(Tribune Media Services) -- We are sitting cross-legged in the water, 60 feet underground in a Mexican cave surrounded by some of the most beautiful formations I've ever seen, as the niece of a famous shaman chants a Mayan prayer asking the gods to let us go in peace.
Stalactites hang overhead in a cave along Mexico's Riviera Maya.
Not your typical day at a Mexican beach resort, though we'll hit the pool later. We're just an hour or so from Cancun, a few miles from Playa del Carmen, five miles off the highway along a bumpy road in Rio Secreto, a unique cave just opened to the public last year, after the owner of the land, Don Cleo, inadvertently discovered it while chasing one of his animals.
There are underground "cenotes" (roughly translated it means sacred water that gives life) -- river systems that crisscross the Riviera Maya. What makes this cave so unique, explains our guide Andres Orozco, is that it's the only one not completely flooded.
There are thousands of stalactites overhead -- big ones, small ones that look like sunbursts. We follow our guide Andres down past giant calcium dunes. He explains cenotes were holy for the Mayans. In another part of the cave not open to the public, they have found pottery dating back to 800 AD. Archaeologists from Mexican museums have yet to confirm their value. "We want people to appreciate what came before us," Andres explains.
Whether you want adventures like this with your kids, or to learn about endangered sea turtles or if you simply want to hit the beach, there's no better time to visit Mexico. Don't let swine flu keep you away, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says Mexico is safe and tourist spots are far removed from those experiencing political turmoil.
Still, lingering concerns have sent Mexico's tourism plummeting -- as much as 75 percent in some places, says Gabe Saglie, senior editor at Travelzoo, and that's resulted in unprecedented deals that he expects will continue well into the fall. Teens and younger kids are getting a free ride at many places.
Expedia.com reports hotel rates in Cancun can be had for up to 51 percent less than last summer. Airfare to Mexico is also down -- 29 percent from last summer, according to Travelocity.com Senior Editor Genevieve Brown. The average ticket is under $400.
"I tell all my friends they should go to Mexico," Brown says adding that you can live it up with your kids in a deluxe resort you might not have been able to afford a year ago. For example, the Fairmont Mayakoba in Mexico's Riviera Maya has rates starting at $179 a night with a fifth night free. Kids up to 12 eat free, too, and there's even a new interactive kids' fitness program.
Look for rock-bottom prices at smaller hotels too, like the Las Villas Akumal (great snorkeling) with two- and three-bedroom beachfront villas starting at $129 a night. Check out www.luxehotels.com for this and other Mexico deals.
If you are thinking about a trip later this year, don't be shy about asking what these resorts will offer in order to get you to book now says Saglie. Grab a holiday deal when you spot one -- and there should be plenty -- because reduced airline capacity might make last-minute trips problematic. Here's just a sampling of what's out there right now:
Meanwhile, deep underground in the cave, we're walking and swimming where Mayans did more than 1,000 years ago. So far, only about 10 percent of the six or so miles that have been explored are open for tours, says Otto Von Bertrab, whose company offers this experience.
"This region is a lot more than just the beach," he adds. "This is an experience people don't expect. It's a fantastic surprise."
(For more Taking the Kids, visit www.takingthekids.com, where Eileen Ogintz welcomes your questions and comments.)
Copyright 2009 EILEEN OGINTZ, DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.
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