Along the far eastern portion of the Yucatan Peninsula, stretching south of Cancun for 75 miles and running parallel to the Caribbean, the Riviera Maya coastline opens to still-deserted white-sand beaches and the legacy of an ancient empire. Known in Mexico as “The Venice of the Yucatan,” the region remained isolated from the rest of the country for hundreds of years due to the lack of adequate roads. As Cancun urbanized, visitors soon yearned for mellower, more authentic alternatives to the megaglitzy resorts, and the Riviera Maya was discovered.
At Mayakoba, an eco-friendly resort development that includes three luxury hotels surrounded by natural lagoons that pay homage to local wildlife and rare birds, the varied landscape of mangrove swamps, jungle beaches, protective sand dunes and barrier reefs looks like a different world. Local biologist Hector Alafita, an environmental advisor, remembers watching the neighboring shorelines erode. “To preserve the natural balance of the delicate eco-systems here, we replanted 47,000 mangroves, recovered indigenous seedlings, and 108 species were saved,” says Alafita.
The coastline is dotted with cenotes (naturally occurring sinkholes), a bio-diverse network of underground canals that lie close to the limestone surface. Created by rare underground river systems, ancient Mayans considered cenotes sacred, possibly the entrance to the underworld. Miles of fresh-water lagoons connect 590 square miles of jungle, an area full of iguana, fish, pelicans, monkeys, turtles and crocodiles. The unique canals and coastal byways are collectively known as the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System (also known as the Belize Barrier Reef) and continue southward to Guatemala. While this is the second largest continuous coral reef system in the world, it’s also extremely diverse—and fragile, Alafita says.
“We learned the hard way that you must build farther away from the fragile eco-systems along the coastline, in back of the mangrove forests that naturally protect the coral reefs,” says James Batt, vice president of Operations and Marketing for Mayakoba. Here is a slice of sustainable Mexico.
The Annual Virtuoso Travel Mart show and Hotel Awards awarded the Rosewood Mayakoba its “Most Socially Responsible Hotel” honor in 2011. Along a mile of white-sand beach, the mangrove jungle at Rosewood is at the heart of the ecological enclave, says Alonzo Ortiz, the Environmental Responsibility Manager on site. Using indigenous materials such as Yucatán limestone and renewable woods, the resort design emphasizes simplicity with a natural, dramatic backdrop. “Mayakoba’s architects crafted a complex plan in which the natural and man-made aspects would intertwine, complementing and enhancing each other,” explains Ortiz. “The beach, golf course, mangrove swamp and jungle are linked by an aquamarine chain of lagoons and canals using subterranean water,” says Ortiz. Environmental thoughtfulness continues at the Sense Spa, where signature treatments embody the simplicity of an ancient culture, and where local abuelas, or grandmas, still make their own corn tortillas without electricity or running water. Common local ingredients are used, including agave plants, volcanic rock and medicinal herbs from the garden, including organic aloe, eucalyptus and tepezcouhite, a Mayan herb used by elders to heal skin ailments, according to Spa Director Emmanuel Arroyo. There are 128 suites on either beachfront or on lagoons, and the down-home Mexican fare includes Marlin Tostadas, Scallop Ceviche and daily tequila tastings. firstname.lastname@example.org
BANYAN TREE MAYAKOBA
Six miles of freshwater lagoons lead to silvery sand Caribbean beaches. Here, electric golf carts and boats traverse resort beach clubs and a dozen restaurants, ecologically connecting several hotels in order to minimize cars and noise pollution. Amidst a tropical array of more than 200 species of flora and fauna, 132 pool villas are built into the carefully conserved landscape and tempt you to lounge the day away on your hammock. (My private plunge pool was so big, I did laps waiting for Tarzan to swing into my courtyard.) After dodging killer backhands and taking a restorative yoga class, most honeymooners opt for a romantic dinner on Banyan Tree’s drifting barge, the “Ixchel Goddess of the Moon,” which serves private meals for two in a secluded corner of the lagoon.
Outdoor adventures include snorkeling, kayaking and cooking classes, but make time to visit the El Camaléon golf course designed by pro Greg Norman, host of the PGA Tour in Mexico. The course earns its name by weaving through three ecosystems: jungle, dense mangrove and oceanfront stretches. Banyantree.com/en/mayakoba
Set along winding bayou-like canals that run to outlying beaches, this AAA five-diamond resort hosts 401 rooms including many family-friendly lagoon casitas. To experience the mangroves as sustainably as possible, try the Mangrove Boat Tour from the Fairmont to the Banyan Tree Riviera Maya on an electric-powered lancha (covered boat). Led by a nature guide—and accompanied by Batt, an avid birder—this interactive two-hour session guides guests on an animal-spotting adventure, sharing knowledge of creatures including tortoises, iguanas and even crocodiles living freely in their natural habitat.
Batt recommends one of the less famous archaeological excursions, just a 20-minute taxi ride past Tulum and crowded Chichen Itza, and you can poke around the Coba archaeological zone dotted with original adobe huts covered by jungle, barely visible from the newer roads. I visited Nohoch Mul, the tallest pyramid in the Yucatan Peninsula: 12 stories straight up slippery horizontal stone staircase, but the prize at the top is a magnificent forest panorama with the pinnacles of ancient ruins protruding above a jungle canopy. Camera? Mandatory! fairmont.com/mayakoba-riviera-maya
Ancient Mayan Secrets: Viceroy Riviera Maya
A few miles down the road sits the Viceroy, which welcomes guests with a Mayan Blessing performed by an in-house shaman. Rising from the tropical expanse of forest, 41 private villas feature outdoor showers and high-ceiling thatched-palapa roofs. The area surrounding the Wayak Spa is blessed with some of the world’s most extensive selections of native herbs. Perfumed by the sacred aroma of copal—a resin incense used in spiritual ceremonies—local traditions infuse each aspect of the experience.
Signature treatments (in six airy rooms) at the Viceroy Riviera Maya feature local products and celebrate the honey derived from the hotel’s hive with hundreds of hard-working meliponas bees.
Other indigenous luxuries:
° Deep wooden bath tubs carved from downed local Zapote Trees, and aromatherapy baths infused with medical herbs harvested from the resort’s organic herb gardens.
° The Xocolate Massage (80 minutes) offers an antioxidant zing with a firming chocolate body masque that utilizes caffeinated cocoa beans to boost circulation.
° The Kuxtal (Mayan baths; 50 minutes) steam-heat, with torrid steam rooms and an intense exfoliation using natural cloth followed by milk-and-honey hydration.
° After your Mayan ritual, schedule a Tequila Lesson or a ceviche tasting on the veranda, try Pilates or learn how to prepare tortillas the way Mayans did a thousand years ago.