Standing barefoot on a wooden jetty on Mexico‘s Yucatan Peninsula, I am being helped, one leg at a time, into an upside-down life jacket.
Once I’m strapped in, it looks like a boxy, neon nappy. But our guide says it’s the best way to travel this freshwater lazy river. Worn like this, we’re vertical in the water rather than sitting in it.
The warm and clear river, the colour of a turquoise Tiffany gift box, holds us gently as we are swept along. It’s as calming, meditative and peaceful as a flotation tank, but much better for you because you’re in sunshine, in motion and in nature.
The Daily Mail’s Kate Johnson journeyed to Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula and skipped trendy Tulum. Above, an example of the beach scenery in the area
The river is man-made: the Mayans dug these narrow canals to link the lagoons and create trade routes to the Caribbean hundreds of years ago. We’re in the Sian Ka’an biosphere (it translates as ‘where the sky is born’), a vast nature reserve covering more than a thousand square miles – that’s roughly the same size as the Lake District.
We’re only ten miles south of the increasingly trendy Tulum, but we could be a world away. To get here, we’ve walked through rainforests (on medium-high alert for howler monkeys); we’ve taken a small motor boat across the lagoons (on high alert for crocodiles); and we’ve explored the ancient ruins of Muyil, a relic of the Mayans from around 300BC.
The 57ft pyramid of El Castillo has a west-facing throne carved into the summit, so that the ruler was bathed in shimmering light when he addressed his people. It’s an impressive example of the lengths people had to go to to look their best, before filters and Photoshop.
Although my shoulders are pink (due to not bringing a shirt and not being allowed to pollute the water with sunscreen), this is the most beautiful, serene swimming experience I’ve ever had – at least since the cenotes (sinkholes) two days before.
It’s not often you get the chance to experience the water like this and both are natural wonders of the world, whether they’re on the official list or not.
Ancient beauty: Kate discovered that the 57ft pyramid of El Castillo has a west-facing throne carved into the summit, so that the ruler was bathed in shimmering light when he addressed his people
The freshwater sinkholes are natural pits, created by collapsing limestone. They’re so pristine, so fresh, so enticing, it feels like we must be the first people to swim in them.
Our guide says: ‘Watch this – I’m going to show you a magic trick.’ He does some breathing exercises to lower his pulse and then swims to the bottom and turns on to his back. He blows bubbles, and floating up to the surface is what looks like a glittering, flexing, gold hula hoop. Clever clogs.
We all but have this to ourselves. There’s a small group of athletic Americans behind us (we glimpse them expertly flipping upside down on the same zip‑lines that caused us to s‑c-r-e-a-m).
It’s surprising that there are none of those packed coach parks, single file timed slots, or queues to take selfies at the most photogenic spots.
Perhaps it’s almost deserted because if you’re staying – as I am – at the adults only, all-inclusive Unico 20˚87˚ (the numbers are the hotel’s coordinates) on the Riviera Maya, you may already have a packed schedule: floating yoga, aqua cycling, wine tasting, cookery classes and more.
The adults only, all-inclusive Unico 20˚87˚hotel, which Kate found was ‘as big as a cruise liner’. Guests are all assigned a personal concierge on arrival
The hotel is as big as a cruise liner and one of many with grand entrances off the dual carriageway that shadows the 80 miles of Caribbean coastline from Cancun to Tulum.
In the mid-Nineties, this busy highway was a single road with no hard shoulder; now it ferries more than 4.5 million tourists a year to their holiday. It’s the No 1 destination for Americans, and the new airport terminal at Cancun is expected to bring many millions more.
Once inside the Unico 20˚87˚, there’s so much space that I never pick up a single conversation.
I don’t even recognise any of the same faces, come the evening. In one pool, groups of boys wearing baseball caps back to front play water polo; around another, couples curl up on circular sofas.
My room has a four-poster bed, an ocean view, and a Jacuzzi bath on my balcony that my ‘local host’ is desperate to run for me. Guests are all assigned a personal concierge on arrival. It’s an unusual extra for a hotel that is lavish but not formal; there are no hushed dining rooms, dress codes, or waiters snapping napkins onto your lap.
My host is charming, but baffled that I don’t need someone to help me turn on the bath taps, that all my pillow needs have been met without recourse to the pillow menu, and that I don’t have a preference for which aromatherapy scents I’d like for my room spray. Everything is great just as it is.
British Airways Holidays (ba.com, 0344 493 0120) offers seven nights all-inclusive at the UNICO 20° 87° Hotel Riviera Maya from £1,269 per person.
Price based on two sharing an Alcoba Room and includes return World Traveller flights from Gatwick to Cancun on selected September departures.