My nine-year-old son, Freddie, isn’t sure about the “green stuff” on his poached eggs. It’s chaya, a Yucatan superfood, three times more nutritious than any other leafy green vegetable, and used in everything from eggs to ice cream to drinks.
He’ll have to get used to it. It’s our first morning in the Yucatan, the region on the eastern tip of Mexico. We flew in to Cancun airport the night before, then headed by private transfer 180km inland to lovely Hacienda Chichen, built in the 16th century by Spanish conquistadors, located in the grounds of Chichen Itza – the region’s most famous Mayan temple and one of the new Seven Wonders of the World. Guest bedrooms are the chalets used by archaeologists in the 1920s. The hacienda’s biggest draw is its private gate to the ruins and by 8:30am we are raring to be first in. Our first glimpse of the 25m high Castillo de Kukulcan is a “wow” moment. We hire a guide, who is astute, focusing on all things of interest to my jetlagged sons aged 14, 13 and 9. Did they know the Mayans played a game a bit like basketball? And that the captain of the winning team was sacrificed by having his head chopped off? He points out images of skulls and eagles eating human hearts. I don’t see them yawn once.
Yucatan has the largest underground network of caves, subterranean rivers and sinkholes – or cenotes – in the world and swimming in them is a treat, especially in temperatures pushing 30 degrees. We head to Cenote Ikkil, which is 26m below ground level but open to the sky. Access is via a stone staircase on one side but vines and small waterfalls cascade down the other. My sons jump off the side while I float on my back alongside the catfish, staring up through shafts of sunlight to a tunnel of tropical forest.
Back at the hacienda we go birdwatching with Berberno, a naturalist – he also plays in the hotel’s guitar trio – who leads us through the kitchen garden, where we pause to snap off a snack of warm bananas. Within minutes we have seen a beautiful blue-crested motmot, with its long tennis racquet-shaped tail, and a young, crimson-crested woodpecker having a go at a domestic papaya. But the highlight is the perfect, six-inch high Mexican pygmy owl, which sits scowling at us from a low branch.
From here we travel to the coastal town of Celestun, for a boat trip through the 146,000-acre protected Bio Reserve. More than 300 species of birds pass through here and thousands of flamingoes flock to nest and breed. They are such alluring creatures, and at their most curious in the air. We watch them flying in, their necks and legs equidistant from their wings so at times they look like they are flying backwards. The skipper fishes out the tiny red shrimp the flamingoes feast on to give them their pink plumage. We sail into the mangrove, where termite mounds teeter on the branches and crocodiles lurk just metres from where people splash in a natural spring.
Celestun is a pretty fishing village, with a clash of colourful casas on the less-visited west coast facing the Gulf of Mexico. On the weekend the beach is packed with kids flying kites, families barbecuing, their obligatory buckets of iced Sol beer buried in the sand. Cafes serve up blue crab, flour tortillas and rice, and beach stalls sell starfish, conch shells and shark jaws. “We’d never get one through customs,” I tell my hopeful sons. From here it’s just 90 minutes to the city of Merida, Yucatan’s cultural hub. We stay at the quirky Luz en Yucatan, a boutique hotel without the high prices, which has a homely atmosphere, with large family rooms, private terraces with hammocks and a communal pool. Merida is possibly the happiest city I’ve ever visited. On Sunday the central roads are closed off so that everyone can enjoy a nice bike ride and senior citizens dance in the squares. We dine at La Chaya Maya (“Oh no, it’s named after that green stuff,” moans Freddie), where they serve up Yucatan specialties (try the poc-chuc, marinated pork with tortillas) and I really disgust my sons by opting for a frozen chaya margarita. It looks like the kind of thing Shrek might order, but is delicious. We explore the iguana-ridden ruins at Uxmal and swim in the nearby natural cenotes, lunching at the atmospheric Hacienda Ochil, once a thriving plantation. Even with its great restaurant and artisan shops it has a satisfyingly spooky ghost town vibe.
We’d promised ourselves four luxurious days of “doing nothing” on a fabulous beach, so travelled to the Caribbean coastline and the Belmond Maroma Resort & Spa, on the Riviera Maya. It’s a gorgeous resort and its understated, tasteful Mexican décor blends perfectly with its 25 acres of jungle gardens. But by day three my sons are twitchy. “Grab your snorkels. We’re going on an adventure,” I tell them, and we hop on a boat to the second-largest reef in the world, which lies on the resort’s doorstep. We’re in the water just seconds before an eagle ray “flies” by, and we can’t believe our luck when, in his wake, comes a sedate green turtle. Stopping by at Freddy’s Bar, with his 120-strong range of Tequila, before dinner becomes a habit. I slip off to Kinan Spa – an enchanted forest of a place where non-stinging bees are kept to produce honey for treatments and the leaves from “grandpa tree” (a huge Banyan) float gently down to cover me as I lie on one of the day beds watching butterflies flit by. The lovely facial is simply a bonus.
We end our trip in Tulum, which in the last ten years has morphed from backpackers’ enclave to cool, laid-back resort full of quirky boutique hotels and funky restaurants. We hire bikes to explore the isolated ruins at Coba, just an hour from Tulum. Unlike the other Mayan ruins we’ve explored, most here remain jungle-clad and you’re allowed to scramble up the near vertical steps of Nohoch Mul, at 42m, the Yucatan’s tallest pyramid. Views from the top are stunning – jungle and lakes as far as you can see – but the leg-burning climb separates those who’ve been eating their chaya from those who have not. There’s never been a better time to point out to my sons the importance of eating greens. It’s just a shame I’m so out of breath.
Thomas Cook fly to Cancun from Glasgow. Fares start at £480.98 adult return, www.thomascookairlines.com; double rooms at Hacienda Chichen start at £80 plus taxes, www.haciendachichen.com; rooms at Luz en Yucatan start at £36 per night, www.luzenyucatan.com; a deluxe view room at the Belmond Maroma Resort & Spa costs £342, based on two sharing, inclusive of breakfast and taxes, www.belmond.com/maroma-resort-and-spa-riviera-maya; Kate used Yucatan Connection for private transport, www.yucatan-connection.com