Riviera Maya: a world-class destination

  • Written by Deborah Stone

Early morning on Punta Brava Beach
Chocolate, in any form, is my weakness. It tempts me like a Siren calling to Ulysses. Most of the time, I try to keep my chocoholic addiction in line and choose to indulge in this ambrosia in moderation because it wreaks havoc on my waistline.

But recently, I found a healthier way to satisfy my fix. It was on a trip to Riviera Maya that I first heard of chocolate utilized in a spa treatment. Always willing to try anything when it comes to body treatments, I headed to the spa at the El Dorado Royale Spa Resort, my luxurious lodgings for the week, to experience this sensory treat.

After a coconut exfoliation scrub, my body was smothered with chocolate cream (the aroma was enough to send me into chocolate rehab!) and then tightly wrapped up in towels.

During the next 20 minutes, I received a facial and scalp massage, while waiting for the natural cacao to supposedly draw the impurities from my body. I remarked to the therapist that I felt like a bonbon, but as she spoke very little English, I don’t think my idea resonated.

After a thorough rinsing and a finishing massage, I emerged rejuvenated and glowing with baby soft skin. I realize that this treatment is no substitute for eating the rich confection, but it sure takes a close second, plus it’s calorie-free!

A Mayan chocolate body wrap was just the first of several novel experiences for me in Riviera Maya. I had never been to this part of Mexico before and when offered the opportunity to explore it, I eagerly accepted. I saw it as the perfect escape from enduring a third straight week of Seattle’s liquid sunshine.

Located south of Cancun in the far east of the Yucatan Peninsula, Riviera Maya spans 60 miles along the coast of Quintana Roo. This locale has become a popular destination over the years, as it offers tropical weather, warm hospitality, secluded white sand beaches and a unique culture. The area is particularly known for its diving and snorkeling because off the coast of Quintana Roo lies the second largest coral reef in the world, the Great Mayan Reef, which is home to over 5,000 species.

There are several eco-archaeological parks in the region, which provide prime opportunities for visitors to have unparalleled environmental experiences, and each beach is a paradise for water sports. At Maroma, rated the number one beach in the world by the Travel Channel, the activities range from deep sea fishing and scuba diving to speed boat racing and jet skiing. On land, visitors can ride ATVs through the jungle, take a horseback ride down the beach or simply soak up the dazzling rays. I ate the best fresh seafood ceviche here while sitting under a palapas (thatched hut) and listening to local musicians play traditional favorites.

At Xcaret, one of the eco-parks in the region, I had another first-time experience. Xcaret is all about water, preservation of the environment and cultural restoration. Here, you can see colorful macaws and flamingos, observe mammoth sea turtles and manatees, catch lazy crocodiles pretending to sleep in mangrove swamps and watch spider monkeys get into mischief, as well as explore a bat cave or even try to count the hundreds of iguanas that roam the park.

Water, in lagoons, pools, the bay and underground rivers, is definitely a featured attraction, but it’s the dolphin program that caught my attention. I had always wanted to swim with these playful creatures because they have fascinated me ever since I was a young girl. To be able to have an up-close and personal encounter with them exceeded all my expectations.

Travel writer Deborah Stone gets a kiss from Fanny the bottle-nosed dolphin.
Maya and Fanny, two friendly mother and daughter bottle-nosed dolphins with that famous perpetual “smile,” swam around me, nudging me with their bodies and encouraging me to stroke them on their undersides. I was amazed at their muscular definition and at the silky smoothness of their skin. They also truly seemed to relish the human contact and socialization opportunity.

After the trainers gave the pair a number of tasks to do to demonstrate their keen intelligence, everyone in my group got the chance to have the dolphins take them for a ride. As I lay face down in the water, remembering to keep my body rigid, Fanny and Maya swam around to my rear and pushed against my feet, propelling me through and up out of the water. It was an exhilarating ride that was over way too soon. A final kiss and hug opportunity with Fanny was the icing on the cake for this once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Xcaret also offers visitors the essence of Mexico through its cultural programs. There’s a model Mayan village where you can watch local artisans working at their crafts and throughout the park, at various times of the day, opportunities abound to see performances of traditional dances and rituals. One of the most spectacular shows is the Papantla Flyers, an all-male group who perform a Mayan ritual dedicated to fertility and the sun god. As the Big Chief plays his reed flute and pounds his drums, four men, in colorful red and white clothing, climb up a tall pole and take their positions at its four corners.

The flyers, who are each tethered, leap off the platform and swing around the pole thirteen times (13 times four is 52 – the number of years in the pre-Hispanic cycle), descending lower and lower until they reach the ground.

At night, Xcaret comes alive with the Mexican Folkloric Ballet, a festive pageantry of music, song and dance representing the different states of Mexico.

On another day, I visited Xel Ha, a well-known water theme park in the region. Once again, I opted to try something new and this time, it was the Sea Trek. I liken this experience to taking a moon walk in a blue planet. Wearing a 60-pound space-age helmet, I descended, with the help of divers, to the bottom of the sea. The helmet provided a continuous flow of oxygen, allowing me to breathe normally underwater, while keeping my face and hair completely dry.

My group of six proceeded to walk along the sea floor, holding onto a handrail to guide our way, while we gazed in wonder at the sea life swimming around us. The divers brought stingray over for us to touch and pointed out various treasures in our midst.

A sucker fish sucked on the palm of my hand, while other little fish nibbled at my fingers. I felt like an undersea astronaut exploring a whole new world. Another memorable first!

Riviera Maya is also the site of several ancient Mayan ruins. Tulum, one of the more famous of these sites, is the only Mayan fortress built by the sea. This walled city was used by the Mayans as their port of entry for Caribbean goods and as an important ceremonial center.

To visit Tulum is to travel through a time machine. Walking around the temples and examining the frescoes depicting Mayan gods and symbols of nature’s fertility gives one the opportunity to learn more about pre-Hispanic life.

The buildings date back to A.D. 564 and at the highest point on the site, the Castillo, or castle, sits, commanding imposing views in every direction. Although visitors can wander around on their own, I highly suggest taking a tour to get the full historical background of this unique place.

Upon return to my hotel, I decided to check out some of the property’s on-site activities. A salsa dance class got my attention, as I saw it as a chance to put my two left feet in motion. If I had any hopes, though, of coming home and taking the salsa world by storm, they were quickly erased as soon as the lesson began.

Remembering the steps was a challenge in itself, especially for someone who is directionally dyslexic, but then the instructors encouraged everyone to “feel the music in your body and just let go.” Pandemonium in the form of a Latin mosh pit ensued, as people took the instructors’ words literally. I emerged black and blue, dripping in sweat, with the realization that perhaps the subtle nuances of this step had evaded me.

After that, I was perfectly happy lounging in a hammock on the resort’s picturesque Punta Brava Beach. And when my stomach began to grumble, I knew I could take my taste buds for a whirl at one of the hotel’s seven gourmet restaurants or head off the property to dine at the many choice eateries in the area. Riviera Maya is a world-class destination with top-rated hotels, offering a winning combination of history, natural beauty and exciting adventures. So, the next time my limbs begin to rust and moss has become a second skin, I’ll simply say “adios Seattle” and head to this south-of-the-border paradise.

Note: Although Hurricanes Emily and Wilma caused large scale destruction to parts of this region (particularly Cancun), massive efforts have been made to rebuild and at the time this writer visited the area, substantial signs of recovery could be seen. The Cancun Tourism Board expects most, if not all its hotel properties to be fully functioning by early spring.

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