Excursion spices up vacation

A stop at Mayan ruins enhances tourists' stay.
Among the attractions near Cancun is the 400-acre Aktun Chen nature park, where creatures seem to have the run of the place.
A submerged stool beckoned at the poolside bar, and guests briefly considered spending the sunny day sampling the 15 specialty drinks on the cocktail menu at the Moon Palace.
The list started with Pi & ntilde;a Colada and Daiquiri Fresa, ran through Rum Punch, Miami Vice and Sex on the Beach, and ended with Banana Monkey, Planters Punch and Tom Collins.
Some guests at the all-inclusive resorts never leave to explore the rest of Cancun and the Riviera Maya. Why should they? Food and drinks are included in their package, the service is friendly and the pool and beach are inviting.
But Norma Marrufo showed up promptly at 9 a.m., and tourists soon were heading south on Highway 307.
Marrufo is an employee of Lomas Travel who specializes in the natural history of the area, including the ancient culture of the Maya. The Maya, she said, "would pierce their ears, nose and genitals. Fads do come around."
The first stop was the 400-acre Aktun Chen nature park. Tourists slowed for a fat iguana that took its time crossing the gravel road into the park. "You wrap them in banana leaves and cook them in underground ovens," Marrufo said. "They taste like turkey thigh."
The reception building was enclosed in mesh. A couple of employees worked at computers while two spider monkeys and three coatimundis played alongside.
The centerpiece of the park was a cavern, formed by dissolved limestone, that was artfully illuminated. Large fruit bats, also called false vampire bats, hung from the ceilings.
"The last tour is at 6 [p.m.], and the bats are more active," said Victor, our guide. "They fly around, and people scream. I love that tour."
Mayan ruins: Next was Tulum, a Mayan ruin with a three-story stone tower on a bluff overlooking the sea.
Tulum is a walled city, and Marrufo said 200 aristocrats once lived within the walls and some 10,000 peasants lived outside. She pointed out several red handprints high up among the murals.
"Interbreeding was a problem among the aristocrats, causing mental disorders and defects like hunchback and an extra digit," she said. "You'll notice the person who left those handprints had more than five fingers -- an aristocrat."
Xel-Ha, pronounced "shell-ha," was a welcomed relief from the humidity. The national park includes a natural inlet fed by an underground river that emerges to flow out to the sea. Guests rented a snorkel, fins and floatation vest and cruised through the transparent waters filled with tropical fish.
Jungle park: The final destination was Xcaret (pronounced ish-karret), where an impressive "eco-archaeological park" has been built around several small Mayan ruins. Limestone walkways lead through the jungle landscape to protected coves for swimming and sunbathing. Snorkelers can swim through an underground river, and the park also offers dolphin swims and a Sea Trek, a walk on the ocean floor with a breathing helmet.
The park's grand finale came at dusk when costumed young men in an outdoor arena played an ancient Mayan ball game. The playing field was slanted on both sides, and the two teams used their hips to pass a soft rubber ball upward toward a small hole cut in a rock mounted sideways on the wall.
Hipping the ball through the hole looked like an impossible feat, but four goals were scored in the 15 minutes guests watched.

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