You hear Mexico before you see it.
It is the merry melodies of mariachis in unfeasibly wide silver-studded hats, twanging on trumpets and violins, that wafts across the arrivals hall at Cancun International Airport. The second passengers disembark, the musicians eagerly burst into song and refuse to pause for breath until the final bag is collected and the final passport stamped.
Visitors are serenaded with the traditional welcoming song “El Son de la Negra” (“Song of the Dark-skinned Girl) – an ode to Mexicans overseas longing to return to the country they “love so much it hurts”. Listen carefully, and you can make out the rhythms of a second troupe performing their own repertoire in the departures hall. They try to out-sing their rivals with the customary farewell song “Las Golondrinas” (“The Bird”), with its mournful lament: “Where are you going so quickly? Don’t be in such a hurry to leave.”
At Heathrow you get armed police. At Cancun you get arranged percussion.
These smiling amigos provide the soundtrack for your entire stay, singing their happy and sad songs in bars and restaurants, on street corners and in shopping malls, at train stations, bus stops and, unavoidably, airports. It seems silly at first, but even the most curmudgeonly traveller cannot help but be stirred by these native songs of love and loss, performed by accomplished musicians… despite their ridiculous hats.
Keeping up with the neighbours, Cancun’s latest and most luxurious resort has its own amigos on hand to serenade guests as they check in. Nestled in mangrove forest beside the pristine blue waters of the Riviera Maya, Thomson Sensatori is the holiday firm’s most ambitious project yet. It offers all-inclusive gourmet cuisine – not a concept British holidaymakers will be familiar with.
Here “gourmet” is not a cheeky euphemism for serving rocket rather than lettuce or plonking a sprig of herb on your steak. It means hiring chefs from the world’s top restaurants to conjure up Central America’sfinest menus and give guests’ taste buds an authentic five-star treat.
Of Sensatoris’ six Michelin star-chasing restaurants, Le Chique is unique. In a stunning magenta and black boudoir, head chef Jonatan Gomezluna (recruited from El Bulli restaurant in Barcelona) dazzles diners with his 14-course menu, with paired wines for each dish. The first course – strawberry Champagne – is drunk in the kitchen, where diners get to peek behind the scenes at Jonatan’s elaborate preparations and the obsessive attention to detail lavished on each dish.
The next 13 courses range from a starter of cherry and raspberry gazpacho soup served with garlic ice cream, flower petals and sprouts to a dessert of Cohiba cigar smoke and foam infused with Grand Marnier. This sort of postmodern cuisine provides more food for thought than food for forks, but Jonatan’s infectious enthusiasm for molecular gastronomy will make your jaw drop as often as it chews.
And being all-inclusive, the bill never arrives. After a three-hour sensory overload, diners simply get up and walk out without being made to roll up their sleeves and do the washing up. After 14 courses, that would be a lot of Fairy Liquid.
The resort’s other five restaurants are not as ostentatious, but fabulous in their own way – from the jerk-inspired menu at the Caribbean diner Zavaz to the sumptuous Tex-Mex starters at Zocalo’s that really put the “olé!” into guacamole. These restaurants are scattered across the site’s 40-acre labyrinth of pools and palm trees, whirlpools, waterfalls and fountains. Ground floor guests in swim-up rooms can stroll straight from their pillow to the pool.
Sensatori aspires to be all things to all holidaymakers, catering for singles and honeymooners, toddlers and tearaway teenagers. Most resorts shy away from such a delicate balancing act, but here the sheer scale of the site makes the improbable possible. All rooms have a chic designer feel with their own plasma TVs, DVD players, iPod stations and a jacuzzi. But each is tailor-made to the requirements of individual guests – so young mums and dads get sliding privacy partitions, an extra plasma screen for the kids, intercoms, pushchairs, playpens, a children’s gym and spa and a Fisher-Price-sponsored play centre.
Teenagers get their own extreme sports facilities, gaming room, beach parties and a nightclub where they can take turns DJ-ing, while adult-only suites offer indulgent touches such as soap menus, pillow menus and one member of staff for every guest.
Tear yourself away from the joys of all-inclusive and you will discover Cancun has made great strides towards shrugging off its reputation for tequila-fuelled debauchery. The heaving resort bars and nightclubs still provide a hedonistic paradise equal to Ibiza (a night out at world-famous surreal cabaret nightclub Coco Bongo really isn’t to be missed) but the region’s natural beauty now tops the list of reasons to visit.
At the protected natural sanctuary of Chikin-Ha you can hook yourself up to a thrilling zip-line tour 50m above the jungle canopy, go cave snorkelling in crystal-clear water and take part in a traditional Mayapurification ceremony – all in the space of a morning. Then spend an adrenaline-fuelled afternoon driving your own two-seater speedboat through the Punta Nizuc reef and out into the Caribbean. Go snorkelling, and you will find yourself nose-to-nose with marlin,barracuda and shoals of exotic fish.
A breezy 50-minute plane ride from Cancun (or a hellish four-hour coach trip) takes you to the legendary 1,500-year-old Mayan pyramids of Chichen Itza. Until recently, you could stroll up to its summit, but conservation concerns – and ‘elf and safety – mean you can now only walk around the ruins from a distance. They have been tragically overrun by overpriced cafés, tacky souvenir shops and pushy street performers and vendors.
Mercifully, there is not a mariachi in sight. Seeing those proud amigosperform among Chichen Itza’s buskers and belly dancers would tarnish the memory of that cheerful feeling that carries new arrivals through the airport. Most visitors must wait until it’s their turn to fly home before hearing those trumpets and violins again, merrily performing “Las Golondrinas”.
It’s a joyful sound that rings in your ears all the way home.
• First published at http://www.dailymail.co.uk