Riveria MayaJudy WaytiukBy Judy Waytiuk

Small, smooth, and cool, like beads, they cascaded over my head, shoulders and arms. Turned out they were lentils – but since I was firmly blindfolded for the Hacienda Tres Rios “Sense Adventure”, I had no idea what the little things were until I saw them in the photos developed by the hotel’s photographer. Hotel staff literally lead participants by the hand through the adventure, set in a little patch of hotel-adjacent jungle, with a series of subtle sensory experiences involving touch, smell, and sound – but no sight.

It’s not part of an ordinary Riviera Maya vacation, but that’s precisely the point: you can do the Riveria Maya very differently these days.
Hacienda Tres RiosJudy Waytiuk
Luxe & Large
Hacienda Tres Rios, an eco-luxury hotel built in 2008 about 90 minutes south of the Cancun Airport, is serious about ecology, minimizing waste and use of non-renewable energy – so serious, that, where other all-inclusive ubiquitous buffets serve up mountains of food, this hotel uses small platters, refilled at need, encouraging guests to take only what they'll really eat, instead of piling plates high and leaving half to be tossed. The hotel even operates a native plant nursery to help rebuild jungle areas along the coast that have been wrecked either by construction equipment putting up more mega-resorts, or by hurricanes.

Set in 132 hectares of jungle, the resort’s 273 suites are built out of native materials, and it’s been designated a Riviera Maya Green Resort, with 60 hectares of nature preserve, 90 animal species, and 10 cenotes. Cooling is done through deep water wells, with heat generated from the air conditioning used to warm water for guest and laundry use. A desalination plant supplies fresh water, so the local aquifer need not be depleted.

Yet this is a real-deal luxury all-inclusive. Like others, this resort comes with a fine chef who presides over a kitchen turning out exquisite a la carte meals. Forget frijoles refritos. The Riviera Maya’s cooking eco-upscale these days.

Older resorts along the Mexican Caribbean coastline are now retrofitting with eco-friendly measures. And healthy lifestyles and fitness regimens are part of it.

Vacationers can still dive into massive buffets and bar offerings, spend their time sopping up sun, sand and surf, occasionally venturing out on one of hundreds of local area tours to local water parks and Mayan ruins, and collecting bright, funky souvenirs.

Riviera Maya ActiviesJudy WaytiukBut swimming in cenotes, kayaking along a beach, yoga, sensory massages, fresh fruits and vegetables artfully prepared, even the traditional Mayan form of sweat lodge, the temazcal, are increasingly common offerings along the Riviera Maya.

If you want to punish yourself, Los Angeles personal trainer Tiffany Rothe has been running the Center 8 Studio in Playa del Carmen since 2009, specializing in a “yoga mat” workout that usually has participants flopping around on the floor and gasping like dying fish within five minutes. If that’s not enough holiday suffering, Tiger Athletics founders and trainers Chris and Stacie Clark run grueling cross-training programs at Las Villas Akumal, a small condominium development where entire apartments can be rented just a 20-minute beach walk south of the little coastal village of Akumal.

Temazcal ritualsJudy WaytiukLuxe & Little
Or, like me, you could opt for the kinder, gentler version of healthy lifestyle vacationing – the temazcal ceremony. Hacienda Tres Rios does one. The very upscale, intimate, remarkably designed and décored (Prince Andrew and Fergie stayed here on their honeymoon) Maroma Resort & Spa does another, and further south and at the exact opposite end of traditional luxe, eco-rustic Cabanas Copal offers a third. More resorts are beginning to offer temazcal ceremonies – all of them with the rough edges polished off (traditional ones require slathering yourself with mud prior to the sweat) and luxurious little side notes like post-sweat cooling fruit drinks or herbal teas, and thick bath towels. Temazcal rituals are done in round mud structures that look a lot like big beehives. Entrances are small, representing re-entry into the womb for physical and spiritual healing presided over by the goddess Temazcaltoci, the great mother of both gods and humans. If led by a traditional healer/elder, the experience can be genuinely moving, but most along the Riviera Maya are led by acolytes who, unlike the elders, don’t delve deeply into participants’ emotional lives. Even so, the effect is astonishing – far more physically and mentally relaxing and enervating than even the hottest sauna.

For those seeking even more relaxing holistic experiences, the spas in most hotels, whether all-inclusive or intimate, all have incorporated traditional Maya or Mexican twists to their treatments – copal or chocolate body wraps or facials, Mayan clay or chocolate massages (after which you’ll be desperate for a chocolate bar).

The Maroma Spa, with large, airy, utterly-serene individual treatment rooms open to ocean breezes, is almost certainly the most high-end of the coastal spas, and the small hotel itself is very likely the most uber-exclusive of a series of small lodgings nestled into the undisturbed patches of jungle greenery along the Riviera Maya coastline or tucked into corners of busy Playa del Carmen or Tulum. Dozens are listed in the Riviera Maya CVB’s Small Hotels Guide booklet. Some like the 45-minutes-south-of-Cancun adults-only, suites-only Le Reve, are decidedly upscale in both style and price, and perfect for boomers with money on hand and pampering in mind.

Rustic Done Small
Then there’s La Ruina right in the middle of Playa del Carmen, a traditionally-favoured beachside backpackers’ campground for those fond of truly roughing it, ring in at the lowest end of the bargain/budget scale – with an equally rustic temazcal available.

But if you really, really want to return to nature in all its simple glory, three EcoTulum sets of cabanas, the Azulik, neighbouring, aforementioned Cabanas Copal, and the adjacent Zahra all offer back-to-the-earth simplicity in real thatched-roof, bamboo-walled, open-air wooden bathtub, concrete floored, mosquito-net-covered beds (not for style, but out of genuine need). Cabanas Copal operates on candlelight only; the other two clusters of cabanas have generator-run electricity on until 11 PM. Plumbing is basic; there’s no sewer system here. Gas tanks are brought in to heat water for the bathrooms, and bath water is brought from Tulum by truck.

Late night reading can be done in the Copal lobby or the Zahra restaurant, which serves all three cabana settlements (there is room service, but no room phones, so this writer’s still wondering about the practical mechanics of that little frill). The Azulik offers slightly more polished versions of the back-to-basics cabanas, and the Zahra has a few with actual walls, tiled floors, and ceilings. This is where you go to get away from it all – quite literally. Meals are not included, but hatha yoga classes are, as is wildlife like various bugs, geckos, and the occasional harmless boa constrictor wandering on the properties. It’s laid-back, slow-moving, utterly peaceful, and prices range from a budget $40 a night (shared bathroom) at the Zahra to $350 a night for the Azulik’s Honeymoon Villa.

That’s about double what you’d pay for an all-inclusive room at Hacienda Tres Rios, but the two appeal to people worlds apart in their vacation philosophies – even though both can honestly lay claim to the title “eco-resort.”
And that’s a breath of fresh air along the Maya Riviera.