The Riviera Maya, a stretch of white sand beaches rimmed by lush jungle, has made Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula the country’s most popular tourist destination. Credit goes to the lure of the balmy climate, the Caribbean and a new rush of resorts and spas that keep raising the bar in Caribbean getaways. As the name implies, this area is defined by Mayan culture and perhaps no other ancient civilization has been translated into such contemporary luxury as that of the indigenous who once ruled over this region. From spa techniques to cooking methods to landscape design, the cosmologies and natural history of the Maya are being fused with international influences to wonderful results.
Just seven miles from Playa del Carmen, international-meets-local is the style at the new Mandarin Oriental Riviera Maya. This luxury resort integrates the chain's signature Asian minimalist design with contemporary artwork by Mexican painters and sculptors throughout the interiors and courtyards. Nizuc, the latest resort by General Hotel Management, is scheduled to open in autumn of 2009. This resort and spa are also Asian inspired. Owner and developer Alan Becker describes it as: “A Zen atmosphere but with the warmth of Mexico.”
Eco-consciousness is one thing that distinguishes the exclusive resorts from many of the rapidly growing all-inclusive hotels on the Riviera Maya. The Rosewood Mayakobá is built amongst mangroves, beachfront and lagoons. Guests in seaside suites skirt an untouched mangrove in golf carts to reach their rooms, and lagoon side guests are ushered to their rooms by boat. All guests can travel through the lagoons on silent motorboats so that they can enjoy the flora and fauna.
Maroma Resort and Spa, one of the first luxury destinations on the Riviera Maya, is the standard setter for high-end luxury and socially responsible tourism. They are located on 500 acres of jungle that border a white sand beach. A resident marine biologist and naturalist leads interpretive scuba, snorkeling and hiking trips in and around the resort.
Signature spas are the centerpieces of Riviera Maya resorts. The Thalasso Center and Spa at Paraiso de la Bonita, is the first and only spa in Mexico to use a healing method combining sea water, algae and sea mud that dates back to 480 BC in ancient Greece, when sea water was considered therapeutic. The Temazcal is a sauna-like treatment led by a trained spiritual leader; the herbs used in the ceremony draw on Maya tradition as well and the experience is considered good for the body and spirit.
Families traveling with children should look into Esencia, a boutique estate, located on a two-mile stretch of beach in Playa Xpu-Ha. They offer two-bedroom guest cottages that can be staffed with a private chef and nanny. A popular outing for kids and adults is to the new Ah Cacao Chocolate Café in Playa del Carmenthat serves Mexican coffee and real Mexican chocolate. Mayans were consuming chocolate as early as 6 A.D., and ancient murals depict drinking chocolate at almost every meal.
If you want to explore restaurants independent from resorts, David Sterling, who teaches classes at Los Dos Yucatan Cooking School in Mérida, suggests heading toward Tulum, a quieter town than Playa del Carmen. Take the bumpy dirt road towards the Sian Ka’an biosphere to the restaurant Hechizo, run by chef Stefan Schober, and his wife and pastry chef, Ying-Hui.
Tulum, the Mayan ruin, is one of the most visited archaeological sites in Mexico. This magnificent stone trade center perched on the water’s edge is now accessible for nighttime tours. According to Adriana Velásquez Morlet manager of the state’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), “The archaeological sites give visitors a different perspective at night, because they offer different ambience: There are different sounds, animals that come out in the dark, and the surroundings are gratifying and eloquent. Some of the monuments look enormously big in the dark, and the sky in archeological zones is generally very impressive, as these zones are usually away from urban centers and the sky is much clearer there.”
To visit lesser-known sites, Community Tours Sian Ka’an, led by guides who speak English, Spanish and Mayan and live in the villages in the reserve, offers a day of both ancient and modern Mayan culture. Travel through the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, a 1.3-million acre stretch of mangroves and lagoons, to mysterious Mayan ruins.