Victory Cruise Lines has been busy since launching its Great Lakes cruises in 2016. In 2017, the Miami-based company acquired a second ship, Victory II, and in January 2019, introduces passengers to what it calls “the first all-inclusive cruise and land experience in Mexico,” exploring three states in the Yucatan Peninsula: Quintana Roo, Yucatan and Campeche. We were invited to experience the land program before the first sailing. Here’s what they showed us after a stop in Key West and a day at sea.
XCARET: The Yucatan Land Safari begins as Victory II docks in Puerto Morelos on Mexico’s Riviera Maya. An afternoon and evening treat is the visit to Xcaret, Mexico’s first eco-archeological park that locals say is essential to any Riviera Maya visit. A stroll through its manicured jungle setting reveals an aquarium, aviary, Mayan village and butterfly pavilion before passengers experience the main event: the Mexico Espectacular Dinner Show in a grand, thatched roof pavilion, lit with candles and colonial-style lamps. Amidst a nine-course tasting menu (kudos to the chef; this was exquisitely prepared Mexican food) and personalized service, a spectacle unfolds with 300 actors and two 12-piece orchestras that tell the story of Mexican history, culture and folklore. From ancient Mayan ball game, Pok a Tok, and the arrival of Spanish conquistadors on horseback, to colorful Mayan trading markets and elaborate dances that represent Mexican states, this sophisticated two-hour show rivals any Broadway production.
DISCOVER TULUM: We began the morning in Tulum, the oceanfront Mayan city built in 1250 that once had a population of up to 15,000 people and became one of the most powerful Mayan sites by 1400AD. While visitors cannot clamber through the ruins anymore, manicured lawns take guests to the edge for close-up looks at temples and homes of the ruling class who lived here. Hints of the once-vibrant colors can still be seen, as can its elaborate carvings. If you find yourself in London, visit the British Museum to see most of the site’s artifacts. Next, just a few blocks from Playa del Carmen’s center and well-hidden from the average visitor, Alux (aloosh) restaurant is startling for its natural beauty and grandeur, set in an underground cave. Open to the public for dinner, it is closed for lunch, with an exception for Victory Cruise Line guests, who dine on a traditional Mexican buffet among colorfully lit cisterns, stalactites, stalagmites and rock formations before embarking on a tour of this magnificent underground world.
VALLADOLID & OVERNIGHT IN CHICHÉN ITZÁ: The journey to Valladolid, a charming colonial town built over an ancient Mayan city, hinges mainly on a visit to Casa de los Venados (House of the Deer), a few feet from the main square. Stepping into this 18,000 square-foot home is magical, as we strolled among the largest collection of museum-quality Mexican folk art in private hands. Refreshments in the sun-filled courtyard lead to English-language tours by local docents who explain the eclectic collection, and symbolic meanings, of folk art in each of the five suites, dining room, pool, kitchen and breakfast nook. Owners John and Dorianne Venator hail from Chicago and purchased most of the art directly from artists in 32 Mexican states. Five minutes from Valladolid, journey to Cenote Samal, a natural open-air sinkhole (of which there are more than 6,000 in the Yucatan) within Hacienda Selva Maya (Hacienda Mayan Jungle), the remains of a 19th-century cattle ranch. Here we could swim, if we so chose, and dine on traditional Mexican fare in a soaring, light-filled natural stone room. Culinary highlights include Pok Chuk, a Yucatecan specialty of grilled pork marinated in local sour orange juice and paired with onions. From here, we checked into Mayaland Hotel, built in 1923 as the only hotel and bungalows within the Chichén Itzá archeological site, discovered only after the land was purchased in 1673. Still run by the same family, the sprawling grounds, into which 46 thatched-roof bungalows and pools are clustered among an observatory and bird-watching trails, has a private path that leads directly to Chichén Itzá. Bungalows, which have hosted luminaries from Placido Domingo to Princess Grace, are spacious, with stained glass-inlaid cherry wood doors, well-equipped bathrooms and comfortable beds surrounded by diaphanous mosquito netting. For Wi-Fi, head to the lobby. After a traditional Mexican dinner, we travel to Chichén Itzá for a walking tour and dazzling half-hour sound and light show superimposed on Kukulkan Palace, illustrating Mayan rituals of fire and water, jungle vines that had nearly swallowed the site, and history illustrated through luminous technology and narration.
SUNRISE AT CHICHÉN ITZÁ & IZAMAL: Sleep is short this night, as passengers who choose to tour Chichén Itzá at dawn meet at 5 a.m. for a stroll by flashlight and lamps along the private path linking the Mayaland hotel to the archeological site. Here, under the stars, we learn about this ancient city that thrived between 600 to 1200 AD from a guide that grew up among its ruins. We marvel at the silence as Victory Cruise Line guests are led on a private tour, learning about the Temple of the Warriors, Wall of Skulls, the ancient ball court and altars said to have been used for worship and healing. In the silence of the jungle, the guide demonstrates how the pyramids were built to maximize sound vibration and amplify music and speeches in a space of four square miles. More than 20 square miles of undiscovered pyramids abut this site, swallowed by jungle and waiting to be uncovered. Undoubtedly, it is one of the most powerful experiences to be standing in Chichén Itzá at dawn, in the footsteps of ancient Mayan nobility, as the morning mist swirls and sun rises. After an elaborate Mayaland hotel breakfast and quick shower, guests travel one hour through verdant jungle and countryside to Izamal, meaning “Morning Dew,” a former Mayan city thought to be as large as Chichén Itzá. Recognized as a “magical town” by the Mexican government for its rich history, cobblestone streets, iron lampposts, friendly residents and buildings painted “Papal Yellow” to honor Pope John Paul II’s visit in 1993, it is a town where time stops. Here again, there is not a tour bus in sight. After a brief tour, we stroll to lunch at delightful open-air restaurant Kinich, a word meaning “Face of the Sun” in Mayan, where we see colorfully dressed women making tortillas over a wood-burning flame and dine on a generous tasting menu of Yucatecan specialties.
VILLAGE OF NOLO & HACIENDA SOTUTA DE PEÓN: One of the highlights of the entire Land Safari for its spirituality, exclusivity and authenticity is a visit to Nolo, a community of only 1,500 people. Here lies Halltun Ha, a mystical Mayan research site carved out of the jungle and home to a second-generation Mayan healer, Gabriel Martín Loeza, who continues the work his gifted late father began. The story goes, the senior Loeza’s energy and healing talents were so powerful that the Dalai Lama and four monks detected his energy from Merida and followed its vibration to find him in Nolo. So special was the visit, the Dalai Lama gifted Loeza a statue, which stands in the garden. Here, with no other tourists in sight, we received a group blessing from an elderly Mayan priest, who requests permission from the wind and four guardians of the Mayan world for the ability to do the cleansing and blessing. Later, during a toast (with delicious juices made locally), he raises his glass and asks the group to repeat after him in Maya: “In la kech,” which translates to “You are the other me.” A more heartfelt toast would be hard to replicate. Though difficult to leave, what awaits is another high point, as we step back in time to the turn of the century at Hacienda Sotuta de Peón. In the early 1900's, this was one of the most lavish estates to produce “sisal,” the burlap-type rope made from the henequen cactus, once called “the green gold of the Yucatan.” Here, we tour the exquisitely restored hacienda and see every fascinating step in sisal harvesting, processing and bundling using original machinery. Ride through the plantation on a wooden platform pulled on train tracks by mules, as plantation workers were once transported a century ago. Meet one of these workers, the 84-year old Don Antonio outside his modest home, as he talks about day-to-day life in the fields, where he began to work at age 6, cutting 800,000 henequen leaves every week and replacing them with seedlings. You’ll frequently hear him use the the word “uchi,” meaning “before” in Mayan, as Don Antonio animatedly speaks through a translator before administering a blessing on the group.
DISEMBARK & DISCOVER CAMPECHE: One of the Yucatan’s most startlingly beautiful cities is the walled city of Campeche, a UNESCO World Heritage Site filled with Colonial-era homes painted in pastel yellows, pinks, blues and greens. The government buried power lines to elevate the city’s charm quotient, and in the spirit of inclusion, put all street numbers in braille and laid a sidewalk track for the blind to use their canes and navigate each block. As our guide said, “this is a city that needs to be walked,” to see the most iconic sites within its towering walls (erected in 1704 to repel pirates that raided the rich city), including the old Port of Campeche, the Sea Gate and Seaside Wall entrance to the city. Lunch at the waterfront Palapa del Tio Fito is a highlight for the fresh fish (Red Drum & snapper varieties including Boquinete and Pargo) delivered by local fishermen twice daily. A dessert of papaya, nance and ciricote, fruit from the region is refreshing and a surprising culinary delight. Evening brings Celebramos Campeche, a stunning 30-minute sound and light show that tells the story of Campeche’s history and people with fast-paced, awe-inspiring high-tech visuals projected on an historic building’s façade in the town’s main square. While normally shown every Friday evening, it is presented especially for Victory II guests during their stay.
IN & AROUND CAMPECHE: Campeche exploration continues, though without a doubt, today’s highlight is the private evening folkloric dance performance exclusively for Victory II guests at the historic City Theater Francisco de Paula Toro. The oldest theater of its kind in Mexico, the elegant performance venue with its velvet chairs, private balconies and antique chandeliers sets the stage for 14 performers from a professional company to dazzle passengers with traditional dances.
MORNING IN CAMPECHE BEFORE FLIGHT TO MIAMI: Today we headed to two local artists’ collectives before heading home. The first, Tukulna Tienda de Artesanias (Tukulna Crafts Shop), is within an elegantly transformed Colonial home where local artisans practice their craft, often passed down through generations, and sell their work, from hats and hammocks to jewelry and fans. The other, more rustic, is down the street in the Church of San Jose, a former Jesuit temple, where artist kiosks front centuries-old frescoes.
All the immersive excursions are included, as are the exceptional restaurants we visited. Sailings begin with the inaugural cruise January 23, 2019. More information, details and prices can be found at https://www.victorycruiselines.com/cruises/yucatan-land-and-cruise-safari/.
As you’ll hear in Maya, “To Ha Wo Lex” – Cheers