The Mayan Magic of the Riviera Maya is drawing a record-number of tourists, and its attraction comes as no surprise.
the area offers an immense variety of activities as well as an indigenous healing environment ideal for reconnecting and unwinding.
As the eight of us sat in total darkness, inhaling the steamy heat, I began to question my participation. Although I knew the myriad benefits of temazcal, an ancient Mayan healing ritual, my body and my mind were hesitant and a bit fearful.
Just moments before, our temazcalera, Nancy Aguilar, a native of the Yucatan Peninsula, five other participants, my husband (Steven), and I piled into a dome-shaped hut, constructed from earthen mud. The only entrance faced the south, which also happened to be the shortest path to the Caribbean Sea.
After finding our seats, Aguilar explained what the next steamy hour would encompass: her assistant would bring in heated volcanic rocks and then seal the hut so that no light could permeate our space. We would then chant together, while she poured water over the steaming rocks, creating a sacred sweat lodge. Each chant was to be repeated four times, honoring the four elements as well as the four directions. We were each given wooden bowls filled with a mixture of cool water and herbs to pour over ourselves if we got too hot; physically or emotionally.
However, as soon as the space grew completely black, I grew hesitant, and the monkey-chatter of my mind began. Mostly I was thinking, ‘how do I get out of here?’ But, I surprised myself; I didn’t bolt for the door. Instead, I settled into my space, concentrating on my breath and watching the glow of the embers.
Before my eyes several shapes appeared in the glowing volcanic rocks as if I was hallucinating; a turtle emerged, and then a crocodile. As we watched the glow of the rocks, we began to chant, at first very modestly. Our voices quickly grew louder and more confident, as if our inhibitions were being released with our sweat. I kept my hands in my tub of water through most of the ritual, as a reminder that I could keep cool even in difficult spaces.
After about fifty minutes, we slathered ourselves in a special mud from Veracruz, and Aguilar, opened the hut to the cool oceanic air, instructing us to head to the waters and immerse ourselves. The temazcal ritual is designed to be a rebirth; the hut is our mother’s womb, and the exit signifies our entry back to earth. Stepping into the Caribbean Sea, I realized that the final plunge into the cool waters not only signified the end of the ritual, but also a rebirth back to a state of harmony.
Two months later, when Steven and I discovered we were pregnant with our first child, I realized how this ceremony celebrating rebirth and Mother Earth may have helped me to connect to my own motherly instincts.
The Riviera Maya, a stretch of the Yucatan Peninsula that begins about eleven miles south of the Cancun International Airport and extends to Felipe Carillo Puerto, a town near the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, contains not only some of the most pristine beaches in Mexico, but also the ruins of Tulum, Chitzen Itza, and Coba as well as a diverse and preserved jungle. World-renowned scuba diving also awaits off on nearby Cozumel.
Over the past several years, the Riviera Maya has become the place to be, and its growth has matched its reputation. By the time this article goes to print, two more properties will have opened in the Mayakoba complex (see sidebar), and several more will have broke ground near Tulum. While all of this growth may cause concern, most of these properties have done a wonderful job blending in with the environment. Case in point: Maroma Resort & Spa, a luxurious Orient-Express property nestled on the Riviera Maya.
On the last leg of our drive to Maroma Resort, we traversed through dense jungle, over large ropes (serving as speed bumps), and with very few signs and lights to illuminate the way. Upon arriving at the property, I instantly felt as if I’d arrived at a private village, which in a sense I had.
Maroma Resort, once a former coconut plantation, abuts the Caribbean Sea as well as the jungle. The property is constructed primarily from local materials, including shell fossils, stone, and bamboo. The white stucco faƒ§ade and thatched roofs enable the hotel to blend seamlessly with the white sands and the dense forest. Rooms feature views from nearly every angle, while the spacious Sian Nah Suites (Sian Nah is Mayan for “House of Heaven”) offer rooftop decks, private plunge pools, a living room, bedroom, and fitness and spa treatment areas that take full advantage of the azure waters of the Caribbean. In addition, each room or villa at Maroma showcases extensive tilework crafted by Mayan masons. Our suite featured an ornately adorned and domed roof above the canopy bed in addition to a deluxe bathroom with a large soaking tub and an indoor/outdoor shower.
Maroma’s beach has been recognized by travel experts as one of the best beaches in the Caribbean for two reasons: the sands are amazingly soft (and not hot due to the high coral content), and (despite the increasing accolades) the beach is very quiet. Because the property features only sixty-five rooms and twenty-five acres of beachfront property, guests are ensured of their own stretch of soft, white sand. (This is quite a contrast to other area resorts. One morning, we took about a fifteen-minute stroll south of the property and found a beach not only covered with bronzed vacationers, but a party scene reminiscent of Cabo.)
Both dining venues, El Sol and El Restaurante, offer sweeping views of the Caribbean Sea. Dinner at El Restaurante features signature Mayan dishes as well as popular Mexican staples. While I enjoyed the prawn special that evening, Steven indulged in the traditional conchinita pibil, a Mayan pork dish made with peppercorns, achiote, and garlic, which came wrapped in banana leaves and topped with fresh chilies and onions. On Friday evenings, guests have the opportunity to experience Chef Guillermo’s Caribbean Parillada. With tables set in the sand, Guillermo creates a beachfront feast featuring fresh local seafood. While Guillermo’s preparing the meal, you’ll be serenaded by a trio of musicians.
After dinner, we headed back to our room, following the winding candle-lit pathways through the dense vegetation. Every night, nearly 1,000 candles are lit along the winding paths and stone walkways, casting a very romantic and ethereal glow.
The following morning, I joined a yoga class at the Kinan Spa with instructor and head nutritionist, Marcus Paspali. Yoga classes and workshops are offered throughout the year, and such notables as Cyndi Lee from Om Yoga in New York, regularly make appearances for special weeks.
Kinan, which is Mayan for “the source of life,” is a masterpiece of its own. Upon entering the spa, you’ll pass through an elegant, arched walkway, leading to a tranquil village of treatment rooms, saunas, Zen-like gardens, and cold plunge pools. In keeping with the principles of sacred Mayan geometry, each building and treatment room is aligned with the stars to ensure that energy of body, mind, and spirit are flowing optimally and in harmony. The spa, like the rest of the property, showcases local artisans work, including the sapote wood palapas designed for seaside, open-air massages. Spa Director Sharron Hopley explains, “The design is based on the Uxmal ruins on the Yucatan peninsula. We designed the spa with Mayan sacred geometry that is based on a universal number; we started with that number and grew the spa to incorporate that number in every distance and square meter of the spa.” Throughout the spa, you’ll also find butterflies, intricately placed within the pathways. According to Mayan philosophy, the butterfly is a symbol of transformation and serves as a beautiful reminder of the spa’s goals.
Beyond the architecture, the spa treatments at Kinan are also decidedly Mayan. Several of the treatments were designed and taught to the staff by a local shaman, Shoshana Weinberg, former spa development manager for Orient-Express Hotels, relates, “I met with the local shamans to see how they were using medicine in the small villages. I then took the herbs and treatments and re-created them to modern day spa treatments. We decided to take this route to give homage to the Mayan people before us, to respect the land and their healing treatments.”
Steven and I had booked the Aphrodisia’s Chocolate Invigoration because cocoa is one of the area’s signature staples. The treatment began with an exfoliation using pure cacao and was followed by a massage application of warmed chocolate. We were then wrapped and allowed to sinfully enjoy the heat and scent of the chocolate while the therapists massaged our necks and shoulders. Afterward, we were left alone to shower and rinse each other before a final application of 100 percent pure chocolate and coconut oil.
Other treatments offered at Kinan include the Kinan Ritual, one of the most authentic Mayan treatments on the menu. The treatment begins with an herb-infused wrap to draw out toxins, followed by an exfoliation utilizing honey and salt. A four-handed Lomi-Lomi massage completes the ritual. Says Hopley, “this treatment is designed to detox the body using elements of spiritual bathing, herbs, honey, and salt.”
After our leisurely morning, Steven and I headed to a beachside palapa to enjoy the sound of the waves crashing onto the beach. Maroma, in fact, means somersault, referring to the waves as they crash onto the shore.
Maroma offers a variety of guided tours to such archeological sites as Tulum, Coba, and Chichen Itza. In addition, more adventurous guests may visit one of the area’s cenotes (se’ no te), or freshwater sinkholes, to catch a glimpse into the culture of the area, both past and present. There are very few rivers in the Riviera Maya; instead, the people rely on the cenotes as their principle source of water.
The drive from Maroma to Tulum is only about an hour; along the way your guide can provide you with an ample history of the area. Tulum, or the “walled city,” was built sometime between 1200 – 1450 A.D., but was abandoned by the 16th century. Historians say the area was primarily used as a trading mecca, as ships were able to come to shore and trade with local merchants.
Upon arrival at Tulum, I was struck by what remains. Buildings, while dilapidated, still boast original sculptures and paintings, and the Castillo (the Castle), with its promontory overlooking the sea, is a sight to behold. After a tour of Tulum, many visitors trek down the path by the Castillo and dive into the very secluded and rather rocky beach. It was easy to envision the Mayan people enjoying this stretch of land as we gazed from the ruins to the beautiful waters.
That evening we enjoyed a romantic dinner on the Mirador. After we were led up a candlelit staircase to the highest tower on property, which is designed to seat one party per night, I looked to the stars for thanks. The magic of Maroma was captured in that one evening; from the temazcal to the sweeping views of the Riviera Maya, its no wonder couples revisit Maroma year after year.
The following morning, we left Maroma and headed to the newly opened Fairmont Mayakoba, part of the larger four-hotel Mayakoba complex. Mayakoba, which means “village of water,” is designed to minimize its impact on the natural habitat and preserve not only the mangrove, but also the cenotes in the area.
When we visited last spring, only the Fairmont Mayakoba was open, a 401-room resort nestled around the intricate inland waterways and cenotes. At the Fairmont, only a few luxury suites are actually beachfront, while the other rooms are located a walk (or a golf-cart ride) away from the water. Guests at any of the resorts have the option of moving throughout the properties on small boats called lancha, another measure designed to preserve the natural habitat of the area.
The pride and joy of the Fairmont Mayakoba property is the modern, yet Mayan-inspired 37,000-square-foot Willow Stream Spa. Set amidst a mangrove canopy, the men’s and women’s locker rooms are sheltered on the first floor, while the treatment rooms and Alberca Vitalidad rooftop vitality pool overlook the verdant rainforest. The spa menu and the design itself were inspired by four elements of the Mayan earth: Lu’um Kaab, which represents balance,
Ha o Way, purification; Lik, creativity; and K’aak, rebirth, a regional theme I was beginning to pick up on. Local natural elements were incorporated throughout, including Concera Fossil stone, Tikul green marble, and the deep contrasting colors of the Zapote Negro wood.
Drawn by the name and my curiousity, Steven and I were set to enjoy the Food of the Gods treatment, which began with a cocoa scrub. After a rinse in our private shower, we returned to our tables for a delicious cocoa-infused massage. Finally, as we were led away from the treatment room, our therapists handed us a commodity that was once prized as much as gold authentic Mayan cocoa a rich, sinful, and delightful way to end this unique treatment.
After a delicious dinner at La Laguna Grill & Bar, we sauntered back to our room. As I was lying in bed that night, I realized that the Maroma and Mayakoba experiences each offer something unique and cater to a wide array of tastes and interests. Maroma is secluded, forcing even the busiest of us to slow down and savor the sweet, warm air. Mayakoba reconnects us with the sun, encouraging both leisure and activity. After our rebirth at Maroma, it was refreshing to lounge by the Fairmont’s pool, sip margaritas, and watch as the waves crash into the shore. The essence of the Riviera Maya is found by just settling in, letting the pace of the people, the beauty of the food and views, and the glorious treatments entice you to unwind and reflect, gently coaxing you to experience your own rebirth.
Maroma Resort & Spa
The Mayakoba Complex: A Wealth of Choices
Born from a mangrove jungle and designed with green in mind, the Mayakoba (Mayan for “city on the water”) complex offers a wealth of luxury brand choices in one ecologically balanced site near Playa del Carmen. Here, even the golf courses are woven into the landscape with environmental integrity. Sitting on a series of lagoons and canals (like a Mexican Venice), four exciting hotels interpret their space by the sea. Recently opened, The Fairmont Mayakoba, consists of low-lying casitas grouped along the canals, which guests may traverse by electric boat to visit the various hotels, spas, and restaurants. The Fairmont’s golf course has a family of friendly iguanas that inhabit it, and the entire hotel adheres to the Fairmont’s innovative green initiative. Opening this spring, the Rosewood Mayakoba employs its penchant to embrace the history, culture, and geography of a place. Here, the Mayan landscape is celebrated in low-slung structures built with Yucatan limestone. Spacious hut-style rooms perch beachfront, along the lagoon, and by the jungle. Others float on pylons over the water. The unforgettable spa, situated on its own island atop a cenote, features an indigenous menu. Opening this year, the Viceroy Mayakoba, brings a sophisticated, yet tranquil, urbanity to the site. Innovative spa treatments include authentic Mayan rituals and holistic and organic therapies with ingredients picked fresh from the spa’s own garden. Finally, the Banyan Tree Mayakoba, slated for 2009, plans to fuse a little Asia to the Mexican sea. The hotel plans include free-standing rooms with private pools, meditation pavilions, and luxurious poolside terraces. Outdoor spa pavilions will line the lagoon, and the hotel’s signature restaurant, Saffron, will hover over a freeform pool. www.mayakoba.com
So Many Choices, So Little Time
Mingling Caribbean color with Mexican joie de vivre, the Riviera Maya boasts as many hotels as it does beaches. The key is picking from the plethora of offerings. Wherever you stay, you’ll want to explore the Great Mayan Reef, nearby ancient ruins, jungles, caves, cenotes, beaches, and parks. Consider these hotels when heading down south.
Wedged upon a private beach, intimate Paraiso de la Bonita is a symphony of open courtyards, fountains, Mayan-inspired architecture, and decorated villas. Its Thalasso Spa spoils guests with treatments utilizing deep sea derived salt water, thermal clay, plankton, and marine mud. We love the seaweed body treatment. www.paraisodelabonita.com
Unpretentious yet elegant, the eco aware Tides Riviera Maya, near arresting Xcalacoco village, splurges the spirit. The Maya Spa specializes in holistic, indigenous treatments and an oceanside yoga studio faces the rising sun. www.tidesrivieramaya.com
Set against the sleepy fishing village of Puerto Morales, flanked by sea and jungle, Ceiba del Mar defies the cookie-cutter formula of some Riviera Mayan resorts. Amply spaced, its buildings meld with the environment to evoke solitude and tranquility. Its holistic spa renews with your choice of fifty essential oils. www.ceibadelmar.com
Europe meets the Yucatan at Le Meridian Hotel and Spa, just ten minutes from downtown Cancun. There is nothing miniscule about Le Meridan; the Spa del Mar a 15,000-square-foot haven that indulges with local ingredients like chocolate, coffee, and coconut is no exception. www.starwoodhotels.com
Riviera Maya’s new kid on the block, the Mandarin Oriental sits on 36 acres of tropical land. A sanctuary attune with Mayan influences, the soul of the place is a 25,000-square-foot spa that offers such traditional Mayan treatments as temazcal and time journeys. www.mandarinoriental.com
Situated at the tip of the Yucatan peninsula, the Ritz-Carlton Riviera Maya excels with classic brand standards. Best of all, Keyanta, the beachfront spa, offers unique, ancient treatments like Lol-Ha, a sacred Mayan bridal ritual and Zac-Xib, a scrub and bath ritual for men. www.ritzcarlton.com