There is some dispute as to how Playa del Carmen, the metropolitan heart of the Riviera Maya just 40 miles south of Cancún, got its name. Some say it’s after Our Lady of Carmel, the title given to the Blessed Virgin Mary in her role as patroness of the Carmelites. But the more compelling story is the one told by locals.
As legend has it, in the 1970s and ’80s, when the area first became a destination, tourists traveling by boat from neighboring Cozumel would disembark in Playa—then known as Xaman-Ha—on their way to the ruins of Tulum. A local Maya woman named Carmen would happily invite these travelers into her modest home for a traditional meal of fresh-caught seafood. She may not have had any experience with immaculate conception, but when it comes to Playa, this Carmen is definitely a matron saint. Today, her spirit can be felt throughout the Riviera Maya, which also includes the village of Tulum, the ruins of Cobá, and a number of small Maya communities on the Caribbean side of the Yucatán Peninsula where, if you’re lucky, a woman not unlike Carmen will happily invite you into her home for a meal.
Exploring a Maya temple, befriending a butler and feasting on cochinita pibil
I eat grasshoppers for breakfast. No, this is not my way of saying I know how to handle a subordinate. I’m literally eating toasted grasshoppers sprinkled onto a dish of huevos rancheros with green tomatillo salsa, hoja santa, and goat cheese. I’ve just woken up at Playa del Carmen’s Rosewood Mayakoba, which is perhaps the most luxurious resort I’ve ever stayed in (and I’m a travel writer). There’s a private heated plunge pool outside my back door looking over a secluded lagoon, a spa Forbes rated one of the best in the world, and Tavo, my personal butler, who is at my beck and call through a Rosewood messaging app.
A bottle of tequila and some toothpaste?
Certainly, Mr. Heller.
Despite all this luxury, I’m eating bugs—albeit with a Bloody Mary at a beachside restaurant overlooking the Caribbean. The toasted grasshoppers are crunchy (like perfectly burnt popcorn), incredibly delicious, and an appropriately indigenous start to a morning in which I’ll be exploring the ruins of an ancient civilization.
After traveling inland to the village of Cobá, I trade my rental car for a “Maya taxi.” It’s the Yucatán version of a rickshaw—a padded bench fashioned atop the front wheel of a bicycle with a beach umbrella protecting me from the rain. My driver, Gustino, is transporting me through a mile of jungle and more than a millennium back in time, to the Late Classic (AD 550–830) Maya ruin of the Nohoch Mul Pyramid. The dirt path bustles with all manner of tourists riding Maya taxis, pedaling rented beach cruisers, or walking, excitedly talking about the sites of this ancient city in English, Spanish, German, Russian, and who knows what else.
As Gustino struggles to pedal through a particularly rough patch of mud, I ask him what nationality of tourist is the hardest to transport.
“The Germans,” he says. “It’s not that they’re overweight. They’re just a very sturdy people. Americans are preferred: very easygoing and friendly people. Everybody wants an American fare.”
When we arrive at Nohoch Mul, the panoply of tourists is suddenly speaking the same language: speechless. At 138 feet tall, the sheer scale of this temple is rivaled only by the gleaming hotels going up on the coast. But out here in the Cobá jungle, after I break the canopy and reach Nohoch Mul’s summit, it’s nothing but green as far as the eye can see, under which is apparently some 30 square miles of ancient city, most of it still obscured by the jungle. I’m told that just 5 percent of Cobá has been excavated since the project started in the 1970s.
Today, if you come early in the morning, you find corn and beans here left by the local Maya, who continue to offer sacrifices to the gods.
And what did they do with this little platform?” I ask Diego Viadero, my knowledgeable Tours by Locals guide, who’s been schooling me on all manner of Maya history.
“Ah, yes,” he says. “That’s where the rulers would offer sacrifices to the gods, in hopes that they could avoid a collapse of the city.”
“You mean like in the movie Apocalypto, where they chopped off the heads?” I ask.
“Just like in Apocalypto,” says Viadero, doing his best to hold back an eye-roll. “Today, if you come early in the morning, you’ll find corn and beans here left by the local Maya, who continue to offer sacrifices to the gods.”
“Do you think it’s enough?” I ask, making the comparison to the more (ahem) substantial offerings of yore. Let the eye-rolling commence.
Next, Viadero takes me to Nojoch Keej, which is Mayan for El Venado Grande, which is Spanish for “The Big Deer.” It’s a sanctuary for endangered animals run by a Maya man named Manuel Poot Dzib out of his back yard in the village of Nuevo Durango. Poot Dzib started the sanctuary in 2005, after Hurricane Wilma destroyed the habitats of many local animals. He now looks after bees (which produce honey that’s said to have healing qualities), white-tail deer, paca, curassow, and ocellated turkeys, which he aims to repopulate in areas that are protected from hunters. From the looks of these turkeys, I think ocellated must be Mayan for peacock. They’re vibrant, multicolored, and beautiful to look at.
Poot Dzib asks us to stay for lunch, which is great, because I’m starving. “We’re having cochinita pibil—es muy delicioso,” he adds, giving off some of that Carmen spirit.
I breathe a sigh of relief when I learn that cochinita pibil is notSpanish for ocellated turkey. It’s achiote-marinated pork that’s been cooking with banana leaf in a hole in the ground in Poot Dzib’s front yard since 8 this morning.
“They normally only do this for the Day of the Dead or other special occasions,” Viadero says as we watch Poot Dzib remove the dirt and corrugated metal covering his subterranean oven.
“We used to cover it with banana leaf instead of metal, but that’s a much harder and longer process,” says Poot Dzib. “This is more modern.”
Modern? I’m not so sure, but I grant Poot Dzib that it’s certainly an update. In any event, when put on a handmade tortilla with pickled onions and habanero, this cochinita pibil is definitely mouthwatering.
Tavo leaves me to my plunge pool, where I enjoy my cocktail to the sound of a rainbow-billed toucan flapping around the lagoon.
I say “Taakulak k’iin” (“See ya later” in Mayan) to Poot Dzib and his ocellated turkeys and head back to the Rosewood, where Tavo the butler awaits with that bottle of tequila, plus some fresh lime juice and agave nectar for mixers.
Certainly, Mr. Heller.
Tavo leaves me to my plunge pool, where I enjoy my drink to the sound of a rainbow-billed toucan flapping around the lagoon. Just one cocktail, however, as I’m hopping onto my complimentary beach cruiser (every guest gets one) to take a spin around the property, where geckos, iguanas, and even a tarantula skitter into the mangroves as I come rolling down the jungle path.
Appetite sufficiently worked up, I’m off to the Rosewood’s La Ceiba Garden & Kitchen, where executive chef Juan Pablo Loza serves a communal dinner of Maya-inspired dishes with a contemporary touch. Seated at a long wooden table with 17 other guests, I ask the chef what he’s learned from the local Maya villages, which he visits often to pick up cooking techniques.
“My top lesson from the Maya is less about food than it is about perspective,” he says, before recounting a delicious meal he had with one family. “The woman who cooked for me had referred to her neighbor as poor. I found it an odd comment, because the assumption in a Maya village is that nobody is exactly rich. ‘Why do you say your neighbor is poor?’ I asked. She said because she has no family and no garden. If you don’t have a garden, you can’t get food from it, and if you don’t have a family you have nobody to share it with. For them, having a family and a connection to nature is what it means to be rich.”
“And now you have this beautiful garden,” I say, pointing to his planters of lemongrass.
“And a family, too,” he replies. “Including a daughter named Maya.”
And then we feast. There’s grilled octopus with black recado and burnt lime vinaigrette, zarandeado-style lobster, roasted plantains, and a k’úum salad of squash, arugula, orange, oregano, and ocosingo cheese, finished off with fresh fruits in guava honey and lemongrass.
Tavo, I’m stuffed! Turn out the light and have a pot of coffee waiting for me in the morning, please.
Certainly, Mr. Heller.
Scaling ruins, swimming in cenotes, and taking a turn on the karaoke mic
In the small village square outside Tulum National Park, the Voladores de Papantla are performing their ancient fertility ritual, or rain ceremony—named an “intangible cultural heritage” by UNESCO. Five men in traditional bright red pants and flowing white blouses with multicolored adornments sit atop a 90-foot pole. The man in the center taps an adagio beat on a simple drum and blows a gentle bird-like tune on a wooden flute while the other four men tie ropes around their waists. When the musician ups the tempo to allegretto, the other two men fall backward, like scuba divers dropping into water, and slowly descend upside down in a merry-go-round fashion, the spinning top ceding rope like a reel feeding line to a fish. It’s absolutely beautiful.
On a path cutting through the mangroves and almond trees on the way to the park entrance, a guide shares a mnemonic device that will be helpful should I run into any venomous coral snakes: “red on yellow, kill a fellow; red on black, friend of Jack.” I assume I’m a Jack.
The water is high and crisp as we float past stalagmites growing ever so slowly out of the cave floor.
Thankfully, there are no snakes to be seen in the ancient Maya city of Tulum, an open patch of manicured lawns and stone ruins protected by walls to the north, west, and south, and an ocean reef to the east. Or so it was protected until around 1500, when the Spanish came ashore. This beachside community, established circa 1200, was populated by a few hundred of Tulum’s elite (and the sea turtles that still come ashore to lay their eggs), with thousands of people living outside the walls. It wasn’t until the 20th century, when archaeologists began studying the region’s various Maya sites, that we began to understand how advanced their civilization was—especially in the area of astronomy. As I walk the city’s white gravel paths, I can imagine a well-heeled society covered in jade and obsidian jewelry enjoying the same ocean breeze and studying the same night sky. One glance at the view, and it’s clear the Maya knew something about real estate. This plot right here, with a lighthouse perched on the cliff, would go for a boatload of jade and obsidian.
After fortifying my stomach with a few al pastor tacos (don’t forget the guacamole) at Tropi Tacos in Tulum Pueblo, I meet back up with Diego Viadero for a drive out to Sistema Sac Actun (White Cave System), one of the world’s largest underground cave systems, a 164-mile maze of freshwater flowing through subterranean limestone. This afternoon, we’re exploring just one mile of the system. The rain-conjuring Voladores de Papantla must be in top form lately; the water is high and crisp as we float past stalagmites growing ever so slowly (less than 10 centimeters every 1,000 years) out of the cave floor and reaching up toward stalactites hanging like icicles from the cave ceiling. It’s like the setting of a science fiction movie, so otherworldly I try to prolong my stay by floating as slowly as the calcium deposits are forming in front of me.
“Be careful,” says Viadero, as I get a little too close to a stalagmite that’s been a million years in the making. “You wouldn’t want to break it.”
“I certainly wouldn’t want that on my conscience,” I agree.
After emerging from a cenote (a natural sinkhole where groundwater is exposed to the sky), I offer an adiós to Viadero and make my way to Tulum’s Route 15—the narrow street that cuts through the jungle, parallel to the shore, and is lined with trendy restaurants, bars, and “eco-chic” (their word, not mine) hotels. Twenty years ago, this strip wasn’t much, but now there’s not a speck of beachfront that isn’t occupied by an Instagram-ready boutique property. (The number of rope swings is astounding.) In recent years, Route 15 has played host to Demi Moore, Leonardo DiCaprio, Naomi Watts, Gina Rodriguez, Reese Witherspoon, and, after today, me. I’m staying at Sanará, a stylish wellness hotel that attracts young and hip sunworshippers from around the world who like partying and yoga in equal measure.
I check into my beachside room (furnished with my very own yoga mat and dream catcher), flop down on the bed, and open up the “Wellness Menu.” On offer are a Pudzyah Mayan Healing that “transforms pain to love at the cellular level … It harmonizes your DNA by applying fractal geometry energy”; a Multivibrational Massage and Chakra Balancing; and a Solar Plexus Healer. I opt for the complimentary “Sound Bath” of light yoga and didgeridoo before balancing out my chakras with a burger, a beer, and some fresh ceviche at Clan Destino.
This laid-back spot is all about the ambience: a wooden deck with chandeliers hanging from the jungle canopy and a cenote smack dab in the middle of the club, should you need refreshing after one too many cervezas. The bar offers a free shot of mezcal for those who take a turn on the karaoke mic (“Suspicious Minds” for me, thank you very much); after accepting my applause and draining my shot, I turn the glass over on the bar and take the plunge.
Floating down a canal, swimming in the Caribbean, and eating gelato on the beach
At The Real Coconut, Sanará’s beachside restaurant, I dig into a light breakfast of coffee and avocado toast (piled high like Nohoch Mul with a squirt of lime and a sprinkling of red pepper flakes). It’s a deliciously healthy start to a morning that’s going to include traipsing through the Sian Ka’an biosphere reserve and swimming in Laguna Chunyaxché.
At Sian Ka’an—a protected area of tropical forest, marshes, and lagoons about a 40-minute drive from my hotel—I follow my guide, Joaquin Balam of Community Tours, down the narrow boardwalk of Sendero Muyil, which cuts through a forest of zapote and ficus trees. I’m told there are jaguars, pumas, and howler monkeys about, as well as some 330 species of birds.
“Are those the howler monkeys?” I ask of a muted rumbling in the distance.
“Oh no,” says Balam. “When you hear them, you’ll know it.”
The closest we get to this array of wildlife, however, is some jaguar claw marks on a ficus tree. By the looks of the marks, I’m happy that we’re strolling alone.
At the end of the path, we reach the sandy shoreline of Laguna Chunyaxché, a bright body of water that reflects both the green wetlands and the blue sky above. We cross the lagoon by boat, to a shoreline of mangroves and seagrass, and step onto a dock at the entrance to a canal.
“Take your life vest off and wear it like this,” Balam says, putting his legs through the arm holes of the vest, as if it were a diaper.
“If you say so.”
Balam jumps into the canal and I follow, and I immediately understand the Baby Huey getup. We’re floating in the current like a couple of astronauts in space, limbs slowly twirling as our seemingly weightless bodies travel down the canal. Cue the opening horns of the score to 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Back on Route 15, I stop in at Mía Restaurant & Beach Club for baby back ribs rubbed with chili and tamarind, washed down with a glass of Château Gloria St Julien Bordeaux from the restaurant’s wine cave—the biggest collection of fine wines in Tulum. It’s as decadent as the beachgoers lazing in the sun not far from my table.
Head still swimming in that lovely Château Gloria, I decide to take the rest of my body for a little dip. The Caribbean is bathwater warm and crystal clear—in other words, perfect. I walk out for what seems like half a mile, and the water still only comes up to my waist.
We’re floating in the current like a couple of astronauts in space, limbs slowly twirling.
Refreshed and sun-dried, I’m ready to trade in the historical and ecological sights of the last few days for the fashion runway of Route 15. The women wear bikinis and sarongs, the men wear linen shorts and loafers, and everybody wears designer shades, brimmed hats made of straw, and suntans of golden bronze. Origami, a beautifully designed gelato shop, is the perfect place to have a seat and watch the catwalk. I have a Ferrero Rocher and crunch on the hazelnuts drenched in icy chocolate and cream while the fashion models play street chicken with Vespas and the delivery trucks distributing tanks of fresh water to the five-star eateries
If Route 15 is for the well-heeled, then Calle Centauro Sur is for the flip-flop set. It’s a strip in the center of town, about two miles inland from the beach, where the more casual tourists and locals congregate. Call it the Brooklyn to Route 15’s Manhattan. At Batey—a hip, open-air bar and music venue decorated with paintings of Miles Davis and the Beatles—I take a sidewalk seat and listen to a Mexican Elvis impersonator singing Simple Minds’ “Don’t You (Forget About Me).” As I sip on a Don Julio Reposado, a patchouli-scented parade of 5 o’clock shadows and hot pink hair dye ambles by.
“Are you going dancing tonight?” a young man in a tank top, cut-off jean shorts, and tattered Chuck Taylors asks a friend sitting at the table next to me.
“I’m dressed and ready to go.”
Back on Route 15, the revelers are stepping out as if their outfits are going to be scrutinized by bouncers holding clipboards and manning red velvet ropes. Thankfully, no such velvet ropes exist as I enter Rosa Negra for an indulgent meal of burrata, besugosashimi with black salt and citrus, soft-shell crab tacos, and Pescadores—a fine craft beer made right here in Riviera Maya.
The food is as comely as the patrons, who are bopping their well-coiffed heads to a drum-and-bass DJ. But before I have a chance to pass judgment on an ambience that may appear a touch too buttoned-up, a live conga player steps in front of the DJ.
A rat-a-tat tat, bop ba-da ba-bop, dup du-duh dup du-dup!
The congas add a touch of that Carmen spirit—their organic vibrations reminding me that despite all the Manolo Blahniks and slinky black dresses, my T-shirt and flip-flops are welcome at the party. I shimmy my shoulders, take a swig of my Pescadores, and nod to the beat as I dig into my tacos.
A rat-a-tat tat, ba dop ba-da ba-dop, dup du-buh dup bu-dup!
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