Riviera Maya | Travel

Cliff jumps, dolphin rides and bathing suits in winter?

When I was ten years old, I spent a month watching the Indiana Jones movies over and over. Yes, I had a fantasy. I wanted to trek through jungles, swing from ropes and secure ancient relics for my personal collection of rare antiquities. And snakes? Hate ’em. Is there any doubt that Indy and I are kindred spirits? Alas, nothing in real life has ever come close to matching my dream. Until now.

Winter is the perfect time for Chicagoans to get away. Sure, I could enjoy the Southern comforts of Florida or the coastal breezes of California, but a dime extra lands me in foreign territory: along the beaches of Mexico’s Riviera Maya. Here I find a natural ocean habitat that mixes ecofriendly conservation with cultural history and theme-park variety. A day after I fly South of the Border and check in to my hotel, a shuttle takes me to a setting Spielberg and Lucas probably wish they’d used: Xel-Há Park (xelha.com). This behemoth land mass of preserved jungle boasts chlorine-free waters filtered straight from the Caribbean Sea. Adult admission is $79, kids $40.

It’s a fair price to pay for an Indy-like adventure come true, which starts with a voyage through the cavernous Mayan ruins of fossil-caked rocks, where a cobblestone path leads to the Piedra del Valor (the Cliff of Courage)—a 30-foot leap into the deep. I take a short pause to get the water out of my nose before treading the trepachanga (rope course) above a water habitat where barracudas supposedly swim. The obstacle requires a tight grip, though the myriad of kids clinging in the distance seem to be just fine: Soon, I—and more to the point, the overeager tweens and teens behind me—learn the pitfalls of following in quick succession as they slip and slide into me. After getting knocked into the water, I swim toward a swaying puente flotante (floating bridge). It looks simple enough to cross, but steady balance proves no match for this precarious passage. I try to save myself the embarrassment of two falls, but the mighty push and pull of water and wind are too much. It’s another bail overboard and a short swim to catch a zip-line. Now, I’m almost back to where I started—a perfect opportunity to check out the sea life.

At the dolphin pool, where ten bucks nets a swim with our dorsal-finned friends, young marine enthusiasts (under the watchful eye of dolphin trainers) feed their companions succulent pieces of mackerel. After an impromptu dolphin show, I go snorkeling in Xel-Há’s trenches—the best place, locals tell me, to spot giant parrot fish and sea turtles.

Alas, my Indy instincts give way to a relaxing river cruise in a comfy inner tube, navigating to a Mexican buffet of chicken tacos, quesadillas and cactus meat smothered in mozzarella. (I look for monkey brains, but papaya milk is as exotic as it gets.) Not wanting to swim with a full belly, I take a siesta in a shaded hammock—though an awkward step coming out gets my heart thumping as I land face-to-face with one of the giant iguanas that roam the park at will.

Sadly, one day at Xel-Há just isn’t enough. But I’ll be back, I vow to myself. And with any luck, I’ll discover a mystic warming artifact to bring home to our chilly Northern clime. I imagine Indy would be proud.

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More to do

Where to stay

The family-friendly, all-inclusive Azul Beach Hotel by Karisma (888-280-8810, karismahotels.com) includes a special “Azulitos” kids’ care program, so parents can get some alone time to relax on the beach, sip on “azul”-colored Champagne or enjoy dinner at one of the resort’s restaurants.

What to do

The Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System—the world’s second largest coral reef—runs parallel to the Riviera Maya. For $35, professional Bahia Maya Divers (bahiadivers.com) guide you on a 45-minute submarine voyage through this national park that stretches along the coast.

Where to snack

You can’t go wrong with a company whose goal is to provide “the complete chocolate experience.” Ah Cacao Real Chocolate (ahcacao.com) in Playa del Carmen makes handmade treats and brews chocolatey drinks from Central America’s native cacao beans.

Get there

Delta Airlines makes a pit stop in Atlanta from O’Hare before flying the rest of the way to Cancun International Airport. Public transit is sparse in the isolated area and shuttles can be expensive, so be sure to coordinate with your hotel for ground transportation to Xel-Há. Writer’s stay/trip courtesy of Karisma Resorts and Hotels.

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