into the Vast Open Sea


Caribbean Breeze


Accommodating Crewmembers


Coastal Walled Ancient City of Tulum


Mysterious Civilization of The Maya


Playa Del Carmen




Playa Del Carmen Boardwalk


Ancient Maya Costumes


El Alcázar


Riviera Maya


Basking In The Sun


The Hotel Marina El Cid Spa & Beach Resort


Rest 'A-Shored'


Breathtaking Vistas of the Riviera Maya


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