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Finding myself in the Riviera Maya for the fourth time in a few years, I was on the prowl for something to occupy my time away from the pool. A stroll through downtown Playa del Carmen, especially the 5th Avenue area, is always fun for a quick shopping excursion or a night of too many tequila cocktails but, this time, I was looking for adventure.
Jungle Maya ExpeditionA private motorcoach picked me up at 8 a.m. from the Grand Velas lobby for an adventure into the jungle of the Riviera Maya. Had I decided to stay in the Zen Grand section of the property — featuring sprawling grounds surrounded by forest and even a small cenote with flowing water — perhaps I would have not felt the need to seek out Alltournative, a tour operator which has provided more than 650,000 clients with adventurous half-day and day-long expeditions since 1999. Greeting me for my Jungle Maya Expedition was my private guide for the day — Benjamin, from Germany, who is now a local in Playa del Carmen. His Spanish-meets-German accent took a little getting used to at that hour of the morning, but he was very knowledgeable about the area, Mexican history and where not to try the local sushi specials in town.
The ride out to Rancho San Felipe, where the jungle can be accessed, takes just under an hour from central Playa del Carmen. After a 10-minute drive down a long bumpy road, we checked into a locker area to change into a bathing suit and drop-off excess bags — guests are better off leaving their hands free for the wild ride ahead.
At this point, we were almost ready to enter the Nohoch Nah Chich cave, which leads to the world’s largest underground river system — spanning 95 miles. First, we took part in a Maya purification ceremony, performed at the entrance. The ritual consists of a mesmerizing five to 10 minutes with a Shaman chanting and “smudging” your aura with smoke from a small fire.
Then the real adventure started — we rope-climbed down into a cave with an underground river. Guests can snorkel amid the crystal cool water, which is beautiful — except for the bats flying around. I was assured that they don’t attack, but if flying vermin scare your clients, consider advising them to skip that part of the tour and save their nerve for flying across the jungle on a zipline.
ZipliningTo travel across the jungle, we took three ziplines, which look frightening but are really fun. After climbing up a wobbly rope ladder to the top, I was harnessed into a makeshift seat and told to hold on to the straps. As I clung for dear life, I tucked my legs slightly under and went sailing without a hitch. By the time I had zipped to the other platform at the end of the line, I had built up a bit of speed. Fortunately, two big strong men were waiting to catch me. Even with that safety net, advise clients that they might experience a jolt when they land. The last zipline landed me into another water-logged cave with more snorkeling and swimming.
For more excitement, there are waters nearby where clients can stick their feet in for a natural fish pedicure. It feels ticklish at first, but the tiny fish nibble at the rough spots on your feet. The treatment, which is very popular in Japan, is also performed for a hefty fee back at the hotel spa.
The day ended in a traditional Maya village, still on the jungle grounds, where a typical Yucatan lunch is cooked in a small home. Starving, we arrived to homemade corn tortillas, a simple soup with carrots, chicken and rice and delicious, fluffy empanadas. Just outside was a flea market selling sarongs and handmade shell necklaces.
To leave the jungle, we took a trip on a 4x4, which the driver called “a Mexican rollercoaster.” Our adventure was the perfect solution for tourists who have been to Tulum, want something more adventurous and are not afraid of a vacation from so-called civilization.
Agents can book a group tour or arrange for individual VIP treatment. The seven-hour tour regularly costs $119 for adults and $79 for children ages 6 to 12.