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Mex Factor The; From swimming in cool underground caves to exploring crumbling ruins, Yucatan's got it all- and more... n d g Mexico's sparkling coast has the X factor.

Byline: HELEN BEATTY

Idon't know who was more surprised - the pelican, or me. I had been idly snorkelling along the shallows, chasing shoals of fish through pillars of sunshine, when - wham! The sea shallows, exploded an arm's reach from me.

I splashed to my feet and stood over the bird just as it came up from its dive (luckily for the fish, without its lunch) and we eyeballed each other in wonder for a moment in before it stretched out its wings - wider than I am tall - and skimmed off over the in en palm trees. This was our fourth day in Mexico, and by now I should have been used to surprises - unexpected pleasures seem to be the Yucatan's stock in trade.

Of course there was the beautiful coast, white sand, warm blue Caribbean sea, palms and technicolour sunsets.

The Mayan ruins, begging to be explored. The laid-back friendliness of the Mexicans we met. And, of course, the sunshine It wasthe sunshine. It was all perfect.

over the But then a twist will make it all that much better; on an ancient temple wall, the iguana sunning itself. Passing through a town to find a fiesta under way, with bands battling to get families dancing in the streets. Finding brand new shopping malls cheek by jowl with great local restaurants in the hub of Playa del Carmen.

new che loc hu It's easy to see why Mexico is topping holiday wish-lists.

Mho We were staying all- inclusive at the Bahia Principe, on the coast just north of the famous ruins of Tulum.

in Pju ru and I each other Its split into four different resorts, and we were in the beachside area with an embarrassment of pools, bars and restaurants.

skimmed off palm trees With access to one of the other resort's facilities, we could dine in a new place every night.

The buffet ranged from spicy Mexican stews to fresh grills, pasta, burgers, roasts, sushi or salad, but there are also over half a dozen a la carte restaurants.

The most popular book out early, but don't let that always be your guide - our favourite meal was from the seafood restaurant El Pescador.

There were plenty of sports, activities and entertainment, but there was always a quiet corner to unwind.

MAYANS What's more, the beach is perfect for small children - the sand gently slopes away and is netted off from the reef beyond, so little ones can safely play in the water and see the fish.

But sooner or later, everyone is drawn to the see the Mayan sites, abandoned after the Spanish invaded in the 16th century.

The closest, Tulum, is the most beautiful, perched on cliffs overlooking a spectacular beach of white sands and cobalt sea . For contrast, the lost city of Coba is still mostly buried across acres of jungle TURN TO PAGE 30 FROM PAGE 29 perfect to explore in the shade as the day heats up.

The most spectacular site, and worth the couple of hours' trip to reach, is Chichen Itza. This world heritage site takes a fair few hours to explore.

But my favourite was the relatively small site of Ek Balam - so freshly restored, the carvings on the temple look as if they might have been done yesterday.

And then come another of Mexico's unexpected joys - its cenotes.

Essentially these are giant caves or sinkholes, filled with cool, fresh water - perfect after a hot day tramping past the ruins.

Try Ik Kil at Chichen Itza, with a gentle waterfall pouring from its fern- ringed roof. Or on the way back from Ek Balam, there is cave-like Cenote Maya with zipwires or diving boards.

If you can, visit a cenote on your own in the morning, before the coach tours arrive, for one of the most serene and surreal swims you will have in your life.

Getting around is easy, too. If you don't fancy an organised tour, simply flag down a "collectivo" outside the resort.

These minibuses are an easy way for everyone from tourists to hotel staff to hop between Tulum at one end and busy Playa del Carmen at other, with adventure parks at Xplor, Xel-Ha and Xcaret - which are all brilliant for kids - dotted along the way.

You simply pay the driver a set fare (usually around [euro]1) when you hop off, and head home to a cocktail, pool and sunset. Well, some pleasures can be expected.

TRAVEL FILE WHEN TO GO Year-round it's warm and humid with temperatures from 17deg to 30degC. The stormy season is around September/October. CHILDREN IN TOW Kids - and big kids - brimming with energy can burn it off at one of the area's many adventure water parks, from snorkelling in rivers and caves, to zip- wires, jungle treks and cliff- jumping. Xplor and Xcaret are within reach from Bahia Principe - the closest one, Xel Ha, is five minutes south. For deals on these parks and sites further afield, go to en.xcaretexperiencias.com/BOOK IT Thomas Cook has seven nights' all-inclusive at the four-star-plus Grand Bahia Principe Tulum in Riviera Maya, from [euro]1,005pp. Flights from Manchester on June 14. Departures from Gatwick and longer stays available. thomascook.com, 0044 0844 412 5970 DAY TRIPS Book in resort with Thomas Cook to go to Ek Balam ([euro]120pp) and Coba & Tulum ([euro]75).

ruins ru The pelican and I eyeballed each other before it skimmed off over the palm trees

CAPTION(S):

FIRST RESORT The Bahia Principe has an embarrassment of pools, bars and restaurants

WONDERS Take a dip in a cenote or explore magnificent Tulum

WHAT A PLEASURE Bahia Principe resort

OLD RUINS Helen explores the carvings at Ek Balam
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Sunday Mirror (London, England)
Geographic Code:1MEX
Date:May 8, 2016
Words:952
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