Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Having a whale (shark) of a time in Mexico, where Mayan ruins and rituals rule

I had been warned beforehand that they were huge but I still got the shock of my life when I first glimpsed the largest fish in the world – the whale shark. 
As I donned flippers, mask and snorkel and prepared to launch myself off the side of the small boat to get an even closer look at these creatures, one thought kept rushing through my mind: ‘I must be absolutely barmy to do this!’
Approaching a school of these amazing beasts, the first thing I noticed were their large dorsal fins. And every now and then, the massive bulk of one of the white-spotted – and harmless – sharks emerged in the aquamarine waters off Mexico before disappearing again.

Feeding time: A whale shark dwarfs a snorkeller off Mexico's Caribbean coast
Feeding time: A whale shark dwarfs a snorkeller off Mexico's Caribbean coast

We were more than 20 miles from land and I was about to go swimming with some monsters. It would prove to be a truly memorable experience. I had arrived in Mexico as part of a group celebrating the start of regular flights to the resort of Cancun by Virgin Atlantic. 
Sir Richard Branson’s company has been operating holidays to Mexico for the past 15 years, with passengers travelling to Miami and then taking a connecting flight. 
Now, with direct flights from Gatwick, Virgin expects to carry 175,000 visitors a year to the Riviera Maya, which has become one of the fastest-growing holiday destinations in the Americas.
To help promote the new venture, Sir Richard had also invited along Tequila Society president and comedy actress Cleo Rocos, Leigh Francis, aka Keith Lemon, and illusionist Derren Brown.
Our stay may have coincided with the rainy season, but apart from a sudden squall which blew away a marquee on the beach just after a performance by Derren Brown – something not even he saw coming – temperatures under clear blue skies rarely dipped below a very pleasant 30C (86F).

Richard Branson joins eco-tourists to swim with these magnificent creatures
Diving deep: Richard Branson (bottom left) joins eco-tourists to swim with these magnificent creatures

Cancun sits on the Yucatan peninsula and the area is, in many ways, quite separate from the rest of Mexico. A large proportion of the local population is of Mayan descent and the Mayan language, rather than Mexican Spanish, is widely spoken. 
During our trip, Sir Richard invited us to Xcaret (the X is pronounced ‘ish’), a Mayan heritage park just south of the resort of Playa del Carmen. Though described by some as a theme park, the site does contain genuine Mayan ruins. 
We were welcomed by friendly waiters offering us strong margaritas, and then led on an almost surreal walk along a path lit by flame torches and attended by Mayans in traditional costumes, some producing a loud and eerie sound by blowing conch shells.
Our walk continued into a series of caves before we emerged into a large cavernous hall – a sort of stately pleasure dome. At one end on a stage-like structure, men in Mayan costume played drums and native Mayan instruments to an increasingly frenzied rhythm, while others danced wildly.

Out on a limb: Cancun is bathed by the divine Caribbean sea

It felt like the prelude to a human sacrifice or perhaps some kind of apocalyptic event – very apt since it is claimed the Mayans predicted that the world would end this year. 
So it was something of a relief when the music finally stopped and Sir Richard appeared on stage to invite us to do nothing more sinister than drink a little more tequila and enjoy a rather good performance by former X Factor winner Alexandra Burke.
Yucatan is famous for its Mayan sites, the largest of which is Chichen Itza – the ancient capital of the Mayans is about a three-hour drive from Cancun. However, if you want something a little closer but still impressive, then the well-preserved ruins of Tulum are worth a visit.
The walled city, which stands on 40ft cliffs, was a major port and trading centre before the Europeans discovered the New World. Its demise is thought to have been the result of disease spread by Spanish settlers to which the Mayan population had no resistance. 
Paco, our guide, who is of Mayan descent, told me: ‘I came here 27 years ago and fell in love with this wonderful place. Now it’s where I work and I call it “my office”. Could anyone have a more wonderful office?’

The ancient Mayan capital, Chichen Itza
Steps to the past: The ancient Mayan capital, Chichen Itza, offers a tantalising glimpse of what the Spanish saw

As he showed us around Tulum, Paco dismissed talk of apocalypse which has arisen from the fact that the ancient Mayan Long Calendar ends on December 21 this year.
‘It’s simply that that was as far as they calculated it,’ he said. ‘They could have gone on further but at the time, there was no point. It was an auspicious date to stop. That doesn’t mean the world will end. It’s just a new era.’ 
He explained that more would have been known about the Mayans’ sophisticated civilisation had much of their written culture not been destroyed by Spanish conquistadors.
‘The snake was the Mayans’ most potent symbol – the symbol of life and all that was good,’ said Paco. ‘But to Catholics it was the evil serpent which tempted man away from God. For that reason many Mayan books were burned.’
The site of Tulum is believed to have been chosen as a major trading centre because of a gap in the Mesoamerican barrier reef – the huge coral reef system which runs from Mexico to Honduras and which is the second largest barrier reef in the world. Canoes were able to cross the reef to transport goods to and from the port. 

Tulum, Mexico
Formidable: The walled city of Tulum stands on 40ft cliffs

A small shrine within the walls of the city held a beacon to mark the position of the gap in the reef for those arriving by sea. 
Today, the most famous visitors to the area are whale sharks that gather between June and September every year to feed on plankton and other tiny creatures. 
The Mexicans call the shark ‘domino’, while elsewhere in the Caribbean its name is ‘pez dama’ which means checkerboard fish, on account of its large white spots.
The sharks, which come to this coastline from as far away as the Bahamas, can grow to more than 40ft long and live to be 100, although the average lifespan is between 50 and 70 years.
Before I fell clumsily off the side of our boat into the warm waters, our snorkelling guide Eduardo told me to swim towards a shark that was already heading slowly in our direction. I dived below the surface and all I could see was a huge gaping mouth coming towards me.
To my relief, the shark turned away at the last moment – I say relief because I had previously heard tales of swimmers being sucked into the massive maw of a shark and having to be prised off.

A dancer in Mayan costume at Xcaret, a Mayan heritage park
Cave man: A dancer in Mayan costume at Xcaret, a local (and colourful) heritage park
I swam alongside this one and was close enough to touch it, although we had been strictly forbidden from doing so as they’re a highly protected species. (A tourist from another boat in the area tried to climb on the back of one of the sharks but was promptly dissuaded from pursuing his wild ride by angry shouts from the captain of his boat.)
Close up, the shark’s white spots looked beautiful and I watched in fascination as the creature’s gill-slits rippled like ribbons in a breeze and its fins moved gently up and down.

The giant shark seemed almost unaware of my presence and continued calmly on its way, happily hoovering up its seafood lunch as I swam alongside. Then with an elegant swish of its huge tail, it powered away and soon put distance between us. 
The experience had lasted only 20 seconds or so but it was unforgettable. Back on shore, I asked Keith Lemon what he had thought of the whole trip and Cancun and he replied with one of his  catchphrases: ‘It were bang tidy!’
As for the whale sharks, they’re probably glad to see the back of tourists and celebrities alike – at least for another feeding season. 

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