Paradise, Uninterrupted: Wild beauty meets precise design in Mexico’s Mayakoba

Fairmont Mayakoba

THE IGUANA IS NEVER IN A RUSH. There is no hurry in her world and everything comes in due time. She’s content and appreciates life as is.

I found the lizard lying below my pillow. I held its tiny green spotted body in my palm, admiring its smooth stomach and the details of its pointed head and painted red mouth. Intricately hand carved in the state of Oaxaca, the authentic figurine was no longer than my pinky finger.

I continued reading the card accompanying the colorful Alebrije folk art, learning that Mexicans created the beautiful carvings to serve as guardians and healers while we sleep. My little lizard —or “kan” —gift was meant as a symbol of fortune and prosperity. While the only animals wanted in my suite are wooden, just outside the doors is another world.

Built upon hundreds of acres of mangrove forest and jungle under the vast blue skies of Mexico’s Riviera Maya, the eco-conscious Mayakoba is home to several luxury resort properties with much care taken to enhance, rather than replace, the natural environment and its indigenous species.

Mayakoba Mosiac

Located in the Yucatan Peninsula, the area is considered the safest in Mexico. Although it’s just 40 minutes from Cancun International Airport and 15 minutes from Playa del Carmen, once you enter the world of Mayakoba, these locales are easily forgotten. Instead, the new relevant coordinates to remember are the four distinct destinations, operated by some of the country’s most celebrated hotels: the romantic Rosewood, the family-friendly Fairmont, the Eastern-inspired Banyan Tree and the still-under-construction Andaz.

While each has unique aesthetics and amenities appealing to varying types of travelers, their common ground allows guests of one property to enjoy fine dining, spas and activities offered by the others.

Iguanas (much larger than the replica found in my suite) might cross your path on The Nature Trail, which connects the hotels with Mexico’s only golf course to host a PGA Tour event, the OHL Classic. While traversing on land by foot or golf cart are options, the preferred mode of transportation among most guests is the boats — or “lanchas” — through the freshwater canals. After all, Mayakoba loosely translates to “city on water” and the waterways have garnered the nickname “the Venice of the Yucatan.” These boats, however, are not gondolas. Instead, each is replete with plush seats, canvas covers for protection from the hot Mexican sun and butlers ready to serve a refreshing drink.

Upon check-in to the Rosewood Mayakoba’s breathtaking open-air lobby, guests are whisked by ferry service over the azure water to their freestanding suites — nearly a dozen differing floor plan options, with some overlooking the lagoon, beach or both. As the boat follows a curve, each modern suite’s artfully constructed exteriors and glass windows slowly reveal themselves, creating individual vignettes framed by lush green plants and promising a peaceful retreat. It doesn’t take more than a few minutes to see what the Rainforest Alliance and United Nations World Tourism Organization did when awarding Mayakoba as a Sustainable Standard Setter and Ulysses Prize for Responsible Tourism Development, respectively.

“Bienvenida. Welcome home,” the driver said as the boat pulled alongside a suite’s dock, before my appointed butler for the evening guided me to the door of a Lagoon Studio Suite. Those that enjoy attention at the snap of their fingers, or a tap on their smartphone app, can employ the personal attendant in a number of ways: to unpack a suitcase, open the complimentary bottle of Clase Azul, draw a bath in the oversized soaking tub, warm the rooftop plunge pool or perhaps cover the round sun lounger with sheets for stargazing under the night sky.

150304_Mayakoba Carter Rose0069

Boats, all quietly powered by electricity, are also the preferred method for getting a closer look at one of Mayakoba’s biggest attractions: more than 150 species of birds. Lucky lookers will catch a fl ash of the bright pink feathers belonging to a Roseate Spoonbill.

In fact, Mayakoba recently became host to National Geographic Photographers’ Masterclass Weekends. Even amateurs with point-and-shoot cameras can make reservations for the three-day educational cruise, available year round with at least 48 hours notice to schedule. At $800 per workshop, professional Iván Gabaldón is apt to offer technical advice as well as help to identify the blue wings, golden eye ring and yellow beak of Mayakoba’s iconic Yucatan Jay, among many more.

Another unique point of view is offered by way of Hobie kayaks. Operated by pedals, these hands-free kayaks don’t require traditional paddling, which is a major plus for those hoping to snap the varieties of colorful plumage on camera. Photography is an appropriate hobby in a place where so much work is paid to protecting the pristine ground and the life that inhabits it, offering guests a way to capture a small part of it without taking anything away.

Regardless of the time or money invested on a bird-watching expedition, a rare winged beauty can’t be summoned easily like an assigned butler. On the flip side, some surprised guests enjoying Nespresso and chilaquiles for breakfast on their balconies might find a bird — or a whole flock — making a morning appearance.

Eat like a bird, I did not. Mayakoba’s expansive acres are worth exploring, and its restaurants are no exception. Further delivering on the goal to fulfill any craving a guest might have, Casa del Lago fuses Oaxacan flavor with Italian influence, while Agave Azul pulls menu inspiration from Asia and Banyan Tree’s signature restaurant, Saffron serves contemporary Thai cuisine.

I fell partial to a sunset dinner at Punta Bonita for delivering the Mexican dining experience I had dreamed about, but also its proximity to both the Caribbean Sea and my suite. Daylight was traded for candlelight and the sound of ocean waves occasionally replaced by traditional Mariachi tunes.

Those that come to Mexico in search of guacamole, tequila and tacos can get their fill here, however would be foolish not to also toast their fortune with regional mezcal and taste the tostados from La Fondita. The first messy bite into the latter offers a satisfying crunch, one that can be attributed, in part, to Rosewood Mayakoba’s decorated Executive Chef Juan Pablo Loza. Since coming aboard in March 2015, he has embraced a mission to reintroduce Mexico’s indigenous flavors with a fresh spin. The tasty street foods at La Fondita’s are one example, but El Pubelito Village, its surrounding locale, is a larger-than-life metaphor.

Modeled after the historic plazas such as Colonial Merida and San Miguel de Allende, El Pueblito opened last fall, drawing crowds for Sunday mass, markets selling crafts from local communities and traditional attractions like piñata breaking, marimba and Huichol art classes. In addition to La Fondita, the gathering spot is anchored by a beautiful white chapel, christened La Santa Cruz, and surrounded by an art gallery, boutiques and other sidewalk eateries to browse, like El Cafecito for coffee, pastries and ice cream.

El Pubelito may be the “corazon” — the heart — of Mayakoba, but for soul searching, spend time at Sense, a Rosewood Spa. Designed as a retreat-within-a-retreat, visitors cross the Puente del Balneario (“spa bridge”) to reach the private sanctuary. Here, you can dip your toes into the pool, or dip into Mayan techniques for well being with massage or skin treatments harnessing power from natural elements.

Or, you can plunge. Take a walk through the Sensory Garden, meet with a shaman or find balance with a Sense of Place journey, ranging from two-and-a-half to six hours. Each strives to impart serene insight into a story about culture, nature and personal inner landscape, filled with ancient healing remedies, aromas, colors, textures, tastes and sounds to leave you invigorated and inspired.

Those that rolled their eyes at mention of a shaman, know this: in my limited time with the grandmotherly shaman, I too skeptically studied her long silver braid and the soft wrinkles around her smile, wondering if any shortcomings, strengths and vibrancy of my aura were, in fact, visible to this stranger. That was, until she asked me to close my eyes and focus on my breath.

Despite my lesson with Gabaldón, no panoramic snapshot could do justice for the enchanting resort. Mayakoba is as impeccably manicured and exclusively contained as it is wildly beautiful.

Tequila intake aside, my time thus far had been a stimulating blur to see, taste, hear, smell and feel as much of Mayakoba as possible. With the shaman’s guidance and spiritual assessment, I found myself focused on the present moment — content, appreciative and in no hurry to leave it, finally embodying my “kan.”

FullSizeRenderAfter one last fish-taco-filled lunch, I was definitely in no hurry to move fast and especially not to drivethrough the exit gates. Despite my lesson with Gabaldón and a phone full of photos, no panoramic snapshot could do justice for the enchanting property. Mayakoba is as impeccably manicured and exclusively contained as it is wildly beautiful.

I did, however, have the handcrafted iguana souvenir packed safely in my purse. I would take her home to sit on my nightstand, a reminder of appreciation for my Mexican adventure; but more importantly, of the dedicated conservation, so that in my own due time, I could return.


[A version of this article originally appeared in Points North Atlanta magazine | photography courtesy of FAIRMONT MAYAKOBA; BANYAN TREE HAAB; CARTER ROSE | MAYAKOBA; JAMES BATT; EL PUEBLITO EN MAYAKOBA; BANYAN TREE HAAB; COLLEEN ANN MCNALLY]

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