Gazing at the expansive turquoise seas and white sands of the Mayan Riviera, it’s easy to imagine the infamous pirates of the Caribbean who once dominated these waters. This is where the notorious Captain William Kidd, Edward “Blackbeard” Teach and John “Calico Jack” Rackham wreaked havoc, larceny, murder and mayhem.
The late Edward Kritzler, author of “Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean,” suggests many of these legendary bad guys and their cohorts were actually members of the tribe. Among the most successful was Moses Cohen Henriques, who ran a massive 1628 raid against the Spanish fleet. According to Kritzler, these Jewish refugees of the Spanish Inquisition were mavericks on a mission. They were driven, in part, by their fierce passion to sabotage the Spanish crown’s strongholds in the New World and to pursue religious freedom.
The Jewish presence in these parts today is far less provocative, as the only visible remnants of once prosperous cultures here are not of pirates, but pyramids. The massive ruined ancient Mayan cities, with their staggering structures, massive sport courts and other stone remains, are among the most popular sites of the beautiful Riviera Maya, located on the eastern end of the Yucatan Peninsula.
One premiere place to explore is the ancient coastal village of Tulum, which faces the sea about 80 miles south of Cancun. This massive stretch of dramatic real estate is laced with the remains of a variety of Mayan structures dating back to the 13th century: ruined palaces, pyramids, presumed altars and more.
Another major site worth exploring nearby is Coba. Shrouded by a forest, wide dirt paths open up to mysterious Mayan buildings from a time gone by. Some pyramids stand so high, towering over nearby treetops, that climbing is at your own risk.
The descendants of the indigenous Mayans who created these once thriving villages have long dwindled. Elements of their cultures can still be easily observed at authentic villages, however, such as Tres Reyes, where visitors can tour homes and workplaces.
Villagers still sleep in hammocks strung in bare huts with little if any other furniture and no decorations. They make tortillas from corn they grind by hand in a stone mortar, and they cook on a plain piece of metal over hot coals. They also keep small farm animals and fertile fruit and vegetable gardens in this tropical climate while maintaining their authentic off-the-grid lifestyle — no running water, electricity or appliances.
This way of life — definitely on the wane — continues only because tour guides pay fees for each visit, covering the costs of much-needed goods and services that are no longer available for barter. Grown children typically leave the village for education, jobs and mainstream life.
When it comes to natural phenomenon, there’s also plenty that captivates, such as the limestone caverns known as cenotes, prevalent throughout the peninsula. Formed 65 million years ago, these natural sinkholes are striking blue and green in color and contain freshwater pools that resemble something out of the film “Avatar.” Water drips from cave walls overhead, bats and birds circle, and their chirping and winging fill the space.
In addition to the region’s cultural and natural gems, there is, of course, the commercial side of life here. Playa del Carmen, situated between the airport in Cancun and the ruins at Tulum, is a renowned scuba destination that is also host to a vast number of resorts and vacation getaways.
Among them is the magnificent five-star resort Mayakoba. Set on a nature preserve, the Mayakoba enclave is home to three luxury hotels — Rosewood, Fairmont and the Banyan Tree — occupying 1,600 acres. Each is accessible via a boat ride through canals that connect the three properties. The properties also share a white sand beach easily accessible by foot, though the distance is so far from each respective reception desk that the staff offers golf carts to deliver guests to and fro. With the extensive mangrove, the body of the water and the coast, myriad exotic migratory birds call the preserve home.
It’s not uncommon for Jewish communities in nearby areas to arrange for celebratory events at Mayakoba, which is well versed in catering to kosher guests, Passover programs and large wedding parties. The wine selection includes kosher varietals, and kosher catering is also available from Chabad of Cancun (jewishcancun.com), which provides certified kosher meal service to any hotel in Cancun and the Riviera Maya.
It’s a short distance into town to the commercial heart of Playa del Carmen. This city center will easily satisfy your fix for retail therapy, gifts, beachwear and souvenirs. A long and charming strip of shops offers everything from local organic honey to lamps of all sizes adorned with gorgeous seashells. Naturally, Israeli merchants are in the mix, as are Jewish visitors to the local Chabad House (jewishplaya.com).
Depending on your outlook, the closest thing to pirates in these parts today may be the local shopkeepers. Naturally, they charge top dollar for beautiful Mexican silver pieces or the region’s ubiquitous liquid gold — high end, often certified kosher, tequila. Yo, ho, ho and a bottle of Leyenda del Milagro!