Escape, discover, explore Mexico’s Caribbean coast. Resort-hopping along the Riviera Maya allows you to stroll the best beaches, snorkel at offshore reefs and swim in underground rivers in massive caverns that once held gold offerings. Plus: Celebration Traveler Guide Family Vacations: Mexico
By Donna Peck
Watching my mother cut through the water in a smooth freestyle stroke reminds me of Madonna’s song from the 1980s: “La Isla Bonita:”
“I long to be where the sun warms the sky”
My mother got her wish on this mid-winter birthday trip. The lyrics matched our experience on Mexico’s Caribbean coast as my sister, my mother and I hopped from one beachfront resort to another. It was a simple matter of following the coastline from Puerto Morelos to Tulum.
“Tropical the island breeze”
Each beachfront resort delivers a full measure of sun, sea, and sand. You swim at the best beaches, snorkel at offshore reefs and swim underwater rivers (cenotes). In Puerto Morelos, Zoëtry Paraiso de la Bonita cultivates a sense of escape. When you check in, you are encouraged to walk between the two stone tigers in the lobby, which banishes any energy that detracts from calm repose.
“All of nature wild and free”
Iguanas, cockatoos and parrots roam around the breakfast patio. Marcetos, a flightless parrot with injured wings, grew up at the hacienda. It follows guests around the resort like a dog. A jaguar made a brief appearance, sauntering out of the jungle last year, says the animal keeper. Guests spend the day on the sand, nibbling cucumber and jicama under canopied daybeds. Waves roll in and out. The sound and the motion under a swimmer’s body banishes tension as expertly as the hands of a master masseur. In the evening, an attendant welcomes everyone aboard the resort’s catamaran. The boat pushes away from the dock and sails along the coast until the sun flashes orange then disappears. On the return journey, torches illuminate the sand but not the mariachi guitarist, strumming a sprightly tune.
The next time I see sunlight, it is sparkling on the Zoëtry’s seawater pool, which is flanked by stone images of the Maya serpent god, Kukulcan. A demigod with rippling muscles and a warm smile arrives at the pool for my Janzu water massage.
In a ballet of choreographed motions, Manuel gently rocks, stretches, submerges and pulls my body. I become a sea serpent, slithering effortlessly through the water. The hydromassage leaves me feeling in a deep state of repose, as languid as a jelly fish.
While escape is the essential experience of Zoëtry, discovery fills the days and nights at Maroma Resort, hidden in foliage at the end of an unmarked jungle road. Two hundred acres of jungle surround the resort, which fronts one of Mexico’s last wild beaches. It has the softest sand imaginable and offshore lies the world’s second largest barrier reef. After a short five-minute ride, we arrive at the reef and leap in. Sunlight floods the shallow water. From a snorkel mask, it a busy, entertaining tableau. Cobalt blue damselfish dart among sea fans and polyps wave their tentacles. The parrot fish, chomping on coral, have a bright iridescent sheen.
“This is where I long to be”
Evenings at the resort, a scene-change occurs. Walkways and garden paths glow from hundreds of votives that line arcades, circle courtyards and light the winding staircase to a sunset viewing area. A prime spot for celebration dinners, the Mirador observation turret offers privacy and an unbroken view of the sea. Under the moon and stars, you can dine on lobster enchilada with mole sauce; soft shell crab with achiote, habanero, avocado and citrus salad; or braised short ribs with tamarind.
Day-trippers and divers jostle to board the early morning ferry to Cozumel. After the 30-minute crossing, you disembark in a kaleidoscope of brightly hued adobe shops on the waterfront. Vendors hawk multicolored hammocks, bags, shirts and embroidered dresses from decorated storefronts.
Three blocks south along the waterfront is the Aqua Safari Dive Shop. Year-round water temperature of 77 degrees to 82 degrees adds to the pleasure of drift diving. Spectacular sea life populates Colombia and Palancar reefs: moray eels, sea turtles, nurse sharks, giant anemone, great groupers, queen angelfish, giant sponges, cactus coral and gorgonian fans.
“And when the samba played”
At the south end of the Riviera Maya coast, Dreams Tulum resort sprawls in the baronial splendor of Mexico’s silver cities. You enter through a grand manor, then pass through botanical gardens and along tree-lined avenues to reach the residential districts. Lunch is served al fresco at one of the restaurants off the town square. At a large pool with a swim-up bar, Riveria Maya-type action is in full swing.
“The sun would set so high”
The chief amenity is the resort’s proximity to the not- to-be-missed Maya ruins and fresh-water cenotes. Take off early in the morning and visit both Tulum and Coba before tourist buses from Cancun arrive.
No area in the Caribbean offers an indigenous population with as rich a history as that of the Mayas. Coba was once a populous city and its ruins impart a palpable sense of the extent of Maya civilization. Stand on the excavated ball court and imagine players hitting the ball with their hips and elbows through a hoop. Coba has the only pyramid that you are still allowed to climb to the top. After the 138-foot hike up Nohoch Mul’s steep face, you reach the top altar, precinct of the Maya priesthood. The prize is an unbroken view of the Maya jungle.
“Ring through my ears and sting my eyes, your Spanish lullaby”
Swimming in the fresh crystal-clear water of the cenotes deep in the Maya jungle is a once in-a-lifetime thrill.
Beneath the jungle, underground rivers flow through a network of tunnels. At various points, the tunnel roof has collapsed, creating cenotes or sink holes. The Maya believed them to be entrances into the underworld and called them dzonot, sacred wells.They were partly right. The Dos Ojos system is one of the largest underwater cave networks in the world and connects a number of cenotes.
Two neighboring cenotes connect into a large cavern zone where we spend the afternoon swimming, following a cable into the adjacent cavern. Stalagmites, stalactites and columns possess otherworldly shapes.
We cap the week of aquatic adventures by discovering the transformative power of steam in a Maya sweat lodge. Inside the stone Temazcal, guests lean back as water hits the hot rock, sizzles and transforms into billowing steam. The shaman, Gabriel reappears at the door with another glowing rock, held high in tongs. We greet it by chanting, “Welcome, Grandmother.”
Thick vapor and hypnotic chanting fill the stone enclosure, creating a warm cloud. I hear the instruction, “Focus on the healing you wish to receive.” The profuse sweating induces a mind-numbing trance.
A half hour later, Gabriel opens the flap, blasting us with cold air. My sister, sitting across from me is glistening in sweat and goosebumps. “Well, that was different,” her eyes say. But I know she’s having the time of her life. We both are. As family members, we tend to think alike. Spending some healthy, exhilarating, peaceful time in the water, we decide, is a cool way to celebrate a birthday.
Author Donna Peck and her sister Diane Peck celebrated their mother’s 80th birthday on Mexico’s Caribbean Coast. The lyrics of Madonna’s song were very apt in another regard. “The time went too fast.”