On a quiet stretch of beach along Mexico's Riviera Maya, a peaceful hideaway is carving a niche for itself amid verdant jungle surroundings.
The flight to Cancún arrived well after nightfall. But even then there were parrots rustling in the trees outside the airport. The tropical air was alive. Five of us piled into a family sedan sent by the hotel and set off into the night on our way to Azulik, a small new resort on the Caribbean coast of Mexico near Tulum. Napping, gazing into the darkness, making small talk with strangers—we passed the time, arriving after a little more than an hour, pulling into a candlelit driveway that was carved out of the thick tropical vegetation. Bags were whisked, smiles and handshakes were shared, and then we were led to the door of our palapa. Perched between the sandy jungle path, a rocky sea ledge, and the Caribbean (its shocking turquoise a surprise withheld until sunrise), the thatch-roof villa was romance itself.
Tastes vary, of course, but if your relaxation response reacts to rustic surroundings, you would appreciate this sandy enclave. Using traditional building methods, materials, and concepts, Azulik’s palapa-style villas are both spacious and intimate, a sweet marriage of vernacular and comfort. A king-size bed is draped in white linens and mosquito netting, and a separate queen-size daybed swings from the ceiling on thick ropes. Hardwood floors gleam with fresh varnish, windows take in ocean vistas, and the bathtub—charmingly carved from a tree trunk—sits temptingly in full view, a curtain of dream catchers its only partition.
As an escape from the stresses of the holiday season (I am now committed to making a trip to some kind of paradise an end-of-year ritual), I found this earth-friendly destination an easy fit. Beaches here are brilliantly white and, paired with the intense blue waters and lush green jungle that border them, the scenery is pretty spectacular.
The entire area of the Yucatán—just south of the Maya ruins of Tulum—is a work in progress, one wisely embracing environmental and ecological concerns. Azulik and its neighboring properties, the more casual Cabañas Copal and Zahra hotel (all part of a group called EcoTulum Resorts), are a growing part of this new tourism that balances the beauty and pristine character of the landscape with enterprise. To their credit, the brains behind Azulik—Eduardo Neira and Holly Worton—seem as interested in breaking new ground as luring a great mix of guests. There is no electricity save that produced by the buzzing diesel generator that feeds the dim, outdoor restaurant lighting in the evening and the occasional—and wildly out of place—boom box background music. Instead, life is conducted with the rhythms of the sun—much like the Maya civilization that once thrived in the area.
In fact, I had a habit of watching the sunrise here, stepping out onto the deck while the world was still. Settling into its hammock to savor the rosy glow of the morning, I looked out over sand swept clean by the tide, its untrammeled white surface standing in elegant contrast to the surf. Down on the beach a comfortable distance away, a woman practiced tai chi, her fluid motions a mesmerizing dance. Dressed in loose white silk Chinese pajamas, her long dark hair high up in a ponytail, the connection of earth and sky was evident and the ability to bridge it inspiring.
Of course, mornings here are as mellow as befit a barefoot resort. Azulik’s charm for anyone without, or getting away from, children is that it is for adults only. One couple that I imagined to be Danish—he looked like a Bergmanstyle actor, arriving for dinner in a perfectly rumpled linen jacket, she in something simple and chic—brought their stylish teenage daughter along and none of them seemed ruffled or bored. There is room to find your own distractions here. Many of mine were in the spa. Most of the offerings at Maya Spa pay homage to the indigenous spirit and heritage of the area, realized through the vision of its gifted spa director, Lucretia Bloomquist. Services are sincere, simple, and imaginative. “I wanted to validate the magic of Mayan healing,” noted Bloomquist. And so she gathered together a group of authentic healers native to the area. Daniel Pool Pech is the star of the show—though you wouldn’t know it to encounter this humble Mayan magician. A local shaman, his pre–Maya Spa practice was strictly for his own community, and his schooling in the healing arts— well, let’s just say it’s heaven sent. I had two of his treatments, the second only because he uncovered my troubled digestion and wanted to help. Both sessions worked wonders on every level as he made his way over and around my body with strong massage strokes, Mayan chants, and various whistles, breaths, and self-generated gusts of wind. Given the chance, I’d have him work on me again tomorrow. It was magical, mystical, relaxing, and highly therapeutic. Later in the week, my companion and I took a ride into Tulum with Bloomquist for the Energy Clearing. A local therapist and healer named Maria performs this mesmerizing session using traditional methods, namely eggs. Following an initial copal smoke cleansing, Maria invoked all sorts of spirits, chanting and moving an egg (one I chose from a basket) all around my body as I sat in a chair, taking in the shrine in front of me—with its mix of Christian, Mayan, and Eastern references—before finally cracking the egg into a glass of water to read my psychic and physical conditions in its threads. I cannot say my reading felt accurate, but its exoticism was riveting. It was also curious to have the session in the company of a friend; despite our level of trust, I found his presence distracting, which in all fairness, may account for the distorted reading.
A central aspect of the spa is its temazcal, fired up every few nights for the traditional Mayan ritual that purges body, mind, and spirit in a setting of darkness and intense heat. The igloo-like adobe hut is adjacent to a massive stone fireplace where, on temazcal nights, a fire blazes, heating the stones that induce the ritual’s sweat. We chanted, we sweated in the dark, we shouted “Puerta!” to open the door and have more hot stones placed in the center of the hut, we rubbed ourselves with aloe and honey, and we all emerged renewed and glowing. It bonded the 12 of us together, strangers now complicit in our shared journey, nodding at each other with broad smiles for the rest of our stays.
Time is a relative concept here, and to really have a fine vacation, it’s wise to let go of the clock and any urgency or rush. Even spa appointments aren’t quite punctual, something I found refreshing in this era of the perfectly timed 50-minute massage. Arriving at our palapa at roughly the appointed hour (Azulik’s guests receive treatments in their villas), Nayeli and Emma, dressed in Maya Spa’s simple white cotton dress code, set up shop for the detoxifying Mayan Clay Massage. The two-part session includes a tonic massage followed by a generous smearing of mustard-yellow mud. Afterward, we rinsed it all off with a dip in the salty Caribbean waters—a surprisingly elegant mixture of pampering and earthiness. By the time we had finished shedding our yellow layer, Nayeli and Emma had had a chance to remove their arsenal of massage tables and towels, leaving behind privacy, tranquility, and two very relaxed people.
During our stay, we somehow managed to slip on shoes (maybe they were only sandals) and venture out beyond the beach. The nearby ruins of Tulum are an easy bicycle ride away from the resort and well worth visiting. Further out (by some 30 miles that require either a taxi or a rental car), the ruins at Cobá, considered a more important archaeological treasure, are still largely unexcavated, overgrown by the surrounding jungle and connected by tree-lined dirt paths that would also be great to explore on one of the bicycles you can rent there.
Because of its porous limestone geography, the Yucatán Peninsula is uniquely dotted with underground water holes known as cenotes. Jumping into the aquamarine waters of the Cenote Calavera was one of my more courageous acts. The water’s surface is about six feet below the jungle floor, the only exit a narrow ladder on the edge. Once immersed (in my case with the help of a young blond Mexican girl who volunteered to hold my hand jumping in), the cavelike pool is eerily filled with stalagtites and stalagmites. Of course, it was thrilling.
Only when I returned from Tulum did I realize how fashionable the area has become. Urban sophisticates looking for a brush with barefoot elegance and no-fuss spiritual renewal are finding peace in a place without televisions, phones, and even lights. The millions of stars burning in the darkblue night sky slow the world down, and a contagious hush settles on the sandy paths lit only by candles or the rays of sun that push through the jungle’s green canopy. But its allure may well be found in the simplest of Azulik’s realities: There is no need to bother with shoes for days on end.
CONTACT IN TULUM
Azulik, (877) 532-6737, azulik.com; doubles, $190–$280; Maya Spa Wellness Center, maya-spa.com
Within easy distance of Azulik, the Mayan ruins of Tulum are uniquely poised on the edge of the sea. Arrive early before the tour buses and stake out a prime beach spot on the sands just below the main temple.
Further inland in the lakeside area of Cobá, some of the Maya world’s tallest temples remain partially encased in vegetation. Rent a bicycle to roam the dirt pathways that link sites and be sure to climb to the top of the main temple for the expansive jungle view.
Xcaret, a popular water park that caters to family entertainment (xcaretcancun.com), features a small open-air zoo of native breeds and a spacious butterfly pavilion.
Sister property Xel-Há (xelha.com) is more natural and geared toward exploration of underwater caverns and turquoise lagoons.
South of Azulik near the village of Punta Allen, the Sian Káan Biosphere Reserve is a vast ecological reserve that is off-limits to all but indigenous farmers, scientists, and day-trippers with reservations (cesiak.org) to explore the wetlands and abundant flora and fauna.
The Grand Cenotes are a prime example of the region’s limestone waterholes. The underground waterways offer different size and depth options, all with groundlevel openings that invite an exhilarating leap.
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