Yucatan: where wellness meets wilderness
Mention Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula and most people think of Tulum’s eco-retreats, spring break in Playa del Carmen, or the high-rise heaven /hell that is Cancún. However, away from the Riviera Maya (the recently re-named stretch of coast linking those towns) another Yucatan is waiting to be discovered. One where direct descendants of ancient Mayans guide you through hypnotic herbal rituals; where you’ll find flocks of flamingos, gorge on the freshest guacamole and snorkel in sacred cenote caves.
It began with a bang
To truly understand this unique region, we need to go back about 66 million years, when the same 10 mile-wide asteroid which wiped out the dinosaurs smashed into earth with such cataclysmic force (equal to a billion atomic bombs) that it pushed the surrounding seabed up into the air and created the peninsula. So much of what makes this region so bewitching, is a direct result of that impact.
The peninsula is basically a single, completely flat chunk of limestone, with no topsoil to sustain agriculture or trees tall enough to produce timber. Which is why today, it remains almost completely untouched by agriculture or development, covered in low-lying, largely unexplored jungle (what the Mayans called the Kingdom of the Jaguar).
Over millennia, the cracks created by the impact filled with water, forming the area’s most extraordinary feature; thousands of crystal clear freshwater-filled sinkholes and caves, ranging from cobalt-coloured plunge pools to cathedral-like caverns draped in thirsty tree-roots.
It was these life-giving pools that allowed the Mayans to settle here and build a mighty empire, trading precious gemstones and gold (also created by the asteroid) for food and other goods from more fertile lands to the south.
Today the cenotes attract scuba divers from across the globe to explore the epic networks of caves and the possibility of finding precious Mayan jewels and relics thrown into these entrances to the underworld along with the bodies of their kings and queens.
The second cataclysmic impact that befell the region, was the arrival of the first Europeans in the early 16th century, who took gold and jade in exchange for alcohol and diseases that finished off the already fading Mayan civilisation. Later arrivals from Spain decide to settle and left a legacy of language, food, architecture and infrastructure influences that give the area the vibrant latin flavour we love.
The Yucatan Wellness & Wilderness Trail
Punta Nizuc: Privacy & Pampering
It doesn’t matter whether Cancún’s “Vegas-on-Sea” reputation (and skyline) fills you with excitement or dread, the fact is, if you’re arriving by air, all Yucatan itineraries start and end here, so you may as well do it right. Right? That’s what the owners and architects of Nizuc believe, too. A five-star but not-too-flashy spa hotel, it covers the entire southern-most point of Cancún’s infamous 15-mile Zona Hotelera sandbar, a short cab ride from the airport. It’s blissfully undisturbed by either, with pristine views of the mangrove-fringed Caribbean from every single one of their 274 suites and villas, all six world-class restaurants and from every pool and private beach.
Where to stay: Cancún has little to lure you away from the sun-lounger, and has recently seen a steep rise in drug cartel violence, so splash out on a night or three of Caribbean luxury. Power-off your phone and revel in doing ‘absolutamente nada’ at Nizuc.
What to do: If doing ‘nada’ is not your thing, then rise early to salute the sunrise with a paddle-board yoga class; snorkel out to MUSA (a sub-aquatic sculpture park created by Mexican artists, inhabited by contemporary Mexican parrot fish, rays and turtles); get hitched on the sun-bleached wooden jetty; or sip a margarita in the infinity pool at sunset.
What to eat: The one and only time to deviate from local fare, Nizuc’s posh Peruvian, ‘NI’, specialises in small dishes with big flavours drawn from healthy, fresh ingredients.
Treat yourself: Shuffle between hot tubs, bubbles, jets, sauna, steam and ice baths in the Thermal Experience, then head to the ESPA-branded spa for a 90 minute ‘Mindful Massage’ with guided breathing and visualisation, reflexology and warm rose quartz crystals.
Isla Holbox: White Sand & Whale Sharks
Like Cancún, Holbox (pronounced ‘hole-bosh’) sits on a spit with mile after mile of white sand beach and a wide, brackish lagoon separating it from the mainland. That’s where the similarities end. A largely unspoilt wilderness, tourism is confined to the small town’s car-free sandy roads and care-free sandy visitors pootling around by golf cart. The gently shelving shore, warm calm waters and steady on-shore breeze make it the ideal place to learn to kite-surf, or drift about in a novelty inflatable, drink in hand. Surprisingly for a nature reserve, Holbox is a graffiti mecca. Almost every building boasts a bright and brilliant mural because in 2014, street artists from around the world gathered here for Mexico’s first ever International Public Art Festival and couldn’t resist leaving their mark. Holbox clearly left a mark on them, as they keep coming back.
Where to stay: The Holbox Dream Beachfront Hotel has a typically laid-back Holboxian vibe with simple, comfortable rooms set around two tempting pools. Guests snooze in hammocks slung between coconut palms, big floppy butterflies flutter by and nothing else happens. Which is exactly how we like it. What sets it apart is its prime location, nestled on a secluded section of beach, a short stroll from the best bars and restaurants.
What to do: Holbox is one of the few places you can tick ‘swim with a whale shark’ off your bucket list. The annual arrival of these gentle giants coincides with hurricane season, so don’t risk incurring mother nature’s wrath by being bothersome to the biggest fish in the sea.
Mid June is when hundreds of magnificent whale sharks begin to gather off the beautiful Mexican island of Holbox. The biggest fish on the planet swims slowly and poses no threat to humans, so hundreds of people flock to the area for the chance to swim with them. Divers should keep their distance and only go with licensed guides who treat these gentle giants with the respect they deserve. We stayed at @xperiencehotels wonderful Dream Beachfront resort. #nature #oceans #travel #adventure #mexico #yucatan #diving #beach
What to eat: La Isla del Colibri is an ex-lobster fisherman’s boat-shed painted pink and mint and filled with folk art, frescos and portraits of Mexican heroine, Frida Kahlo. They serve homestyle classics, good coffee and divine melon liquados (juicy milkshakes).
Valladolid: Crystalline Cenotes & Colonial Chic
Far from beaches and free from chain hotels, this tiny jewel-like city of 17th Century Spanish colonial villas, chapels and squares doesn’t make it onto many tourists to-do lists. But its modern-day Mayan inhabitants, and the world’s top location scouts and fashion photographers know better, with every corner revealing another #nofilter worthy backdrop.
Where to stay: With four gorgeous guest suites set around a courtyard, each dec’d out in polished concrete, roll-top baths, vintage copper and monochrome, Meson de Malleville feels designed specifically for fashion editors and influencers. Owned by the super-chic Coqui Coqui luxe lifestyle brand, it sits happily on Valladolid’s most-Instagrammed street.
What to do: In the fierce heat of day, there’s only one thing to do; dive into one of the many picturesque cenotes dotted throughout the forests. Alternatively, take a trip back in time to nearby Mayan temples, then join the evening crowds which gather to watch a free, CGI animated history of the city projection-mapped onto its oldest building, a 16th Century convent. Casa de los Venados is home (literally, it’s a private house that opens 4 times a week) to one of the best collections of Mexican folk art anywhere in the country, and the friendly, knowledgeable guides are very happy to show you around.
What to eat: Traditional Mayan cuisine. Dip tortilla chips into sikil p’ak, a humus-like salsa made from pounded pumpkin seeds, and wash it down with a super-healthy chaya (spinach tree) and lemon verbena smoothie.
Treat yourself: Valladolid has seen more than its fair share of religious strife, but has now settled on an open-minded, tolerant fusion of Catholicism, pagan, Mayan and new age spirituality. Casa Axis Mundi is a raw and vegan retreat set in a secret garden that hosts daily meditations blending Buddhism, Mayan and secular practices.
Mérida: Hispanic History Meets Modern Maya
The administrative and cultural capital of Yucatan, Mérida’s grand city centre of imposing university buildings, museums and cathedrals was built by successive colonial powers, but is now home to a predominantly Mayan population. Tree-lined squares play host to chess tournaments, student protests, amorous couples and al fresco dining options.
Where to stay: Mérida has myriad hotels, hostels and homestays to suit all tastes and budgets, but if it’s understated luxury you’re after, head 40 minutes south west. Chablé, a former haçienda considerately converted into one of the most beautiful wellness resorts in Mexico, is also home to the world’s largest collection of rare tequilas and mezcals.
Many thanks to @GQ for calling Chable one of "The Best Wellness Retreats." Read more in the link in our bio. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ "Chablé Resort and Spa is the result of 10ten years’ work to turn a 19th-century hacienda and one-time sisal factory in 750 acres of exotic Mayan jungle, about an hour’s drive from Merida, capital of Yucatan, into one of the most sought-after luxury hideaways in the whole country."
What to do: Avoid the midday heat and Mérida is the perfect city for mindful meandering, boasting sights, sounds and smells that will stay with you forever. It’s also the perfect jump-off point for pilgrimages to pinkness. An hour west is Celestún, a protected lagoon festooned with huge flocks of flamingos, and one hour north east, you can bathe in the rose-coloured salt lakes of Rio Lagartos.
What to eat: Cochinita Pibil, an aromatic amber stew of slow-cooked pork that drips from freshly baked corn tortillas topped with pickled vegetables. A vegan version made with jackfruit is harder to find but worth searching out.
Treat yourself: The spa at Chablé is a unique and unforgettable experience. Every treatment starts with a visit to a Mayan apothecary to select botanicals to be burnt during your blindfolded shamanistic ceremony inside a conch-shaped chamber, echoing with chants and cymbals. Treatments take place in glass-walled private rooms overlooking the resort’s own jungle-draped cenote.